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

Feb 05, 2014

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.

Last week you said you "smelled a story" in a comment about women being seated at tiny tables and men being led to booths. My mother and I dine out frequently in DC, and as two women dining together, more often than not we have to ask for a different table from the one we're led to, which is inevitably next to a bus stand, by a cold window or door, cramped next to others or next to the kitchen door. When I'm out with my father, it's literally never happened.

I am really sorry to hear that. And I'd welcome comments from  more females in the audience today: Do you feel as if you're treated differently when you dine with other women as opposed to when you're with males?

 

Early in her tenure as restaurant critic for the New York Times, Ruth Reichl famously reviewed Le Cirque as both a known and unknown diner.  One of the points she made was how different the dining experience was when she was with another woman. Among other things, she and a female guest were led to the smoking section when they specfically asked not to be (this was 1993, mind you)  and later  asked to hand over a wine list when it was needed by a male diner.

 

"Women and wine are an uncomfortable mix at Le Cirque," Reichl wrote in her critique.  "At a subsequent meal the captain insists that he has only half bottles of the Riesling I've just ordered. When I prove that he's mistaken, he glares at me."

 

DOUBLING THE FUN: The four-seat chef's counter within Al Dente, named for Roberto Donna, has become so popular,  the star of the show is doubling the number of stools and changing the name of the experience to Roberto's 8 as of Feb. 18. 

 

"We get so much requests, people get upset" when they're told there's no room, reports Donna, who cooks in front of his guests during the dinner.

 

What's not changing at the performance space is the price: $85 per person for the dozen-plus courses, which change from month to month.  Among the treats he's rehearsing for a future menu, says Donna: Italian-style profiteroles stuffed with  liquid saffron and served with coffee reduction.

 

Reservations can be made by emailing robertos8@aldentedc.com

 

HOPING TO RIGHT A WRONG:


"I was sorry to hear that someone on your chat this past week was disappointed in their experience at The Source. Would you please invite them to reach out to me personally (scott.drewno@wolfgangpuck.com) so that I might make it right?

 

Happy rainy Wednesday, everyone.  Let's get started.

 

Hi, Tom. I'm a 19 year old journalism major in DC with a big appetite. Having a job like yours is probably my biggest dream. I know it's a lofty goal, but what are some things I can do to start on a career path towards food writing?

   1) Start a blog or journal.  Write about what you're interested in or curious about and write on a regular basis.  Have your friends or a mentor critique your work.

 

  2) Reach out to people who can be helpful. If you're interested in cooking, take some classes or ask a chef if he or she will let you shadow him when they go to the market or prep before service.  Volunteer to intern with a blogger or publication you respect, just to see what that that world is like.

 

3) Read the work of  the food greats: M. F. K. Fisher, A.J. Liebling and Ruth Reichl, for starters.

 

4) Travel as much as your budget will allow. There's nothing like eating food on its home ground.

 

5) Try to master a skill, preferably not one 100,000 other aspiring food writers have.  Somehow, you'll need to stand out from the pack; more than ever, everyone truly is a (food) critic these days.

 

Does that help?

 

 

 

 

Oh, my gosh. Just wanted to weigh in. My husband and I had time and reason for a celebratory meal around Capitol Hill and we dined in the back "garden" area at RL. Delicious drinks (cider and martinez, also Irish coffee with homemade Irish cream) and divine food (veg. sausage & lychee, gnocchi, crawfish, and pommes). Wonderful service from Brad. We came away with heads in the clouds. Could not agree more with your enthusiasm!

I had dinner with a fellow food scribe last night and both of us were marveling at how much enthusiasm everyone has for Rose's Luxury. You'd expect *some* criticism about the newcomer, but .... crickets!  I love the restaurant.

Tom, I agree with you totally about Valentine's Day. It' just not worth the hassle and money. In last week's chat, you said that one of your reasons for not dining out on that day was there were "too many amateurs on the scene." What did you mean by that?

Forgive me if that sounded snarky. It wasn't  intended to be.

