The Washington Post

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

Feb 15, 2017

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

So... I made a mini mistake. We have a big anniversary coming up and I thought it would be fun to go to minibar. And I probably didn't do enough research about the cost of minibar. I logged onto their website as soon as reservations opened up and I got a great time on a Saturday night. As the reservation hold timer was counting down I got caught up in the moment, completed the reservation and paid for it. And now I realize that we really can't afford the dinner. I mean it looks really awesome but... Minibar's website says we can transfer the reservation to another person but we need to identify that other person and put their email address into the system. We're not looking to make any money on this reservation, we're just looking to get out of a mistake we can't really afford. Do you know of a resale market for minibar reservations?

Let me try to play matchmaker. Send me the date (immediately) and your name and contact info and I'll try to hook you up with a buyer by the end of the hour.  Minibar is a special restaurant. Someone out there is sure to want your seats. 


Good morning, everyone. Earlier this morning, the James Beard Foundation announced its chef and restaurant award semifinalists.  I'm thrilled to see so many DC-area names in the national categories, among then Fabio Trabocchi for Outsanding Chef; Ashok Bajaj for Outstanding Restaurateur;  Columbia Room for Outstanding Bar; Mark Furstenberg for Outstanding Baker; Pineapple and Pearls and Sweet Home Cafe for Best New Restaurant; Rasika for Outstanding Restaurant -- and on. Here's the complete list,  including the Mid-Atlantic semifinalists. Congrats to you all.


Today's chat may end before noon. I'm racing to finish some deadlines before I leave for a week (Japan!) , but I didn't want to miss hosting today's chat, since I'll be away Feb. 22.


Let's begin. What's on your mind?

Hi Tom, I've noticed that the same homeless individuals stand out front of the same restaurants day in and day out in the hopes that passersby or patrons entering/exiting popular bars will give them their spare change. Why don't these restaurants (e.g. along 8th St SE) bring these individuals inside to wash dishes, bus tables, and other low-skill tasks in exchange for pay and meals?

I understand your thinking, but I imagine the pan-handlers would have to be interviewed/investigated/evaluated for mental and physical stability before being hired by anyone in the hospitality trade.   I love the idea of giving people chances, but restaurants would be assuming some major risks.


  I'd love to hear back from industry insiders on this.

Any recommendations for restaurants there? Looking for a range of price points but probably not shelling out for the Michelin Starred restaurants...

Turin, anyone? I've never been.

I realize that I'm undoubtedly preaching to the choir here, but I need to vent: Diners, when you no-show at a restaurant where you hold a reservation, keep in mind that you could very well be costing the restaurant real money -- this isn't just an etiquette issue. My little restaurant has just a dozen tables, and last night -- Valentine's Day -- we had three no-shows. We were full up with reservations -- did I mention it was Valentine's Day? -- and had turned down numerous other would-be diners. So those three tables who didn't bother to cancel and instead just didn't show up meant hundreds of dollars in lost sales. For a business whose margins are paper-thin, that hurts. Badly.

I'm so sorry to hear this. (No wonder some restaurants try to protect themselves by asking diners for credit card numbers when they book.)  Did you reach out to the no-shows?  If so, what were their excuses?

Not a question, but just a 'Take A Bow' story. Booked a V-Day dinner table at 'Hazel' for last night with the SO. We're not drinkers, so when offered up some bubbly politely declined. Without prodding, they came back with a couple of complimentary and tasty mocktails so that the GF and I could appropriately toast the occasion. Great meal: Lamb Ragu Noodles (with a sneaky back end heat), and an app of English Muffins with Guac and Salmon Roe. The GF loved her gnoochi. The staff also indulged us by agreeing to take pictures of us in front of one of their flaming fire pits outside. Take a Bow, Hazel.

Awesome. Yet another reason I love that restaurant.

Hi, Tom: I have a big bday coming up. I'm not a vegetarian and dislike tofu, but I don't eat beef, pork or duck. I also avoid fried foods and anything overly rich, which don't seem to agree with me. I like ethnic food but nothing too spicy. What would you recommend? I live in Bethesda but can travel the DC region.

