Ask Tom -- Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema discusses the DC dining scene

Mar 14, 2012

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

What's your reaction to the North Dakota newspaper's infamous review of the Olive Garden?

The Associated Press contacted me last week about the rave review written by columnist Marilyn Hagerty in the Grand Forks Herald


At first, I thought it was kind of cute, because I grew up with folks just like her in my home town of Worthington, MN.  


Thinking about the matter later, I'm not entirely sure what the big deal was, other than as something to amuse snarky  food elites, because basically, Hagerty was writing about something her readers were talking about and looking forward to in their community. She was covering news that was of interest to her audience. And there must be dozens of small-town scribes who have written similar stories over the years, of chain restaurants coming into their markets.


And now, she's famous. I see she's been brought to NYC to dine around and share her reviews. Huh.


Maybe the joke is on the elites?


Happy Hump Day, gang. A housekeeping note: I'll be away next Wednesday, March 21. Please join me again  Wednesday, March 28 at 11 a.m.


Let's rock and roll.

You mentioned Jewel of India in one or two recent chats. The food there is fantastic, but beware of this quirk. Parties of 6 or more enjoying the lunch buffet should examine their checks for a 20% tip that gets added in by the restaurant unannounced. This practice is a bit odd considering it's a buffet; customers aren't getting much in the way of service; large parties don't really place any more demands on the wait staff than smaller parties; and the tip is hidden in small print on the bill with the restaurant not doing anything to highlight it. Don't get me wrong: I do think their staff deserves to be tipped for their good work, even during the lunch buffet, but the tip the restaurant assesses is too large and his hidden in a way that undoubtedly causes many parties to add an additional tip on top of it. Diners have to choose between paying it or having an unpleasant argument with the management about it.

I ran your post past Augustine Gomes, the general manager at Jewel of India, who said that under his watch, the added gratuity for groups of six or larger for the lunch buffet is 15 percent (a tad generous, but deserved by the hard-working staff). If a customer sees anything more than that, he invites him or her to contact him directly.


As a diner, I always appreciate seeing charges, including added tips, printed clearly on my bill. Even better if the server reminds you when he sets down the check.

When dining in a fine restaurant, you have your entree, the host seats a party next to you and the woman is wearing perfume so strong it overpowers the aroma of the food. Is there a way to handle this without causing a stir? Just curious how other diners handle this. Thank You Marie Matthews

   If the perfume is that powerful, whoever seats Ms. Fragrance-Plus ought to aim for a place for her that will affect the fewest number of customers -- in a corner, maybe, or beneath a fan or somewhere other than the center of the dining room -- and hope she doesn't ask to sit somewhere else.


 But you're talking about after the aromatic guest is seated. Frankly, I'm stumped. What can the host do, other than relocate you?   I can't think of a clever thing to say to the woman, at least nothing that wouldn't come across as less than diplomatic.


  Miss Manners, are you participating today? We'd love your thoughts on the subject.




I was always under the assumption that, when dining with a mixed party, the waiter should take the ladies' orders first. Increasingly, it seems like waiters are taking orders at random, or taking the order of whomever speaks up first. Is there a standard rule for order-taking?

 Same as for lifeboats on sinking ships: "Ladies first."

Happy belated birthday, Tom. Did you have a special dinner last week to celebrate?

Thanks. (Turns out Michel Richard and I share a March 7 birthdate. We're both Pisces babies.)


  I'm on some tight deadlines, so I ended up going out on a review last Wednesday. You'll be reading about it -- the restaurant, not my celebration -- sometime next month.


A clue: It's a room with a view.


Friends threw a belated party for me at one of my favorite restaurants over the weekend, however: Et Voila!, where I was told I couldn't jot down a single note and absolutely, positively could not write about the night (or pay).  The wine flowed. The frites kept coming. The hanger steak -- which I didn't share! -- was terrific. Everyone should have such generous friends.

