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

Jul 31, 2013

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.

Hi Tom: Love your chats and agree with your recent review of Nopa, disappointing. I ate there last week and had many of the same dishes as you. Thought the radish pineapple salad was interesting, good bread basket, but mushy ceviche and a steak disaster really soured me. Here was my dilemma: I ordered my NY strip steak medium rare but it arrived just past medium well. Given the middling quality of the meat this made a dry/tough steak even more like shoe leather. I confirmed the overdoneness by slicing into the middle which was gray and stringy. After some hand-wringing i decided to send it back given the steep price of the dish and the fact that it was nearly inedible. The staff could not have been more apologetic/accommodating about it. (Manager and server both came over to apologize and comped us some desserts which was a nice touch). But here's the rub: the second steak was also overcooked! When they asked me how it was I didn't have the heart to send it back a second time, in part because my date was nearly finished his meal by that point. So I just ate a few bites and mostly filled up on fries. The desserts were nice but what I really wanted was dinner which I never actually got. What would you have done differently?

While I appreciate what the staff  at Nopa did to make amends in your case and I can understand your reluctance to send back a second attempt, I think I would have been honest and let them know it was over-cooked, too.  And I would have let them know, not to get a third piece of beef, but to correct whatever might be happening in the kitchen to cause the problem.

 

Note to restaurants in general: Not every customer who has a meal go amiss wants dessert as "compensation."  You might want to ask a guest for their preference; it could be something savory, or a glass of wine.

 

Note to the OP:  I'm betting Nopa would like to reach out to you. If you're here, and can share an email contact, please do so.

 

THIS JUST IN: “We’re 30 days from opening,” says Todd Gray, the co-owner of Equinox in Washington and the culinary director of the forthcoming Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg. Which means Gray is announcing two fresh hires to assist him in the $100 million project in Loudoun County’s horse country. They are Sean McKee, who will serve as the resort’s executive chef, responsible for banquets and other functions, and Chris Edwards, who will be the chef de cuisine responsible for the luxury destination’s two restaurants.

 

McKee is a Miami native who spent the last three years cooking in Manchester, Vt. at a restaurant called (no kidding!) Equinox.

 

Edwards comes from the recently reviewed Restaurant at Patowmack Farm in Lovettesville, Va. He will oversee a 62-seat small plates retreat, The Gold Cup Wine Bar, and the signature, 95-seat Harrimans Virginia Piedmont Grille. Named for the late ambassador Pamela Harriman, who once owned the 385-acre site, Harrimans will include a 16-seat wine area called the Tack Room for private parties.

 

Menu highlights in the wine bar include Culpeper ham with pickled watermelon rind, ricotta-stuffed pasta with chanterelles and olive oil-poached Carolina shrimp. The formal dining room will feature rack of Virginia pork with Stilton-infused potato “tots,” wild rockfish with heirloom beets and several vegan dishes, the last per the preference of resort owner Sheila Johnson.

 

 

Good morning, everyone.  Again, lots to chew over today.  Did you catch Tim Carman’s scoop this morning on  Mike Isabella (finally) separating himself from Bandolero

 

Let's begin.

It's true--good service can make or break a dining experience. I'm much more likely to feel good about a place if the service is great, and I am likely to never return and tell everyone about it if the service is terrible (and I mean truly terrible).

My reader mail supports you. I hope this post makes it onto the bulletin boards of more than a few restaurants today.

After a terrible lunch out, I just wanted to flee. The waiter -- and the manager, if there was one, though her/his presence was not obvious -- had plenty of data that this was not a good meal for us -- slow, overcooked (sliced duck, so the fact that it was grey thoughout was obvious), just plain bad (food with one bite missing left on the table. No one asked how are meal was. Maybe they didn't care. Should I care that they may be dooming their business?

Perhaps not. But you'd be doing future diners a favor by bringing the problems to the attention of someone who can turn things around -- if, in fact, a supervisor cares enough.

Hi Tom, I am turning fifty the end of September and will be having a small family and close friends get together. There will be approximately 7 or 8 people attending. While I would love Komi or the Inn at Little Washington, this will be way out of the budget for everyone involved. Also, several folks (my dad and Aunt primarily) are pretty unadventerous, and like italian, non-spicy chinese and meat-and-potatoes. Only one person will drink booze, we are pretty much teetotalers here. Of course, that means more money for the food! What do you recommend, where we can keep it to under $50 a person, but have a memrable meal.

