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

Apr 12, 2017

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

How about a series of reviews, or at least postings, of restaurants that have withstood the tests of time, and trends, to remain outposts of great dining? Those that are almost always dependable to provide professional service and great food. I am thinking, of course, of the Inn at Little Washington, but also Equinox, Bastille, La Chaumiere, Obelisk, and others.

Funny you should post this the week I'm racing to wrap up my annual spring dining guide, traditionally a look back at previously reviewed restaurants. One of the places you mention will be featured in the collection, along with a roster of the 10 Best New Restaurants


Good morning, everyone, and thanks for joining me for an abbreviated dining discussion this morning. I need to cut out around 11:30 today, so submit  your pressing questions ASAP.  I'm away next Wednesday, by the way. Our next time together will be April 26. 


Let's rock and roll. 


Hi Tom, we have reservations for a group dinner for 8 at Mirabelle, looking for good French food in downtown DC and a fun destination for out-of-towners, but a tester who had lunch there thought it was overpriced ($50/person for lunch and a glass of wine) and the food was fine but not fantastic, although the service was good. Are there other options to consider in the area, or are we paying for the location and ambiance? I don't really want to spend a thousand dollars for dinner, wine, and dessert for 8, but I do want to have a nice experience. Any thoughts?

You can have a "nice" experience at the competition, including the modern American Oval Room nearby, but before you decide against Mirabelle, you should know that the service is incredible, the dining room is special and the food is by former White House chef Frank Ruta, one of DC's most respected talents.  Also, with wine, tax and tip, dinner in a sure bet downtown establishment is going to be more than $100 a person. There really are no other comparable French experiences nearby. 

Hey Tom! Even as someone who lives in New Orleans, I love following your chats every week. (Looking forward to visiting the District in June for a wedding!) Your writing style is fantastic and incredibly entertaining even for someone outside of the region. I was wondering what other food writers across America you closely follow? In New Orleans, Ian McNulty is my personal favorite (plus it's fun to run into him at the local neighborhood pub). Thanks, and next time you're in New Orleans drinks on me!

I may just take you up on that! (And your name is ..?) Thanks so much for the kind words. 


In New Orleans, my trusted source is former Washington City Paper Brett Anderson of the Times-Picayune, who I also count as a good friend. In Los Angeles, I rely on Besha Rodell of LA Weekly and Patric Kuh of Los Angeles Magazine, in addition to the Pulitzer Prize winner at the LA Times. For Chicago, there's my pal Phil Vettel at the Chicago Tribune and for national reviews, Bill Addison of Eater is the guy to follow.  I could go on, but we're on a tight schedule today. 

I was dining at Pepita with three relatives recently when we were asked, mid-meal, if we would mind moving to another table to accommodate a larger group arriving soon. We reluctantly agreed to move from our comfy booth to a much-less-roomy table for 4. About 10 minutes later, the table for 2 next to us freed up, and 20 minutes after that, the larger group (of 5) arrived and settled into the booth. Our waiter offered us a free round of drinks for our trouble, but the whole thing struck me as odd (and awkward!). If they had waited 10 minutes, they could have pushed two tables together to accommodate the group of 5 instead of moving us. I don't eat out often - is this normal?

I'm a big fan of booth seating. I would have been reluctant to vacate such a perch at Pepita, too.  On the other hand, there was no way for the staff to know the table next to you would be freed up before the group of five arrived -- and you were offered gratis drinks for your trouble. I guess if you felt strongly about the transfer, you could have negotiated for more (say, appetizers on the house). Fortunately, in my experience this type of thing doesn't occur very often.

Tom, Did you see the ridiculous article in this past Sunday's New York Times about how Cafe Milano is the DC power spot? The article was clearly fed to them by a PR flack. Should we just be grateful that the Times didn't write about steakhouses?!

One of the important details left out of the piece, which had me scratching my head and rolling my eyes, was the quality of the food at Cafe Milano. No one goes there for the food, that's for sure! 

