We Love Food: Palena Cafe

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘AlissaS24′
There are plenty of restaurants here that serve smart American food, and there are plenty of places that serve burgers. But there are few that combine the two in a way that satisfies me when I’m feeling fancy and when I’m feeling like…well…a burger.

Selling Palena Cafe as a burger restaurant isn’t really fair. It resembles Five Guys just as much as the Hay-Adams resembles a youth hostel. Palena Cafe is actually the front part of Palena–a high end price fixe restaurant in Cleveland Park. Unfortunately located next to a pretty spectacular gas station, Palena has done a great job of still feeling cozy and warm and like the little bistro you discovered by mistake while studying abroad.

The genius of Palena Cafe is the way that the menu is structured. Whenever I try out the more, ahem…wallet-friendly options at fancy restaurants, I stare longingly at the full menu with its veal cheeks and truffles and sadly order myself the seared tuna salad with a side of free bread. Not the case at Palena. Though they have a cafe menu full of lighter (on the calories as well as the wallet) options, you are able to order anything a la carte off the dining room menu.

The first time I tried out Palena Cafe (also my first clandestine meeting with the lovely and talented Katie) I was dead set on ordering the cheeseburger. I hadn’t known anyone aside from the usual foodie suspects who had ever tried it, but I just knew in my heart that it would be amazing. But then I got the menu and I wanted everything. I wanted the fry plate, and the pasta with the lamb meatballs. And the roast chicken just called to me. When we found out that I would have to wait forty-five minutes for it to actually stop calling me and show up on my plate, we decided to pass.
Photo courtesy of
‘oxtail ravioli’
courtesy of ‘nothingedifying’

And then we turned over the menu to the main dining room section, and we got stressed out. There were so many wonderful options. The menu changes with what’s in season, and the ingredients are all fantastic. Duck, oxtail, veal – it’s all top notch and it’s all there. We had already set our sights on the cafe menu so we ended up each trying a soup off the dining room menu. They were both absolutely phenomenal. I wouldn’t normally think of soup as a way to judge a fancy joint, but when it’s good, why not?

Chef Frank Ruta does a pretty great job of giving you fantastic high-end food in a comfortable and (moderately) casual restaurant. The amount of love that goes in to the food is obvious, only matched by the love I put in to eating it. And the good news is that the problem of the no reservations/tiny restaurant combination is almost in the past. The restaurant acquired the Magruder’s space next door and is expanding their restaurant space as well as putting together a little market. Does it get much better than that?

And how was the oft-mentioned cheeseburger? Awesome. Like you expected anything less.

Palena Cafe is located at 3529 Connecticut Ave. NW. The closest Metro stop is Cleveland Park (Red Line). For more information call: 202-537-9250.

Ashley Messick

Ashley is a born and bred Washingtonian who left for college but came running back to the District as fast as her little legs could carry her. By day she is a Capitol Hill brat, but by night she is a lean, mean, eating machine. It’s her goal in life to steal Anthony Bourdain’s job…by whatever means necessary. Contact her at Ashley (at) welovedc (dot) com or follow her on Twitter.

One thought on “We Love Food: Palena Cafe

  1. The burger was amazing, though I say the burger I had for lunch at Bourbon Steak was slightly better. Fry plate is great (fried lemon slices, not bad at all). Can’t wait to try to roast chicken that the restaurant critics are always raving about, though need to go early so I’m hungry once 45 minutes rolls around.