Consider the new Ghibellina in Logan Circle, which features Italian small plates and very good pizza. The restaurant has a semi-private nook near the bar up front that would be the perfect roost for your smallish party.

After getting the creme de violet (an exceptional measure few bartenders cwould take for any customer -I asked bartenders) and the polished service/cooking attention you generally receive, do you think that being recognized more often than not makes you have a different, more pampered experience than what we would have? Have you tried Pete Wells' experiment?

When I'm on a review, I'm taking mental note not just of what's happening at my table, but what's taking place throughout the restaurant. Plus, I visit a place multiple times, so I experience different servers, not all of whom always recognize. In addition, I send friends to places where I know I'm known, to get a fuller sense of how the dining room staff treats strangers. So ... I have my ways.

 

(The poster is referring to my recent review of Nopa in Penn Quarter, at which a server told me a bar tender had reached out to a sister restaurant to get an ingredient for a cocktail I requested.)

Hey Tom, I am a regular and generally get very good service at my favorite place. Every once in awhile, we get a new-to-us and quite possibly just plan new waiter and the service isn't what we are used to (which for me generally means they rushed the main course and didn't ask soon enough, if at all, if I wanted a second drink). Given that in general I love this place, have been going there for many years, and have no intention of NOT returning, what's the best way to handle it?

When you go in, ask to be seated in your favorite waiter's station. Or let a new server know, up front, you're there for a relaxed meal ("no rush on the main course, please") and will likely want a second cocktail.

I am a member of a club that meets once a month. For years, several members met for dinner before the meeting at at local restaurant. (It is always the same place) Lately, I have been the first one to arrive at the restaurant. The staff recognizes me and knows that I am with the group, but I never know how many people will show up. This month, we had seven, last month it was only three, the month before it was closer to 10. They seem to like us coming, but I feel bad taking a big table without knowing that everyone will be there. Fortunately, they do have the room for us since it is in the middle of the week. I guess as long as the restaurant doesn't start to complain, that we are fine.

I bet the restaurant would LOVE it if you or someone else took a head count on the morning or even the afternoon of the club meeting and knew going in how many diners to expect.

Tom, Enjoy your column immensely. Don't know when you will return to Frederick but suggest you go outside the Voltaggio realm and visit places like The Wine Kitchen, AySe, and Quynn's Attic to evaluate the broadening spectrum of reasonable and good restaurants now available there. Thanks, EMZ

Thanks for the prompt. I've been to the Wine Kitchen, by the way, but not since Adam Hardy decamped for Jackie's in Silver Spring.

A comment in Monday's Travel chat referenced bouillabaisse, and it reminded me how wonderfully fragrant and flavorful that is. Where can I find a good serving of it in the DC area? Thanks!

The last really good bowl I recall, with great clams and scallops in a saffron-laced broth, was served at The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm in Loudon County -- which just lost its top toque, as I typed earlier.

 

Can anyone share a source that's closer? 

As diners, I think we should also consider thanking managers for a good meal, excellent service, or whatever else strikes you when the meal has been a success. This year I went to a restaurant in Dewey Beach for the first time and was quite pleased with the food and the service. On our way out, I asked to speak to the manager. I told him it was our first visit and that we were really pleased with food and service. After he got over his initial surprise at the comment, he thanked me and said that he doesn't usually hear from patrons when things go well. So, while I know it's a restaurant's business to provide good food and service, passing along thanks can also help them know when they are doing things rights.

Yes! Every plant needs a little water now and then, right?  (Did I just type that?)

 

Seriously, running a restaurant (well) is hard work. Those of us who encounter great service or memorable cooking need to make an effort to thank the staff verbally for their effort and attention.

What are the dates for this Summer's D.C. Restaurant Week?

Restaurant Week is scheduled for Aug. 19-25 this summer. Among the new participants this round are Azur and Del Campo in Penn Quarter, DGS Delicatessen downtown and Range in Friendship Heights.

Surveys, inane questions, you name it... maybe if managers were more eager to OBSERVE the dining area, the diners attitude, the bathrooms, the kitchen, the overall dinamics of their own restaurant they would be attune to making changes. It seems that managers need to be TOLD when things are not working, when food is not being eaten, when everyone is waiting in a cramped place, uncomfortable and unhappy... can't they see for themselves? Don't they ask their own servers?

