Ask Tom: Rants, raves and questions on the DC dining scene

Aug 15, 2012

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema entertains your dining questions, rants and raves.

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at washingtonpost.com/tomsietsema.

When I returned to Georgetown's 1789 last month, what I feared was coming had come. Turns out, this fine restaurant has joined with many others in easing their requirements of gentlemen to put on a jacket when in the dining room. Granted, most still wear a jacket voluntarily, but then of course there's that guy who wears shorts and a polo. I personally think that it takes away from the dining experience when there are people there dressed in shorts. Tom, what do you make of this?

I think it's a sign of respect -- to the restaurant, to fellow diners -- to dress the part in a destination as civilized as 1789.  If a party is paying a lot of money to enjoy what might be a special night away from home, it's not much fun if their neighbors show up in what could pass for beach wear.  It's plain and simple good manners.

 

Good morning, everyone. Please feel free to share your Restaurant Week stories, good and bad, with me today.

 

In breaking news, I heard earlier today from Anthony Pilla, the stellar pizza maker at Seventh Hill, who gave his notice there and plans to help launch a new Italian idea in Logan Circle. Here's the scoop.

 

Let's begin.

Hi, My friend and her husband have been very kind and generous to me and have done me a huge favor. I would like to buy them a gift certificate, so they could go out for a nice meal together (just the two of them). They live in Bethesda. Do you have suggestions of a special, memorable place I could treat them to that would be fairly close by for them. Thanks!

Glad to help out. At the top end is Bistro Provence, owned by veteran chef Yannick Cam. In the middle range are Passage to India, Praline and Raku. Also fun:  Food Wine & Company.

Hi Tom - I am finishing up my MS degree, and want to celebrate by taking close family and friends (about 12 of us) out for brunch. The group will include two young children. I would like a place around the Tyson's area because that is a mid-point destination for all of us. I'd like a place where we can relax and enjoy a leisurely meal, without too much noise and commotion, but with an environment that is still kid-friendly. AND with great food! Any suggestions? Thanks, Nancy

Tysons/good/not too expensive/not too loud/kid-friendly. That's a tough one!  Lebanese Taverna in the Tysons Galleria probably comes closest to what you want, though.

I was recently comparing menus online to see where I would take a friend visiting the DC area. I was looking for, and willing and able to pay for, upscale dining. But at the four- and three-star level, I discovered that a number of establishments decided to become precious and did not include prices in their online menus. Message to those establishments: You will not get my business. Ever. (Or at least until you change your online menus.) If you are too embarrassed to list your prices, reconsider them. If you think that if I have to ask, I can't afford the meal - you're wrong. I can afford it, but in large part because I make informed choices. If you think the price may scare people away, I suggest that NOT listing it probably makes the price seem higher than it really is.

I hope your complaint is the subject of more than one restaurant staff meeting today. 

 

Just say "yes" to posting prices online!

Hi Tom, I've gathered a group of friends to go out and talk politics at the end of the month. We're coming from all around the metro area, and I don't know what a good place would be downtown where we could commune without having to yell to be heard, but also not be distracting. We all enjoy good food and the group includes at least one vegetarian. Any places spring to mind that you could lead us to?

How about a booth at the Bombay Club,  the upstairs level at Mio, the rear of Mourayo (Greek) in Dupont Circle or the southern-themed Vidalia

I always have trouble finding the Postcard Archives...that being said, do you have any absolute must go to restaurants in Pittsburgh? Thanks!

I don't have anything for you on Pittsburgh, but here's a link to some of my Postcard columns from other cities.

 

Can anyone help a fellow chatter with Pittsburgh?

Forget the round table and look for something private in case things get heated (trust me, from lots of professional and personal experience). Againn has a great small but private room off the bar.

I can always count on this audience for wise asides.

Tom, I have sympathy for the good parents of children who go out to restaurants, I know many of them and go out to dinner with them. But they need to think about the issue from the other point of view. I go into a restaurant and see parents with 2 or 3 kids sitting on one side of the room, Why wouldn't I ask to sit on the other side of the room? Even if its only a 1 in 5 chance of bad behavior (and I think I'm being generous) why take the risk; Bachelorette party, family with kids, men with their shirts half unbuttoned and lots of gold chains. Life's too short to have yet another good meal spoiled.

