Ask Tom -- Water water everywhere

Feb 08, 2012

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Hey Tom, I walked by the Caucus Room restaurant and noticed they have new signs posted on the door / windows that reads, "Social Reform". What's the scoop?

Caucus Room -- the veteran steakhouse -- lives on, although the front portion of the restaurant has been rebranded as Social Reform in an attempt to reach out to new customers, says Cristina Cravedi, the establishment's special events coordinator.


Nothing on Social Reform's menu costs more than $25, and most of the choices are well below that price point.  The selections include a lot of small plates -- soup, grilled calamari, a crab cake -- and sandwiches. Among the main courses are fried chicken and cod with chorizo and clams.


Happy Hump Day, everyone. I'm braced for the forthcoming snow today with leftovers from Fiola. Is anyone else eating pine-scented venison for lunch at the office today?


Let's start chatting.

Tom, you have been a longtime fan of Jaleo and have extolled its achievement in putting tapas on the DC dining map. Do you consider it the best tapas restaurant in Washington, and are there other tapas places in the city that you would highly recommend as well? Thanks from a devoted fan who greatly respects your judgment!

I've long believed the original Jaleo to be one of the top tapas restaurants -- anywhere in the country -- although my last dinner there, in early December proved to be a lesser experience.  I enjoy the tapas experience at the grand Taberna del Alabardero a lot, although its menu is much more concise. 

I imagine I'm going to take heat from chatters today, but I'm curious about your take. Husband and I went to dinner at a restaurant we'd frequented regularly in the past but hadn't been there in a few months. I ordered what I almost always had ordered but it was so spicy I couldn't eat it. Waiter noticed 90% of the food on my plate, asked about it, I explained, and he offered to have the kitchen make a new one with less spice. Since my husband was mostly done at that point, I declined. He offered to make it to go but it's not really the kind of dish that's good as a leftover, so I declined that as well. I said, and meant, that I was fine, it was no one's fault, please don't worry about it. Truly, I meant it. We'd had salad and appetizers, we were going next door for ice cream, I wasn't starving, I wasn't upset. But when the bill came and this dish was still on it, I admit I was surprised. I know I shouldn't have been; the restaurant offered to redo it and I was the one who declined. Still, it they were willing to eat, as it were, the cost of the dish I hadn't and make a second one, I guess I imagine it would have been a nice gesture on their part to remove it from the bill. At the same time, I rationally realize it was my own decision that prevented them fixing the problem, as I declined their offer of a second attempt. Do you think I've been reading too much about restaurants comping on this chat? I ask only partly facetiously. I'm not sure I would have been surprised a few years ago before I became a chat regular. Or am I a victim of the increased sense of entitlement that seems to be a normal part of the landscape now? Althought 'victim' seems wrong. Perpetrator?

If a diner leaves 90 percent of her food on the plate because of a perceived flaw, I think a restaurant should take the price of the dish off the tab. Offering to remake the dish is a nice gesture, but it's a gesture you didn't accept.

I'm going to Miami next week and found your 2006 postcard. Do you have any more recent reviews or recommendations for dining in Miami?

Lots of Miami questions in recent months. The hot spots right now include Yardbird for southern comfort food, Barceloneta for Spanish small plates and Pubbelly "for a David Chang sort of experience," as a food friend puts it. And don't forget the ever-popular Michael's Genuine Food & Drink.

Last week I was in NYC and had pre theater dinner at db Bistro Moderne. The man at the table next to us was completely inebriated, to the point of distracting other customers (dropping food, slurred & loud speech). His dining companion was in slightly better shape. Given the small size of the restaurant and our rush to get to our show we were not in the position to address our concerns with management at the time. I followed up with an email two days later and received a call from the restaurant manager the next day. The manager explained what the restaurant had done on their end to try and quickly move the couple through their meal and out the door, while also limiting their beverage consumption. He apologized for not recognizing how disruptive the couple was being to other diners. He also thanked me for reaching out as too often customers don't (hat tip to you Tom for teaching me that lesson). In the end, I wasn't looking for a free drink or our meal comped, I just wanted to know that the restaurant had recognized an issue and dealt with it. Count me impressed.

That a busy New York restaurant would take the time to follow up on an email from an out-of-town guest is indeed impressive.