Managers aren't mind-readers and can't be everywhere all the time. Yes, they should be alert to crowded foyers and food that goes uneaten. But managers rely on waiters and diners to give them feedback.

Muy husband likes to pour his own wine for many reasons, including that some waiters overpour or do so unevenly among guests. But they get huffy or condescending when asked not to pour. What's the best way to get them to let him do it without the attitude?

Easy. After the wine is poured for your husband's approval, he should say, "Thank you. If you don't mind, I prefer to pour my own wine through dinner."   

Tom, maybe in your introduction each week you can cut and paste the same answers to the same questions that people submit each week--the huffy person who snits about your being recognized, the people who kvetch about not-enough restaurants in THEIR neighborhood, the snobs who aver that they would never, ever bring a mere child along on a dining experience, and so on. It would save a lot of time and cut out the repetition. Or, maybe, put the answer to those questions in a FAQ and point people at the link.

I've thought about that, and I think it's a good idea. But there tend to be variations on those frequently asked questions or rants that require slightly diffeent responses from me. Plus, not everyone here is a regular.

Hi Tom. Loved the article about your dinner party!! What's your opinion of restaurants that try to "upsell" you on wine? There's a certain Bethesda restaurant my family frequents, where everytime I order a glass of wine, the waiter slams whatever I've chosen and tries to direct me to something different, which is invariably more expensive. I find this extremely annoying, and I always stick to my guns, but I feel like saying to them if this wine is no good, why is it still on your menu??? Just curious to get your take on this. Thank you!

You should say just that! (With a smile on your face, of course.) And if it happens again, you should point out to a manager or owner that your server is dissing the wine you prefer to drink.

 

Thanks for the kind words about the piece I did on entertaining at home for the Magazine's recent food issue.

I like places calling me to confirm a reservation. I have their phone number on my cell phone!. If I need to call them when I am in the taxi I just press redial.

Fair enough. But ... why would you need to call them if you were en route?

I have always calculated my tip on wine apart from the 15%-20% on food. It seems ridiculous to pay 20% for someone to open a bottle and set it on the table. Some of my wine cronies agree, some don't. What say you?

How exactly do you do that? By putting the wine on a separate tab?

 

I generally tip 20 percent on the entire bill, food and wine together. In better places in particular, you're tipping for the sommelier's knowledge, proper storage, the hand-washing of delicate stemware and more.

Hi Tom, After 10 amazing years of living in DC I'm moving out of state (super sad!). At the end of August my Mom is coming in to town to help me pack up my apartment and move. As a thank you I would love to take her out to a delicious meal. On recent visits she has really enjoyed Mintwood, Mourayo, Bibianna, and the Source (on the higher end). Any thoughts for a restaurant that is in DC-proper, metro accessible (or walking distance to Dupont Circle), moderate priced and delicious? Thanks so much for your help! I promise to continue reading your weekly chats even from Michigan!

If you've been to and enjoyed Mourayo, you might consider an ungrade and book a table at the new Kapnos from Mike Isabella, on 14th St.  Another option, also in Logan Circle, is the inviting Etto from the owners of Two Amys and the Garden District (previously Standard) .

 

Thanks for reading all these years, and best of luck with your new life in Michigan.

Hello Tom, wanted to get your opinion on a situation that arose at one of my favorite neighborhood spots. It's a small place, and the last two times we've dined there, it's been quite crowded with a wait for tables. At two different times recently we've had to wait significantly longer than the estimated time because the diners ahead of us sat chatting after paying their check and finishing their wine. I asked the manager about the situation, and he kind of shrugged and said he would not want his diners to feel unwelcome by moving them along. I did notice that the tables sat uncleared of empty wine glasses and dirty napkins while the diners chatted. My thinking is that the restaurant can gently move them along by fully clearing the table, and then, if they don't get the hint, politely noting that there is a wait for the tables. (Bar would be too small and crowded to ask the diners to move there, but perhaps they could at least offer that too.) What are your thoughts on this? I really like the restaurant, but it this has happened the last two times, and I am hesitant to go back.

I'm in your camp. A server should have completely cleared the table and a manager should have gently steered the table-hoggers along. 