 

  What I meant was, a lot of people who never or rarely eat out do so on certain holidays, including Mother's Day, New Year's Eve and Valentine's Day.  The vibe in a dining room on those occasions  is different; so are consumer expectations. Waiters can get stressed.  Regarding Valentine's Day, I'd rather be romantic in private than in public.

Tom, you gave dining tips about those three far-flung places (and also not so far-flung Richmond), but you still haven't given us anything on Pittsburgh, which is only 4 hours away by car. Do you have any thoughts on good places to eat there? What do you think of LeMont (which says it has five diamonds and where we got two fine meals with a beautiful view)?

 

If I don't address a question, of which there are often many here, it's usually because I don't have a reliable answer.  In the case of Pittsburgh, for instance, I've never been.  But because you are a persistant poster, I did some sleuthing and came up with a few ideas. They include Cure and Salt of the Earth.

 

 

For the last few years, a group of old friends have celebrated milestone birthdays and anniversaries with a nice dinner at the location of the honoree's choice. Our requirements are that we can get dressed up, be able to hear each other talk and have a leisurely evening without feeling rushed. It's my turn in a few weeks, so I'm looking for ideas. Past venues have included 1789, Vidalia and the Prime Rib.

You know what might be fun?  The tasting menu (take your choice between four or six courses) at the revived Iron Gate in Dupont Circle. The formal dining room in a former carriage house comes with a live fire, soft music, good service and an Italian-Greek-American menu from Tony Chittum, formerly of the very good Vermilion in Old Town.

Hi Tom, My mom is coming to visit me in a couple weeks. She has never been to a DC brunch, and I'd like to show her the ropes. Can you recommend a quintessential and inexpensive brunch spot? Ideally, it would be something unusual and unique.

'Unusual" and "unique"  -- and delicious! -- certainly apply to the buffet brunch with Champagne at the romantic Bombay Club near the White House and the dim sum script at the Source in Penn Quarter.

Another "food great" to read - Elizabeth David. Superb descriptions. good luck!

By all means! The other names just popped in my head first.

I know that you are great with restaurants but what about bakeries? My birthday is coming up and I like to get myself a birthday cake. I tried Balducci's last year and it was very good. But I thought I would try something new this year.

My go-to bakery is Praline in Bethesda. While I haven't tried that many cakes there, I can vouch for its macarons, brioche rolls, apricot tarts and more.

I have an old friend I see rarely coming to town. We will meet for dinner next Thursday and need a restaurant in the Dupont Circle area that is quiet enough to allow us good conversation and a bar to move to after dinner so we don't take up a table for hours! Thanks, Tom.

Try Mourayo, at 1732 Conn. Ave. NW.  The neighborhood restaurant offers gracious service, good Greek cooking and (relative) peace.  I tend to gravitate to the lamb chops with roasted potatoes, branzino baked in a crust of salt and the daily specials.

Hi Tom! I was rather surprised to see that Washingtonian ranked Minibar as the #2 restaurant in the DC area, especially since you ranked it a mere two stars. Have you been back to Minibar since your review? There seems to be quite a discrepancy between two sources I generally trust!

I have not returned to Minibar since my Dec. 2012 review of Jose Andres's experimental food lab.  I have, however, enjoyed cocktails and snacks in the neighboring Barmini, which I enjoyed so much, I played it up in my 2013 fall dining guide.

This is a late response to last week's chatter, whose gripe was that she always gets seated at 2 tops, while men get larger tables. This is, in some cases, unfortunately true. I worked for a now closed restaurant where my boss, the general manager, told me point blank to ALWAYS seat pairs of women at the small, banquet 2-tops, and to give men in suits 4-top tables. Worse yet, the boss was a woman. Since I am too, I regularly ignored her directive. I urge this chatter to email the owner of each and every restaurant where she receives this treatment. It is likely that this will help to adjust the attitude of the offending staff.

Ouch. Thanks for sharing. And good for you for not listening to your superior in the aforementioned situation.

