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

Sep 04, 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.

Tom, I reach out to you today, in hopes of giving a little bit of thoughtful insight to your readers and Washington diners, from the perspective of a life-long restaurateur. I have managed and run restaurants for over thirty years, 25 of them here in the D.C. metropolitan area. The issue at hand is reservations, and how the dining public perceives, honors, and regards them. It seems to be an aggressively growing issue of people making reservations and then failing to show up for them, or arriving long after the scheduled reservation time. We, as restaurateurs and chefs, work extremely hard to provide and maintain all of the things that a diner expects when they join us, from decor to ambience, from service to hospitality, from quality to value, and they myriad things that run the gamut between them. When a reservation is not kept, this can often deny other diners the opportunity to dine there, particularly on a busy weekend night. The structure of reservations affects many aspects of the restaurant, as it influences how we staff for the evening, how we order and prepare food, how many reservations we can take, and our ability to accommodate walk-in diners, based on our reservation expectations. In may ways, the number of covers we expect, and what time they are coming, is like a carefully constructed house of cards, sort of a "reservation jenga." This past Saturday night, we had 39 diners either fail to show up or cancel, only after we called them to inquire if they were still joining us, in a dining room that only accommodates roughly 90 people. Please, understand that these thoughts come not from a perspective of anger or frustration, just a deep-seeded desire to accommodate as many guests as possible, to the best of our ability. In this age of so many reservations being made online, it is just as simple to cancel it at the same site, or drop us a quick phone call. If you're running late, just call, we will still accommodate you, of course, it simply allows us to keep the rest of the machinery running smoothly, allows us to be as successful as we can be (for the diners' benefit as well as our own), and to accommodate and hopefully please as many people as possible. Thanks for the forum, and for always allowing those of us on this side of the plate to share our thoughts. Regards, A Career Washington Restaurateur

Thank you for taking the time to pen such a gracious plea.. I hope it makes diners think about how much their inaction hurts you, your staff, the restaurant and other diners.

 

Good morning, gang. Welcome to another 60 minutes or so of food chat. Let's rock & roll.

You're so pretty. Your dress is lovely, and your hair looks great! You look so nice, and I bet you're ready and rarin' to go for a great night out on the town. But. I have one simple request for you. It won't make you less pretty. It won't take away from your gorgeous outfit or your perfect hair, or the great night you're looking forward to having with your friends or your significant other. I promise. It's, um, about how you smell. Before you leave the house, please, please, please do not drown yourself in perfume that is the same scent as your moisturizer which is also the same scent as your shampoo and hairspray. Please. Just don't. Not only do you launch people into an asthma attack when you walk by, your manufactured scent changes the taste of the food and wine on the table. You probably didn't know that, but it's true. It's science! Now, maybe the nice salesperson at Nordstrom talked you into buying and wearing all that stuff together. I don't know. But please, I beg you ... any human being with a working nose and a love of food begs you ... wear it only at home. The way you smell when you cover your body in those chemical aromas is offensive and ruins people's meals. In the past 3 months, I've seen five restaurant GMs have to move tables of people to other tables because of someone's over-perfumation. That creates logjams in others' reservations and disturbs the normal flow of business in already-busy establishments. And, for many people, it kills their sinuses and tastebuds for the night. No one wants to spend $30, $50, $200 on dinner and wine and have it taste horrid and inedible because you sat next to them, but that's what your perfume does. So, please. Stop wearing perfume to restaurants. Thanks. Love you, mean it.

Great post. I'm not totally against scents, but their users ought to know that a little perfume or cologne typically go a long way.

 

P.S. Men can be guilty of this restaurant crime, too, and I'd add to your gripe servers who return from cigarette breaks reeking of smoke. My recent meal at a certain famous pan-Asian restaurant was marred by a waiter whose every visit to the table made me hold my breath. One way to fix the problem is to gargle with mouth wash or brush one's teeth before returning to service.

Thanks for the Richmond report. If anyone is going to the Museum in Richmond, I ate at a very nice sit-down restaurant on the top floor of the museum a couple of months ago. Much better food and setting than you might expect in a museum - I had very good soup and fried green tomatoes.

Thank for the tip from an ever-better food scene. I've enjoyed some very good meals in museums of late, most recently and most locally at the Garden Cafe in the National Gallery of Art, which features buffets themed to its exhibits

Hi Tom - Is there any update on who will be in the kitchen after the amazing Mr. King departs? I'm so looking forward to seeing the falls leaves from the patio, and hope the menu will not disappoint, while knowing that the new chef will have a very hard act to follow.