Trust your gut, in other words?

Hi Tom: My mom's birthday is this weekend and I want to take her and my father our for a really great meal. However with age has come every condition on the planet when it comes to dining (aka its like shopping for furniture) with them and I need help. Do you have a recommendation for an Italian Restaurant that isn't too noisy, isn't too dressy, and has good food (especially a good pasta carbonara) preferably in the DC/Annapolis/Northern VA area? Also any recommendation on places that are not too noisy or too dressy (so I have future places to take them when they visit)? Thank you so much for your help!! Kira

Your best bet during Restaurant Week is a place that doesn't get a lot of attention from me, but has many loyal regulars: DeCarlo's, on Yuma St.  It's been years since I've dined there, but it appears to have what a "great Mom" might want for her birthday.

Who wears a jacket these days? All of my jobs have been business casual since the 1990s. If someone comes in with a jacket, the obvious question everyone asks is where is the interview? I can't believe that anyone would think that a jacket should be required at a restaurant. And really, how does what I wear impact another diner's meal? I spend most of my time looking at the people seated at my table and NOT trying to judge the other customers.

No one is judging, not really. But I think it's appropriate to dress in a manner that reflects the efforts of the restaurant and the diners who want to have a nice evening out. I probably sound old-fashioned, but when you dress up, everything else gets elevated too.  (Maybe I'm tired of seeing people on airplanes that appear to have boarded straight from sleep or the gym.) At the very least, a nice pressed shirt and slacks are appropriate for a restaurant like 1789.

Hi Tom! I'm staying in Logan Circle for a week and looking for decent restaurants and bars. I'm open to all cuisines but tend to prefer laid-back bars. Any suggestions?

You'll be in all the right places if you include Cork Wine Bar, Pearl Dive Oyster Palace, Bar Pilar (but just for drinks!) and Birch & Barley on your itinerary.

Last Tuesday night I had dinner with friends at what I thought was one of my favoriterestaraunts in DC. We were celebrating a friends birthday and sitting on thepatio. Near completion of our meal one of my dinner partners screamed "RODENTS" and 2 rats were running our way and we all tried to run away, get up in chairs etc. My leg got caught in a chair and I fell onto the ground and am a bit sore. I just called the General Manager, Jose Belloni who showed no interest because he says we were sitting outside. Our check was sizable and I am outraged at the disregard. Does anyone know the owner? Is this a Department of Health Issue? Where would I report something like this? Is this legal? What steps should I take to effect change?

Um -- don't go back to an outdoor restaurant? I have to side with the GM on this one. I'm no fan of rodents with my margaritas, either, but this is the District of Columbia and you opted to eat al fresco. What, exactly, did you expect the restaurant to do?

In the middle of the last heat wave (100+ degrees) I spent 45 minutes walking around Georgetown, asking every establishment I passed if I could sit outside and have a glass of wine. NOBODY was sitting outside. I doubt anyone but me wanted to sit outside anywhere. It was 6pm. I promised each time that I would cheerfully and immediately remove myself to the indoor bar if there was a rush on the outdoor tables. The answer each time was: no. What gives? I was polite, professionally dressed, and would have been an easy customer. Is there some restaurant code I was violating?

Wait, were you over-dressed, perhaps? (That's a joke. See above.)

 

My only thought is that no waiter was willing to deal with the heat, although if that was the case, there would have been no tables teasing passsersby like yourself. Or?

I have to put in a plug for the Rose Tea Cafe on Squirrel Hill. It's a tiny place and there can be a line, but they have astonishingly good (and completely authentic) Chinese food, including a ton of vegetarian options. The tea is amazing, especially if you like Bubble tea. It's a must-visit place whenever we're in the area.

Sounds fun. (Did you have to shoo away any squirrels, though?)

What's wrong with being comfortable on airplanes? Isn't air travel unpleasant enough?

I'm all for being comforable. But too many people are taking "casual" to new lows.

I get dress codes, but come on. If you're having such a nice time eating tasty food with someone at an expensive restaurant and all you can focus on is some other guy's disrespectful polo shirt, that's pretty weird to me. If I want to have a casual meal at McDonald's and someone shows up in a tuxedo, I'm not going to say they're ruining my relaxing experience. But seriously, blame the restaurant for not enforcing a dress code, not the person wearing what they're allowed to wear.

