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

Mar 27, 2019

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

My 50th BD is this weekend. Our plans have changed and now we are going to be in town. My wife and I are looking for a special dinner spot Sat or Sun. I had a wonderful Chef's Table experience in Atlanta in November at the Hyatt Hotel. Would there be any experiences like that in DC that we could get into last minute?

How about a chef's *counter,* at, say, Chloe or Gravitas? They both face the kitchen and allow for some interaction with whoever is making your food. But if you have your heart set on a table at this late date, reach out to see if the kitchen table at Tosca, the lobbyist favorite, is available for your big day. 


Happy Hump Day. Did you catch my story in today's Food section on outsized restaurant portions, food waste and some solutions for tackling the problems? Let me know what you think. Obviously, those are issues I care about -- think about -- a lot, whether I'm on the job or not. 


My new dispatch highlighting my favorite places to eat right now posted yesterday as well.  And earlier today, my review of American Son in the Eaton hotel, from chef Tim Ma, appeared online. 


FOOD FLASH: Veteran Washington chef Robert Wiedmaier (Marcel’s, Brasserie Beck, etc.) tells me he’s partnered with jazz master Todd Barkan to open Keystone Korner in Baltimore, a revival of the ground-breaking music club (1972-1983) in San Francisco. The 200-seat performance space, which replaces a shuttered Mussel Bar in the Harbor East neighborhood, is expected to soft-open April 27 and officially debut April 30 with the Ron Carter Trio. 


“I wasn’t a jazz guy” growing up, says the chef. “I liked classic rock and roll.” Fatherhood helped change that. His son Marcel, who had a French restaurant named after him, got a music scholarship to NYU and now plays with several bands in Nashville. Barkan’s passion rubbed off on the chef, too. “Todd and I started talking and we fell in love with each other.” 


Wiedmaier will be offering “retro refined” American food at the club. Translation: deviled eggs, burgers, baby back ribs with slaw and beans and, given a raw bar there, abundant seafood. “We want to treat it special,” says the chef of the cooking. He’s not kidding. The wedge salad he’s proposing will be garnished with fried-to-order bacon and croutons. 


The waterfront setting is located at 1350 Lancaster St. In coming months, artists including Kenny Garrett, Steve Turre, Duduka Da Fonseca and others are expected to perform. 



Ready? Grab a coffee, tea, Diet Coke or whatever you like to drink and let's get started. 


Tom, any thoughts on the H St. staple closing? It’s neighborhood fans are pretty devastated.

Ironically, the day before I heard the unfortunate news, I hoped to make a reservation at Sally's Middle Name. It had been too long between visits. I didn't talk to the owners, but I can't help but wonder if the problem wasn't too much competition. The Washingtonian reports the restaurant will be replaced by Thamee, a Burmese restaurant. 

Are there any dishes you don't really see on menus anymore but wish would make a comeback. It is hard for me to find a good meatloaf anymore but I feel 10 years ago it was pretty commonplace on menus.

You know who has a good meatloaf? David Deshaies at Unconventional Diner. His recipe is modernized to include a glaze of ketchup, honey and Sriracha, but it makes for one of the best meat loaves I've ever had. 


Back to your original question: Is there any dish I miss? Pasta primavera, created in the early days of the American culinary revolution of the late 1970s, is surprising hard to find anymore. So are good layer cakes. I'm a fool for an old-fashioned caramel cake, for instance.


Chatters, what do *you* miss?

A few weeks ago I asked you about the current Tabard Inn situation, since my daughter and her fiance were considering having their small wedding there. Despite your discouraging words, they went ahead anyway, so I thought I'd report back. I realize that *food* is your main thing, not "events," but the TI did a wonderful job with the whole event. The service and planning were impeccable, and they were a joy to work with, accommodating and able to be in synch with the couple's unconventional and personal ideas and preferences. The two rooms on their second floor provided the perfect setting, with a warm yet elegant atmosphere. The food for the (buffet) dinner was not exceptional, but fine and plentiful, with options for various dietary needs. The cocktail hour with open bar *was* exceptional, with delicious hors d'oeuvres and attentive service. A wonderful and memorable time was had by all, and the party continued into the wee hours at the bar downstairs.

Thank you for providing some feedback. As I said, it's been a few years since my last meal at the Tabard, whose tight seating was on my mind at the time. 

Hi Tom! Have long trusted your advice on restaurants and thought you might be able to help: my unfussy husband is celebrating a birthday in April and suggested we eat at Makoto - a novel experience, but not, as he put it, a hyped, trendy, "status-symbol reservation", just "people quietly doing what they do very well." Unluckily for me, I was the last person to discover that they closed permanently. Do you have any other recommendations for a unique special occasion restaurant that might be flying under the radar or overlooked in the age of designed-for-Instagram eateries?