 

Better yet, the small restaurant should give customers a time limit when they sit down. All someone needs to say is, "We're a small restaurant, and a busy one. If we could have this table back in (fill in the blank), we'd be grateful."

 

I know I'm going to hear from folks who will say, "Hey, my table! I'll sit as long as I want!"  But when people are finished eating and drinking, and there are reservation holders piling up, it's common courtesy to move along.

I am planning a weekday 60th birthday dinner for a group of about 10 women and would like to stay in the Rockville, Potomac, Bethesda area. A separate room would be nice but not necessary. My friend is not a fan of small plates . Any ideas?

You don't specify price or cuisine style, so I'll toss out a mix of venues. Try Bistro Provence (for French) or Food Wine & Co. (American) in Bethesda, Old Angler's Inn in Potomac or Spice Xing in Rockville.

My adorable brother is going to be visiting from Anchorage in a few weeks and I'd like to show him some of the newer offerings in DC. He used to live here and together we've enjoyed such places as Rasika, Fogo de Chao, Brasserie Beck, and Zaytinya. He's pretty adventurous (although dislikes Ethiopian cuisine despite my best efforts at conversion), but given his current home, he's become a bit of a seafood snob. Where would you take him in DC for something exciting, interesting, and delicious? Reservations would be desirable. Many thanks to you for your great work and for providing this forum for your fans!

"Exciting, interesting and delicious" certainly applies to Ambar, a rare source of Balkan cooking on the Hill, as well as Del Campo, the South American steak house from Victor Albisu, both of which take reservations. And I bet your brother doesn't get much modern French, at least as it's presented at Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan, in Anchorage. 

So, clearly, all I have to do to get great service is to arrive with several people, one of whom orders an Aviation. The staff will think one of us is you, and all will be excellent. Sounds like a plan.

Ha!

Recently had a great meal at a downtown dc restaurant...i ordered the cornish hen and it was delicious but when it came to the table, it still had the legs and nails on it! a little offputting, i had to cover the leg with some kale. Was going to mention it to the waiter but figured there was not much that could be done. is this a new trend? i'm all for freshness, but thats a little too much even for me!

I hear you. The scene you depict is not unlike the one in "Baby Jane," when Bette Davis takes the cover off Joan Crawford's dinner of --- rat, right? With its long tail and curled up legs?

 

For some reason, talons on birds are offputting to me. But seeing a whole fish, head and tail intact, does not. In fact, I prefer whole fish to fillets.

Not a question, just an observation.I have visited 1789 a number of times over the last 30 years. I went with my family for a special birthday last weekend and was surprised to see the attire of my fellow guests. Shorts and sport shirts? I guess 1789 no longer has a jacket requirement? Given its location, it is not a restaurant that a tourist can just casually wander in. I was really surprised. The good news-the food and service were excellent.

Everything is getting more relaxed in the world, even dress codes. Some restaurants suspend them when the weather is really bad, as it was last weekend. But shorts at 1789?  It's not a country club!

My philosophy as a long time bartender is simply as such: Most people won't recognize good service or product or atmosphere, but they most certainly will find the flaws! A lesson to restaurant staffers and a note to the patrons to be a little more aware of themselves too!

Thanks for writing. Right you are!

What is wrong with them?

Right? Before anyone joins my chat, they should read the entire archive of dining discussions, going back to 2000.

. . .not to be a nit-picker, but the correct spelling of "Loudon" is "Loudoun".

Nit-pick away. My apologies. I know better.

Thanks for your answer, Tom. My question went towards the "Art" of observation (to call it something). If a manager can't notice certain patterns in his own restaurant by himself... does the ASKING will really help? I understand asking the servers, and training them to observe as well... but depending on patrons feedback seems counterproductive. When I have a really bad time at a place, I don't even want to spend MORE time writing, asking and/or going back. I go home and drown in gin and tonics.

Just as bad in my book is excessive service. I had a waiter the other day who interupted my meal, like, every time I took a sip of wine or a bite of food. "How is that? And how is that?"  Over and over again. Then he would sloooowly de-crumb the table between each course, so that my companion had to stop talking. Really irritating.

Ugh I get so tired of people complaining about you being recognized. I mean, going out of his way to get a special ingredient didn't help the NoPa review right? the food still was what it was?