Tom, When I go to the Tom Sietsema page or the Restaurants page on the Post web site there is no way to search for reviews of restaurants. Where can I find that useful information? I was prompted to ask because I wanted to see if I could find a review to Lupo Verde (how is it these days?). We are looking for somewhere for a pre-theatre dinner at Studio (7:30 curtain).

There's no great answer to that one right now. Your best bet would be to search for "lupo verde tom sietsema" on the Washington Post site search or to run a similar search on Google. Not ideal, but if there's a review from within the last several years, it should surface there.

Looking for ideas for visitors seeking grilled fish or a steak, where adults can enjoy a bottle of wine, while still being kid friendly in the City Center/Penn Quarter area (or other areas in that general vicinity that I may be forgetting at the moment).

In City Center, try Centrolina, an airy Italian restaurant and market with the possibility of fish from a wood-burning oven. In Penn Quarter, there's the high-energy Oyamel to consider for very good Mexican cooking, including a hanger steak offered with a pumpkin seed-ancho chile sauce.

Hi Tom. Thanks for all the great advice! My wife and I will be in SF for one night in June and, given the abundance of dining options, we are seeking your suggestion. Our current favs in DC are The Dabney, Roses, and Little Serow. A place with well executed dishes, great service, current vibe, and won't break the bank. Thanks!

Let me direct you to my Valentine to San Francisco from two years ago and introduce you to one of my pet dining destinations, the colorful and delicious Liholiho Yacht Club.

Is there a good restaurant serving Spanish food in Maryland?

There is, and you'll find it in Bethesda: TapaBar, an eye-catching dining room serving classic Spanish small plates, including garlicky shrimp and tortilla Espanola. The chef also cures some of his own meats. 

Hi Tom - my wife and I have a rare babysitter for an upcoming saturday night. Assuming we can get reservations would you recommend Sfoglina, Alta Strada or Centrolina?

They're all good-to-great in their own way. If it helps make your decision easier, Alta Strada is the most casual and Sfoglina is the most posh. With Centrolina, you get very good Italian cooking in a part of the city that's fun to stroll around before or after a meal. 

Thank you for your article on the emergence of plant-based centered cuisine. I'm disappointed DC is not more of a veg-friendly city, as evidence by its lack of listing in the VegNews top 10. We seem to have the abundance of educated, affluent people and animal protection organizations that should support a strong veg scene. I like Fare Well better than you do and appreciate Shouk, Hip City, NuVegan, Elizabeth's etc. But what do you think it will take for DC to become a truly top notch city for veg restaurants? I think Vedge is coming, and maybe that will help.

Interesting, isn't it, that some of the best vegetarian cooking in this country is found in a blue collar city like Philly?  No place is better than Los Angeles for interesting meatless fare, however, which I wrote about last week in Food.


I, too, am surprised DC doesn't have better vegan options, although I find more and more chefs adding to their menus really interesting meatless dishes. Kudos to Garrison on the Hill, for instance, for the significant real estate the chef devotes to vegetables. And vegetarians can eat very well at restaurants including Rasika and other Indian establishments, and the French-American Convivial.

Tom: Thanks for the informative write-up for Arroz in today's Post. From the menu on-line, it looks as if Arroz is pricier than a lot of other restaurants - maybe not in the same league as Pineapple and Pearls or Minibar, but still perhaps at the same level as a Fiola Mare. I'd encourage you to mention something about the cost in future First Bites.

Well, I list the price range next to the address at the bottom of the preview. The larger dishes might *look* more expensive, but they're designed for two or more people to eat. Honestly, I don't think of Arroz as especially pricey. 

I just had the same experience. We did it, but I wasn't thrilled. I guess my question to you is, "They had no idea the table for two would be leaving in time". The staff couldn't see that the twosome was wrapping up their dinner? The group of five couldn't wait for the two tables to be pushed together? Why disrupt a perfectly happy, comfortable group of diners? Also, possession is nine-tenths of the law.

Well, I wasn't there to witness the scene, but I hear you. Restaurateurs should think twice before asking happy campers to vacate one spot for another.

Where do you go when you want a great burger and fries?

Probably the most glam of the lot out there is the tall burger featured at Central Michel Richard. It's $18, but what a feast (for the eyes as much as the palate)!

