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

Feb 07, 2018

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.

I thought the question last week about whether you should tip on a bottle of wine was odd - it seems obvious you would. But on the other hand, why should that tip be a percentage of the wine's price? The restaurant didn't do anything different for a $50 bottle than a $2000 bottle. I just looked quickly at Fiola's wine list. You can get a bottle for $50 or one for $6,500. Tipping $10 on a $50 bottle seems fine, but why should someone tip the same 20%, or $1,300(!), on a $6,500 bottle?

 This question comes up from time to time. For an answer this round, I contacted Jenn Knowles, general manager and wine director at Requin at the Wharf.  I'm publishing her emailed response, almost in full, because it's a complicated issue and there are multiple ways to look at it.

 

"I have seen many different tip structures over the years, especially when it applies to high end wines. And unfortunately there is no easy answer or perfect formula for these situations but I'll lay out a few I have seen. 

 

First off, I would say that servers are taxed on total sales and make their income directly off tips --- they rarely get a paycheck from hourly wages and if they do it is a few dollars at most. And the tips are then divided among support staff which USUALLY includes the sommelier. I have had guests ask if it a pooled house or if I get tipped out from the servers many times; what a great showing of concern that always makes me feel like the guest truly respects how we make out income. 

 

The primary standard reply would be one should tip the same on a $600 bottle as they would a $50 one. Obviously, this can cause a lot of consternation with the guest because now their $600 bottle  is $720 (assuming a 20% tip for both) and this is a substantial amount on top of an already pricey choice. The insider/server reply would be 'If they can afford a $600 btl they should be able to afford the tip.' But is this the right response? On the guest's side, their response is usually 'all the server did was open the bottle and pour it,' and most times with high end bottles, it's the sommelier who actually opens and serves said bottle. What a slippery slope! 

 

Here are a few ways I have seen this handled with higher end wines:

 

The response I see most often is a 15% on the total bill with wines over $500 or so but this can still be a large amount when you get into the 4 digit wine prices. However, people who buy SUPER expensive wines, or multiple bottles that add up to $1000+, almost always tip 20% on the total bill.

 

In SF, there was a common structure I saw at Rubicon all the time, like an unspoken rule of sorts. Tip 20+% on food and non wine items (cocktails etc...) then 10% on the price of the bottle. Seems fair enough until you get into situations where the wine cost outweighs the other costs by 2-10+ times. Then the server is left with a total tip out of somewhere between 5-12% (verus the normal 20%) of the TOTAL bill and they still have to tip out on that. Servers typically 'tip out' anywhere from 35 to 60% of their total tips. 

 

With this example, if a server tips out on TOTAL SALES then they can be left with little for their service, tipping out 70+% to support staff. If they tip out on TOTAL TIPS, then the situation seems more in line with expectations for final gratuity that they walk home with.

 

If you are working in a restaurant that offers and sells a substantial amount of high end wines then there is normally an exception where the cost of the bottle can be subtracted from the sales the servers tip out on and this is fairly standard practice for these situations, but not always. 

 

In regards to tipping the sommelier, or giving a 'side tip,' this is always appreciated but usually falls in the $20-$50 realm and is really a sign of thanks versus a 'gratuity.' Whenever I have been side tipped a large amount in the past, I always checked with the servers to be sure it wasn't removed from their tip.

 

It is important to know that most sommeliers are part of a servers tip out, or included in the tip pool, so they could be double tipped. And yes, I will get  bunch of flack for putting that out there, but it is the reality :)

 

 

 

 

Good morning, everyone, and thanks for joining me today. I scheduled my review of the new Del Mar in the Wharf for February, to coincide with Valentine's Day next week, because I think it's a pretty dreamy addition to the empire of Fabio Trabocchi. Have you been? Share your thoughts.

Why aren't there more places to each breakfast? My senior friends and I can't find too many. We are going to the same ones over and over again.

I've got a find for you: Unconventional Diner near the convention center (hence the name).  The restaurant recently opened for breakfast and lunch and the cool thing is, you can order a double cheeseburger at 7:30 in the morning or an egg sandwich with "sexy sauce" at 3 in the afternoon. And the setting, awash in pink-orange banquettes, is a beaut.  The high-quality food is from David Deshaies, who previously worked under Michel Richard, the late, great French maestro.