I can't win. I don't say anything specific about the service and I get dinged. I write about what happened when I get recognized and I get dinged. 

 

Still, I think it's important for readers to know when/if I get -- or suspect I get -- special treatment.  That said, the service at Nopa is really very good and the staff go out of their way for a lot of diners. I know this based on what friends and readers alike have told me and from what I've personally witnessed in the restaurant.

Hi Tom, Went into Casa Luca at 9:45 to have a quick bite at the bar. The bartender told me the kitchen was closed. I was a little surprised since I thought they were open till 10:00pm. I asked what time the kitchen close and they told me 10:00 but they were not serving anymore. Am I the only one to find this strange?

Was it a slow night at the new osteria from Fabio Trabocchi? That might explain an early close.

 

Even so, the posted hours should have been honored. At the very least, the bar tender should have pointed you to dishes that were quick to make or assemble (and asked the kitchen to follow up).

I'm not the OP, but I recently needed to call a restaurant when we were running late for our (hard-to-get) reservation because the clueless cab driver took a wrong (and too congested) route. So I get the other chatter's point about the restaurant calling -- I had the number in my OpenTable email confirmation on my iPhone, but not everyone has that. But, if restaurants feel the need to call to confirm, I wish they would just leave a reminder message and ask for a callback only if something has changed. It's a pain to have to respond to confirm a reservation that I already made, especially if I'm really busy on the day that they call (usually the day before the reservation), and now I have to worry about maybe losing my reservation if I don't get back to them.

Gotcha.

I haven't noticed if you have mentioned it. Have you been? Went last night. Food was pretty good but boy, there are a lot of rough edges with the service.

Isn't that a car?

 

JUST KIDDING.

 

Haven't been there, obviously.

I know this is late, but I wanted to let you know after reading your piece on giving dinner parties-- they still scare me! You, however, have gone from "cool" to AWESOME in my book.

That's so kind of you to say! That was a fun piece to write.

 

Speaking of which, I hosted my final dinner party Saturday night --  well, at least until I get through the fall dining guide in mid-September -- and repeated adding a fun fact about each guest on his or her place card.  One friend revealed Dolly Parton sang for him -- just him! -- in her dressing room in Dollywood. Another shared that he stepped on the train of Bernadette Peter's gown the night of the Tony Awards, when she and he were on stage together. A third had her photo taken with Willie Nelson on his tour bus, while she was sitting on his lap. 

While I often bring my lunch to work, I do visit the food trucks now and again. I've become a semi-regular at a couple, and there are perks. Truckers like regulars and treat them better (an extra side, a free drink, etc.). I've found that it's easier to get "in" if you take the time to chat while waiting for your food (rather than standing off to the side). Yes, they're working hard to service customers quickly, but most also enjoy human interaction and candid opinions about their offerings. And from the customer side, it's always nice to be recognized.

Sage advice. Thanks for writing.

Hi Tom; longtime reader, first-time poster. I grew up in the penny-pinching Heartland and have lived in the MD and VA suburbs of DC for nearly a decade. I love following your advice to find knock-out, world-class, chef-driven restaurants in the District, but I've often felt that you failed to read between the lines when reader asks a "nice" "local" place to take family visiting the area (you will invariably push Jaleo or Rasaika or Little Serow!). More from budget-consciousness than a timid palate, I'm disappointed you never suggest any of the Clyde's locations as an excellent way to expand a tourist family's horizons beyond their Olive Garden roots. My dismay at the continued oversight turned to disgust a few weeks ago when you forwarded a post from a reader who lamented they had no use for a $100 giftcard "coin" to the chain. Such snobbery! When I have family/friends in town from states away and we visit the National Mall (always, of course) I impress them with the Chinatown Clyde's afterward, or if we're window-shopping in Georgetown, we take refuge at that location, or if we've been ogling the White House and they don't have any kids still in single digits, Old Ebbitt is a treat. These are people who come drive their minivans to D.C. hoping to find an Applebee's, mind you, until I steer them elsewhere. And we all walk away happy. And when we inevitably regroup in Silver Spring during their visit, my second push for these visitors is for them to sample Ethiopian, to reestablish my big-city cred while continuing to spare them big-city sticker shock. Thoughts?

I don't hate Clyde's. I just remember, fondly, the care and attention they used to lavish on their American menus back in the day. I think expansion has not done food enthusiasts any favors.