Imagine if United ran the restaurant and asked people to relocate . . . .

I was thinking about that as I was typing my response!

Years ago, 2005, we asked about Paris and tried two of your recommendations-they were the best. This year we're going to LA and would like to know some of your favorites. We're interested in the top tier American. Thanks in advance. JAH

Have you seen my survey of Los Angeles? It offera number of ideas, in the form of capsule reviews. Spago has been around as long as Kirk Douglas -- kidding --  but it's still an excellent restaurant, with great people-watching. While I had an unfortunate service experience there, Providence should probably be at the top of your list for modern American. It gets consistent high marks from local critics.

What's your take on the slice-and-dice review of Cinq?? Have you eaten there?

I read the brutal review, from the British critic Jay Raynor, with great interest. I've eaten at Le Cinq several times over the years and even sent my parents there for a big deal anniversary lunch a dozen or so years ago.


No one does caustic better than the Brits -- or gets away with a few lines that would never make it into a mainstream American newspaper. The meal Raynor describes is far different from the multiple meals I've had at the restaurant in the past. But things change, right? The photos he attaches to the bottom of his critique lead me to believe he wasn't exaggerating about the experience.

Tom, I need to use up an airline voucher and thinking about doing an eating trip to LA. What neighborhood would you recommend staying in? I know nothing about LA and look forward to culinary exploration. Am a fairly adventurous eater (no insects or canines, please). Thanks for your advice.

I stayed at the Line hotel in Koreatown, a great spot if you plan to use Uber to get around.

Tom, you are going to die with this one. I chose the Kingbird in the Watergate for it's location and because I had been there once before and loved the rooftop and the food. And then quickly had the absolute worst service I have ever encountered. Clumsy, obtrusive wait staff, a botched order and just an all around clusterfug. I knew we were in trouble when the waiter delivered a preview of menu items that rivaled a Ted Cruz filibuster. I would estimate that he spoke for almost 5 minutes. That seems insane - it felt like 20 - but maybe it was more like 3 minutes. And guess what? They had no specials...he was just reading and up-selling the freaking menu! And then the comedy of errors ensued with what is a clueless and poorly trained staff. They ruined what was a birthday dinner for my dad and I am still pissed about it. I took your advice and complained to the general manager, and that was the first time I have ever done the "speak to the manager" routine. He instructed the swarming staff to leave us alone, which I requested. And then....nothing. No comps, no acknowledgement no....nothing. EVERYONE in our 6-person party trying to celebrate my father's birthday felt the same way. An awful experience, despite some excellent food. While he did get the keystone cops of a wait staff to, he did nothing else for what I told him was the worst service I had ever experienced. It was enraging. And to top it off, the GM did a cursory, "is everything ok Mr. Blank?" No. Not only was this miserable - you didn't do anything. I didn't specifically ASK for fill-in-the-blank, but come on! So he gives me his business card and says, "Oh please come back - I will take care of you." Really? Well, not exactly off to a running start. Even just telling the table how sorry he was for his staff's nincompoopness would have been nice. I didn't want free dessert or whatever, but just BE ACCOUNTABLE for the love of double-wide pork chops (which was DELICIOUS, by the way). Now? Good lord. What would you do or have done in that situation?


 I would have written to me, of course! Your meal sounds dreadful, and I'm sorry an important celebration was ruined by such ineptness (from the top down). I totally sympathize with the epic menu introduction, which I endure on a regular basis and absolutely dread.  A menu that needs explanation is typically a poorly written list. 


I reached out, several times, to Kingbird for a response and not until I contacted a publicist yesterday did I get a comment. (No one ever answers the phone in the restaurant, btw.)  Here it is, sir:

First of all, thank you for choosing Kingbird to host such a special birthday celebration. We are extremely sorry that your group’s dining experience fell short of expectations and that we failed to deliver the high level of service and hospitality that we pride ourselves on. We would love to have you back as our guest for another meal. Will you allow us the opportunity to redeem ourselves?


Take it from there (if you're brave).


Chatters, I have to go now. Let's do this again April 26. Be well and eat well until then.


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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