Last night, we went to Taberna del Alabardero, a DC restaurant acclaimed to be one of the best Spanish restaurants in the United States. Reviews in the Washingtonian were excellent, but some of the others were mixed, however we found it an excellent experience.
There are many ways to judge a restaurant, but I prefer to boil everything down to whether the experience was enjoyable or not. In this case, we had a very enjoyable experience.
Price may play a part in your decision, and this is definitely not the place to go if you are trying to skimp. We didn't find the prices to be outrageous (mid $20s for meal, $10 for salad, $10 for desert and reasonable prices for a nice by-the-glass wine menu), but it certainly wasn't cheap.
The atmosphere was cordial, but they didn't seem put off by our falling short of the published "jacket and tie required" warning by the Washington Post. However, you can expect to see the tuxedo crowd there, especially on a Saturday night. Service was attentive and polite, but not effusive.
Despite the weather, there was quite a crowd by the time that we finished our early dinner at about 8:30.
On to the food and drink. They have what appears to be a fine (albeit a bit small) Tapas bar out front, but we didn't spend any time there, so a review against Barcelona and Valencia will have to wait until follow-up visits.
Presentation was excellent. Table settings were appropriately formal, with intimate (read: a little small) tables and very ample water glasses. The food was always well dressed and impeccably served. Salads were appropriately cut with a beautiful drizzle of dressing (just enough to provide taste without overwhelming the fresh greens). Mains were ornately laid out, and the deserts were fantastic looking.
On taste, I can highly recommend the place. Unlike so many "American" restaurants, the portions weren't overdone (although if you order the paella, expect to have more than enough to eat). Every meal at the table was a delight, both to see and to taste. The paella was very authentic (I've had it previously in fine restaurants in both Barcelona and Valencia) and is an excellent choice. Others at the table had the duck and the venison. Besides a little disappointment at the quantity (but not the quality) of the acorn squash side order on the venison, all meals achieved high marks.
Desert was similarly excellent. Portions were again reasonable, and presentation was flawless. The quality of the ice cream, as an example, was extremely high. Of particular mention was the chocolate shortcake that got rave reviews by the rest of our table.
The wine selection was enough to please our wine connoisseur at the table. Not surprisingly, there was a vast selection of Spanish wines, which are often more difficult to find at other restaurants, but quite tasty. Surprisingly, the "by the glass" menu was extensive and we decided to take advantage of the opportunity to have a variety at the table.
Last, but certainly not least, the service was great. Despite being less well- dressed than some of the other patrons, we weren't hidden away in a corner near the kitchen (always something to raise my ire) and were treated well throughout. The waitstaff and kitchen were quite accomodating (including offering to violate the menu by agreeing a paella for one and building two special-order deserts).
All things considered, I'd recommend it if you are willing to spend money to have a nice meal, especially if you are looking to experience, or remember, Spain.