The Ashby Inn recently announced that David Dunlap has replaced Tarver King.  Dunlap most recently worked at the Inn at Little Washington, where he served as executive sous chef.  He previously cooked at the late Adour (now Decanter) and Plume in DC.  The fresh face rolls out his first menu Sept. 12.

Where is your favorite new restaurant for a weekend date night? Have already been to Diplomante..

An early meal at Doi Moi, from the chef and owner of Estadio and Proof,  makes me eager to return for more Thai and Vietnamese cooking. Also on 14th St. NW, I really like the pizza and other Italian dishes at Ghibellina.

Oh Tom how I do loathe a server that smells like smoke after a cigarette. I typically asked to move to another section or leave. It's gross.

Another thing I'm seeing more of: dirty finger nails. Wouldn't it be great if more restaurants conducted pre-shift inspections of staff, during which they looked for clean aprons, fresh breath, etc?

It won't get the smell off his clothes, though. I don't say that waiters who smoke shouldn't be hired, but I think that customers are within their rights to complain about the odor spoiling their experience.

Me too.  I imagine a server losing a customer or two because of cigarette breath would clean up his act in short order. 

Had a 50th B'day party for my husband last month at Bistro Provence in Bethesda and it was a great event everyone keeps talking about. The weather was spectacular (unheard of in August), so they set us up in the garden. Could not have been more enjoyable - the service, the food, and venue. People particularly enjoyed the duck confit (a request from the birthday boy), the lobster purses, and the tarte tatin. A nice French wine list for MoCo. Last year we had a party at Blue Duck Tavern, and this was hands down the better experience. Yannick Cam was very helpful in picking a menu and wine around what we wanted.

I guess we agree on Bistro Provence!

"One way to fix the problem is to gargle with mouth wash or brush one's teeth before returning to service." And wash your hands. People forget that the smell of the cigarette is on their hands, as well.

Yep.

I had lunch at Bernaise w/ friends. First the positive, good service, house sparkling water, and tasy sauteed mushrooms, as well as salad. I had the rib eye w/ frites. The rib eye was very poor quality, had little flavor, and did not have a proper sear - dark in some areas and beige in others. The fries were from a package. My friend said he could get a better ribeye at Super Eagle. Tom, how will this place survive? Shouldn't a place specializing in steak frites serve a good one?

When you specialize in just a few dishes, they need to be perfect. I agree: Bernaise falls short.  The food isn't the only detail that needs tweaking, either. The service leans to over-bearing.

I don't know dining in Baltimore and haven't lived in the DC area long enough to say that I would even heard about a place that closed in 1989. I was still in high school in the suburbs of Chicago back then. Can a place really hope to rely on people remembering a place that existed some 24 years ago to attract customers.

In it's heyday, the subject of my preview in today's Food section, was a Very Big Deal. Surely there are people in Baltimore who have either experienced the Chesapeake restaurant or know friends or family who did. 

 

Bottom line: I think the owners could have come up with a better name for a place that has almost no link to what  it brings to mind for some locals.

How times change! In my cocktail waitressing days, back in the '70s, I washed out my uniform blouse by hand every night. As I watched the white blouse turn the water black, I'd reflect on what was inside my lungs. The other interesting part about cocktail waitressing was watching how customers' behavior changed as the night wore on, but that's another story.

Drunk people think they're funnier than they are, right? 

Sushi-Ko in Glover Park remains closed. The last mention I found online was from early July saying they hoped to open soon, but it's September now and the doors are still dark. Have you heard anything about it reopening?

I reached out to the owner this morning, who texted he didn't have any update on the re-opening of the city's oldest Japanese restaurant, closed because it's business license expired. (Some customers are getting their sushi fix at the younger Sushi-ko in Chevy Chase. )

Hi Tom - Love you and your columns/chats. I so totally agree with the OP and you about people (of both genders) who insist on wearing cologne. No offense, but it really does not enhance your appearance/image/presence, whatever your gender. And frankly, I wish people would stop wearing such heavy scents in public in general. For those of us with bad allergies, it can be quite debilitating. So please think twice when you go to apply it! PSA/rant over.

Wow. Lots and lots of you are responding to the perfume rant this morning. Suddently, I'm feeling *very* self-conscious about the Tom Ford vanilla-tobacco cologne I dabbed on my wrists today.