I recently ate at Gramercy Tavern in NY (in the bar, not the fancier dining room). I ordered a couple of dishes, and one turned out not to be to my taste. No big deal, it happens. (My other dish was heavenly.) I wasn't going to complain or ask for something else. When the waiter asked how it was, I told him what I didn't like about the flavor, but that it was just me. He offered to get me something else, but I declined. I ate about half of it. At the end of the meal, the waiter said he knew I hadn't enjoyed it and he didn't think I should have to pay for it. So he took it off the bill -- something that I didn't even request, but of course appreciated. It shows that a restaurant that puts the emphasis on the customer's experience -- and empowers staff to make decisions like that without hurting their own compensation -- ends up with a very satisfied customer who will come back again, and will go tell a bunch of other people how great the service is.

Owner Danny Meyer says he lost a sizable number of staff after instituting a controversial no-tipping policy, but they were replaced by servers with a hospitality-first mindset. Hence your  positive experience. Thanks for sharing.

Hi Mr. Sietsema, Huge fan of yours and thank you for all of your articles and for answering your readers questions. My dad was recently diagnosed with throat cancer. Lately, he's been pretty down and depressed. He sleeps longer than he used to. Naps more. When he come's home and I ask him how his day was he hugs me and I can see the water in his eyes. So anyways, I am looking for a meal to cheer him up. He is from New York. He and my mom have always raved about the mee krob or mi krob, unsure of correct spelling, from a whole in the wall thai place in NY. They can't remember the name of the place and have never been to a thai place where the mee krob tasted as good. So my question is "do you know of any great mee krob in the washington DC, MD, or VA area? Or if you don't know of any great mee krob, what are the best thai places I could go to?" We've been to Nava Thai and Ruan Thai in Wheaton and been pretty satisfied. Any help would be much appreciated. Sincerely, Former Food Runner and Excellent Water Pourer at Republic and Concerned Son

I'm so sorry about your father. He sounds lucky to have such an attentive son by his side. I've looked at a dozen or so Thai menus online this morning and failed to come up with an answer for you. If a fellow chatter knows of a good source of meek krob -- crispy fried noodles with sweet and sour sauce -- please let me know.  If the original poster reaches out to me via email (tom.sietsema@washpost.com) I may get a restaurant name after the chat ends today.

 

What's the best way to handle inattentive service from a estaurant's staff?

Seek out a manager and let him/her know about the problem.

The food and wine were excellent (nearly as good as the food made by my Georgian friends), the service was solid in the dining room. However - as is the new norm the furniture is far too close together - people at the table next to ours had to get up while we were eating and it necessitated rearranging where the food was on both tables. And - we arrived five minutes early for our reservation to be told the table wasn't ready yet and it would be a bit. We were sent to the bar to wait where we each ordered a drink. First, if I had been the manager I would have comped that round since it took more than half an hour for the table to be ready. Second - if not comping it then at least provide some mechanism for shifting those drinks to our bill at the table. Needing to pay at the bar (which was weirdly a slow process) and then pay again at the end of the night left a sour taste in my mouth. Side note - I would probably have given up after 15 or so minutes of waiting had I not been looking forward to coming here for weeks.

If you have a confirmed reservation, you're sent to the bar and have to wait 30 minutes, the onus is on the restaurant to buy you that first drink. Shame on Supra.

Good morning, Tom. In past chats you have mentioned that for 2 people, a 2 hour window is plenty of time to eat and chat, after which you should move to the bar to continue your chatting or leave and free up the table. Exactly when does that 2 hour window start? When you are seated or when your appetizer or entree is delivered? Thanks for taking my question.

The clock starts ticking once you sit down and get handed a menu. 

5 friends headed to Richmond for a day/night - any recommendations in the area? We are adventurous and have no dietary restrictions. Thanks in advance! Really enjoy reading your reviews and threads.

 Here's my most recent take on the food scene there. You didn't ask, but my favorite place to hit the hay is the aptly-named Quirk, a boutique hotel in the downtown arts and design district along Broad Street. Expensive but fun.

Tom -- I miss the Post's on-line dining guide that allowed you to search for different types of restaurants in different areas and read the Post's reviews. Am I right that it's no longer available? It was a great resource. Becky

The search functions for restaurants are gone, alas, and there are no current plans to replace them -- much to our mutual regret. 

I'm always terrified to complain about service as I'm being served. Like it's gonna come back at me (and not in the proverbial they're gonna f**k with my food kind of thing). Attitude, weird passive-aggressiveness. Hence if I complain it's after as I always have the feeling a server is just gonna be pissed then on out.

