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Fearless Critic restaurant review
Upmarket restaurant

Mon–Thu 5:30pm–9:30pm
Fri–Sat 5:30pm–11:00pm
Sun 5:30pm–9:00pm

Features Date-friendly, good wines, live music, outdoor dining
Bar Beer, wine, liquor
Credit cards Visa, MC, AmEx
Reservations Accepted


West End
2401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC
(202) 296-1166
An old-school French restaurant is still the perfect place to be spoiled rotten

From the outside, Marcel’s is unassuming. Even the dapper suits on the valets don’t quite convey what this restaurant has to offer: an exquisite meal that, on a good night, is one of the finest in the city.

Some aspects of Marcel’s are rather pretentious. Somewhere in the restaurant, a piano tinkers away at corny “romantic” songs in a maddeningly florid style—enough dramatic arpeggios and sweeping chords to put you off your dinner, if it weren’t such a supremely lovely dinner. The waiter-to-patron ratio is uncomfortably high, and the atmosphere can be stodgy. Rich drapery, antique finishes, and patterned china highlight the air of finery.

But some restaurants earn their pretentions. Waiters know their food and wine, and will actually time your meal so you get on the shuttle in time for your show at the Kennedy Center. At Marcel’s, diners pay by the number of courses, and can compose their meal any way they wish. (Yes, you can order four desserts.) No matter what you order, you can expect a fine and luxuriously robust meal. A properly-seared sea scallop is presented on a bed of lentils that are so deeply and profoundly flavored with smoky bacon that they almost taste like gravy. Who knew lentils could be so sexy? (Okay, we always kind of suspected something.)

Roast muscovy duck is served skin-on (hallelujah!) and has as much fat and tenderness as the animal is capable of yielding. Citrus sauces are often chosen by default for duck, and too often dominate the flavor mix, but this one is mild enough to merely highlight the flesh. An accompanying bed of spinach is daringly (and wonderfully) garlicky.

Desserts are florid and fanciful, and as visually pleasing as they are delicious. Dark, smoky chocolate sorbet has the feathery texture of frozen ganache, and leaves an aftertaste like that of a fine, smooth espresso. It is placed like a chess piece next to a slice of chocolate torte and orbited by ribbons of tuile and wafer. A bright pool of passion-fruit syrup studded by black teardrop-seeds adds an acid tang to everything it touches.

Certainly this grande dame isn’t making the most innovative food in the city, and there aren’t many elements of Marcel’s that seem to be evolving with the times. On the other hand, these days, a meal focused entirely on the guest, rather than on the chef, is practically avant-garde. You have to be in the mood for Marcel’s, but if you are, a little pampering goes a long, long way.

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