You don't mention price, but the new Kobo, inside Sushiko in Chevy Chase, sounds perfect for you. I suggest you book  the vegan menu -- prepared at a counter by chefs mere feet in front of you -- sit back and enjoy the feast: a parade of meatless dishes that are as delicious as they are beautiful.  (My kappo-style dinner, offered Monday through Wednesday nights, involved a bit of tofu, but I think you can eat around it with advance notice.)

Hi Tom. Is there a way to search all the city dining guides online? I know you sometimes post links during the chats, but it would be wonderful to have a centralized search location to find out if you have reviewed specific cities. Maybe one exists that I don't know about? Thank you!

Is this what you're looking for?


Last year's fall dining guide.

My 2016 spring dining guide.


A link to my Top 10 food U.S. cities


Postcards from Tom (archives)


Hope that helps.

What's your latest opinion on Marcel's these days? I know you used to rave about it (and we went a couple times a year), but it seemed like you had soured on it a few months back. Then I read your brunch review, and you sounded more pleased with it. FWIW, I went for an anniversary dinner in January and had a wonderful experience. Just curious what you think of it these days! (P.S.- love your chats! Thanks for doing these!)

You're welcome!


Marcel's is definitely a top dining experience in the city. I feel comfortable recommending the French-Belgian oasis to anyone looking for an elegant and delicious evening (or Sunday morning!) away from home.

I had an experience at the DC Ambar a few weeks back that I've been curious about. My date and I had the unlimited plates option- really enjoyed it in general, especially the dips and spreads! That said, we started getting what felt like resistance on the last few plates from our waiter- like we were ordering too much... Maybe we were self conscious- but were asked "are you still hungry?" on the last plate, which I thought was a little deflating. We finished everything and probably had a pretty heavy (but not insane) amount of food... From a restaurant's perspective, at what point are patrons felt to be taking advantage of a limitless option? I kind of thought the point of those was to eat, drink, and be merry, but wouldn't want to overstep too much in the future when taking that route. I'll note that I had a similar amount of food there on a previous occasion and the service was unbelievably great and inviting- the waitress alone made the evening feel celebratory! But maybe she was just extra accommodating. Thanks for your take!

I wonder if 1) you really did pig out or 2) you're being sensitive, because I've never been treated less than graciously at the original Ambar or its offshoot in Clarendon. Just how many plates did you order? Balkan food tends to fill me up pretty quickly. Three or four plates, and I'm sated. But that's me.

This past weekend my girlfriend and I had brunch a Dupont area restaurant that offers a special we enjoy pretty frequently. The special has a set price for “bottomless drinks,” an appetizer, and an entree. We ordered drinks, an appetizer each, and an entree each. But perhaps significantly I don’t think either of us specifically indicated to our server that we were doing the special. When we got the check, I just put my card down without looking. When I got my card back I noticed that we had been charged a la carte for everything we ordered. The difference amounted to about $30 more pre-tip/tax. I didn’t say anything because I was unsure whether the restaurant was in the right to do that or not, given the fact that we never specifically said we wanted the special. Should I have said something?

If I'm getting the story right, you ordered dishes available as part of the brunch special (not anything extra or off-menu). In that case, the server should have  charged you the special price, not a la cart.


Too bad you missed an opportunity to correct the error on the spot. If this is a place you frequent, however, it would be worth your while to return and show the manager your receipt (if you kept it).  He might be able to right a wrong.


News flash: Arlington's Water & Wall served its last dinner last night.  Owner Tim Ma, also of Kyirisan in DC, writes: "Water & Wall’s closing is neither a celebration or a wake, it’s just a natural progression in its existence."  The restaurant was three years old.

My partner and I ate at a well-respected DC establishment known for its service and food this weekend. Our server recommended that we order three small plates per person. We wound up with 5 small plates (plus two “amuse-bouches”) which was far too much food. We don’t have small appetites, but we felt like the restaurant’s recommendation was completely off and we could have easily been satisfied with three small plates and one dessert. Is it common that restaurants over-sell the amount of food people should order?