I think most restaurants are loath to enforces those few codes that exist anymore, for fear that someone is going to gripe on Yelp or some similar site.

Had a totally fabulous lunch at Vidalia yesterday. Going back Friday. It's just incredible!

Vidalia is a consistently excellent performer, I agree.  And I'm very excited about chef-owner Jeff Buben's forthcoming idea for the Potenza space.

I thought the issue was more that the menus change and the prices change, but the restaurants often keep a menu online for a long time? They don;t want to get "caught" posting a price that isn;t the one they are using that day.

In this day and age, it's not that difficult to post something fresh each day. Someone just has to be dedicated to doing it.

How does one email you? I tried sietsemat@washingtonpost.com as listed somewhere on the Post site but it bounced back as invalid address. Email in question was a cc. of one sent to Brian Voltaggio regarding a very disappointing breakfast this past Sunday at your recommended Family Meal. Drive thirty miles up from Leesburg, should have walked to the Leesburg Restaurant, in business since 1865, for a reliably excellent meal. Terry Davies

I have you on my list of readers to call, sir!

 

My email address: sietsemat@washpost.com

 

Sorry for the inconvenience.

The question of how others' apparel affect you is important. As Tom says, the restaurant experience is not just about food, but also about your fellow diners. Ascetics are important - I'm a very visual person and people in Jeans and a tee at an upscale restaurant feels to me (and other visual people) as a child screaming.

In anticipation of what I expect to hear from naysayers, you do know that some designer t-shirts and jeans cost more than entire suits and gowns, right?

You like those places better than Persimmon or Grapeseed?

Persimmon was a real downer on my last visit. And while I like the idea of Grapeseed, the execution is mixed.

I agree that it should be easy, but you know from all the complaints about web sites that it isn't (or it isn't actually being done). Restaurants either seem to be way behind on technology for a web site, or give us all the wrong technology (all kinds of stuff we don't want). What's on the menu and can I get a reservation. How hard is that?

Actually, diners want a lot of questions answered online. (Take it from someone who fields a lot of consumer complaints.) Is parking free? What's the dress code? Can I bring my own wine? Is there a kids' menu? A split charge? A charge for bringing grandma's  birthday cake? A round table with room for 10 or more?  A changing table -- in the men's restroom?  The list is endless, really.

Thanks for the review of Family Meal, I agreed with most of the points and have enjoyed both dinner and breakfast. My one issue with Family Meal and Volt is the lack of attention to dessert. The first courses and entrees at both restaurants are stellar but the sweets just don't live up. The Smith Island cake was overly dense and bland and the desserts at Volt are just as uninspired (but there is an excellent cheese plate at Volt). Do you know if Mr. Voltaggio employs a pastry chef? If no, he needs one pronto (I will say that the cookies he serves at Lunchbox are outstanding!)

I had issues with the confections at Family Meal, too. Restaurants should remember:  Dessert is one of their last chances to make an impression.

I recall from my time working as a server that we would often close the outside dining areas when it was particularly hot outside - the rationale being that we'd require extra staff for that shift to serve those tables, which would probably be wasted seeing as the odds were slim any customer would want to brave the heat. We'd keep the tables and chairs out - since it would be cumbersome to store them during the dinner rush - but they were really only for show.

Industry perspective: invaluable. Thanks for chiming in.

The restaurants should enforce them. If they are worried about Yelp, etc., people will find something to complain about anyway (note rat lady above). If your product is good, we will come. If your product is bad, even letting us come hanging it all out, we'll eventually go away anyway. Yes, I sound crotchety and old but I'm not.... old anyway. I love a good dress up meal. And I also dress for travel, too. You'd be amazed at how well I am treated by the way.

I bet you get upgraded a lot.

I don't care how much your clothes cost, jeans are still jeans, and a t shirt is a t shirt. Inappropriate for fine dining.

Just wanted to give voice to the opposition. I try to play fair here ....

