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

Jan 09, 2019

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.

What specific actions by restaurant staff demonstrate bad vs. normal vs. good vs. great service to you? Where is your line between each level of service? For me, some examples of great service are de-crumbing the table, folding my napkin if I get up, and replacing silverware between courses. In contrast, taking orders promptly and not mixing up orders are table stakes.

Bad: Cigarette breath, dirty fingernails, returning to the table to verify a request because an order wasn't written down from the start

 

Good: Covering a soiled area on a table linen with a clean napkin, relaying the price of a recommended bottle of wine when the list isn't handy,"reading" a table so as not to interrupt a serious conversation or the punch line of a joke, putting a date on a bag of leftovers

 

Great:  Restaurants tha"check" leftovers at the host stand so diners don't have to look at boxes or bags on their tables.  I also appreciate any extra effort or thoughtful touch. Not long ago, for instance, I had a manager chase after me when I  left my credit card behind (thank you, Nama!)

 

That's a start. Chatters, feel free to add to the list. What's *your* idea of the good, the bad and the ugly?

 

Good Wednesday morning. If you're looking to freshen up your dining rotation, consider adding to your roster the new El Sapo Cuban Social Club in Silver Spring: Cuban food in a lively atmosphere. My review is online today and in print this Sunday. 

 

Talk to me. 

 

 

Hi Tom! It seems there are more and more different restaurant reservation systems to keep track of these days. I'm a long-time Open Table user, but now I am also on Resy and another one called Tock. Any insight as to how a restaurant selects their reservation system?

I'm guessing price and ease of use have something to do with selection, but I'll throw your good question out to the world and hope for an answer or two by the end of the hour.

Has Founding Farmers gotten any better, or is salt still a vegetable?

I haven't returned since my last review of the place three years ago. (Has anybody here been recently?)

Hi Tom; no question here, just a simple attempt to express thanks using your forum. I went to Breadfurst for the first time last weekend and was surprised and grateful to receive a very generous discount as a furloughed Fed. I know other local businesses are doing the same, but this is the first for me, so through you, thanks to Mr. Furstenberg for his solidarity. I'll gladly give him my business again.

This is the photo I tweeted out last week, a sign at Bread Furst offering a staff discount (30 percent) to any government worker laid off because of what the bakery's owner called "Presidential intransigence."

There was some talk last week about local restaurants have to close when leases got too steep. But it is not just local. Even a giant like Bobby Flay has had to close some of his empire in NYC because of rents.

Or relocate, like New York taste maker Danny Meyer did when he moved the popular Union Square Cafe from 21 E. 16th St. to 19th Street and Park Avenue South several years ago. No one is immune from the problem of steep rent increases.

Tom, hoping you can please provide some recommendations. We're taking two teenagers (14 & 15) to the National and want to have dinner before the show. Neither of them is an adventurous eater, sticking to meat and potatoes for the most part, but the two of us have few restrictions. I would love some suggestions on where to take them for a reasonably priced dinner (less than $50/pp) - thank you!

I'm going to sound like a broken record, but your best bet is the nearby Central Michel Richard, home to some creative and delicious food -- burgers of all stripes included.

Thank you to all the employees at Jose Andres' restaurants for all the hard work bringing to life his offer of free sandwiches to furloughed federal employees. Earlier this week at Jaleo (and I'm guessing the other restaurants too) there were large crowds mid-afternoon, in what I imagine is typically a slow time, but the kitchen was sending out tons of sandwiches and the bartenders and wait staff were working hard to distribute them all and make everyone feel welcome. I greatly appreciated both the sandwich and the hard work! Thank you all!

Never mind the Nobel Peace prize. Maybe Jose Andres should be considered for sainthood?

I have an upcoming one-day trip to New Orleans planned for work. I may have a few moments to grab a meal solo. Any suggestions for a place I can grab a meal at the bar that is solo-friendly? I'll be staying in the French Quarter (at the Royal Sonesta).

The acclaimed Herbsaint has much of what you want, plus a menu (gumbo included) that let's you know you're eating in one of the country's best food cities.

My son, with limited resources, wants to take me out for a steak dinner as a Christmas present. (What a nice boy!) I don't want him to break his bank taking me out but he does want to have a real steak dinner - I'd say he wants to avoid a chain restaurant like Outback, etc. Any suggestions where we can go? We're in the Silver Spring area but DC works too. Our favorite was The Classics but I guess that's been gone almost a year now. Thanks for any suggestions.

To the rescue: Rare Tavern on I St. NW.  Among the handsome saloon's Blue Plate steaks are nine-ounce bottleneck and filet medallions for $27 and $28, respectively, and they're accompanied by lyonnaise potatoes.