Restaurant portions tend to be on the generous side; in a situation like this, where you aren't familiar with what constitutes a "small" plate, it never hurts to order less than what a server recommends. Because only you know your appetite, right? Plus, you can always order more if you're hungry.

Hi Tom - Curious to get your thoughts on ordering specials. I've heard some restaurants promote "specials" as a way re-purposing certain items to control inventory. I understand that sometimes this can be a necessary practice (the restaurant is a business, after all). And, depending on a particular restaurant's standards for ensuring that it serves dishes with fresh ingredients, I'm sure there's nothing to worry about health-wise. But what about taste and experience?I assume that as a critic, you tend to order regular menu items, but how do you weigh ordering a special versus potentially missing out on an established, regular menu item gem?

I frequently order specials. They tell me a lot about a restaurant: the creativity of the kitchen and the resourcefulness of the chef. 


Specials aren't necessarily a way to use leftovers, you should know. Sometimes, a chef wants to show off a seasonal delicacy (think shad in spring) or a dish he or she has been working on and might want to add to the standing menu.


I tend to visit a restaurant multiple times before writing about it. Those three or so visits give me a chance to order the full menu, more or less, plus specials.

Was the waiter trying, clumsily, to turn the table?

I hadn't thought of that. But it runs counter to the restaurant's usual hospitality.

My daughter is turning 17 soon and wants to go to brunch with her friends. She is looking for something good and hip, preferably in DC or MoCo, and we are looking for something that is not going to break the bank, as we will be treating. I would expect there to be about 10-12 girls.

"Good and hip" sum up Maketto, the cool restaurant/coffee shop/retail store on H St. NE specializing in Cambodian and Taiwanese dishes (and dim sum on weekends). Slightly more traditional is the Italian-themed Alta Strada (also in the District), home to a weekend "everything bagel" pizza, among other dishes. 

One of the obstacles that a business faces with hiring the homeless is that they so often lack any kind of documentation, including a government-issued photo ID, don't know their SSN, and don't have a a home address. You can't get them into the system to withhold taxes or pay them. There ARE half-way houses that can aid any employer willing to take a chance on the formerly homeless. On a related note, I see that some restaurants plan to close down on Thursday to demonstrate the importance of their immigrant labor. That's all and well, but why, in a city where the black unemployment rate is over 13%, aren't more blacks employed in kitchens and on wait staffs? I'd like to hear from restaurants on this issue.

Thanks for the prompt feedback.

Hi Tom, this past weekend we went to Purple Patch and were waiting for a table downstairs, where it's seat yourself. We were the only pair waiting for ten minutes or so when another pair entered and stood near us by the door to wait. Very soon after, a two-top table toward the back began to gather their things to leave, and the pair that came in behind us hustled to the table and hovered over it until the couple left, then immediately sat down. My dining partner and I found seats at the bar a maybe five minutes later, feeling annoyed by the pair that grabbed the table. What's your opinion on this? Is it every man or woman for themselves in a seat-yourself situation, or should there be assumed respect for those who have been waiting before you? Despite this small incident, we enjoyed our meal very much but couldn't help but wonder what to do in that situation.

That scenario is so annoying (not unlike people who use spare stools as closets to stow coats and purses, even when a restaurant is busy and folks are looking for seats).


   I guess you had the option of  addressing the seat-snatchers yourselves ("Not sure if you saw us, but we were actually waiting ahead of you.") or enlisting the support of a manager.  How hangry were you?

Hi Tom,. just wanted to give Ambar a shout out. There $35 unlimited Balkan tapas and $14 extra for unlimited preselected drinks was a totol STEAL. Our waiter was amazing and offered GREAT recommendations, was knowledgeable and very friendly! Although, I will say my only complaint is that we arrived 20 mins prior to our reservation and the hostess would not seat us even though there were empty tables. Fine. We waited. But there was no where to wait and had to go upstairs and awkwardly stand by the full bar because the place is so small. Anyway, it was still a good experience.