Tom, thanks for the answer. I appreciate it. I rather doubt you're a big sports fan, but you should still take a trip to Pittsburgh when the weather is better. People from the "Burgh love it a lot. Only my husband's job and the winter weather keep us from living there, but our hearts are there. And do eat at LeMont.

What makes you think I'm not a sports fan, huh? I mean, just because I hosted a semi-formal dinner party at home on Superbowl Sunday ...

Please recommend your favorite "nice" restaurant in Cleveland Park. Thanks

The tasting room at Palena fits that description, as does the less formal Ardeo + Bardeo. Further up on Connecticut Ave., I'm partial to Buck's Fishing & Camping.

In an article, You wrote that kitchen tours were standard at the Inn at Little Washington. Is that really so? Do they invite every guest for a tour? I've been there three times over the years and never went on a tour. I'm not complaining; just curious.

The tours are granted, but you have to ask, according to a spokeswoman for the Inn at Little Washington:

 

"While we are delighted to give anyone dining with us a tour of Patrick’s kitchen," she emailed this morning, "it is something we do on request and is not automatically offered to every table.  Our guests are welcome to mention that they’d like to see the kitchen to our reservationist at the time of booking or to their waiter at any point during the night."

 

Hi Tom: I'm hoping you can help me figure out the most polite way to tell someone (who?) at the Passenger that their bar, well, stinks! I love the Passenger -- love the drinks, love the food, love the staff. But I don't go nearly as often as I used to because of the smell. In addition, I've sent good friends there as an awesome place to go, and they reported the same thing, much to my dismay (they'll never go back, they say). How do bars get the funk? Can they get rid of it? It doesn't seem to bother most of the patrons, so am I (and are my friends) just oversensitive? Thanks for any advice!

Paging Derek Brown! Paging Derek Brown!

 

(Or his brother Tom! Or his brother Tom!)

Tom: How early should I plan to get to Rose's Luxury if dining on a Friday night with only two in the party? They open at 5pm. Thanks!

Tough to say.  Depends on the weather and such. But I'd want to be near Rose's door around 4:40 (or thereabouts) at least.

Randolph's in Arlington has never disappointed

Another sweet source.

Tom, it's getting better, but way too often when dining with another woman, we have to ask for a wine list while other tables receive one automatically. We often don't get the recitation of the specials, while we hear the recitation at other tables. We are often asked for our order much more quickly than other tables. Our check is frequently dropped before we are asked about dessert, or coffee, or another glass of wine. And this happens with servers of both genders. And we are great tippers.

It's 2014, restaurants!  Apparently, we haven't (to paraphrase an old cigarette commercial aimed at women) "come a long way, baby."

Hey Tom, while I know you have a postcard from San Francisco due out later this month my wife and I will be making a trip out West next weekend. We've already secured tables @ Zuni Cafe & Coqueta and I wanted to see if there were any other spots in town that we should make a point to frequent while we're there. Thanks!

Perfect timing. My Postcard from San Francisco comes out this Sunday in Travel (earlier online).

 

A little tease: Be sure to include the newish b. patisserie in Pacific Heights on your itinerary and be sure to ask for a kouign amann there. 

We're looking for a nice Northern Virginia restaurant to celebrate our 50th anniversary with our family. It won't be a large group but will include children, teens, and older adults. Any suggestions?

Now that Liberty Tavern in Arlington has acquired Matt Hill, the talented chef from Range, I'd be inclined to send your party there. If you like Lebanese cooking, Me Jana, also in Arlington, should be a consideration; for Italian, consider Villa Mozart in Fairfax City.

And read every restaurant review you can get your hands on. This will show you what to look for and focus on.

Over the years, I've agreed to meet with young people who are curious about my job -- sometimes for a class project, other times for career advice -- and I'm often surprised by how little homework they do in advance. As in, some haven't even bothered to read my stuff, or the competition's.

 

Like young cooks who go into the field to get on TV, some of these would-be writers just aim to be famous, I'm afraid. Sad. Worrisome.

For the person who needs to stand, what about the bar area at Le Diplomate? I believe that they serve food there, and the tables seem the right height for standing.