It sounds like you're looking for a good place to enjoy omakase, which is basically a tasting menu consisting of dishes the chef thinks you will enjoy. Washington has plenty of Japanese restaurants to choose from. They include the neighborly Sushi Ogawa on Conn. Ave. NW and the serene Sushi Taro in Dupont Circle,which is among the more exclusive dining experiences in town. 

My wedding anniversary is coming up in 2 weeks and I'm at a loss on where to go. We LOVE Eddie V's in Tyson's but I don't want to spend nearly that much. Ideally for 2 of us with 1 appetizer (split), 2 dinners and splitting a dessert I'd really like to be under $150. My husband would probably have 1 drink but I wouldn't. Where do you suggest? I love love LOVE the seabass at Eddie V's, he likes seafood/steaks etc and ideally we want to be in Fairfax country/Tyson's area. We've done the typical season's 52, J Gilberts, Wildfire, Capital Grille etc etc.

You didn't mention the upscale Greek destination, Nostos in Vienna, which has the style and the price point I think you want. If you end up returning to a previous favorite, I'd vote for J. Gilbert's in McLean, where my family took me for my birthday earlier this month. The hospitality, the crab cakes and the cocktails were all impressive. 

Taking the trip of a lifetime to Cape Town, South Africa this May. Would love some restaurant recommendations for local cuisine (e.g., cuisine that we can't easily find in the US). Thank you.

Cape Town, anyone? I've yet to visit South Africa. 

Going to Seattle for a wedding this summer, and we’re trying to gather travel intelligence early. Any restaurant recommendations or other sources that you can point us to? We’re especially partial to seafood and/or Japanese, but open to anything. Thanks! Your chats are my treat every week!!

You're heading to the right place for seafood, for sure. Find time for a casual lunch based on Pacific Northwest ingredients at Matt's in the Market tucked inside Pike Place Market, which is close to the esteemed Sushi Kashiba for Japanese. You can also order oysters right out of the tank, and enjoy them with drinks, at the cozy Taylor Shellfish on Capitol Hill, home to a very good Vietnamese purveyor called Stateside (spring for the marinated black cod). 

Tom! Among Obelisk, Metier, and Bresca for our 11th anniversary this Sunday, what would your recommendation be? Rooster and Owl isn't open on Sundays so...

I have to say, my last meal at Obelisk was a disappointment. Bresca is great fun, though, and Metier is a four-star experience. I guess it depends on the mood you want. 

Hi Tom, Great article on portion sizes today! I could not agree more. I noticed that you included Convivial on your list of current faves. They used to have a delicous fried chicken coq au vin that is not on their online menu. Why do restaurants remove popular dishes like this? We are headed there this weekend and I'm sure will be able to find other good things to order, but my husband really loved that chicken.

I hear you. But chefs get bored. So do regulars. And coq au vin is sort of wintry right now. I can almost guarantee Cedric Maupillier is offering something now to make your spouse forget his favorite entree. 

Tom, I think you've mentioned a couple Ethiopian places in Silver Spring. Ever been to Mandalay for Burmese?

Yes, and it gets worse every time I visit. The service tends to be surly to boot. But, I remember Mandalay when it was good and keep hoping for better from it.

No question, just a comment. We tried Frenchy's about a week ago and completely agree with your assessment re: service. It always felt like it took about double the amount of time that it should to get the host and/or waitstaff's attention. But the steak, salad, and fries were great and a good deal! We'd go back for those, but here's hoping the service gets better, or at least more attentive.

My colleague Maura Judkis filed that First Bite preview while I was away. 

Sorry I didn't respond in time last week but I went last fall and really enjoyed every meal I had. We went to Dinesty Dumpling House, Nemesis Cafe, Wildebeest, Miku, and the Granville Island Public Market.

Like cold pizza, late dining advice for Vancouver is better than no advice. Thank you. 


The following post came in after we signed off last week, too:



For the chatter last week who wanted a recommendation for Vancouver, I recommend Yew Seafood located at the Four Seasons. Good food and service. They do a great breakfast as well. However, the Four Seasons is closing in 2020 apparently due to a leasing issue.


And the layer cakes that do appear are perfect illustrations of your piece on oversized portions! I see four- and five-layer cakes with tons of frosting, where a slice could easily serve three people. Why?

Partly because "big" often translates to "generous" in terms of hospitality. Those desserts ought to come with advice to share. 

Greetings -- My husband and I will be celebrating our 55th wedding anniversary in San Francisco in June. We love French cuisine and wondered whether you might have a recommendation for a French restaurant in the city or nearby that is also quiet. Many thanks.

