Of all the dining trends sweeping the nation, the fast-casual restaurant might be the most prolific. Ranging from big chains to mom-and-pop businesses, these counter-service eateries cater to those on the go, but they’re not your typical junk-food joints. Instead, they combine the speed of their fast-food forefathers with the hospitality and quality of a sit-down restaurant.
To wit: Mt.Vernon’s Café Fili runs as efficiently as any Chipotle or Shake Shack. Guests enter the former Milk & Honey space, with its sky-high windows and modern finishes, and are greeted by the blue glow of digital menus and a smiling staff waiting behind a marble bar.
But aside from the lightning-fast service and iPad registers, this Mediterranean café is a personable gathering space with a neighborhood vibe. On a recent lunch visit, the place was packed, bustling with friends and colleagues who stopped in for quick meetings or long lunches over marinated olives and baba ghanouj.
After 20 years at the successful Café Olé in Washington D.C., owner Ziad Maalouf has learned a thing or two about crowd-pleasing food. His menu’s influences traverse the globe—from Israel to Italy—and each simple yet flavorful dish is prepared with a home-cooking level of care. In whichever country you land, this rustic fare is meant for sharing—and eating with your hands. Silverware is hardly necessary for the cornucopia of cold and hot mezze options, served with crispy seasoned pita chips that are reason enough to visit.
As the litmus test of any good Mediterranean meal, the hummus is a must, especially the silky pesto version or the “special,” topped with succulent shaved lamb, toasted pine nuts, and a touch of smoky harissa. Whether your mission is breakfast, lunch, or dinner, paninis are the star. Served warm on Iranian barbari flatbread with a sprinkling of sesame, these crunchy comforts are big enough to split, but you’ll likely want your own.
The Cheesy Piggie was an unexpected delight, stuffed with a mouthwatering medley of pulled pork, Gruyère, Brussels sprout slaw, and a brilliant harissa-bacon jam. The French Riviera, a sort of vegetarian gyro packed with wild mushrooms, caramelized onions, and goat cheese, never left us wanting for meat.
A small market also offers charcuterie and booze for the road. Just be sure to grab a dessert from the glass case on the way out. Maalouf keeps his confections’ source a secret, but it hardly matters after buttery bites of baklava and tangy spoonfuls of key lime tart. But with a full bar, cozy booth seating, and wide views of the city street, you’ll want to slow down—finally—and stay awhile.
›› CAFÉ FILI 816 Cathedral St., 410-244-1600. Sun.-Wed. 8 a.m.-9 p.m., Thurs.-Sat. 8 a.m.-10 p.m.