I guess it depends on your tolerance level, and the degree of bad service. But if you're seriously not clicking with your server, for instance, why put up with it for the whole meal? 

I've never heard of such a thing. And considering how hard waitstaff work, and how little they earn, and how dependent they are on tips, I'd be ashamed to nitpick like that. If you can afford wine, you can afford to tip on it.

I agree, but then, I rarely buy wine priced in three digits (or more than two bottles of wine in an evening).

My husband and I had dinner at Maydan last week, and we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. We were greeted warmly, the service was exquisite, and the food was wonderful. We plan to go back to sample more of the menu. I just had one major quibble: We were seated upstairs, and it is is dark as a cave during dinner service. I am a true believer that one eats with their eyes, and it was difficult to see our food. Additionally, my husband has advanced glaucoma, so we had to navigate to and from our table carefully. I'm not asking for a spotlight; just a few extra lumens. Otherwise, my recommendation is to make your reservations in advance, go, and try a little of everything.

Dim lighting continues to be a problem, in new restaurants in particular. Lack of sufficient lighting was among my peeves in a recent plea to restaurants, in fact.

Last night we had dinner at a new restaurant with a fun cocktail and mocktail menu whereat I planned to announce my pregnancy to my dining companions. After the server did not recognize the name of the mocktail I ordered, I beckoned them over, held my menu up so it wasn't visible to the rest of the table, and pointed at desired beverage. They loudly then said "Oh the mocktail!" A plea / reminder to those in the service industry: if a woman old enough to drink tries to subtly order something non-alcoholic, please don't draw the attention of the entire table to it... I did pull the server aside and ask them to be more aware of that in the future. (Also - it was really nice that there were some mocktail options on the menu. It was a fun way to feel included and festive and not deprived. I'd love to see more of these!)

I'm sorry to hear your good news was announced prematurely. Clearly, the waiter didn't understand your intention (good for you for talking to him privately after the fact). 

 

While we're on the subject, I'd love to hear from diners about where to to find the best booze-less drinks (bar tenders, feel free to chime in as well if you have a selection of which you're proud).

Could you or your readers recommend a restaurant downtown suitable for a group of about 20 professionals to meet, eat and talk shop? We need either a private room or enough space in the restaurant that it won't bother others if we stand and mingle before we eat. I'd like a place that also works for vegetarians, and/or has a buffet. Thank you!

The 210-seat tavern within Rare Steak and Seafood has much of what you're looking for:  space for milling about and a menu that addresses the wishes of carnivores and vegetarians (the big salads are terrific, the colorful "veggie bowl" in particular).

When did she leave Mirabelle? Is that a sign the restaurant is not doing well?

She left shortly before my initial starred review of the restaurant ran, last September.

Why do few restaurants provide spoons any more? I especially would like one if I have a dessert with a sauce, like a bread pudding.

What I've noticed of late is a lack of serving utensils for shared dishes.

Tom, The Little Inn has clearly been on your radar lately in the Fall Dining Guide and your recent profile on some of their milestones. While they have a lot to celebrate about, and I do think it is fantastic place, I've noticed some spotty service during some visits the past several weeks. While they try very hard and give it 100%, there have been several noticeable slips that you wouldn't expect--specifically repeatedly trying to clear unfinished plates a little early and taking 20-25 minutes to prepare cokctails. As we had such a delightful time and appreciated their efforts to make us feel like we were at home, we were too embarrassed to raise it (we probably should have)--but it's important. Curious to see if others have noticed this as well.

Thanks for the feedback. The many accolades bestowed on the Inn at Little Washington, which recently turned 40 certainly raise diners' expectations -- and no doubt put additional pressure on the staff to see those expectations met (or better yet, exceed them).   I'm curious what other recent visitors have experienced. Please weigh in.

I'm heading for New Orleans for five days/nights at the end of February/early March. Last time I was there was a couple of years ago, shortly after the WP published your in-depth look at the Big Easy dining scene--which I made good use of. Just wondering if you've been back since then, and/or if you have any new info on not-to-be missed places to eat. (I'm an older woman traveling alone, and lean toward casual-but-delicious places rather than the more formal Brennan's/Commander's Palace/Antoine's scene, if that matters...)