An adult dresses appropriately for the occasion. A fancy dinner means fancy clothes, a casual dinner means casual clothes. It's basic manners to dress to suit the occasion, and, no, you're not striking some blow against The Man because you chose to have dinner at 1789 in cookout clothes. You're just showing that you care more about your pleated khaki shorts than you do about the elegance of the occasion or the enjoyment of other diners. Diners are a part of a restaurant's atmosphere, too. And trust me - it's not that those of us who dress properly are scanning the room, desperately trying to find someone to make fun of. It's that you stick out and look so ridiculous that we can't help but notice Slobby McLazy at table 23. Oh, and take off that baseball cap while you're at it. You're indoors and you look ridiculous. Thanks for letting me rant, I do feel a lot better!

If a guy is over 12 -- months -- he shouldn't wear a cap in a restaurant.  Possible exception: Hooters.

Why not Dino's? If you go early (around 6), it's not loud and crowded.

Thanks for pointing that out (both the restaurant and the noise level).

I am sick of people complaining about kids in restaurants!!. Look, we have two kids ( a 4 year old and 18 month old) and we go out to eat with them at least once of week and I have never run into the kid of issues that people talk about on this board with respect to kids being out of control. I think some people are just over sensitive to kids being out; If you want piece and quiet stay home! Additionally, kids are sometimes unpredictable but so are adults. I doubt many parents are taking there kids to Komi or some other "fancy" restaurants. We stick with casual restarunts with the kids ( Any Great American place, Teds, Hill Country, Match Box, The Liberty Tavern) We have a few rules before we take out kids out. For example, they have had to have a nap and we go out for dinner no later than 5:30. If one of the kids is having a having a meltdown, we take them out. Who in the hell eats dinner at besides people with kids and seniors at 5:30? Kids can only learn to eat out if they actually go out. Get over it!

I bet you're feeling better already!

 

(You make some good points, btw.)

Not quite in defense of those in polo & shorts, but here DC, especially in Georgetown, we have a lot of tourists, who dress the part to go sightseeing, and may have stumbled upon finer dining establishments such as 1789 and dont have the time/place to change. Not an excuse, but casual diners are the norm. It's badder business to turn people away than to upset the dress-code purists....

Shame on moi. Hadn't thought of that. Thanks for writing.

Please, get over yourself. Most people learn by the time they're in kindergarten that they're not the center of the universe. Most people probably couldn't care less that the "very visual person" at the next table requires everyone to dress by their very particular dress code. BTW, the word is "aesthetics" not "ascetics." Maybe the emphasis on being so visual has hindered the development of vocabulary and/or spelling?

Remember how hosts used to ask diners, "Smoking or not?" when they stepped into a restaurant? Maybe they should start asking "Visual or not?"

My issue is that people seem to have totally rejected the concept that one dresses differently in different contexts. It is all about "why should I be inconvenienced or wear something different?" That attitude pervades everything these days (entitlement, regarding any request as a personal insult or affront). It is really sad, actually, to see people dressed in flip flops and ratty shorts in a nice restaurant, church, or the courtroom (yes, I have seen it all). To me, it is a matter of respect. Plus, why would I reject the idea of getting to have more clothes?????

Well put!

It IS easy. It takes literally seconds to update a web site.

Spoken like someone in-the-know.

They serve food at Hooters?

Hahahahahahahaha.

Have a group of about ten people arriving for a weekend wedding, all arriving early evening on a Thursday. We'd like to host a casual gathering at a restaurant in Alexandria and are looking for something fun and easy since most people will have traveled all day and would appreciate a bite to eat and beer/wine. Hotel is near King Street Metro, but we could take the Trolley into Old Town. Any suggestions?

Virtue Feed & Grain has everything you're looking for: size, style, food options and a location overlooking the water. And cocktails made with beer!

 

That's a wrap for today, folks. Thanks for participating. See you next Wednesday, same time. (Be sure to dress for the occasion! )

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Tom Sietsema
Weaned on a beige buffet a la "Fargo" in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. In thinner days, he was a critic for Microsoft Corp.'s sidewalk.com and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; and a food reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.

This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the '80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section's recipes. That's how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.

He covers the local scene in his Dining, First Bite and Dish columns; keeps tabs on the world at large in his Postcard From Tom column and contributes tasty morsels to the Going Out Guide blog.
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