Mais oui!

 

Et merci.

Heidelberg in Arlington? What're your thoughts, Tom? Thanks

It's been awhile since I've sampled anything from the German bakery, but I understand it retains a good reputation.

 

Another poster recommends the layer cakes at Bayou Bakery in Arlington.

Tom - Assume a 2 top is a table for 2? My wife and I usually dine together and are almost seated at a table for 2, which seems fair rather than taking up a larger table. Are we being too accommodating? When would you suggest requesting a larger table?

Larger tables are generally offered when business is slow or it appears a meeting is going to take place -- or a diner has requested the extra real estate.

After a weekend matinee at Studio, my husband and I decided to eat an early dinner at the much-vaunted Diplomate. We even remained enthusiastic when seated in the chilly "fully-heated" porch, on a plastic bench that wobbled violently when people at the next two tables shifted, amid the hubbub of conversation from neighbors less than an arm's length away, as we studied the menu that featured pretty pricey afternoon fare for a "casual apres-midi". Our enthusiasm faded, though, when no waiter acknowledged our existence -- even to pour water -- after more than 15 minutes, despite taking orders from later-seated people. Perhaps our snarky neighbors were right and, at 50-years-old, we just weren't civilized enough to dine there. (Yeah, the restaurant can't control its patrons, but sheesh, the hipster vibe was overwhelming.) We crossed the street to Ghibellina's, and we were in a different world. A courteous hostess told us she could seat us in 10 minutes for dinner and invited us to join Happy Hour at the bar. She seated us on time, at a lovely table for two, pointing out the hooks for our coats, and noting that our table was in an alcove that would remain quiet. Our waitress promptly brought water and took our order (a rather unconventional combination of entree and side dishes and appetizers, rather than two "main meals", but not a blink of disapproval.) The food was superb, the service was attentive without unnecessary interruption, and our afternoon was saved. We know where we'll be heading for future Studio meals. And where we won't bother stopping by...

The score today:

 

Ghibellina: 1

Le Diplomat:  0

 

Thanks for writing such a richly detailed post. I appreciate the feedback (and your sense of humor and fairness).

We tried to go (party of 3) on a Thursday at 6:30 and the wait was over an hour. Would love to try it, but I was too hungry!

Useful info.

Sometimes hosts lead you to table based on ensuring that servers get equal covers and hopefully make equal money. Sometimes, especially in mid-afternoon, servers are going on or off a shift. Sometimes, you are just a victim of circumstance, not a systematic targeted mistreatment.

I can totally see that. Thanks for raising the point.

I'm 70 actually and the friends I've dined with at Diplomate have been at or near my age. And we have never had anything but great service, and we're definitely not hipsters either. I wouldn't have sat for 15 minutes waiting but would have made my presence known.

Right? After five minutes, I would have flagged down someone to pay attention to my table.

Not just a gender issue. I think the host decides how much the party will order and drink, whether they look like good tippers, and in some places, whether their appearance will add or substract to the restaurant 's ambiance. The bottom line is always the most important. For the elderly, the best experience comes in a private club or a family restaurant. For women,a power outfit might help.

Assumptions are dangerous. I learned that out in Seattle, where the dude in the bad glasses, unkempt hair and ratty sweater could very well be a Bill Gates out for a quick bite.

Tom, I agree with your comment from a few weeks ago: no one wants lashings of inferior wine with dinner! Now could you please reassess your takes on certain local chefs, Bajaj and Andres in particular. It seems you almost camp out at the Bombay Club, which is nice but not great, and you consistently ignore (but do publish, so credit for that) the many negative evaluations by readers of the every day experience of Jaleo, where by your own admission you are known as a friend of the owner. Maybe as a friend you could pass those on to him?

I do not "camp out" at Bombay Club and I'm not personal friends with Jose Andres, much as I respect him. My job doesn't, or shouldn't, allow that. At the same time, Bajaj and Andres have done a lot to make DC a better place to dine, and I wouldn't be doing my job by not acknowledging that reality.