I've not returned since my Valentine to New Orleans a couple years ago, but if I were you, I'd probably book at either Upperline (if only to meet the lovely owner) or Clancy's, which is one of the top 10 restaurants on the 2018 list of Brett Anderson, the excellent critic at the Times Picayune.

My wife and I are heading to Los Angeles for the first time. We are fairly adventurous eaters and have had great meals at many of the restaurants you recommend here in D.C. Any can't miss dinners in LA? We're willing to spend, but nothing too outrageous (less than $100 per person).

A bunch of answers await in my survey of Los Angeles, one of America's best food cities.

Hi Tom, I love your weekly chats and all of the restaurants you've steered me to have been amazing except one. I noticed you recommended Salt Line in your chat last week 1/31. When I originally read your review I was excited to try it as a seafood lover but found it underwhelming at best. I wrote into your chat after my original visit and you suggested giving it a second go which I did but no real change. The service was slow and the food was just meh. Things were soggy and bland. My question is do you think there was a drop off in quality or maybe that they knew who you were so your experience was different?

I've had a few such complaints since I reviewed the waterfront seafood restaurant, but I've also heard raves from discerning colleagues and readers recently. I guess I need to make a follow-up visit.

 

Restaurants sometimes start out strong, firing on all cylinders, only to burn out (or rest on their laurels) in subsequent months. 

Hiya, Tom...enjoy reading your suggestions and opinions (and the opinions of those who post here). What do you find to be good dinner conversation? What prompts this question is imagining you with dinner companions who know you and what you do...do you talk about food or the restaurant - or compare it to other experiences? Or do you steer clear of food topics in favor of current events, etc? Thanks again for the chats!

I have a group of about 50 or so people I dine out with on a regular basis -- friends, colleagues, a ton of acquaintances -- and they represent a healthy cross-section of readers. (They're young/old, carnivores/vegetarians, single/married, etc.)  They also have varied backgrounds, which makes review conversation interesting. While *most* of them are food enthusiasts, not all of them are -- and I appreciate that. Since I'm immersed in the subject of food all day, I prefer to talk about other than what's on the plate with my companions. We talk politics/relationships/"Babylon Berlin"/you name it.

Hi Tom, I love your reviews and regularly read your chats. I've been wondering lately about how well diversity is represented in dining reviews here and across the country. Are there any reviewers who are people of color? Do you ever send friends who are people of color, women (esp dining alone), elderly, or are disabled into establishments without you and to report back so that you get a full understanding of how that establishment treats everyone, not just a middle class (or higher) white male? I have seen many people in your chats complain about inequalities of service. It's hard to dismiss people, or justify their treatment, when you are not able to experience it. This isn't a knock at you, just an observance and inquiry. thanks for all you do!

Among my frequent dining companions are a 90 year-old female, a fortysomething African-American male, single women from 30 on up and several young families. But I've certainly taken people with disabilities on reviews before, just not recently.

Hi Tom, I have a group of friends who like to go out to eat, but two have Celiacs, so are gluten free, and one of them is vegan. There are also two small kids who can be slightly picky (but aren't really that bad). Do you have any recommendations for restaurants in Montgomery or PG counties that are on the cheaper side that would meet everyone's requirements? We have our go to in Silver Spring with Mandalay, but it would be nice at times to find other options.

The restaurant that leaps to mind is True Food Kitchen in Bethesda. Yes, it's a chain, and a pain on the ears, but it offers a menu that's light and fresh and interesting and suits your requirements. 

Husband & I were planning a trip to New Orleans, and I had originally planned to eat at one or more of John Besh's restaurants, as I was a fan of his from his appearances on the Food Network/Cooking Channel. However, I don't know what to do now. Is it fair to blame the restaurant for the celebrity chef's actions? If he owns them, does he still make money from them? What is the correct thing to do?

Honestly, there are so many good restaurants in New Orleans with no ties to the disgraced chef that you shouldn't have a problem.

I grew up in a family with a lot of alcoholism, so I decided never to drink. I've always noticed whether places offer good non-alcoholic beverages. It's an area in which DC restaurants have improved by leaps and bounds in recent years. I'd like to shout out (to no one's surprise) Fiola Mare, Rose's Luxury, and Hazel as three places that have prepared me wonderful mocktails, though almost anywhere they'll fix you something good if you ask. One note: if you're not into fresh ginger, make sure you let them know, since it often shows up in mocktails.

Great suggestions (and good call on the fresh ginger, which I love but might be too fiery for some tastes).