 

Is Clyde's better than Applebee's? Having recently eaten at the latter, I can say yes, yes, yes.

I was a little girl during WWII. My favorite memories of Sunday dinners out involve the Watergate Inn -- does anybody do popovers in these modern times? Incidentally, your chat mentions San Francisco a lot. My memory of the very best is the Mingei-Ya. Is there anything like it in metropolitan DC?

BLT Steak downtown offers popovers. They're part of the bread service, and they're delicious.

 

Mingei-Ya, which some fans described as a lovely cedar box of a restaurant, was not open when I worked in San Francisco.  The closest thing to that memory here in Washington would probably be Makoto, the intime Japanese dining room in the Palisades.

What do you know about it? I pass it all the time and my friend made restaurant week reservations there, but it seems so under the radar. Is that a good thing? Or should it stay under the radar?

Food friends of mine have had good things to say about Cedar in recent months. I think the restaurant suffers from being underground. With few exceptions (Vidalia comes to mind), people don't like to eat in windowless basements.

traffic

Yep.

I need your friends. Mine haven't got stories that great. Most involve politicians, but not the sort of story that makes your jaw drop. I have, however, planned an end of summer dinner party. Thanks for the fabulous article.

It's not that I have extra-special friends (ha! that reminds me of my mom's term for gay people, "special friends")  but that I make dinner guests dig beyond the surface for details. 

 

Ask your friends the right questions: Who's the most famous person you ever met? What's your worst date? Where's the strangest place you've found yourself?  What's the funniest/oddest advice you ever got from your boss?, etc.

I heard that ShopHouse was new in the District and might be anew chain. What can you tell us about it? I went to their web page and while interesting, would like some more vegetables (mushroom and asparagus for two) and perhaps a bit more focus on Vietnam.

Shophouse Southeast Asian Kitchen is hardly new.  I like it, though.

Consider Grapeseed as well. They have 2 private rooms.

Sure thing. I haven't been in awhile, but I like the place.

Hi Tom! I absolutely love your chats and look forward to reading them every week. My husband and I will be celebrating our first anniversary this September and I'm looking for a memorable and romantic place for dinner. I am on the timid side of food preferences (no fish or beef and I am really not into the small plate thing), but my husband is very much into the dining experience - we just went to 11 Madison Park in NYC for his birthday which was the longest dinner of my life. I currently have a reservation at Blue Duck Tavern, but would this be memorable enough? If not, do you have a suggestion that would fit the bill? We've been to Rasika several times so I would like to try something new. Price is also not an issue.

I was talking to the chef at Blue Duck Tavern about his new menu earlier this week, and it certainly sounds as if the fresh concepts would be fit for a food lover. There's an exciting addition to the kitchen as of this week, too: pastry chef Naomi Gallego, recently of Le Diplomate in Logan Circle.

Tom: I'm looking for a good place with outdoor seating to take my wife on Saturday night. Optimal would be NOVA, but I'll take any suggestions. Thanks a million.

The terrace at the Ashby Inn is lovely, but it's in Paris, Va. For old-fashioned romance, it would be hard to beat the al fresco setting at L'Auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls. In Washington, I like the outdoor spaces at the Oval Room downtown, Proof in Penn Quarter and Bourbon Steak in the Four Seasons.

There are a few places that I like to eat, but I have done business with the owners and they will often try to give me an employee discount. Sometimes, I feel uncomfortable going there to eat because they know me and the work I do for them. I know you try to be anonymous so the restaurants don't give you special treatment, but do you ever wish you could just go back to a place you really enjoyed and just have a normal meal without the pressure of having to review them or have they try to thank you for a good review?

YES! There are some places where I really dig the food, but the servers and owners hover so much, I'm disinclined to return more than I have to for work. That's one reason why I'm really looking forward to hopping on a plan tonight and eating for the next four days in San Francisco, where I've booked tables in names other than my own and nobody will know me.  (I'll be out there to participate in the annual San Francisco food, wine and spirits festival.)

If I were the patron at 1789 seated in eyeshot of someone wearing shorts and a t-shirt, I would ask the waiter, or manager, for another table in a different room. Seriously, if someone wants to wear something less than a jacket/tie or dress/skirt for one of the most formal restuarants in the region, please please please dine elsewhere. There are plenty of casual options around here.