 

I'm not sure where you're reading the negative comments about Jaleo -- Yelp or elsewhere?  I continue to send friends to the Spanish tapas bar, and they continue to tell me how much they like the place.

I can attest that in my city (not D.C.) women don't get the good service that men get. This shouldn't be a zero-sum thing--surely every patron could get good service. Except that "bad" tables do exist, and they have to go to someone; I just wish we women weren't taken straight to them while bypassing a room of more desirable empty ones. Another blind spot seems to be that most women carry purses, and when seated at a 2-top (chairs, no banquette or bench) there's no place to put them.

Don't you just love the little hooks that more and more restaurants are placing under their bars? So smart. So thoughtful. Men dig 'em, too.

I recently was at PF Chang's in Ballston and while a pair of men in suits was seated in a 4 person booth away from the cold windows, we (2 women in suits) were offered a 2-top next to the window. When we asked for another (warmer) table, we were offered a 2-top across the aisle from the windows. We had to specifically ask for one of the booths (warmest spot in that section) to be seated there. This was an early lunch, so the place was pretty empty.

Hmmmmm.

Table of 7 women at the Ray's outlet in Silver Spring, which was then new. We were finishing our meal and our desserts. Captain came and asked us to give up our table RIGHT THEN and he would bring us our split checks in the foyer. He did....about 15 minutes later. Unapologetically. Lost 7 families as diners forever.

The restaurant is under new ownership. Don't hate it forever.

So you're saying that women, the very young and the elderly, should just give up, because the host is going to discriminate no matter what? That's disgraceful.

I don't buy that about hosts immediately sizing diners up on a routine basis. Most busy hosts don't have the time. And surely they've learned there are exceptions to preconceived notions.

Tom, it's OK we as readers have learned to accept that you get preferential treatment in different establishments as pointed out on numerous occasions. We just wish that you would report the negative from time to time and not get so up-in-arms when called out on it. You're friends with Jose Andres, it's not a big deal.

I'm *not* worked up by what you said. I *have* acknowledged, here and in print, that as a critic I sometimes get excessive attention paid to me. And I've also shared less than glowing feedback from readers about both Bombay Club and Jaleo before.  Me thinks you have too much time on your hands today. I mean, what do you want me to say? I aim to be fair and accurate.

The reason Tom didn't answer your question is because, to paraphrase a famous quote "there is no there, there". At least not yet. Cure and Salt of the Earth may be the start of a new trend, but the 'Burgh's dining scene is dated and stale. LeMont is a great reputation, with a spectacular view, that is solidly stuck in the 80's. My last visit, in October, was nothing special, although I must admit that the locals at the table thought it was wonderful. Not to sound snarky or provincialist (is that even a word?), but the folks at the table who had moved away from Pittsburgh over the last 2 decades, but had come back for the special occasion dinner, were thoroughly unimpressed, but the locals thought it was a great meal. I just think that the Pittsburgh dining scene, while it might be evolving, isn't quite up to the level of a DC, or even a Dallas, Seattle ot Minneapolis. Yet.

Great post. Although I do hear the scene is changing for the better.

Everyone seems to love it-do you?

I think it's a fun place to eat and I love, love, love the fact the talent in the kitchen is a young woman.

A friend and I (two females) have had dinner at the Cheesecake Factory in Friendship Heights a few times (I know, I know, but it's so convenient). Each time we're put a a tiny two-person table in a row of them so tight it might as well be a banquet table of two-party female diners. The restaurant is often busy, but parties of two men or a man and a woman still get the booths and 4-person tables... Suppose I should just speak up next time and see if that helps.

Perhaps you should be flattered: You must be size zeros?

Dude obviously has an axe to grind against Jose Andres and he's whining because you won't carry his water.

Lots and lots of jealousy in the restaurant ranks, for sure.

Let's all pick on Tom!

Times up!

 

Hey, this was a fun chat today. Lively. Useful. Entertaining (for the most part). Let's do it again next Wednesday at 11 a.m.

In This Chat
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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