Any suggestions on a local restaurant(beyond the national chains) that will either sing happy birthday and/or give a treat for our toddler on her birthday?

The last time I was at the long-running Filomena in Georgetown, the staff sang "Happy Birthday" to at least four celebrants.

Hi, Tom. Thanks for the chats. We had a ladies night out last weekend and ordered a bottle of wine at a fairly fancy restaurant. I inquired as to the quality of the wine and was told it was stellar. I had the obligatory taste and frankly, it was too sweet. But as he'd uncorked it, we drank it anyway -- most of it, that is. No one seemed willing to take the last drams, then the server showed up and poured half in one woman's glass and half in another. Viola, empty bottle. My questions: What do you do if a bottle you've selected is uncorked but you don't like it? And is it appropriate for a server to randomly pour the bottle to finish it off*? If a bottle is unfinished, can we take it home, or do we have to leave it? *the restaurant was not full or busy and we were not taking a long time to eat, so although we felt he was trying to hurry us, that may not have been the case.

 Be honest. Most restaurants would prefer to get you another bottle than to have you nurse something you don't care for.  If the wine isn't flawed, they can offer it by the glass, or use it for staff training. 

 

As for who gets the last drops of wine, it's nice if the server inquires before pouring away. But you can also pipe up if you want to serve yourself.

 

The District, Maryland and Virginia allow diners to take home unfinished wine.

Hi, Tom. I have a simple yardstick for evaluating a restaurant: I love iced tea and always specify I want plenty of ice in it. Good service is getting that in the initial glass. Great service is getting it in my refills without my having to remind the server.

Thanks for adding to the list.

Have you been or heard from anyone who has been to the re-imagined Whaley's hot pot FuYu? I am super curious but also hesitant to waste a date night on a new concept.

Stay tuned. My preview of the pop-up (which serves shabu-shabu) goes online Friday and appears in the Food section next week.

I appreciate the efforts of those to help out the furloughed feds (married to one, and he's our only source of income), but let's not forget the ripple effect - food truck owners in DC who have seen their business drop, for instance, and other business owners and workers who are suffering due to the lack of business because people aren't coming in to work and tourists are not able to visit. Govt contractors who will not see back pay when this farce is over, etc.

The pinch is on, right? I went online to book brunch over the weekend and basically, I could get in just about everywhere, at any time I wanted -- everywhere but Le Diplomate, that is. 

I spent an evening in my restaurant's neighborhood checking out the nearby places after a year of working there. My biggest pet peeve as a bartender is the above mentioned question. With a comprehensive cocktail and food menu attached in one package, why does the overwhelming majority of guests need me to describe both menus in DETAIL when all of the information is available at hand when we are slammed at the bar with people waiting around? Not just my bar, but everywhere we went! Our service was delayed due to uninformed and indecisive guests. I can't deride the service by the staff because I know the scenario. PLEASE people, look at the menu! Also, we don't know if you want shared small bites, a multi course dinner, drinks, etc if you don't tell us what YOU want before you pepper us with questions. Some insight as to the guest's wants/needs would make our jobs SO much easier and more efficient than just asking what our favorite thing is....

You paint a picture of  a clueless audience. Aren't answering questions, and steering people to drinks and dishes they might like, part of hospitality? Trust me, not all menus contain as much detail as you seem to think they do. Indeed, some lists read like haiku. 

Just wanted to underline this recommendation. I was in the poster's position a few years ago, and Herbsaint went out of its way to give me a great time as a solo female diner.

Cool beans, as they say.

Had an awesome experience last Saturday night after friends surprised us driving into DC from Pittsburgh the night before. Their only request Saturday morning was to eat well, so we looked at what reservations we could find. Tail Up Goat is a favorite, so we booked 10 P.M. (earliest we could get) and figured we would grab drinks and apps at Johnny's Half Shell (hadn't ever been) while we waited. Boy do we understand your ravings. Food, service, drinks---what an amazing experience! Even a couple of comped dishes and a great chat with Johnny himself. Then ventured over to Tail Up Goat. Great experience we've come to expect, but haven't been in a few months, and food seemed to be a little below the standards we were used to. Menu felt underwhelming especially without lamb ribs and no dishes that wowed us. Any experience with that as of late? Again, thanks for being our guide and showing our friends such a great time.

I love the love for Johnny's Half Shell, an under-the-radar dining experience in Adams Morgan. I'd be happy to pay my own way there. As for the crazy-busy Tail Up Goat, sorry to hear you think it's not living up to its best self. 