Good for you, for writing, and bravo to DB Bistro Moderne for setting a good example for other restaurants. (FYI: The intials stand for Daniel Boulud, one of the classiest chefs anywhere.)

Hi Tom...need your opinion on this please. went to Kellari for restaurant week and really enjoyed it. Went back last weekend for my birthday brunch and when we sat down, we were offered still or sparkling water. we ordered still and when the bill came, we realized that we were charged for 3 bottles of water at 6 or 7 dollars a bottle. We were surprised since no one mentioned that the water was going to be bottled or the price was going to be that significant. Shouldn't the waitress have been more clear? Is this a new trend? I really enjoyed Kellari but have to say that this put me off a bit. Thanks!

When Washington restaurants ask for my water preference --  "Still or sparkling?" --  I almost always reply with "DC tap is fine, thank you." 


I love it when the third option is automatically mentioned, or even better, when the choices are all gratis. 

This is a real question. I am not asking to be snarky, argumentative, or to be taken in a negative manner. Why and how can people consume such astronomical amounts of water while dining out at a restaurant? I don't mind refilling even several times because it is my job, but I am just curious. It seems that sometimes people drink more water when they are nervous or bored ie; out with in-laws, first date, proposing, with coworkers rather than a more desired companion. I love Europeans for one reason. They do not over consume just for the sake of doing it. That goes for water, food, drinks, and whatever else you can think of. Moderation my fellow Americans. Moderation. Help me to help you.

Chatters, how do you respond?

I wonder why the server didn't notice earlier that she wasn't eating her dinner? Also, why didn't the chatter flag down the server as soon as she determined the dish was too spicy?

Good points. Is the original poster with us this morning?

If you had an expense account and client that you'd really like to impress with good food and service in the Dupont Circle area, where would you go for lunch? Thanks so much.

I was going to say "Obelisk, of course!" until you threw in the lunch caveat. 


You have several very good options, however. Sushi Taro is one of the city's best Japanese restaurants. While clattery, Tabard Inn always has 10 things I want to try on its modern American menu.  And don't forget the tony, southern-themed Vidalia on M St. NW.

Hi Tom! When craving oysters, would you head to Pearl Dive Oyster Palace or Hank's Oyster Bar? I've never tried either and would really like to know which is the best. Thank you!

Both Pearl Dive Oyster Palace in Logan Circle and Hank's Oyster Bar in Dupont Circle offer great bivalves (and fun, if noisy, settings in which to slurp them).  Any list of great oyster programs in the city would be incomplete without Old Ebbitt Grill near the Treasury building.

My family, including my 85 year old grandmother, is coming to visit me in DC in the spring. I'm trying to think of some restaurants we can all go to and enjoy. We want to go to restaurants where they don't have a lot of steps (my grandma will try to do steps if they're there, but she really shouldn't), is not too loud, has a vegetarian option, and has more American cuisine? My family is not very adventurous when it comes to food. They're staying in the Chinatown area so we're hoping for a few places within walking distance.

For something nice, try 701, the modern supperclub with a fountain view near the Navy/Archives metro. The restaurant has a terrific pre-theater menu that your group might enjoy. On the casual side, and right in Chinatown, there are Matchbox for pizza and baby burgers and Legal Sea Foods for the obvious.

Tom: Have you eaten at the Portuguese restaurant lately? Thinking of going there for a birthday dinner. Thanks.

I last ate at Tavira for the fall dining guide. It's a basement restaurant in Chevy Chase that exceeds expectations -- and makes me wish we had more places specializing in cod fritters, spicy roast chicken and caldo verde, one of the best soups in the world.

Sometimes, it's the food. Restaurant food is often far saltier than what I eat at home.

Interesting. Thanks for sharing.

Here's my take. If I found the entree unpalatable, I would ask to send it back. If I sent it back, I would not expect to be charged. However, this diner did not ask to send back her entree. She was very passive about it. Therefore, she should not be surprised to have been charged for an entree she didn't send back and didn't engage anyone about until she was asked.

Well, even if she didn't send it back, the restaurant should have offered to take the charge off the bill. She *did* (politely) complain about the item, after all. 

Wow - I hope I never cross that server's path. That post was rude and yes, snarky (despite claims that it's not supposed to be). I mean, really "Help me to help you"? - If that isn't arrogant, I don't know what is. I hardly think drinking a few glasses of water is an "overindulgence" like alcoholic drinks or food.

