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

Mar 14, 2018

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

You’re always urging us to talk to the Manager when problems arise, but what should we do when the Manager himself is part of the problem? The other evening, our server at a nice neighborhood place disappeared for long periods of time, even though the restaurant wasn’t terribly busy at the time. Everyone wanted drink refills, but no one come around to check. Finally, I went looking for him, and found him hanging out with a group of other staffers near the kitchen door - they were just chatting. I asked to see the Manager, who turned out to be one of that group. He wasn’t very helpful, or even apologetic.

Tricky situation. I suppose you could always ask for the owner's name and contact and complain, but that seems a little over-the-top in this scenario, if in fact speedy drink refills were the only issue. It's been my experience that hospitality standards are almost always defined and exemplified by whoever is in charge. Is service routinely inattentive or was this a one-time incident? 


Good morning, everyone. Lots of cool openings to look forward to these days, starting Thursday night when Sababa rolls out in Cleveland Park. The restaurant replaces Ardeo and brings something different to the scene: Israeli food.   And if all goes well with food trials at Fancy Radish in the Atlas District, the owners tell me they plan to serve their meatless menu "soon."  On the review front, DC has a new three-star restaurant thanks to chef Aaron Silverman & company at the adorable

Little Pearl on the Hill.  And on the just-announced 

James Beard awards nominations front, the Mid-Atlantic is well-represented by the chefs at Bad Saint, Centrolina, the Dabney, Charleston in Baltimore and Vedge in Philly, plus Kevin Tien of Himitsu, a Rising Star contender. 


Bring me your questions, raves and rants. 

Could you inform restaurant owner's that we're well past the point at which it should be considered appropriate to only put changing tables in the women's room at a restaurant? Having to change an infant on the bathroom floor is absolutely disgusting and unsanitary, and I swear the next time I go to a place like this, I'm changing my daughter on the bar.

Uh, please don't do that! I like the approach at the Tavern at Rare Steak and Seafood on I St. NW:  Multiple (handsome) unisex restrooms with changing tables. Let's hope the idea catches on. 

What do you think is the best way to ask restaurant management to turn down loud music? I am a little old lady, and it seems that managers think I am trying to spoil everyone's fun! I just want to talk to the people at my table.

Why not say what you just told me? "I don't want to spoil anyone's fun, but I'd really like to hear my companions."  A tip:  restaurants tend to be easier on the ears on the early side of the evening. 

Happy Pi Day, Tom! I'm a long-time subscriber and I never miss reading your columns and chats, but I've been away from DC for years. I'm bringing my daughter up to the March for Our Lives, and we need an idea for one more dinner. We're vegetarian, but otherwise adventurous eaters. I already have reservations at Bindaas and Zaytinya. The last time we came up you sent us to Zaytinya (wonderful!) and Roofer's Union (not impressed). Any ideas? This will be for the Monday evening, and our budget isn't unlimited. Thank you!

Check out Unconventional Diner near the convention center. It's the handiwork of David Deshaies, who worked for the late Michel Richard, and it offers some clever meatless options, including kale nachos, mushroom spring rolls and a vivid chickpea stew. 

Hi Tom, A few friends and I went for drinks at a well-regarded restaurant near Eastern Market recently. The restaurant serves a fondue dish that seemed to be quite popular, but the smell of the fondue was just horrific! Moreover, one customer in particular had cheese that was clearly burning in the fondue pot while seated at the bar. It was so distracting that my friends and I left after one drink. I'm curious about the decision making process that goes in to putting a meal like that on the menu. While it was clearly popular, based on the number of customers who ordered it, it was also quite offensive smelling, so much so that I have no interest in returning to that restaurant while it remains on the menu. How do you respond to a situation such as this?

Don't  return until the stinky fondue is off the menu? I guess you could mention your dislike of the aroma to a staff member, but it sounds as if the dish is popular or it wouldn't stick around.  Senses vary. What turns some people away turns others on. 

Last week I asked for a recommendation for a Friday night dinner with no reservation, and you did not disappoint. After researching some of your suggestions, I wound up at the bar at Del Mar, and was blown away. Everything was amazing, the service was impeccable, and they even comped my after dinner cheese (I'm not a dessert girl). A big thank you to Del Mar (and to you!) for making a weird whirlwind work trip that much more enjoyable.

I'm so glad the buzzy Spanish restaurant on the Wharf worked out for you. Thanks for following up. 

My husband's birthday is at the end of the month. When I asked him where he wants to go for dinner he replied, "any place with a good crab cake." Where do you recommend?

Try Old Maryland Grill in College Park for plump crab cakes, seasoned with just a suggestion of Old Bay, and equally delicious boardwalk fries. 

