Romance at its best at the Red Tomato

Feb. 8, 2005, midnight | By Caitlin Garlow | 15 years, 11 months ago

One of Bethesda's best eats is cheap enough for teens

There's nothing particularly special about the exterior of the Red Tomato Café, located near the corner of St. Elm Street in Bethesda. However, after entering the tiny, tucked-away restaurant and spotting the topping-laden pizzas as they are pushed into the crescent-shaped brick oven, it's clear why the Red Tomato was named a "best eat" by Washingtonian magazine.

With prices only a little bit more expensive than those of the Macaroni Grill and with more elegant fare, the Red Tomato is the perfect choice for a romantic dinner for two. The walls are painted orangey-red, and the ceiling is hung with deep-green, velvet curtains, creating a warm, insular mood. Low-hanging fluorescent lights and candles on the tiled tables result in dim lighting and a sense of privacy for diners.

Italian cuisine at the Red Tomato is much more satisfying than at larger chains like Olive Garden; the menu is short, but it has something for everyone and plenty of original choices. There's no kids' menu, but even children enjoy the Red Tomato's specialty 8-inch brick-oven pizzas, which cost about $8 to $10 each. The zesty Pollo con Pesto, a pesto chicken pizza with whole tomato chunks and caramelized onions and cheese, is a favorite.

Vegetarian options are abundant on the menu as well; the eggplant and baby spinach appetizer is fantastic. In this dish, as with every other at the Red Tomato, chefs turn food into art. The eggplant, thinly sliced, is wrapped in a ball around fresh baby spinach leaves and placed on a spread of marinara sauce. The appetizer is topped with more baby spinach leaves and sharp provolone.

Unlike many large chains, the Red Tomato also isn't on a mission to contribute to the rising obesity rates of Americans. Portions at the restaurant don't leave you feeling overstuffed because the chefs add extra flavor instead of additional food or side orders. For example, spinach and cheese ravioli comes with five large striped ravioli, arranged artfully with a sprig of parsley over a bowl of marinara sauce. This dish as well as other pasta and poultry dishes, is not too expensive either; the most expensive entree on the menu is about $17.

Desserts may just be the best part of dining at the Red Tomato Café. The crisp, chocolate-rimmed cannolis are excellent as is the tart key lime pie and spongy chocolate mousse cake. Everything has a special touch, be it shaved chocolate sprinkles, strawberry sauce or a geometric design.

The Red Tomato truly provides a nicer, more intimate experience for diners, as the restaurant seats only about 40 to 50 people, including bar space around the brick oven. The only downside of this romantic little restaurant is that plenty of other people have discovered it, which can sometimes lead to lengthy waits on weekends. However, even when the restaurant is full, meals are served in a timely manner with flair and often with a little spin to each pizza dish before it's set down. The Red Tomato Café is a great choice for a special occasion, such as Valentine's Day, if you're looking for a change of atmosphere and high-quality dining without experiencing a price jump.

The Red Tomato Café is located at 4910 St. Elmo's Avenue in Bethesda, Maryland. For more information call (301) 692-4499. Click here to see the Washingtonian's Review.

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Caitlin Garlow. Caitlin is a second-semester senior at last. Her favorite things include making fun of her homeless sister and hunting down her clothes in other people's closets. More »

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