I think the post is kind of interesting. As someone who spends most of his waking hours in restaurants, I have to say, I've noticed a fair number of dines who drink a lot of H2O during meals.

Because I try to consume at least a glass of H2O per glass of alcohol. In addition, you need water to wash down your food. By the way, if this non-snarky, non-argumentative, positive server loves Europeans so much, perhaps s/he should move to Europe.

A glass of water per alcoholic drink is a strategy I try to follow, too.

To the waiter who thinks I consume a large amount of water - STOP REFILLING MY GLASS WITH 90 PERCENT ICE! In fact, as I age I prefer less ice because it makes my teeth hurt if it is too cold.

Uh oh. I sense a tsunami coming on ...

Hi Tom, did you ever hear back from the woman who was shocked, shocked about the $100 beer? As you may recall, her whiny (oops, sorry) post attracted quite a bit of scorn on your last chat.

Unless her email got lost in a spam filter, I didn't get a response from her. (The poster is referencing something that happened at Proof and was flagged in last week's chat.)

I'll admit to being one of "those people" who drinks a lot during a meal. I drink a lot of water in general and get thirsty when I eat. A server who keeps my water glass filled always gets a good tip. Ones that don't, well, I notice it. I suspect this server wouldn't have any complaints if I drank a lot of iced tea (no free refills) because that would pad the check and, ultimately, his tip.

Hey, I think the server was asking a legitimate question. Let's not dump all over him or her.


That said, thanks for chiming in.

Tom - if you wanted to go out with your SO for a fun, special dinner, near Valentine's Day, but not on the 14th, where would you go in DC or NOVA? We would like to keep price in the $100-150/person range, so we're willing to splurge, but want it to be fun and relaxed and not uptight. There are no restrictions on cuisine. Thank you!

I like your thinking. I, too, shy away from going to restaurants on major holidays and much prefer celebrating Valentine's Day or New Year's Eve at home or just before or just after the actual holiday (although, as I type that, I realize how strange it would be to ring in the new year on other than Dec. 31).


In answer to your question: Evening Star Cafe in Alexandria or  Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan are two of my current favorite (festive) places to eat.

Most servers could use a class in how to correctly pour water for guests. We dont want 90% ice and we dont want attitude if we order tap water and not bottled or sparkling. I like Clydes where they leave the pitcher on the table. attitude like from the server who posted the question will effect you tip. Keep it up and I write a four letter word in the tip box on the charge "STIFF"!

Yes, sir! Duly noted!

I'm a former server. Unwanted advances, low pay, sexist managers, unruliness, pickiness, impossible-to-please customers...those all were higher on my list of server worries than how much water people drank (yea, it was a particularly crappy restaurant). Maybe server should consider his/her job relatively stress-free if this is what he/she is [bark]ing about.

Gosh, where did you work, Hooters?

Let's agree to disagree on this issue

I agree with you.


Next question?

Good morning ! Quick question. What is the name of the seafood place out near Dulles airport that you have mentioned in the past? Something Fish Shack . . . Something Crab Shack ? I wrote it down and have lost it . . . .

You must be thinking of Ford's Fish Shack in Ashburn.

When the waiter offers water, I reply: "What do you have on tap?"

Ha! Too funny not to share with the class.

Hey Tom. Dave Pressley from the Light Horse here. I was reading last week's chat and saw the multiple responses to the reconfirmation calls one receives from restaurants despite making their reservations on OpenTable. Although we personally (The Light Horse) don't make those calls (except for big holidays and very large parties), I've found that guests can simply write "Please don't call to confirm. I'll be there for my reservation. Thanks!" in the special requests box on OpenTable. The note attaches itself on our end to your reservation and you shouldn't get called. Now, the guests just have to follow through and show up for their meal. For the potential note-writers that see this...write a quick, polite note please. No need for ALL CAPS or exclamation points(!!!). Hosts, managers and reservationists in general don't prefer to make the calls in the first place, for fear of being treated like unwanted telemarketers, so your note nicely telling the restaurant not to bother with you is one less call they have to make. A total win-win. I hope this helps a few people get out of receiving those calls and a few others (on this side) from having to make them! Cheers.

I always learn something from your missives, Mr. Pressley. Thanks for weighing in this morning.


Got that, Open Table users? Make nice on the notes.