Especially if it bears little to no resemblance to the original. Tastes have changed as well as dining habits, and the owners of Chesapeake really should not have relied on the gimmick of keeping the name.

Can you imagine if, say, Kinkead's reopened as a meat market or Jean-Louis at the Watergate reappeared with a Spanish menu in Shaw?

Celebrity chef + constant stream of tourists = success As long as you spend your time being on TV and hyping your name, there is no need to worry about anyone coming back for a second visit.

Helloooo, Georgetown Cupcakes!

I think that your reference to this cologne was a comment on the "smoky waiters" discussion until I goggled it, and it's really a men's cologne! Why on earth would you want to smell like tobacco?

I like (a little) smoke in my food and I enjoy (a touch of) smoke on the skin. In combination with vanilla, it's an intriguing combination. Or MAYBE I'm the diner you're going to ask to be seated away from!  Oh, dear.

A big thank you to the person who wrote in about perfume in restaurants. Less is better, ladies and gentlemen.

That rule applies to a lot of things, doesn't it? Salt, sugar, etc.

Really people, now my life needs to revolve around your perfume allergies? Frankly, I'd rather sit next to someone who's a tiny bit overperfumed than someone who is bellyaching all evening about their allergies and other maladies for which the world apparently owes them a break. Good grief. PS - Tom - I love the Tobacco Vanille and wear it myself; I'm a female but the fragrance is unisex :-)

Okay, unless someone comes up with something fresh (fresh!) to say on the subject, no more comments about scents in restaurants.

We do remember the old Chesapeake Restaurant, and very favorably. And we would have gone back to try it out for old times' sake, but for your review!

Thanks for weighing in. Indeed, there *are* people who have a positive association with the late dining destination.

"That rule applies to a lot of things, doesn't it?" Not bacon.

An exception, I agree.  Although, if I get one more piece of bacon as a garnish to a cocktail or one more porky nugget in a scoop of ice cream, I might change my mind.

Have you ever decided to review a restaurant after first hearing about it on this chat, or do you usually make your decisions based on knowing what's going on in the industry,?

One reason I love hosting these chats is selfish: for the restaurant tips, including feedback. But suggestions I actually end up trying, and writing favorably about, are pretty few and far between.

I agree with the last poster- celebrity will ensure Bearnaise's success. However, service is in need of a serious upgrade: on my first (and only) visit, the server removed dishes from our table after discovering they'd been delivered to the wrong table, only to place them directly on a table at the other end of the restaurant (and yes, we had already eaten off of these dishes). I enjoyed the food, but absolutely couldn't get past this service nightmare. My emails to the restaurant on this topic have gone unanswered.

I know the owners were in Greece for several weeks this summer, but they're back now -- and hopefully monitoring customer feedback.

Have you been and what did you think? I've yet to snag a reservation or brave the long wait time during my occasional weekend trips to the city...wondering if either effort is worth it in your opinion?

I tried and liked the original Mission Chinese in San Francisco, but wasn't *so* enthusiastic about the place that I thought I had to try its offshoot in New York.

mmm... you can sit next to me today, Tom....

OK! Where are you lunching?

Do you have a go-to meal that you enjoy cooking at home when you aren't dining out?

My tastes are very simple at home. On the rare occcasions I'm not in a restaurant for a meal, one thing I gravitate to is a sweet potato, baked and topped with Greek yogurt or cottage cheese if I'm feeling fat or crumbled  blue cheese or grated Parmesan if I don't care.

I saw your comment about rarely reviewing places mentioned in chats. But perhaps you'll reconsider. I live in the Kentlands neighborhood in Gaithersburg, and we have a ton of great restaurants - a couple of chains, but some really great independent places too - Vasilis and Batik are especially great. Please come visit and give our community an economic boost :)

I hope my original post didn't sound dismissive! Because I do appreciate suggestions from readers. But I also have to ask myself: Is this place interesting enough to share will half a million or more readers on Sunday?

Owners who don't leave someone in charge of monitoring service and customer feedback for "several weeks" don't deserve to succeed.

You have a point there.

Unfortunately, based on your readership, he's probably preaching to the choir.

I was thinking JUST THAT as I was reading his missive.

Do you ever look into whether the restaurants you review have incurred any health code violations, and if so, how do they factor in your reviews?

Most of the places I visit do not end up getting slapped with health-code violations.  Fortunately.

 

On that note, I bid you all a delicious rest of the week. Hope to see you back here next Wednesday at 11 a.m.

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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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