Top five restaurant picks of 2013

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I noted much better service experiences in my dining excursions. It was pleasant to visit many of our new restaurants and find the wait staff presenting themselves more as professionals than as employees just putting in their time. Many established restaurants also reflected this trend toward improved service.

Although 2010 through 2012 brought “seasonal, sustainable, all-natural, farm-raised and locally grown” to many menus, in 2013 the emphasis undeniably shifted to using these premium ingredients to create more innovative dishes.

Many of our restaurants, and bars and grills are offering more local beers and regional wines, spirits and cocktails. A few new establishments — such as Mill City Brew Werks and Muddy Waters — are dedicated to local brewers and regional spirits.

Gourmet burgers are taking the spotlight across the nation, and Clark County is no exception. From the opening of several fast-casual burger restaurants to the addition of the Italiano Burger to Olive Garden’s menu, now is the time to indulge in burgers. It would be great fun to have a local “Best Burger” competition. The Zombie Double Burger at Crave Grill would provide some serious competition in the “Pound of Beef” category.

Because I visit a different Clark County restaurant every week for The Columbian, I know that when I desire to return it is because there are noteworthy qualities that I wish to experience again or share with others. If you are a regular reader of Dining Out, you are likely familiar with what I consider the attributes of remarkable dining. For those of you who might have just joined us, I will fill you in.

• One of the greatest attributes a restaurant can possess is cleanliness. A kitchen or dining area that still shows remnants of a prior meal is not suited to serve the next. General housekeeping is part of this.

• Quality and consistency are two more traits that top my must-have list. Quality (from source to presentation) means everything when it comes to food, and a consistent delivery of a premium experience creates many return visits. If a restaurant cannot be consistent, it cannot be trusted with my hard-earned income. Too many restaurants have sacrificed quality and consistency, and instead offer huge portions in hopes customers will overlook their shortcomings; I was pleased in 2013 to find a desirable shift away from this trend to more emphasis on the whole experience.

Best bets

As for my top five picks for 2013, Charlie’s Bistro and the newly opened Willem’s on Main in downtown Vancouver are both outstanding restaurants that offer a top-notch dining experience — toward the fine-dining end of the spectrum, though a bit more relaxed. Both provide excellent, professional service and accommodations for either a romantic dinner for two or a gathering of more. Menu items are inventive and beautifully presented. Flavors are memorable. Charlie’s has proven consistent, and my hope is that Willem’s will as well. Owner-chef Paul Klitsie is an experienced and successful restaurateur with a winning 15-year record as owner-chef of the former Fratelli in Portland.

The Birch Street Uptown Lounge in historic downtown Camas is a place I always look forward to patronizing. It consistently delivers quality and I adore the vintage impression it leaves. You will not find a lot of food choices at Birch Street Uptown, but certainly there is enough to satisfy, particularly if cocktails and conversation are the evening’s priority.

Our Bar in Washougal quickly won me over with its concept. The restaurateurs are big on making everything they can from scratch, and they are really good at it. Menu items are among the most original I have discovered as of late. Too often, innovative just turns out weird. Not at Our Bar — the food works. The atmosphere is cozy and comfortable with a modern feel that has a touch of country flair.

There are several outstanding places to pick up a terrific gourmet burger, but my pick is Brothers Burger in east Vancouver. The family friendly atmosphere works as a sports bar, too, and fireside dining brings coveted warmth on a cold day. There is a burger to satisfy every craving, appetizers and salads are a notch above average, desserts are delectable, and parents can find good options for their kids.

With the improvements in 2013, it will be exciting to discover what 2014 brings. I am looking forward to the New Year with a hearty appetite for experiencing the restaurants of Clark County and as always, my goal is to report a realistic, whole experience so you may make informed choices about dining out.