Tom, we travel frequently and rely on eater.com for suggestions. What do you think about their advice?

I think it depends on the city's editors; some markets' recommendations are better than others. I'm definitely  a fan of the national critic, Bill Addison, a long-time friend of mine.

Hi, Tom, Love your chats (from a great distance). My family & I go to New Orleans every year in the spring to eat a drink for a week. We've used your advice but have discovered some additional places. Among our favorites are Cochon for the smoked oysters with chile-garlic sauce, Commander's Palace (lunch) for the $.25 martinis (limit 3), turtle soup, tasso-shrimp Hennican, and bread pudding, Coquette for almost everything, and, of course, Clancy's and Shaya. Thanks for all of your good advice!

Good-to-great choices all (and I like the way you vacation).

Hi Tom - I'm not a regular poster in this chat, but that link to the DC Urban Moms chatroom really bothered me: http://www.dcurbanmom.com/jforum/posts/list/699666.page. First off, Rasika is amazing - what are you supposed to say when a chatter asks you to recommend a great Indian restaurant in DC? Somehow name a better one? ...I'll wait. Secondly, for all of those questioning your credibility after naming Timber Pizza Company as one of your Top 10, I'd like to present you with Exhibit A: https://www.bonappetit.com/story/best-pizza-2017...or is Bon Appetit also considered not a credible source either?? Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, just make sure you do your homework to avoid making empty accusations. I mean come on, how more "credible" can you get as someone with 17+ years of experience as a food critic for a nationally acclaimed news source in one of the greatest food cities in the nation? Once again...I'll wait.

I have no problems with anyone disagreeing with me, but I think it's important to know the experience of some of my anonymous critics.  Regarding Rasika, have they ever been to India? When did they last eat at the establishment?  And how many times? Also -- and I may catch heat for this -- just because someone is from India doesn't make them an expert or especially discerning. They may just like what they like, or what they grew up with. 

 

Restaurants have good days and bad days. I'm willing to bet that Rasika has its lesser moments, but to *totally* dismiss the restaurant, which has been lauded by many other critics from around the country, is silly. Does a James Beard award for its chef count as nothing?  

 

I like Timber Pizza, but I never listed it as a Top 10 favorite. All-Purpose was my No. 1 favorite a couple dining guides ago, and I was happy to promote a moderately-priced and consistently excellent neighborhood restaurant. 

 

Hi Tom...major craving here. Where can a gal find the best crepe cake in DC? I've got a car and willing to venture to the suburbs too. Thanks!

The last example I had was at Mirabelle, which early on offered a pale yellow cake made with 20 (!) thin crepes spread with yuzu marmalade --  delicious, but not on the current dinner menu. Can anyone help a fellow chow hound with another source? 

What do you think of Matisse Resturant ?

I think it's been too long since I've eaten there to weigh in. 

In your place, I'd dine regularly with Michael Dirda, Adrian HIggins, Ann Hornaday, and Judith Martin and her children. Imagine the delightful conversations! but I suppose that would identify you to the restaurant...

I ran into Judith at a party awhile back and she reminded me I had proposed that she join me on a review -- three or four years earlier. (Uh, er, yes I did! Nothing like having to apologize to Miss Manners.)

Hi Tom! I'm taking a last minute trip to Chicago next weekend & haven't been to the city in nearly a decade. I'm wondering if you have any vegetarian-friendly recommendations for lunch and dinner spots in the city! Thanks for these weekly chats, they're the best part of my Wednesday :)

Chicago! One of my favorite food destinations. The reviews for the amusingly-named, vegetable-forward Bad Hunter have been good (think bolognese made with root vegetables). Same for the long-running farm-to-table restaurant Lula Cafe in Logan Square. The latter has a vegetarian tasting menu for $60. 

Suggestions for a restaurant where a solo diner can stroll up for a great (40th) birthday dinner on a weekday? I would love to go back to Bad Saint, but we know how that goes. Asian, Italian, New American, and seafood are faves. Last year's celebration was at the Source, because I wanted to try the carrot cake with ginger ice cream. (It was great!)

I'm keen on the eclectic Chloe in the Navy Yard right now, which has a counter looking into the kitchen (with stools available on a recent weekday, I noticed). The cobia crudo with Thai chilies and puffed black rice makes a great opener.

 

I hear a lunch bell ringing somewhere, even if only in my head. Thanks for joining me today. Let's meet again, next Wednesday, 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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