I agree, the bottomless menu there is a good deal.

Hi Tom! I'm planning to take my mother out for her birthday dinner when she comes to visit soon. Because of plans later in the evening we need to find a restaurant in the Tenleytown area, but I don't know that neighborhood very well. Can you please recommend a few places to take a look at? We're open to all cuisines. Thanks!

While not the most delicious part of the city, Tenleytown has a few nice spots for dining, including Masala Art for Indian in a stylish setting and the more casual Nando's Peri-Peri for South American grilled chicken and more.

A mental count had us clocking in at 5 small plates each- definitely got our fill, but wouldn't say we were outlandish. Sounds like we may have been pushing it, so may keep that in mind for those kinds of menus going forward. Thanks!

Five doesn't sound crazy to me.

My wife and I will be celebrating an anniversary this weekend, so I thought I'd seek your insight on choosing a restaurant. In the past, we've enjoyed Fiola and Fiola Mare for special occasion meals, but I'd like to switch it up this year. My wife is not too fond of fish, but that's about the only limitation. Are there any great restaurants flying under the radar you'd recommend? We were fortunate to grab a short notice reservation at Komi last week to celebrate my birthday. It was our first visit, and our friends' third, so I really looked forward to the experience. I'll simply say Komi was spectacular in every way, and it gained a spot in my personal top five list.

Iron Gate in Dupont Circle, the subject of today's First Bite column, is pretty dreamy.  I really appreciate the changes the owners have made over there. Now, you can order from three  menus and enjoy them anywhere in the historic restaurant (including outside, next to fire pits).

Hi Tom, thanks for doing these chats! I love reading them during my lunch hour. My grandma is coming to visit this weekend and would like to eat "reasonably priced good seafood." Not sure if that's an oxymoron but do you have any suggestions near Chinatown?

It doesn't scream "Washington, D.C.," but Legal Sea Foods on 7th St. NW otherwise has what you want: moderately-priced fried clams, crab cakes, fish & chips and the like.

Try Chowhound's DC forum. I see lots of posters who trade reservations to hot restaurants.

Good idea. Thanks. But I'm happy to help out here, at least for the duration of the chat.

And sometimes it evolves into a lawsuit. Girlfriend and I dined at one of the restaurants on your top 10 list. They asked for a credit card at time of reservation. I gave. We showed up for dinner and with drinks, wine, appetizers, main course and dessert and lets not forget dropped $500. Great until I get my Amex Black Card statement and see two charges from same restaurant. Our dinner and then another charge. I call and its because we 'No Showed". I asked them to double check and emailed a copy of the bill. Disputed with Amex. Amex refused to remove charge since this restaurant insists we didnt show despite the $500 charge on my Amex for dinner. I am the senior partner for one of the DC areas largest litigation firm which is also one of the best. Despite at least 20 attempts to resolve we go to court in April. I have countersued. This will not be settled. I fully expect to receive low 7 figures in my countersuit and I will drive this restaurant, its partners, and investors all into Chap 7.

I so wish you would have posted this at the top of the hour. Needless to say, I'm ... fascinated. And confused, because clearly, you ate and drank and paid for the evening. I don't understand why the restaurant *and* Amex don't see that. What am I missing?

I actually love when restaurants require this and I wish more places would do so. IF I can then be seated without my full party because well, I'll be charged if they don't show up.


Took your advice and planned Valentine's Day early. Had a stellar meal at Sushi Taro on Monday. Service and food was worthy of the Michelin star. Not wanting to completely neglect Valentine's Day, we made an early reservation at Woodmont Grille in Bethesda. Had a sneaking suspicion it would be chaos and unfortunately the front of the house wasn't running on all cylinders. Not enough help and appeared that management overbooked Valentine's Day (common for this restaurant on any given night so wasn't a surprise). After waiting 20 minutes past our reservation's time we were seated...despite tables around us being empty for 20 minutes. Our server, Shane, was stellar. As the appetizers we ordered had to be cancelled since the kitchen was slow, our server took them off the bill and gave us them to go which was a nice surprise. Little touches like that go a long way and helped to make the meal pleasant despite the poor service from the front of the house.