Hi Tom! What's your take when the online dinner menu isn't the same as the restaurant menu? We had this happen at a restaurant downtown on Saturday night - it was not due to daily fluctuations (such as fish, etc), but it was a standard item. We were told, quite rudely, that it was only served at lunch...then why was it on the dinner menu online?!? Thoughts?

  One of the easiest ways for restaurants to tick off diners is to tease them with the promise of a dish online and then not offer it on the printed menu.


  Let this be a prompt to restaurateurs: Look at your menu online. Is it current? Freshness matters as much online as it does on the plate!

Hi Tom, You shared with us a while back your recipe for a simple, elegant appetizer with romaine lettuce, goat cheese (?)and something else. Would you mind repeating that -I've forgotten how you did this. Thanks!

Actually, the hors' d'oeuvre I sometimes make starts with endive spears, which I brush with olive oil (lemon is great) and fill with feta or goat cheese crumbles, a mandarin orange or two and some slivered almonds. A crack of pepper on top provides just the right spark.

Trying to find a spot for 4 friends to catch up and make plans for an upcoming party we are hosting. Penn Quarter/Gallery Place is the best spot for us to meet up around 7:00 on a weeknight. Any suggestions on where we might be able to grab a drink, talk, and *this is important* hear one another in that area around that time? Is it possible?

The place that comes closest to that ideal is probably the lounge at 701, near the Navy Memorial. Another option is the Source next to the Newseum, where you'd want to seek out a sofa rather than a high-top table.

I walk by La Perla (off of Washington Circle) nearly every day but have never been, nor had much luck finding any reviews - how's the food?

You know, I haven't been to the place in ... years.  Can anyone tell us how it tastes these days?

Would the restaurant be willing to leave the table empty until the perfumed lady left? If so, they could approach the table and mention that there was a faulty table leg or chair leg and ask the people to move since they were "accidentally" seated there. It could work as long as nobody else was seated at the table while the perfumed lady was still there.

 Clever! And a good use of the white lie (employed only when the truth might hurt someone).

Michel Richard became the latest in a series of upscale restaurants to shutter at the Ritz. Why is that location cursed? And I'm not buying the "people don't want to deal with the traffic mess" excuse, either. The Palm does just fine in that area, and don't even bother attempting to dine at tucked-away Nostos without a reservation made well in advance. Heck, even the chain restaurants in the attached Tyson's Galleria are "gold mines."

Part of the problem with Michel seemed to be Richard's sophisticated cooking and a hotel clientele that really wanted steak and potatoes.  Also, simply finding the hotel restaurant was something of a chore, hidden away as it was in the structure.  Finally, while the Palm and Nostos might be doing well,  did you know the Morton's in Tysons Corner shuttered last month?

Looking for a strictly vegetarian restaurant in metro dc area. please no indian restaurant .i need change.

Not sure it's what you want to pay, but Elizabeth's Gone Raw at 1341  L St. NW does a superb job with vegan fare and organic wines in a townhouse setting on Friday evenings.  The five-course tasting menu costs $75 a person.

I've been reading about the LA Times deciding to abandon their star system, including Tim Carman's article on All We Can Eat. Although I can see the argument that it reduces a nuanced review in too simplistic terms, I find them useful, and I'm glad you defended them. In particular, if I see a restaurant get more or less stars then I would expect, I'm definitely more interested in reading the review to find out why. All that said, what currently are the "four star" establishments in the DC area?

 For those who haven't been following The Other Major Food Story of the Week, here's some background on stars vs. no stars from from my Food section colleague Tim Carman.


   There are six restaurants that I gave my highest rating to in my 2011 fall guide. They include CityZen, Inn at Little Washington, Komi, Michel Richard Citronelle, Rasika and Restaurant Eve, although based on a recent dinner at one of the establishments, that select group might be more select -- as in smaller -- come this fall.

