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

Feb 13, 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.

We are 3 ladies who dine out together frequently. At least twice a week for several months we've been going to the same spot, where we dine liberally; and frankly, spend a lot of money. We typically get great food, service and treatment there. We've even become friends with one of the servers. Recently we read a post in one of your chats about the tremendous service a couple received after a small mishap at the same restaurant, which got me and my girlfriends talking. Last week I received a very overcooked piece of meat. Randomly, an Asst Mgr (I think he was an AM, we had never seen him before) had come to our table to ask how our meal was. I politely told him about my meat, which I had just tucked into. He offered to get me something else, but I am a) on a diet that doesn't include much of the menu, and b) didn't want to hold up my friends' enjoyment of their meals, so I declined. My friends said that it was pretty obvious that I was disappointed. One of my friends said she saw him then walk over and talk to one of the line cooks. That was the last we heard of it. Despite eating here roughly twice a week for many months, we weren't offered dessert or anything else, nor did anyone ever follow-up with us. We checked much later and the dish wasn't taken even off the check. Thinking about it further we realized that only one time has the GM ever come over to check on us -- and that was when we had a guy friend with us. In fact, he barely looked any of us in the eye and proceeded to only talk to this sole male at the table. After reading about the experience of the couple who had the same issue, we really can't help but wonder if gender bias is at play here. It seems bizarre that given how often we eat there that we're not recognizable to the managers and that our treatment would vary so much from that of the couple who had dined there once.

I'd be hard-pressed to label a restaurant sexist given just those examples (and the otherwise "great" service you report), but I sympathize with the way you feel.  

 

That said, the manger did the right thing by offering you a replacement, a request you declined.  I'm not sure how a free dessert would right the wrong (you said you're on a diet), but I can see where taking your entree off the check would have been a nice gesture.  Given the amount of time you say you spend at the restaurant, you might have requested that the overcooked meat be taken off your bill.

 

As for the GM addressing only the male in your party, let this story be a reminder to restaurants that everyone at the table deserves face time.  The best servers make eye contact with the entire party (kids included. Trust me, they'll remember where they've been acknowledged and let their parents know it). 

 

COMING UP IN THE MAGAZINE: My Sunday review, published online today, takes a fresh look at Clarity in Vienna.  Chef-owner Jon Krinn tells me he changes his menu every single day, in part to keep the young guns on his staff interested in the job. 

 

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to another hour or so of restaurant talk. How can I help you today? 

What would you do if you HAD to dine out on Valentine's Day, even though you usually prefer to avoid the madness, because you are traveling to a major city (with spouse)? Show up early and eat at the bar? Try to find a cheap-eats place that's not packed with loving couples? Or...

Yes! And yes! I love eating at the bars of restaurants, which more than likely will be able to accommodate you tomorrow, given that  "loving couples" will probably opt for the relative privacy of a table. Bargain establishments are a good idea as well, since celebrants tend to splurge on Valentine's Day, thus freeing up space for folks like you. 

Hi Tom, 3 single guys just happen to be in DC together on Valentines Day and meeting up after a long time. We are looking for a something casual but delicious and not over run with Valentine’s Day fever and lovey dovey couples. We all are great foodies have a tremendous palate and one of us is vegetarian. Any suggestions?

I'm kind of in the same boat (except I'm not single). But a buddy of mine is recently unattached and I'm still mulling where to take him, at least for drinks and apps, tomorrow night. Readers, please help us all out. 

Thanks for your review of Sushi Nakazawa. If we can get past the unfortunate location, I have a question about accessibility. My husband uses a wheelchair. Is there seating at the counter that could accommodate him? It sounds like we'd be missing out on a big part of the experience if we had to sit in the dining room instead.

Unfortunately, those stools at Sushi Nakazawa are tall and heavy and the counter sits at a level unfriendly to wheelchairs. 

