I have been known to insult Ballston from time to time. I have a deep fond love of Arlington, but Ballston seems to me to be all high rises, chain restaurants and it’s kinda got a mall. But places like Willow make me take it all back. Tucked in the bottom level of an office building, Willow is a gem of a restaurant with fresh, local, sophisticated food and perfect service.
I’ve become a regular at Willow. I’ve taken my friends, my parents, I’ve gone there for drinks, for restaurant week dinners. I basically love it for it’s calm refined atmosphere and unblemished menu. The crowd errs on the slightly old to very old side, I see some grey hair every time I go. But then again I’m never there for a scene, so this has never bothered me – if I wanted a scene in Arlington I’d go to Eventide or Liberty Tavern. I come to Willow to take a deep breath.
The interior restaurant is fine, but where you want to sit is the patio. The patio is perfection, tall lush green plants create a mini-oasis on the corner of Utah Street and Fairfax, insulating you from the busy streets but with enough people watching to keep you entertained. Pretty red umbrellas keep you shaded from the sun, and in the fall they’ll bring out space heaters. To me, Willow is a great place for a Sunday night dinner, the calm before the work week storm.
One of my favorite things about Willow is that it’s a woman-run business. While women are becoming more prevalent in the professional kitchen, the stigma remains. So I love when I can support women like Tracy O’Grady and and Kate Jansen make really great food. Cooking french and northern Italian, the ladies try and keep the ingredients local. Tracy and Kate keep in touch with Arlington residents and the locovore scene by demo’ing dishes at the Court House Farmer’s Market every Saturday morning. I stopped Kate at one morning at the market, and she patiently talked me through her produce and pointed out all the farmers she supports in the market. You can certainly taste it in her heirloom tomato salad.
I’ve dined at Willow during all the seasons, and I love that the dishes Tracy and Kate think up perfectly reflect the now in dining. Their winter menu is warm without being heavy – I had memorable brussel sprouts and lovely red meat proteins. The summer menu stays fresh with bright soups and light seafood entrees.
Willow very well may be one of those places where you can tack up a menu on the wall and throw a dart at it and eat what it lands on and have a fantastic meal. I’ve never had something I disliked. WAIT, I just lied, sorry about that. I did have one thing that I disliked – Kate’s cookie sampler. Dry. Bad. Totally un-Willow, they were hard, and awful. So stay away from that. The rest? Divine. Willow is known for their flatbreads, mini thin pizza-style breads with delicate toppings, even something like the BBQ chicken flatbread, which sounds heavy, came out much lighter and crisper than you may envision when ordering.
I’ve had everything from seafood to steak at Willow and loved all of it. The sauces are on point, the proteins are allowed to stand alone. Trained under DC Seafood maven Chef Bob Kinkaid, Tracy is no stranger to seafood. The food is, and even better tastes, fresh. A staple on the menu last year was the potato wrapped salmon. I food dream about that dish from time to time, and if they ever bring it back, get it. I had lovely scallops for Restaurant Week.
The service is great, the wait staff has clearly tried all the dishes and knows them intimatley. At this point in my dining snobbery I tend to ask obnoxious questions about sourcing, ingredients and recommendations. I hate it when I can see staff make things up on the spot, or if they’re indecisive about what is good. I’ve never had that at Willow. I can ask the person pouring water what’s good and he’ll know. I love that.
Another way to dine at Willow is to try the $5 neighborhood bar dishes, little snacks from the chef. Perfect for a happy hour date, or a more urbane catch-up spot for friends.