Tom, We have friends coming in from the West Coast for the weekend. They will be very tired. We'd like to take them to restaurants in our Reston backyard. Do you have three or four recommendations? Thanks very much.

I'd skip most of the Thai, Indian and Italian options near you, because those cuisines are done better on the West Coast (well, certainly in Los Angeles).


What about PassionFish for seafood? Jackson's Mighty Fine Food for casual American fare?  While I haven't been there in awhile, I've always been charmed by the family-run El Manantial, a gem of a Mediterranean space in a strip mall.

Tom, with all the bad experiences people have at restaurants, I want to give credit to some great service I received at Duffy's Irish Pub. I went with some friends before a concert at the 9:30 Club and ordered food. When I opened a bottle of ketchup, the sauce basically exploded all over me (it turned bad somehow). A waitress saw it and ran over with rags and napkins and then another brought over a glass of club soda so I could clean it up. They apologized profusely, brought over a new jar of ketchup (which the waitress opened to make sure it wouldn't explode), and then bought me a few beers. While I don't go to Duffy's for a fine dining experience, a number of places can learn some lessons from the graciousness of how the staff helped me. The free beers were a nice added bonus! Kudos to them for a great job.

Go, Duffy's!


I'm always happy to shine a light on good deeds. Thanks for writing.  (Did you get the red out?)

Hi Tom, I'm still confused by your rating system. Is a 3 star recommendation for a restaurant which has entrees at $25 a plate the same as one that has $10 a plate?

When I rate restaurants, I'm evaluating type against type: French bistro vs. French bistro, sushi counter vs. sushi counter, hot dog stand vs. hot dog stand.


In my system, three stars is "excellent" and is defined as a rewarding destination, no matter where you're coming from. A three-star establishment typically blends high-quality cooking with the setting.

We went for lunch this week and sadly have to agree with your review, as much as we're fans of Bryan. I got the grilled ham and cheese, a third was just bread. Daughter's pork was better, pretty much a full sandwich. Soup was great. No chips with either. And $3 for a very small iced tea? No refills? We'd love to see the place do well, but hope they listen to feedback.

I wish Lunchbox well, too. It's a great idea, with some thoughtful touches (like free fruit with any purchase). But I was surprised at how skimpy the sandwich fillings are, and I'm not exactly the kind of guy who demands big portions.  With three out of the four sandwiches I sampled, I felt like I was eating a bread sandwich.

As a single man in my (very) late 20's I've recently started giving online dating a try, so I'm going on a lot of 1st dates. Do you have any suggestions for not bank breakingly expensive yet impressive places you can grab a drink at the bar to start and easily move to dinner if the night isn't too awkward?

   Happy to improve your romantic life, buddy!  For starters, you should try the hot new Boundary Road, recently graced by a visit from the First Couple; Mintwood, the hot new bistro from former Central chef Cedric Maupillier; and Ripple, the wine-themed restaurant poised to open  (did you hear?) a small market called Sugar Magnolia selling sweets and sanwiches.


  Off topic (but potentially fruitful):  I have no vested interest, but I've heard from no fewer than three people in recent days who are using (with success) to find love.

Tom, I've been thinking about what happens when dining goes wrong. The table isn't ready for an hour. The waiter drops a glass of water in your lap. The menu doesn't disclose ingredients even after you've grilled the server. The server ignores you. The milk for your coffee is curdled. The list goes on. When bad things happen, you don't get your time back. I don't get the 10 minutes I spent waiting for Starbucks to get the drink right and I still don't have the drink. (Curdled milk--my coffee shouldn't be lumpy!) I can't rewind the clock and undo the damage done when a server ignores the 4 requests I've made for a single scoop of ice cream for my child and brings out three scoops. And the blank stare from the management who do nothing and don't bother to apologize doesn't help. So I don't go out as much. It isn't worth the hassle to be screwed over time and time again. So Tom--what do you do when the evening is ruined by ineptness? How do you move past feeling like your time has been wasted? And certainly that your money was wasted!