Hi Tom, thanks for taking my question. My husband has an upcoming birthday and so far I'm trying to decide between dinner at Little Pearl or the newly-opened Rooster & Owl. We enjoy all types of good good and are looking for a fun atmosphere. With that said, which one do you recommend? Alternatively, do you have any other suggestions for a fun place with a tasting menu? In the past, we've enjoyed celebratory dinners at Komi, Pineapples & Pearl, Iron Gate, and Metier (I realize we've been extremely fortunate!). Thanks!

Lucky you, getting to eat in such luxe spots. Rooster & Owl just opened on 14th St. NW. I haven't had a chance to try it out. But I'm a big admirer of the small plates at Little Pearl, from the ever-creative Aaron Silverman. (Hope to find tempera green beans and airy deviled eggs still on the menu.)

 

You didn't mention them, so I feel compelled to point out the whimsical tasting menus at Minibar by Jose Andres and the Restaurant at Patowmack Farm in Lovettville. 

Will you be paying it a visit anytime soon?

I never announce when I'll be -- of if I'll be -- visiting a restaurant, for obvious reasons. But thanks for putting the French newcomer on my radar. 

Hi Tom! My fiance's birthday is coming up and we're stumped about where to make a reservation. We are hoping to try some place new, to give you an idea we've been to Rasika, P&P, Rose's, Kinship, Spoken English, Sfoligna, Del Mar, Officina, and St. Anselm, which we both loved. We looked at your most recent dinning guide. The problem? Nothing seems to call out to him, an adventurous eater of everything but fish. I suggested Metier or Komi but he said the menus were not appealing. Could you offer any guidance? Preferably in DC and under $200 a person including drinks. Thank you!

Nothing in my last dining guide appealed to him? This guy sounds, uh, like a challenge. But I digress. If I were you, I'd head to Baltimore and Charleston, for the wonderful DIY tasting menu (you can pick from the entire list). Then again, you want something new -- how new is new? It sounds as if you've eaten in most of the fresh faces around town. 

My friend and I have decided to drink like pirates at Rosslyn's Heavy Seas Alehouse.

Fit for foodies? Does it have good vegetarian options? 

Regarding Tom's request for a suggestion of where to take a newly-unattached buddy on Valentine's Day: how about inviting him to a home-cooked meal??

Because I'm on a couple deadlines and I have an empty refrigerator? (Nice idea, though.)

Hello Tom, Your chats are great. Long time reader. You often address the noise level in restaurants. Just as important for us optically challenged folks is being able to read the menu. I appreciate ambience but if I have to turn on my cell phone light to read the menu, I feel like a miner heading underground. I know this adds yet another layer to your reviews but it would be helpful. I live in Wilmington, Delaware but visit Family in DC often. And every time I am in the District I love eating my way through the weekend. Thanks.

Duly noted (and thanks for reading from Delaware). I don't envision light checks in future reviews, but I will definitely call out dim dining rooms as I encounter them. 

Any suggestions for a delicious but lesser known spot to catch up with an old friend in DC for the weekend... with the twist being that you are not sure if it's a date or not? Somewhere that could be kind of date-like, but not obviously so.

Downtown's charming I Ricchi, currently celebrating its 30th anniversary, comes to mind as a place that could play either role for you. Whatever the outcome of your reunion, your chances of having a memorable time increase with an order of fried calamari and some of the best tiramisu around. 

Area: Dupont Circle. For a business early dinner on a Sunday, please recommend restaurants. Not Sushi. Thank you!

That's a tough question to answer. Dupont Circle is no longer the restaurant zone it used to be, and its better places tend to be dark on Sunday. One of the exceptions is the Riggsby in the Carlyle hotel.  The restaurant, from empire-builder Michael Schlow, is dressed like a supper club and lists roast chicken, fluke Rockefeller and and rack of lamb among its main courses. 

I got a $100 gift card from my brother for Christmas to any of the Think Food Group restaurants; where should my fiancee and I spend it? We're willing to spend plenty of our own money to supplement, but I think Minibar is out of the range at this point.