I'm British and don't want water ice cold. Just like the iced tea drinker - I love it when the server remembers! It's these little presences that make for a stellar experience.

Servers have a lot to keep track of, don't they?

I clearly don't dine at the same level of restaurants you do - tablecloths? Linens? :-) Seriously, though - not auctioning off the dishes when they arrive, don't make yourself comfortable by kneeling next to my table, or worse, sitting down to take the orders, and stop trying to grab a plate the minute it's empty. I don't think I'm offering anything new here, but those are some of my pet peeves.

Thanks for sharing, but I eat in *plenty* of restaurants that don't cover their tables. Just saying.  Like you, I  dislike plate-snatchers and auctioneers.

Being able to accurately describe a dish (ingredients, degree of sweet, salt, spiciness, etc.), rather than just saying, "Oh, good choice; that's my favorite".

Or, "it's very popular."

My wife is allergic to shellfish and hates waiting in line - last time she went out of town I went to Little Serow. This time my adult daughter will bein town and she is allergic to peanuts so Little Serow is out. We both love interesting and different food, (she pressed us all to go to Rose's Luxury) so I am looking for your recommendation for some of the best places in town to take advantage of this opportunity either because they have great shellfish or their the best places worth standing in line for, preferrably both. Thanks

You're in luck -- but you have to act fast. Bad Saint, the small-but-mighty Filipino restaurant, has extended its holiday, or pagdiriwang, menu to January 14. The six courses cost $85 per person and feature shellfish, including lobster but no nuts. Typically, you have to stand in line for dinner there. For the special menu, reservations are being taken. 

Hey Tom - Was out at Oceanaire this past weekend (man that place has gone downhill) and when my companion gave his credit card to pay the check, the server said "shall I apply a standard 20% gratuity"? I had never heard that before and I go out to eat a lot at all kinds of dining levels! Is this a new trend? Thanks and keep up the good work!

I'm happy to say, the gutsy ask is *not* a trend. #neverassume

Good: Putting leftovers in the container instead of handing the container to me. Bringing me refills on my free drink at the same rate you bring a pay-by-the-drink to my companion. Great: Writing the date, restaurant name, and name of food on the container with my leftovers

I hate having to wrap my own leftovers, too, not because of the labor, but because it just looks bad (and I might not have the right "tools" to do it neatly). Some restaurants have told me they have customers pack leftovers themselves because servers aren't always sure what exactly they should wrap or leave. (I can just imagine someone looking forward to a midnight snack at home and being upset not to see, say, a parsley garnish they left with their uneaten steak.)

Could the poster's underwhelming experience with Tail Up Goat have anything to do with the fact that it was 10PM and they had already had what sounds like a lot of food and drink at another restaurant? I know food usually looks better to me when I'm hungry...

Fair point. I hadn't thought of that. Thanks.

I don't ask what a server's favorite dish is because they may love eggplant and I loathe it - however, I have asked if they've tried a dish. Is that wrong? Sometimes I'm just wracked with indecision, it's not that I can't read.

No, it's not wrong to ask a server if he's tried a dish -- but you'd be surprised at the number of places that don't require staff to eat the range of a menu.

I know this is not a spelling chat, but: the French word that means something like "here it is" is "voila". "Viola" is a musical instrument.

Feel better? (Merci, by the way.)

Hi Tom- I am celebrating an upcoming birthday by taking the day off and having a delicious meal at a D.C. restaurant. I was hoping to go somewhere that has lunch specials for otherwise expensive dinner meals. Do you have any suggestions? Thank you!

One of the best lunch deals right now is the three-course "Maria Menu" named for Maria Trabocchi, co-owner of a collection of restaurants around town, including Fiola, Fiola Mare, Sfoglina, etc.  

 

While they vary from restaurant to restaurant, the options are mindful;  lean proteins and vegetables are featured. The deal, which replaces the group's Restaurant Week promotions, runs through the end of January. 

Finally have time for a date night with my wife, would love to go out to a great dinner in Bethesda, but I'm drawing a total blank. Duck Duck Goose is fine, Barrel and Crow is fine, Black's is solid...but I haven't been wowed by anything in Bethesda since Persimmon was really in their prime a while back. Any suggestions?

What about Chinese at Q by Peter Chang? For American cooking, I enjoy Woodmont Grill.

Hi, Tom. I saw this article in that other national paper and wondered: Does the Post provide lunch for its workers? If so, is it up-to-snuff enough that you sometimes stay in for your lunch break? https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/07/dining/free-food-employees.html

The closest my employer comes to offering free lunch -- aside from the daily treats from our amazing test kitchen --  is at the occasional celebration. Did you see where Style just celebrated its 50th anniversary? We got pretty confections from Georgetown Cupcake for a recent gathering of staff.