You raise an interesting question. The short answer is, I'm paid to sit through bad service, hopefully so you don't  have to.  I can write about my experience, after all -- the good, the bad and the ugly -- and in some cases, affect change in a restaurant. When things go sour for me in a place, they provide grist for a column. Not that I look forward to bad things happening to me, mind you!


Can I just add something?  To get the best from a restaurant, I think it really helps for a customers to go into the experience wanting things to go right and looking forward to having a good time.  I bring this up only because of what you wrote:  "It isn't worth the hassle to be screwed over time and time again."  I eat out an average of a dozen meals a week. I experience sufficient joy and have a lot of positive feelings in part because I want things to go right.


Thoughts, readers?




Eliser or Fiola?

Hunk on display or hidden away?

Going to the Warner Theatre tonight. I am a vegetarian (just looking for at least 1 option on the menu) and my husband is not. Generally open, although don't get terribly excited about asian cuisine. We won't have a ton of time, so looking for someplace pretty close and not terribly expensive. Why do I always draw a blank when I'm looking for something in that area? Thanks Tom! Love your chats!!

I'd belly up to the bar at either Oceanaire Seafood Room or Central Michel Richard. Lots of options on both menus, convivial scenes, good service.

Love the chats Tom. What do you think of the LA Times decision to drop its star ratings for restaurant reviews? Who would make that call if the Post followed suit, you or your editor?

One of the many things I love about my job, the best at the WP, is the freedom my editors give me to cover the restaurant scene the way I see fit. 


I initiated the idea of adding stars in 2003 (would you believe the old Potomac magazine doled out smiley faces in the 70s?!) , with the agreement and backing of management here. 


Obviously, I wouldn't make a major change to what I do/how I operate without consulting my superiors.

I'm meeting a friend in Bethesda for lunch on Saturday. I haven't been over there in a while and was wondering if there's anything particularly highly recommended. We'd want somewhere relatively low-key and inexpensive, but where we could comfortably talk and not feel like we were going to be rushed out of there. Foodwise, non-red meat options would be good.

The restaurant that is most likely to give you what you want, with the possible exception of a rush job, is Raku on Woodmont Ave. 

Hi Tom, We get a babysitter one Friday a month to have a very much needed date night. I am looking for some ideas. Our last date was to Palena, which was terrific. Coming from Silver Spring (love Jackie's), willing to go to DC, but VA is too far (driving time = $$$ for babysitter). Any suggestions?

Sounds as if you've had some delicious dates!

Cashion's Eat Place in Adams Morgan always puts a smile on my face. So does Birch & Barley in Logan Circle. Another place I tend to gravitate to with my SO is the bar at Bibiana downtown.


That help?

I am far from a Pollyanna, but I do think that it's easier to enjoy yourself if you assume the staff means well. Waiting for people to screw up so you can feel justified for your cynicism is just psychologically exhausting. Even people I know will reveal that they sat and brooded rather than saying something to the server or asking to speak to the manager. Why? They are there to help. PS My Starbucks can make a latte in a lot less than 10 minutes, and they're always apologetic if something goes wrong.

Thanks for writing. Going into a meal with a good attitude  is key, I think (I try to do it even if the restaurant's track record isnt so good).

Hi Tom - I went to The Prime Rib for a business lunch a couple of days ago, and yikes! Talk about "preserved in amber." I was surprised to find it got two stars from you five years ago, since it was so dated that I actually found it a little creepy, and my meal wasn't very good (salad overdressed, London broil overcooked). I was especially surprised to see it listed as an Editor's Pick - surely there are better steakhouses out there, especially ones that don't make you feel like you've stepped through a time portal.

Funny, I took my predeccessor there about six months ago.  To get the best of the restaurant, I think you have to know what to order at the Prime Rib: the obvious cut of beef (prime rib) and crab imperial. I appreciate the live music there, but I know exactly what you mean about the place being a little creepy. One reason I didn't mark it down was because our perfectly ordinary dinner was just one visit. Sounds like I should go back and eat some more ...