Of the less expensive restaurants in the collection, I'm a long-time fan of the Spanish tapas (and sangria!) at Jaleo. Another idea is the Mexican-themed Oyamel, which serves terrific tacos, chicken mole and margaritas. 

I agree with most of the review. The one thing, at least from my experience, I will say is one entree and 1 side left me hungry. The portions are small. So, it is not $40/person, but closer to $60. Minor quibble. Quality is comparable to Nostos (though different type of food). In fact, how I rate Vienna Dining: 1 (tie) Nostos, Clarity 3 Bazins 4 Maple Ave Restaurant

Thanks for weighing in. Just so you know, the portions at Clarity are similar to those served at comparable restaurants in Washington. 

I use an app that turns my screen all white instead of using the flash LED. It's more like a floodlight than a spotlight and doesn't send a beam of light across the room or blind my dinner companions. Restaurants still need to do better though.

You sour like a considerate diner. Thanks for the tip.

Hi, Tom. My husband is celebrating a big birthday soon, and I’d like to take him out to brunch with a couple of our friends and our 2 small children (an infant and a toddler). Do you have any recommendations for a family-friendly brunch spot (that takes reservations) to celebrate his birthday? We often go to Matchbox, which is great for the kiddos, but I’d love another option (either in DC or MD). Thanks!

I think the Smith, with branches in Penn Quarter and U St. NW, can help you out. The brunch menu has something for everyone -- buttermilk waffles, breakfast pot pie, kale Caesar salad -- and the service has always been accommodating on my visits. 

Baby Wale might satisfy three single men.

Good idea, and I see that the menu, from Corduroy chef Tom Power, includes zucchini pupusas and mushroom pizza, among other meatless selections. 

I'm hosting a 43rd Birthday Party in DC. A restaurant suggestion? The Birthday Girl loves steak (Ruth Chris Steakhouse) and the party is for 9 - thanks!

The birthday girl might appreciate the grill work performed by Marjorie Meek-Bradley at the lively St. Anselm near Union Market, where the signatures include amazing biscuits, oysters served with smoked butter and delicious butcher cuts of beef. 

Hi Tom, for the chatter last week going to Pittsburgh, I agree with Melissa McCart's recommendations that you linked, but wanted to mention a few places in the Strip District where chatter is staying. DiAnoia's Eatery is great Italian, and I have been eating at Kaya for the entire decade I've lived in the city and still love it. Reservations recommended for both. There's also Gaucho, an Argentinian wood-fired grill (BYOB and be prepared to wait in line but so worth it) and Smallman Galley, a restaurant incubator for chefs starting out, with full bar. And Pamela's is famous for breakfast and there's a location in the Strip, too. Hope chatter finds some places they like!

Pittsburgh-bound chatters thank you. 

where is catching your eye recently for brunch? i've done alta strada, unconventional diner, convivial and need to come up with something exciting for a friend who is visiting....

You know what else is good? Tico on 14th St. NW. The $29 unlimited food deal features more than a dozen dishes, from Cuban sandwiches to French toast churros and everything in between: spicy chicken tacos, shredded cabbage salad with asparagus and salsa verde, etc. Plus, the scenery is fun.

Love reading your chats every week, Tom. Do you have a favourite restaurant for seafood in the area? I know lots of places do good seafood dishes here and there on their menus, but I'm looking for something more seafood-focused overall (and not at the Del Mar/Fiola Mare price point). Is Legal Sea Foods still any good? Other places? Thanks!

For home-grown experiences whipped up by local chefs, check out Hank's Oyster Bar (multiple locations) for clam chowder, shrimp po boys and griddled crab cakes and Salt Line for rockfish tartare, coddies, grilled rockfish and a room with a view.  

My spouse and I were at Black Dirt in Kansas City last week. The restaurant had two sections: one in front which was inhabited by millenials, and the other which was full of, well, boomers. The latter is laid out with curved banquettes, soft wall treatments and the like. We could converse and the other section could shout. We wish other places would do the same.