Last week, you wrote about Noma in Copenhagen. I absolutely enjoyed reading the article, even if my budget might never let me travel to Denmark just for dinner. So, for a person living in the DC area, where might I go for a Noma-like experience? Obviously, not for the whole experience, but for pieces of it? For example, who else in the region, whether high end or low end, is doing interesting things with seafood? And where else might I get to dine where the experience of nature is equal to the food? Or to where so much thought goes into the furniture, or where servers seem to have equal "ownership" and pride in their place of work? And where can I get funky ice cream? I'm thinking, with your recommendations, that I could do a "Noma progressive" and assemble the pieces of that experience from our local offerings. Thanks.

I guess the idea that comes closest to what Noma is doing -- hyper-local food, interesting presentations, etc. -- is chef Tarver King's at the Restaurant at Patowmack Farm in Lovettsville.  I find what he's doing with textures and aromas -- animal pelts as table dressing, smoke to carry you back in time --  very interesting, and in keeping with the farm property he's on.

Hey Tom. We are going to be in Bethesda this weekend and wanted to know if you had any recommendation for brunch beyond the usual suspects (Jaleo & Kapnos Kouzina)? Thanks.

Grilled fish tacos, butternut squash pizza and quinoa johnny cakes are part of the mindful menu at True Food Kitchen. Except for the noise, the dining room is inviting. 

Tom, can you please remind restauranteurs that a meal can be nearly ruined by dull cutting knives. Went to Pralines for dinner, husband ordered duck breast. The meat and meal were delicious but the knife didn't cut the meat, and husband had to tear it apart with the edge of the knife. Too often we encounter this scenario.

Consider your plea passed.  There's no excuse for what I call an "airplane" knife when the food is being served on terra firma. 

Hi Tom, I work in Dupont and went to La Tomate based on your rave reviews (last time I had been there was 10 plus years ago). I was really disappointed, my pasta was just ok and the same with my colleagues who went there. I'm wondering why you love it so much. I'd much rather go to Sette which is reliably good. Thanks!

Admittedly, I haven't had a chance to try the Italian restaurant under its new-as-of-winter chef, from the nearby Lupo Verde, so I'll stop recommending La Tomate until I have. 

Hi Tom, More and more frequently, when I go out with a group of friends, and it comes time to split the check, the person who ordered the most expensive dish often offers to cover the tip, with the rest of us paying no tip, so as to avoid asking the server to split the check. While this ends up with the same amount of money in our server's pocket in the end, I always feel slightly uncomfortable leaving $0.00 in the tip line, lest they think I'm a stingy, cold-hearted jerk. Do my servers really hate this, or do you think this is a common practice that they are used to seeing at this point? When it comes to splitting the check, do you have an idea what method restaurants prefer?

Cash is the easiest and quickest ways to a server's heart. 

Hi Tom, I need to take a client to dinner but he's very conscientious about the cost of things. I'm wondering if you have a recommendation for something that's both tasty and reasonably priced in Chinatown. We're both fairly adventurous eaters, so no limitations in that regard.

The place you want to go for inexpensive, quality cooking with the bonus of an arty interior is Daikaya Izakaya, where none of the popular rice bowls are more than $14. 

We are going next week. Any must have recommendations in terms of food or seating?

You scored a table! Lucky you. The recommendations in my original review still apply, but you should pay attention to the daily specials (spicy shredded lamb over hummus recently). My favorite place to land is on the ground floor, at a high-top table or even at the bar, near the signature hearth.

Wife's 50th birthday is on the horizon. Want to surprise her with a dinner in a restaurant's private room with another five or six couples. What are some of your favorites?

Not sure what your budget or cuisine preferences are, but I would be *thrilled* if someone toasted me in a private space at Arroz (Moroccan-Spanish), Del Mar (Spanish), the just-reviewed Little Pearl (modern American) or Sfoglina (Italian). I'd also be *thrilled* to be 50 again, but that's a subject for another time and space ... 

Hi Tom, I'm a long time reader, first time poster. Thank you for all you do! My fiance and I have decided to forego a traditional wedding ceremony/reception and are planning to have a civil ceremony at the DC court house followed by a celebratory dinner for just the two of us that evening. We eat out in DC frequently (Estadio and Himitsu are favorites) and are looking for an extra special restaurant to mark the occasion. Price is a non-issue and our only dietary restrictions are no dairy and no pork. I'm aiming for a fun and lively atmosphere and am also hoping to find a restaurant within DC proper so we can walk or take an uber to a bar afterwards. My first thought was Minibar, but I'd love to hear what you think about that choice and any other suggestions you might have.

I love Minibar, but it's such an interactive experience, I don't think I'd recommend it for a wedding dinner. Save it for an anniversary, maybe? Instead, aim for the intimate alcove table at Maydan, a table overlooking the water at Fiola Mare or the spectacle known as A Rake's Progress in the Line hotel. 