I agree. But maybe we don't know the whole story. Maybe the guy in shorts lost his luggage? Totally giving him the benefit of doubt, but there are sometimes good reasons for why people do what they do.

 

And -- sometimes not.

I was happy to see you enjoyed your first look at Casa Luca. I was there last Friday with a group of friends and we had a great meal. The only snafu was that our 8:30 reservation wasn't seated until after 9pm. Though we were all a bit hungrier, the staff handled it perfectly. They comped a round of drinks at the bar for us and even sent over some comped apps once we were seated. All around, I'd definitely go back!

Take a bow, Casa Luca.

Tom, the family is heading to the UK soon for a family vacation. We'll be spending a few days in London. Any suggestions for dinner. It's not a picky family. We'll eat anything, and price is not an issue. Thanks in advance.

A colleague visiting London this week raved about the meal he just  had at Hardwood Arms, one of three restaurants I reviewed for my last Postcard from London. Glad to hear the gastropub is holding up.

Tom: I was surprised to read last week's chat about Del Campo's room being half-full. I had a wonderful meal there last month where the food and service were terrific. I went there shortly after the chat with six friends and had a totally different experience. The food was still terrific but the service, timing in the kitchen and management were a disaster. The waiter: Maybe it was the guaranteed tip of 20% but the waiter seemed uninterested in waiting on us. He poured wine in our glasses but never bothered to refill them. (We would have filled them ourselves but the bottle was not on the table.) He attempted to remove half-eaten food and wine glasses without asking. When asked what happened to our food (see below) his standard response was "It's coming, it's coming." We would have ordered more wine but the waiter was so inattentive that we moved on to wine we had brought. The restaurant was half-full and there were plenty of other waiters in our area so it wasn't as if he was overworked. Timing of food: It took an hour for bread to arrive despite repeated requests. (Other tables seated after us got their bread sooner.) Ours finally showed up 30+ minutes after we placed our order and after most of the appetizers arrived. One appetizer appeared 10 minutes after the rest. Same thing with the main course. Two people ordered hanger steak. The first came out with 5 other entrees but the second arrived 10 minutes later. Ditto with dessert: we ordered two rice puddings, the second arrived several minutes after the first. Management: We ordered two bottles of wine and brought two bottles of wine. The waiter never mentioned the corkage fee (which had been $25 on my first visit). It is now $50. When we asked the manager she said that there had been a change in DC law and that was now the charge. I think it would have been proper for the waiter to tell us the fee (waiters in other restaurants have done this). When we discussed this with a second manager we were told that the fee was high so as to encourage diners to explore their list. If they want people to explore their list then don't allow corkage. When we attempted to talk to the managers again they seem uninterested in our complaints or acknowledging that there was a problem with their staff or timing, stating that we should have said something sooner (as if we were at fault and hadn't said anything to the waiter). Note: we did not ask or want anything comped. One manager finally offered to lower the waiter's tip to 18% but we had already settled our bill (which was $95 per person). The consensus of the group was that the food was great but none of us will return given our experience.

Love your post. One, it arrived early, which means I was able to reach out to chef-owner Victor Albisu for a response. Two, it is rich with detail.

 

Here's the chef's email to me:

 

With restaurants at our level, service is as essential to the dining experience as the food, and we deeply regret whenever we fail to live up to our diner’s expectations on either front. I was made aware of this table’s complaints on the night they dined with us, and the server in question was let go following service due to his inability to provide our level of service and for providing incorrect information to our guests regarding corkage. The restaurant determines the fee, and our $50 corkage charge is comparable with that of other restaurants in our area and priced near the bottom of our wine list. We have experienced diners bringing more than 5 bottles without prior notice, and it can be contrary to the spirit of allowing someone to bring a special bottle or 2 to accompany their dinner. We've generally been very liberal with our corkage policy and are happy to work with our guests if they talk to us ahead of time about their plans. While we are working extremely hard and have improved our service experience, we understand that in such a competitive restaurant market there is no room for lapses like these and hope the diners remember the sum of their experiences with us and give us another chance to provide the warm and hospitable service that is meant to accompany our food.

 

That's a wrap for today, gang. See you here next Wednesday at 11 a.m.  Have a delicious remainder of the week.

 

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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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