This anecdote begs so many questions. Were you steered to one room, based on your apparent age? Were you given a choice? Was there any cross-pollinating? Was the "millennial" space created from concrete or brick? Black Dirt might be on to something! 

Hi Tom, I couldn't agree more with your Clarity review! I live down the street and it is one of our favorites, I truly do think it rivals any restaurant in DC. Their pastas are unexpected and to die for, we always order whichever one is on the menu that day. You mentioned the hamburger, they do always have a hamburger on the happy hour menu that changes weekly. I have such respect for the Chef that he's always there and takes the time to get to know his guests, it really is a neighborhood gem!

I'm obviously a fan as well. But I *do* think it would be an even better restaurant if it kept dishes on for more than a day. 

Stay lost.

Ouch! Why the vinegar?

What's the status of the Georgian food scene? You used to recommend Supra, but I haven't seen anything in your chats about it for quite awhile. Still recommended? Maydan instead?

Supra looks better than it tastes, I'm sorry to say. The Georgian accents at the ever-popular, always-hard-to-access Maydan are much better. 

I hope your review is positive because I only have the BEST things to say about Clarity. My husband and I are major foodies and before we had children we went to every hot spot there was ... now that we have 2 under 2 our options are limited and we frequent Clarity, they have always been gracious and welcoming of our brood. The food is delicious, the service is top-notch, and I could not recommend this restaurant more.

You can read what I have to say, online at the moment. I gave the restaurant 2 1/2 stars, a good-to-excellent rating. 

Lucky Buns is a fun place for filling food (hopefully the wait won't be too long on a date night) and you could go across the street to Jack Rose afterwards for cocktails!

More great ideas. Keep 'em coming!

My daughter and her fiancé are having a family-only civil wedding ceremony at a private home in DC on an upcoming Saturday. Her fiance’s family is from Europe. Afterwards, we would like to go to lunch/brunch at an elegant restaurant with an old-style DC atmosphere preferably, downtown or in Georgetown. There are 10 of us. What would you recommend? Thank you.

"Elegant" certainly applies to the lovely Greenhouse at the Jefferson hotel, although it's been years since I've lunched there. Your best bet, if you want Georgetown and great food on a Saturday afternoon, is Fiola Mare, which suggests a grand yacht that happens to showcase Italian seafood. 

Hi Tom, Love the chats and your insightful reviews! Last summer, I was in Koln, Germany, and we ordered a pasta dish with black truffles. The preparation was so cool--we didn't realize what was happening at first--the server brought a giant cheese wheel near our table and tossed the cooked pasta in the concave section of the cheese wheel. He then plated it, and shaved the truffles on top. It was amazing, and I wondered if any of our local Italian restaurants offer such a preparation?

I've seen the wheel -- Parmesan, in one case -- rolled out at Italian restaurants before, most recently at Cafe Milano in Georgetown. 

I noted the diplomatic silence on Legal Seafood

No disrespect intended. The Boston-based restaurant does what it does pretty well. I was just promoting local chefs with my suggestions. 

Tom, we finally get to help YOU?! Archipelago for fun Asian, Off the Record for a DC institution (but kinda expensive), or DC Reynolds and Looking Glass Lounge for pub food and bar crawl? I note that you did not provide neighborhood, cuisine, or price preference? ;-)

You rock, giving me several ideas. 

My husband and I dined at a small upscale restaurant about 70 miles west of the DC over the weekend. I noticed the proprietor of the establishment made table visits to everyone dining around us to check on meals, have conversation etc, but she did not stop by our table. This irked me and made me feel like I was a teenager again (we're in our late 30s, but were likely the youngest people there at the time). Are these feelings warranted? I am inclined to write a Yelp review about the entire experience (we also stayed at the inn) and am not sure if I am justified to mention this. Thank you! (Love your chats, by the way, read them every week!)