Hi Tom - love your chats. I recall reading somewhere in one of them that you live in NW DC. What are your favorite bars/restaurants in the Petworth area? Thanks!

I live in Crestwood, off 16th St. NW, which hugs Rock Creek Park. The closest restaurants to me are in Petworth, where I like Timber Pizza Co. for everyday eating and Himitsu for special occasion.

I'm in a relationship of 6 months. I've recently said the L word, 1 month after he said it first. I've been more open to having conversations related to future thinking. Examples: where do I fit in with you future plans, how would you and your spouse handle finances, how would you and your partner deal with aging parents financially, are your future kids going to be home schooled/private school, etc. My bf is great by all accounts from what I've heard on various podcasts: he is supportive of my career, he communicates with me with his words, I feel loved by him through his affection, he is engaged in conversation and I feel heard by him, he gets along with my family, we learn from one another's different cultures and language. See what I mean - by many accounts he is great and has the qualities I would want in a husband. Except - the sex is just fine. Just fine. It gets the job done. I should mention - he loves it, he thinks its great and he cant get enough. On my end - its just fine. I've had a lot better, but I've had some worse. My question to you, Sir, is this a major red flag that I need to further explore and reconsider marrying someone over? Or is this something I should not worry about when it comes to long term relationships and marriage? Will sex in a marriage come and go and therefore I need to focus on the great attributes he does have?

I'd love to help you, but ... wrong chat. Carolyn Hax might have some advice to offer on Friday.

Hate to say it, and it's been a few months now, but we dined at Tail Up in August and were underwhelmed after having had great meals there a few times before. It seems to have lost a step. Apart from the bread service, there were no "wows." The pasta and vegetable dishes seemed a little under-seasoned, if memory is correct. I wrote it up to an off night, and hadn't given it much thought until today. We even sent back a DESSERT, if you can imagine that. (First time for me.)

Whoa. I've never not finished a plate of food at TUG.

Hi Tom, We've eaten at all of the Knightsbridge restaurants but Bindaas (Hubby finds noise to be a lazy, condescending, arrogance and would simply walk out). We treasure the Oval Room and 901 and liked NOPA well enough to enjoy the odd brunch table... have you a clue as to what the "new Olivia" will be like?

The restaurant formally opens for lunch next Wednesday. But the successor to Nopa Kitchen + Bar in Penn Quarter will showcase Mediterranean cuisine:  spreads including carrot hummus, merguez meatballs and chorizo-crusted cod, among other dishes.

My stepson, who lives in Jersey City, gives us gift cards for restaurants he knows we like. Some time ago, he gave us a card for Kapnos Taverna that we never used. Then he purchased one for Isabella restaurants at the beginning of December, not knowing that the empire would collapse. Is there any way to redeem the $150? I tried the e-mail on the cards, and it's dead. Any recourse?

I'm afraid you're out of luck. The unfortunate lesson: use it or lose it,  and sooner rather than later. 

Bad: Making me wait in line to eat. If you're popular, take reservations! Good: Serving entrees instead of charging me entree prices for appetizers (AKA "small plates"). If it ain't tapas or dim sum, I want a real meal! Great: Not telling me your name, not "taking care of me tonight" (I don't need a babysitter, thenkyewverramudge) and not asking if I've been there before - it's a restaurant, I kinda sorta understand the concept.

I'm smiling (and nodding in agreement).

Hi Tom! Happy 2019! My father and I are both pescetarians, and we are dining at Rasika West End for the first time later this month. Are there any veggie and/or seafood dishes on the menu that you consider must-haves? Thanks for these chats; they're the best part of my Wednesdays!

You mean in addition to the dishes I've already described in my most recent review? Let me introduce you to the avocado-banana chaat, sweet potato-peanut curry and signature black cod with dill, honey and (surprise!) cheese.

 

Note to Washington City Paper: I'm just answering a question here, not plugging the restaurant on my own, heaven forbid! ;)

 

That's a wrap for today, folks. Let's do it again next week, same time.

In This Chat
Tom Sietsema
Tom Sietsema has been the Washington Post food critic since 2000. In leaner years, he worked for the Microsoft Corporation, where he launched sidewalk.com; the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; the San Francisco Chronicle; and the Milwaukee Journal. A graduate of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, he has also written for Food & Wine, Gourmet, GQ, Travel & Leisure and other national publications. In 2016, he received an award from the James Beard Foundation for his series identifying and rating the "10 Best Food Cities in America" the previous year.
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