Kudos to you for celebrating early, and seeing a cup half full on Valentine's Day. My kind of diner.

Just because you don't see restaurants offering jobs to pan handlers, doesn't mean it doesn't happen. This a little off topic but germane to the discussion: if someone is truly homeless, there may be mental or physical conditions that keep them from holding steady work. Not all panhandlers are actually homeless. As a manual labor foreman, I used to offer jobs to pan handlers about three times a year, and never once had someone take me up; that was a bummer. Also, I am sure restaurants hire whoever applies for jobs, they just might get more immigrants applying for tough labor at low wages than other demographics.

Thanks for weighing in.

My wife and I go out for an occasional 'cheat meal' as a break from our usual healthy eating habits, which means we pig the heck out. All you can eat? We're eating it all. If our servers have any comments, it's usually that we did a 'good job' or astonishment that we could eat so much. At Ambar, our server seemed to enjoy seeing how much we could scarf down, though looking back, I'm not sure we even ordered *that* much. (Great place, btw). Overall though, I think servers should keep those comments to themselves, even if it's a 'positive' remark.

Yep. Most diners hate being rated on their choice of dishes, food consumption -- you name it.

The restaurant is being ridiculous. Win or lose, the lawsuit could put the restaurant out of business. Is it really worth if for the no show fee that they're getting? And, by the way, if I were that cardholder, that would be the last time I used AmEx.

My thought, too!

I know that if I have leftovers that I really don't want to take. I'll still box them and give them to a homeless person outside. Let's not waste food.

I'm with you. And if you don't see a live person, leave the leftovers on the rim of a waste can outside, where the homeless can easily find them (that's a tip from an advocate for the homeless, btw).

This sounds fishy to me. Possibly fake news?

I may have been punked there. (It happens.)

Hi Tom, I look forward to your weekly chats even though I don't know the restaurants discussed. I like the exchange and the tone you and your readers use. I would love for someone to start this in my city, I just don't think it's realistic. What is your secret for keep these chats cordial and helpful ---rather than transcend into the more common bashing/defensive approach that we unfortunately accept as the new norm nowadays (e.g. yelp)?

Not posting everything that comes my way -- for starters. You would not believe the stuff I don't post, for taste or ethical reasons.

Hi Tom! My husband and I spent a couple of days recently in downtown Miami and in South Beach. We fell in love with Cuban food, and are seriously craving it. Short of cooking it ourselves, do you know of any Cuban restaurants? All of my Google searching has turned up "Latin American" restaurants that serve food from a variety of nations. Would prefer something in NoVA, but we're willing to head into the city for this. Bonus points for Cuban coffee--aka my new addiction.

Probably closest to you is Mi Cuba Cafe in Columbia Heights, where you want to focus on the Cubano, chicken soup and anything featuring pork.

Really? I've found it overpriced and the food underwhelming. And I'm not a very demanding diner. There are other chain seafood places.

In Chinatown? Nothing comes to mind.


If the original poster can eat elsewhere, I'd steer her to Drift on 7.

My 5 year old daughter and I are going to be taking a vacation to D.C. in a week, what are some child friendly places you would personally recommend?

On the Mall, you should try Mitsitam Cafe, the very good cafeteria within the National Museum of the American Indian.  Nearby, in Penn Quarter, Oyamel is always fun for tacos and fresh fruit drinks, among other Mexican eats and drinks. For pizza and Italian-American fare, I'm partial to All-Purpose in Shaw, where I've watched lots of young families gather, early at night. For ramen in a colorful setting, consider the new Haikan on V St. NW.


That's a wrap for today, folks. Let's meet again March 1 at 11 a.m.  


I did want to leave you with a little something extra today: a rare 3.5 star review of an exciting restaurant in (surprise!) Baltimore.  Definitely worth the trip. 

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; 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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