High on my list is the $150, four-course, modern French menu by the admired Roland Passot at La Folie. The menu -- Dungeness crab salad with citrus, lobster terrine, cheese soufflé -- is very much to my taste. Congrats, by the way. 55 is a big deal. 

Do you or any of the chatters know of some kind of restaurant directory in Washington in the past? I'm researching a project that includes a visitor to DC in 1950 who ate at a specific restaurant that, judging by my lack of success online, has been out of business for decades. It would help to be able to find the place's address, and if possible additional information like its menu, prices, entertainment (if any), etc. Many thanks!

I'll throw this out to the audience and see what comes back. (Could it be the Occidental, opened six year before the Titanic sank?)

Oversized portions aren't such a problem if the dish is something that works well as a leftover when taken home. However, problems can arise when: a) It's a dud as a leftover (e.g., doesn't reheat well); or, b) The diner is in a position not to be able to use the leftover (e.g., while traveling), so the uneaten extra food goes to waste.

Yes and yes. 

Trying again after my question went unanswered last week. My apologies for thinking you could come up with a few recommendations off the cuff for a few 30 something girls looking to have fun night out. What would be your recommendation for a fun night out with top quality food... I only have one week to organize so I'm afraid reservations will be difficult. Also, any recommendations for pre-dinner cocktails? There is 4 of us, we are happy to spend anywhere from $100 to $200 each. We'd like to be in DC. No specific cuisine preference but do like to dine out at all your top restaurants. Thanks!

I''ll give you a couple ideas:


Drinks at Olivia in Penn Quarter followed by dinner at the upscale Indian retreat Punjab Grill on 11th St. NW


Drinks at the new Pembroke in the Dupont Circle Hotel followed by dinner at St. Anselm near Union Kitchen. 


Drinks at Johnny's Half Shell followed by dinner at Tail Up Goat, also in Adams Morgan. 


Feel free to mix and match, by the way. Good luck with your outing. 

Where do you head of you want a little lighter, "healthier" quick or fast food meal? Chain? Local?

I am happy eating an interesting salad at the home-grown Sweetgreen or a plant-based taco from Chaia Tacos, whose new offshoot I recently featured in First Bite. For fast-casual Indian, Rasa in Navy Yard is my go to counter. 

Typically how long do you wait for a restaurant to be open for business before eating there for a "First Bites" piece? One week? One month?

It all depends. But a restaurant is fair game once it's open to the public and charging full price. 

My sister and I are taking my niece to a concert on U Street next month, and need a good place for dinner (and maybe a drink or two) while she's at the show. We were thinking Ethiopian, but really just looking for something good and not too pricey. What would you recommend?

The U St. branch of the Smith in Penn Quarter does a nice job of feeding a range of appetites, with a menu that runs from entree-size salads to spicy salmon tartare and bibimbap. Plus, I like the many thoughtful touches, starting with gratis still or sparkling water when you're seated. 

Having a date night on Friday in downtown SS. Any recommendations? (Besides Urban Butcher - which we have already hit up a number of times and adore but want a change). Cost no problem, although I’m not a fan of Ethiopian (it’s a bread thing...). Thank you!

I'm a big fan of the breezy El Sapo Cuban Social Club, which I'm touting in this month's dispatch of favorites, but, man oh man, it's painful on the ears.

I always say I don't have a bucket list, but if I did, Le Bernadin would be on it. I had the amazing opportunity to go there last week for lunch, and it was, in fact, bucket list quality. In your opinion, what would you say are other restaurants that might measure up (either in DC or elsewhere)?

Fun question. In the Mid-Atlantic, I definitely think the Inn at Little Washington qualifies. Elsewhere, I'd nominate River Cafe in London, Zuni Cafe in San Francisco, Noma in Copenhagen and possibly Indian Accent in New Delhi. For starters. 

On the subject of food you don't get, one of the reasons I like Not Your Average Joe in Silver Spring is you can get a protein, a starch and a vegetable side entree. It's not ground-breaking and won't win any culinary awards, but it's solid and nice because I'm single and don't really want to go through all that trouble when I cook at home. Oh and they have a pretty good meatloaf.

Thanks for chiming in. You're right: it's increasingly hard to find an entree rounded out with more than say, a parsley garnish. 

I really appreciated your article about portion sizes and food waste. These types of stories help raise awareness to something that contributes to the obesity epidemic in the country, the food waste which is terrible for our wallets and the environment and the unfortunate cultural mentality that more is better. Do you think restaurants will respond with a strategy to work on this? I've asked restaurants before if there could be options for smaller portions (I believe you suggested pasta as a side), but was met with "Thanks for your comments; you can always choose to eat less." No very helpful.

I'd be happy to promote a restaurant that offers half portions or extra servings for a reasonable cost. Just saying. 