My now wife and I started dating while we were both in grad school and didn't have a lot of money. While we love to eat out (fyi from last night's meal Rasika is as good as ever) we started a tradition that first vday of cooking a special meal at home. Do you really want to spend the "most romantic day of the year" surrounded by hundreds of other people?

My sentiments exactly.

Really are you sure you not putting out those signals to increase your tips. You cant have it both ways. As a former female server I used my assets to increase my tips and dealt with the problems this created. I would just tell the guy I was waiting tables to pay for tuition at Saint Mary's Convent for Wayward Girls. And I was a year away from being a nun.

You people crack. Me. Up.

I'm confused. Does that mean that if you sit in the back, you get a different menu? I have been there a few times and have never been asked to choose between the steakhouse menu or the small plates/sandwiches one.

The change sounds relatively recent. (Sorry, I didn't ask when Social Reform began in my quick call to the restaurant before 11 a.m.)

Why didn't the person inquire about why it was still on the bill at the time? Writing Tom afterwards does not help. Perhaps they intended to take it off, but forgot. That happens.

Yep. The time to deal with any problem or question is when the problem is occuring.

Hi, Tom. Have you been to the new pasta restaurant in Capitol Hill called Acqua al 2? Any impressions? Thanks.

Been there, done that. I like the room better than the food (and that's true, unfortunately, of much of what exists on the Hill).

I'll be spending Presidents Day weekend in Philadelphia, a city I haven't been to in 7 years. Do you or other chatters have recommendations of new and interesting places to eat there? I'm looking for anything from cheap eats to moderately priced restaurants (i.e. nothing with entrees over $40). Thanks!

You'll find a few ideas in my most recent Postcard from Philly.

Do you give restaurant owners a heads up before your review hits the Sun mag? The week after your Nov review I called on Tue to reserve the following Sun veg meal. My parents were in town from China. After no response, I left another msg on Fri. That Sun morning I received a call but they could not accommodate us at 6ish as Twice requested. 8pm was the earliest. When asked how far in advance I should reserve, I was told the same week. I indicated I had left two msgs that week only to be called the morning of with an unsuitable time. Apart from a meager apology not much else was offered. I was really put off by the experience and now have lost any enthusiasm of trying the place.

I always try to alert a restaurant -- especially a small one like Thai X-ing -- about its review date in advance. But surely you knew there might be problems reserving, given what I wrote? I tried to capture the disorganization, as well as the deliciousness, of the restaurant in my critique.

I know when I have bad service, the best thing to do is to ask to speak to a manager then and there. Unfortunately, if it's slow service that means I'm usually running late, or if it's bad service I'm usually irritable, don't want to cause a scene, and just want to get the heck out of there. So I make a quick note of the date and time I was there, the server's name, and what the issue was, and call the restaurant the next day. Just wanted to give a counterpoint to the 'deal with it then and there' assertion.

I hear you. (You sound like a good reporter, by the way.)

I agree the OP need to provide more information but it does seem to me one way to avoid leaving the server with the problem is how it is presented in the menu. I lived in Belgium for 4 years and never paid anywhere near that. OK once, but it was a Methuselah sized bottle that had been aged two years. If the restaurant had highlighted the beer and thereby the price with a line like "For those who want to try something unique." Something that identifies the beer as standing out in the long list of other beers, I least I hope it stands out not just in price. At least it would prevent the type of "he said she said" stories like last week.

A big bold frame around the dear beer would have helped, I agree.

Is going to kill Jaleo...RIP

You think? (Reader is referring to the future Spanish tapas restaurant.)

Hi Tom! I am starting a dining out club with a few friends (we are all mid-twenties young professionals) as an excuse to try all the new restaurants I am always looking for a special occasion to go to. Any ideas for how to spice up this idea a bit? I was trying to think of creative ideas to go along with "just dining out" (not that I'm opposed to just eating great meals!) but I thought I would check in and see if you had any thoughts.... Thanks!

Great idea, a dining club.

How about seeking out restaurants that match certain themes: Beer Night at Birch & Barley, for instance, or Sushi Spectacular at Kaz Sushi Bistro or ...  well, you catch my drift, right?


Thanks for the lively chat, everyone. I've got a brown bag with some venison in it that I'm itching to eat.  Hope your lunch is as grand as mine.


See you next week.

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 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. 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 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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