The "Neighborhood Restaurant" has always been a mainstay of American society. Even as the size and pace of our lives has grown and quickened, the restaurants that we frequent close to home offer a consistency and comfort that is actively sought out, as places where everyone knows you, your family, and the events that define us.
One of those establishments in the Washington, DC metro area that best defines the "neighborhood restaurant" descriptor best is Parthenon Restaurant--an authentic Greek restaurant in Chevy Chase. Established in 1989 by Pete Gouskos and Steve Tsiolis, The Parthenon replaced the Swiss Chalet. The challenge was to quickly renovate the dark interior to a bright, warm ambience; and to build a reputation for fresh, well-prepared meals.

Over time, Pete and Steve renovated their restaurant. Among their regular customers from the very beginning were Yankel and Pamela Ginzburg. Learning of Yankel's reputation as a world-renowned artist, Pete asked Yankel if he would consider doing a painting for the restaurant. Yankel advised Pete to wait, given their budget focus. "You don't need a painting from me!" After several years of cajoling, however, Yankel finally agreed. Pete handed him a 1948 black and white postcard of the Parthenon that his mother had sent to him. "It should look like this, but in color." After months of effort, Yankel delivered the painting to the restaurant, where it remains prominently displayed in the main dining room.

With the goal of creating a neighborhood restaurant that would last, Pete and Steve immediately recognized the need to serve not only quality food and memorable cuisine. Doing so required a world-class chef. After an extensive nationwide search, they found their ideal candidate just across the Potomac in Alexandria: Juan Galeas. "Juan's been with us 22 years, and remains our head chef," Pete tells me. In addition, Parthenon has three assistant chefs, many of whom have been there 15+ years.

Parthenon's crab cakes are reputed to be the best in Washington, D.C. Ben Olsen, manager of DC United frequents Parthenon, and always orders them, I'm told.

I ask Pete how he achieved such a reputation, he smiled and said simply, "To prepare the best food, you must have the best ingredients."

Senator Jim Sasser and his wife, Mary, are long-time customers of Parthenon. "We stumbled upon it," the Senator tells me. "And have been coming back for ten years!"

Another couple, Ken and Nancy Malm, rave about the menu. "It has 96 items. They're always able to fill every item you order, and it's always exceptional," Nancy says.

"Who is your most loyal customer?" I ask Pete.

I'm told the restaurant has been frequented by many famous personalities, to include Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Supreme Court Justices Sotomayor and Souter, Senator Ted Kennedy and Chris Matthews.

"Patricia," Pamela Ginzburg says, smiling.

"Patricia? I ask, now curious.

"Patricia Cook," Pete answers. "She's 99 years old and has been coming here every day for lunch. At the end of every meal, she orders a martini and smokes a cigarette. Every day."

Loyal indeed.

"That is why we are here," Pete says. "The quality of our people. In a nice neighborhood. With loyal customers who keep coming back."

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Many years ago, when Washington City Paperfirst added food coverage, it was a divisive move. To naysayers, dining was a superficial bourgeois pastime, and writing up restaurants was not so different than, say, reviewing golf pros at some snooty country club. That was then. By now, it's pretty clear that when you pay attention to what kind of food a city is eating, you wind up catching the major currents of the contemporary moment: The restaurants that open can tell you a lot about the demographic change sweeping Washington; the dishes they serve say a lot about the immigration patterns, health crazes, and cultural habits shaping the city.

And that''s not just geeky food-journalist stuff. For you, dear reader, dining out is not just about food, either. Your own choices on a given night involve such subjective matters as comfort (just how do you define relaxation after a day of work?), adventure (a trip to that obscure suburban ethnic joint can feel like a red-eye to Bangkok) or just how to stay culturally relevant ("Have you tried Little Serow yet?"). All these, and more, represent reasons an eater might consider a restaurant valuable.

In assigning this year's Most Valuable Restaurants issue, we tasked writers with coming up with their own answers to the question of what makes an eatery valuable. The goal wasn't to come up with a "best restaurants" list, but rather a survey of places where you'll feel your money and time are well spent. For some, that meant a good deal. For others, a perfect meal. For others still, the value lived in the very fact that they were willing to trek out to Wheaton or endure an hour-long wait for a table. The point is: In eating, as in life, value is what you decide it is. Here's our set of answers - visit us online to share your own!

In a city of transplants, visiting this Upper Northwest Greek restaurant makes me feel like I've lived here for ages. A sign hanging from the Parthenon's blue awning declares, "Celebrating our 22nd year of Serving You," and the restaurant is as much of a fixture on its strip as the Avalon Theater. Regulars and staff greet each other with familiar warmth and make newcomers feel like routine visitors, too. It's a place where the waiters not only dote on your kid, they show you pictures of their own. The food is the fare you'd see at Greek restaurants in any city, but it's executed well. The Greek salad is elevated to a standout item thanks to its zingy dressing with fresh-snipped dill. A topping of spiced gyro meat and a side of creamy tzatziki sauce were enough to make me a regular. Kathryn Masterson

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