Did your table have a "caution" sign on it? How strange for an owner to address every guest but the two of you. If you decide to Yelp, I hope that you are honest about what you *liked* about the experience, too. 

Try sitting at the bar at Bistro Aracosia in Palisades. While the restaurant is frequently packed, the bar is usually available. Great food, great vegetarian options. We were just there last weekend and it was terrific.

I second your idea. 

I'm wondering your take on how much a good bartender influences your perspective of a bar? Reason I'm asking is I regularly go to Wicked Bloom because the two bartenders are great guys, but the drinks aren't cheap nor anything to write home to. I've been to bars with cheap drinks that are good, but the bartenders just make the order and get on with their day.

I firmly believe good service can overcome fair food or drink. In contrast, even the finest fare will be perceived as less if a diner feels dismissed by staff. I can see why you make Wicked Bloom your hangout, in other words. 

Won't I see my carefully composed, painstakingly typed, and early-submitted Denver observations?

Some of you are KILLING me. Here you go, Denver! (And thanks for the ideas)

Denver

Good morning, Tom. I'm the chatter who touted Denver last week, and yes! Since you ask, I DO have some suggestions. Frasca and Sushi Den, which you recommended in a Postcard in...gee....2007, I think, are still excellent. Coperta is a wonderful new option for Italian. Denver's strength, though, at least in my opinion, is not ethnic fare, but New American and farm to table. Lots of folks doing delicious, creative things. We've particularly enjoyed Annette, Beast and Bottle, Acorn, Mercantile Dining and Provision (Alex Seidel is a recent James Beard winner), Black Cat, Blackbelly, The Plimoth, and El Five. You're really can't go wrong with any of 5280 magazine's "25 best" recommendations; Denise Mickelson is a thoughtful, insightful reviewer. And if you're here during the season, Meadowlark Farm Dinners takes the farm to table concept to another level.....the owner and the chef bring the old school bus that they've turned into a mobile kitchen right out to the farm they're featuring for the week. They set it up, prepare what the farmer has provided, and serve it on tables out in the field or yard. It's quite popular, and you have to put your name a lottery to get a slot, but we've been fortunate enough to score seats for 4 or 5 over the last several years. Marvelous experiences. Hope you can make the trip!

 

One way to avoid the frustrations of dining out on Valentine's Day is to pick a place that's not considered a "romantic" spot. For example, I'm taking my wife to our local upscale brew pub. Of course, it helps to not be very sentimental about the day to begin with.

Um, yes. 

I'm a woman who's been dining alone for years, and I understand the sensitivity to disparate treatment. I do think things are changing, and I am now as likely to be doted on as ignored. That said, I do think there is some subconscious bias, and if it's subconscious, it won't be addressed. I'd suggest that restaurants, as part of their training, encourage waitstaff to give some thought to make sure they're treating guests equally. That way it's presented as an issue of mindfulness, rather than an accusation.

Let's hope this post is flagged at pre-service restaurant meetings today. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. 

We got steered, but had been there quite a few times before, so they maybe knew what we liked. When we've made an early (5 pm) reservation, we were seated in the less-populated "millenial" area. Also, I have no idea what other tables were reserved, etc., and how they decided where to put us (as you point out, there are many factors that a place uses to decide seating). It was only during the meal that we observed the high population of our demographic. The "millenial" space had a hard ceiling, square walls, etc., and our observation didn't go any further than that. So our anecdote is just that.

Thanks for clarifying, and in real time. 

Which would you rather go to for a special date night? We are parents in the burbs who don't get a chance to go into DC just the 2 of us very much these days. We love the DC dining scene though and you have never steered us wrong! We need a place that takes reservations and have narrowed it down to those 2.

I like both restaurants for different reasons. Dabney showcases Mid-Atlantic cooking, but it's pretty noisy. Kinship has a broader, French-leaning menu and the best seats are the booths. Wish I knew your taste better! 

 

That's a wrap for today. See you next week, and be sweet tomorrow (especially). 

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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