What are some of your favorite roast chickens in the area? I'm looking for one similar to the shuttered Palena's version. Thank you.

The roasted chicken at Kinship, served with lemony brioche and a frisee salad, is probably the model for roasted birds right now.  If you're open to another preparation, though, check out the spice-rubbed whole chicken served with basmati rice at Momofuku in CityCenter and the feast flavored with date juice and toasted cashew gremolata at the charming Primrose in Brookland.

Yes! My mother's senior living community is working to reduce food waste. However they serve huge portions to people who (mostly) eat very lightly.

As I said in my critic's notebook today, some of the restaurant portions out there, particularly at chain and mid-priced establishments, practically call for building permits. 

That plate of shrimp in red sauce with linguine looks like it should be headed to a table of four to be shared! I hate getting oversized plates! Why pack in the food until you're almost sick? I'd much rather do a tasting menu with small plates. We ate well at Komi, but I didn't feel stuffed. We did take home the leftover goat and pork stew.

The problem I have with Komi is, you don't see a menu before the food starts flowing from the kitchen and unless you ask, you don't know at what point the entree is coming. I'm invariably full by the time the fish or haunch of meat arrives. 

Not to be snarky, but the poster must be unfamiliar with the Google machine: And this is just a few that turn up!

Reader to he rescue! ;)

I've always found the portions at Filomena's absolutely ridiculous. We end up getting apps and sharing entrees, so they aren't coming out ahead by giving so much! It's just so wasteful, and yes, you can take home the leftovers but I would much rather spend less and have a normal size portion of food then a HUGE plate put down in front of me on an overcrowded table.

The owner told me big portions are part of her heritage and Italian food reheats well. True, but ....

Hi Tom, Taking my dad out for his 70th birthday the first week of June, and looking for a suggestion. He does not like small plates, spicy food, or a “white table cloth” atmosphere. Want to make it special, but also something he would enjoy since we usually cater to the rest of the family who are more adventurous eaters.

You don't say where you want to celebrate, but you can't go wrong with the aforementioned Unconditional Diner in the District, which serves lovely renditions of familiar American dishes, including fried chicken and beef short ribs. Near the Treasury building, Old Ebbitt Grill, part of the Clyde's Restaurant Group, is as reliable an American institution as they come (and despite hundreds of tables, it's never too early to book ahead there). 

Hi! You've definitely answered this before, but what's a quiet, moderately priced restaurant in Montgomery County or upper NW DC?

The place that leaps to mind is the throwback known as Le Ferme in Chevy Chase, where the sound check is about 60 decibels, perfect for conversation. 

Tosca isn't just a lobbyist favorite - it's a great place to bring your parents (especially the one's who can't hear so well anymore).

Of course. I just wanted to flag its significance as a power restaurant. 

My fiancee and I are going to Lisbon and Basque Country (specifically the San Sebastian area) for our honeymoon this summer, and would love a recommendation or two for a special dinner, or just for some amazing holes in the wall. Thanks Tom (and chatters)!

If only you had posted this question in advance (hint, hint) I could have researched my files for you. I love San Sebastian! But I can't recall my fave little spots for grazing. Arzak is the Big Deal restaurant you want to book, though. 

Just pointlessly adding the opposing viewpoint--I feel bitter sometimes when I get a small portion. And I love leftovers.

Hey, I love leftovers, too. But haven't we all "forgotten" about them, and ended up tossing them?  Food waste is a peeve of mine. 

Where to go in DC for good Portuguese food?

Tavira in Chevy Chase offers very good caldo verde, chicken peri-peri and custard cake. Plus, the service is great. 

I ate at Cracker Barrel this Monday, and my first plate was so inedible that it was replaced. I've filled out their online survey. This meal means that I was served twice the food and fully half went in the trash...pork chop, okra, iced tea (with the lemon I specifically asked to be without). I'm not going back when I next have the reason to go to BWI. The Bob Evans across the street will do better, and they offer smaller portions.

Thanks for writing. 

Try any of the places run by José Avillez. 4-5 in Lisbon, 2 more in Porto.

Just in the nick of time!

Think about the fact that we no longer know what a "small" portion is -- it's what used to be called a "normal" portion.

It's true! Unfortunately. 

Kudos on your commentary in today's Food section, Tom. But the following sentence caught my eye: "Order a sandwich at the Smith in Washington, and it comes with what looks like four cups of french fries, an image I recently tweeted and was met with MYOB, even from my own employer." Care to elaborate on who at the Post disagreed with you on this?

Ha! The retort came from the main WP Twitter account. I'm unsure who tweeted it. 


And on that note, I bid you all a delicious rest of the week. Let's do this again next Wednesday (and please remember, the earlier I get your questions, the better I'm able to help you out). 


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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