Tom: I have to say that I have experienced this problem myself, and it was a consistent issue to the point where we stopped patronizing the restaurant. A local diner had a manager who would seemingly "corral" his employees on a regular basis for long discussions (perhaps work related, but still) in a small hallway that led back to the kitchen This was during the dinner service. On several occasions, we would be in need of drink refills, want to order something additional, etc. and all the servers would disappear to stand in the hallway while this manager lectured them. Finally, my late husband was in a need of a spoon. In desperation, he walked back and interrupted one of these gatherings. The manager expressed annoyance at being interrupted. We never went back.

Enough said. Thanks for writing. No manager with a shred of experience (intelligence?) is going to call a meeting in the middle of service. 

Hi Tom, I live in Adams Morgan and I feel like one area the DC dining scene struggles with is the existence of go-to, reliable and well-established neighborhood dining spots. I live around the corner from Mintwood Place, Johnny's, Tail Up Goat, etc but can't afford to go to any of those places more than once every month or two and I usually reserve them for special occasions. Are there any spots you could recommend within walking distance that don't necessarily still have the new thing sheen to them, are affordable, are easy to get a spot at, and are still good?

Have you been to Lapis, the well-received Afghan restaurant on the same block as Mintwood and Johnny's?  You don't mention the price range you're after, but the stews, for instance, can be had for as little as $11. 

I beg to differ. If I were the owner, I would definitely want to know if my manager was part of the problem. Always move up the chain. A quick email detailing the issue would alert the owner that there is an issue to address which will help make the business successful. A festering problem would do the opposite.

Yep. I think I more or less suggested that. 

Just curious, in any given week how many times will you go out for meals? Do you have an all-time record as well? I'm guess it must be like 25 or something.

I'm out at least nine meals a week, but often more, depending on whether I'm eating ahead of a trip or working on a dining guide or some other project. During my Best Cities food tour, I ate in as many as seven or eight meals A DAY. Now, THAT was WORK. 

I just threw up a little bit in my mouth.

Yeah, that could have used more context than I offered ...

Tom, I know you rave about True Food - and I want to like it. I've been about three or four times and EVERY time the food has been cold. Of all the issues at a restaurant, this tends to be the one I have littlest patience for. In your visits did you have these problems?

i did not, or I would have said so. Do you return the food?

Tom, I've had this experience frequently in D.C.: I go to a restaurant for dinner and it is meat-heavy. I get that a lot of places pride themselves on things being meaty, but are vegetarians within their rights to ask "can this dish be made vegetarian?" or "is there a possibility that the kitchen could make me a vegetarian dish?" Subquestion: waiters are often put off when I've asked if a particular starch/soup/vegetable dish has meat in it. Is that question really an issue?

It shouldn't be, not in 2018. Where exactly are you dining in DC? I ask, because we seem to be enjoying an uptick in good vegetarian options right now. (See above.)

I'm bothered by the thought that servers can easily pocket cash tips, and never pay taxes on them -- whereas every cent of my income is taxable. For that reason, I always write in my (generous) tip on my credit card slip.

Good for you -- being generous -- but honestly, most servers work so hard, I don't begrudge them any extra cash. I realize that's not  PC, but that's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Thanks for all the great work you do for all of us hungry folks Tom, you are a national (Capitol) treasure! Regarding the poster disappointed in La Tomate, have been going there semi-frequently for a few years, as recently as two weeks ago. Food has always been quite good and service exceptionally friendly. Poster must have gone on an off night, which all restaurants have now and then.

Thanks for sharing (and for the kind words).

As an avid follower of Carolyn Hax's column and chats, I'd like to suggest that the spouse planning a *surprise* 50th birthday restaurant dinner with several other couples consider that it might be more respectful toward the honoree to let her in on the planning, rather than depriving her of her choice of celebration. Imagine if she's looking forward to a quiet dinner for just the two of you, or would like to have a choice in other companions.

Call me Pollyanna, but I figure the spouse knows his wife pretty well and the company she might like to keep on her big day. 

Your "Dishwashers" piece truly was outstanding and worth the nod.....

Aw, thank you so very much. I loved reporting and writing that piece on the unsung heroes of the kitchen. (Shout outs as well to my colleagues Fritz Hahn, Tim Carman and Maura Judkis for their nominations today.) 

Tom - do you know why Del Campo is closing? I've been there twice, both times on a weeknight, and it was pretty full and lively. I thought the food was very good, although it was a little slow coming out of the kitchen.

I was a big fan of Victor Albisu's cooking at Del Campo, too! While he's turning the space into two Mexican ideas -- one casual, one refined and dinner-only -- he left open the possibility of relaunching Del Campo somewhere else.


In a statement his press rep sent out, he explains:  "The concept was always meant to be a more intimate and casual grill. I think we can achieve that vision in another space, which I’m actively looking for." Stay tuned, in other words. Meanwhile,  yes! to more Mexican, especially from someone as creative and ambitious as Albisu.


Gotta run, gang. Let's do this again next Wednesday, same time. Thanks for joining me today.

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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