Tom, why no gushing review of the chicken parm at the Olive Garden in Tysons?

Because I haven't eaten it! (You never know ... )

Hi, I'm an enthusiastic but not incredibly sophisticated diner with a special birthday coming up, and I'm taking my sisters to the Inn at Little Washington to celebrate. This is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime excursion, so is there anything we need to know about? or be sure not to miss?

What a lucky tribe you are! Be sure to start with a special cocktail in the lounge and ask to enjoy dessert in the garden (especially if it's a day as lovely as today). If they're on the Inn's menu, go for the lamb carpaccio with Caesar salad ice cream (trust me!), the extraordinary sweetbreads or soft shell crabs in season.  Hard to go wrong, though.

Vegetable Garden in Rockville is vegetarian only (Chinese).

Yes it is. But I think the poster was looking for someplace closer to the city? At any rate, thanks for the suggestion.

Tom - About 2 months ago, I had a nice dinner at Thai Tanic II in Columbia Heights. After we were seated and had ordered, another couple was seated next to us, and began discussing how good the yoga class they had attended immediately before dinner was. Then the woman (I'll call her Feetsie) took her shoes off and folded her legs under her such that her sweaty gym sock feet were at table level and less than 3 feet from my food. It was pretty gross. As Jeff Spicoli said, no shirt, no shoes, no dice, right? I sat there for a minute wondering if Feetsie's lack of manners would ruin my meal or if I was going to be able to deal with the feet of a boor. I was unable to enjoy my food so I asked to be moved (in mid-meal, it was pretty awkward) to the bar to finish. The staff was confused until I explained about the feet, and then were totally accomodating and pretty shocked at Feetsie themselves. Some of my friends think I should have scolded Feetsie, I say her complete lack of manners and self-awareness is punishment enough. Cheers!

Your post makes me laugh. Thanks for sharing. "Feetsie" is in that group of people who think nothing of trimming their nails, etc. in public. Gross.


Curious what you think of using a cloth napkin as a tissue?  I watched -- and heard (HONK!) -- a VIP do just that last night at an otherwise dinner this week.

I would just like to point out that it isn't always the female with overwhelming aromatics. As someone who suffers pretty serious detergent/perfume allergies, i as often bothered by men - often smokers who can't smell as well - who wear overpowering cologne/aftershave. Just sayin'.

You go, girl!  You're oh-so-right. And cigars are the worst. Cigars and cheap cologne.

Often the ladies in the group may be waiting for the men to order 1st. Or someone else just blurts out their order. Are we now supposed to hush the men who order 1st to make way the women????

I think it's up to the waiter to say, "If you're ready to order, I'd like to start with the ladies first" and start with what appears to be the most senior of the females at the table (as a courtesy).

I can't believe you called it a "rave review"? It's actually a perfect example of damning with faint praise. She barely mentions anything about the food, the most complimentary food related comment is this: "The chicken Alfredo ($10.95) was warm and comforting on a cold day. The portion was generous." She does say nice things about the decor, but if that's the only thing a reviewer praises, then I always read that as "stay away from the food". It's like saying only nice things about the special effects in a movie or the sets in a play.

Oops. I should not have described the column as a "rave." My error. But you can't deny it was flattering to Olive Garden (and wouldn't you like to be the CEO of that chain this week? So much free press!)

Hi Tom, Just curious what you are craving on a lovely day like this? And how often do you give in to your cravings? Thanks!

I'm fantasizing about asparagus, rhubarb, soft-shell crabs ... while continuing to find parsnips, pears and slabs of venison on local menus. The market hasn't caught up to the weather, I'm afraid.


My internal lunch bell is ringing. As a reminder, I'm away next week. I look forward to chatting with you again March 28.  Be well, gang.

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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