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

Apr 18, 2018

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at washingtonpost.com/tomsietsema.

Hi Tom, Yesterday I was dining at a favorite Italian restaurant of ours (and yours) and couldn't finish my pasta dish. Since I had my work bag with me with my empty lunch containers in it, I decided to wrap the leftovers in my own container. As I was doing so, the wait staff and manager, who happened to be near us, were staring and making fun (they were trying to be discrete but it didn't really work), which made me feel really awkward and self-conscious. Now I am well-aware that what I was doing is unorthodox, particularly because the restaurant is quite nice (although it bills itself as casual), although the restaurant does generally offer to wrap leftovers. In light of all the attention that's being paid to oceans being overrun with plastic waste, it would be great if restaurants were more supportive of people bringing their own containers instead of mocking the practice. This might encourage people to do so more often. Besides, it saves the restaurant money on take out boxes, and the food would end up in the trash, which the restaurant has to pay for to get hauled anyway. So this is just a quick plea for restaurateurs to be more encouraging of people trying to reduce waste. Thanks Tom for allowing me to get on my soap box. Keep up the good work.

First, good for you for thinking of the environment. More people should be as concerned about waste (of both food and packaging). Second, shame on the staff for making fun of you.

 

Had I been you, however, I think I would have given my server my empty container and asked him to wrap up leftovers in the kitchen or behind the scenes.  (I'm accident-prone. I can see sauce or noodles or both landing on the table or my clothes.)  Part of hospitality is taking care of details, leftovers included.

 

Good morning, everyone.  It's good to be back in the host seat this week. The countdown to this year's spring dining guide begins tomorrow with the roll-out of my Top 10 list, one restaurant per (workweek) day until publication May 6.  I hope you like what you see.

 

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

Hi Tom, thanks for these chats! I enjoy reading them every week. As big fans of Arroz, my family and I were so disappointed to hear about the allegations against Mike Isabella (as well as several others) that have pointed to systemic problems regarding the treatment of women in the restaurant industry. We would love to support more women-owned (or women-run) restaurants. Could you recommend any great ones in the D.C. area? Thank you!

Happy to oblige. Off the top of my head, there's Centrolina for very good Italian food from Amy Brandwein: Elle for eclectic "medium" plates and terrific desserts from pastry chef and co-owner Lizzy Evelyn;  Ris for hearty American far from veteran Washington chef Ris Lacoste; and the multiple seafood-centric Hank's Oyster Bars from chef Jamie Leeds. (Chatters, what am I missing? Help me add to the list.)

Hi Tom, I love the chat. Thanks for hosting! I know this is a long-shot, but my dad is coming to DC for the weekend and wants to go someplace like Ping Pong Dim Sum (I'm guessing small-plates Asian food would suffice). I can't think of anywhere to go that fits the bill that would be ok with a 3 year old and a 4 month old. Any suggestions? NW DC or close-in MD preferred. Thanks!

I think I have the ideal spot for you. It's China Chilcano, with a menu that weaves Asian and Peruvian flavors on the menu.  Think lamb pot stickers and shrimp-and-pork dumplings in a colorful dining room in Penn Quarter.

I have eaten at Rasika West End twice in the last six months with the same terrible service. Water not filled, 20 minutes to get bottle of wine, ignored by waiter. Beyond leaving a scathing review online, should I reach out to the restaurant via phone or email directly? It is such a shame that such wonderful food can be ruined by the service. -- Fan of Water

Thanks for the field report concerning one of my favorite restaurants. Did you bring your complaints to a supervisor during your visit? The best way to handle issues of the sort you describe is at the time the problems are unfolding. And if you're such a fan of water, you might let the server know when you sit down.

Hi Tom! Love your chats, but I notice that you seldom mention regular old neighborhood joints that aren't super flashy or expensive, but serve really solid food. I'd like to make a plea for more suggestions like that. Perhaps a Shaw Brew Pub, Boundary Stone, or BKK Cookshop? Would you have any others that you might add to a list like that? Thanks for listening!

Thanks for the prompt, and stay tuned.  The forthcoming spring dining guide includes multiple (good-to-great) neighborhood spots. And I'm in the process of reviewing a charming Italian restaurant that hasn't been looked at in years.

I always decline this offer after my leftovers twice (two different restaurants) were thrown away instead of being wrapped up for me. I have a small appetite and can often get three meals from my restaurant portions. Neither time they were tossed out was I offered compensation nor granted it when asked.

Grrrr, and thanks for sharing.

"And if you're such a fan of water..." Did you mean to be snarky? Refilling water glasses is a basic service that happens automatically at every good restaurant from diner to divine. I don't expect it the minute I set down my empty glass.

No, I wasn't being snarky. It's just that servers aren't mind-readers. I kind of hate the constant topping off of water myself.

I'm going to St. Louis for a conference in a few weeks & wondered if you or the chatters had some suggestions for restaurants. My coworker & I definitely plan to get some BBQ. Any help would be appreciated! Love you and the chatters!

It's been some time since I last ate in St. Louis, but my go-to source for all things food is Ian Froeb of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Here's a round-up of what he considers to be the best new restaurants, for instance. 

Tom, last night we dined at a Michelin 2 star restaurant in Colmar, France. While the food was exceptional, the service was very poor and it led us to remember the spectacular meal we enjoyed at the Inn at Little Washington 2 years ago. We kept commenting on how unfair it is that the Inn at Little Washington did not receive a 3rd star this year. Patrick O'Connell has mastered all parts of an exquisite dining experience and last night's restaurant is a far cry from that luxurious experience. It is a shame to rank these 2 restaurants the same.

Restaurants change. Experiences can differ from night to night. If the French restaurant you visited is consistently off, service-wise, I suspect Michelin inspectors will see that.  (You don't name the establishment. Was it JY’S, named for chef  Jean-Yves Schillinger?)

Hi Tom, I’m a mom of three (6,4&2) rambunctious kids anss my husband and I love eating out. It’s not always feasible to find baby sitting for all three plus I would like to expose my kids to eating out and how to behave when eating out. Unfortunately it doesn’t always work well. LOL Which restaurants would you recommend that I could take our family to?

Millie's springs to mind, especially now that the weather seems to be warming up. The restaurant caters to families in a big way, with picnic tables and an ice cream window on the front patio.  The new All Purpose near the stadium is another idea. What kid doesn't love pizza and a waterfront view?

Purple Patch! The owner is also a vet, too! Great hospitality and yummy Filipino-American food!

You bet. The owner of the neighborhood dining room -- a source of lumpia, fried guajillo pepper chicken wings  and more -- is Patrice Cleary.

I'm asking in all seriousness, are you saying we should tell our waiter that we want water refills when we sit down? I thought getting water refilled was standard service. I know the poster signed it "fan of water" but assumed it was tongue in cheek. Like I'm a "fan of clean silverware."

I guess I'm not making myself clear. Water and the delivery thereof  is a given in a restaurant, but the poster sounds like an extra-extra-thirsty customer. If that's the case, she should just announce it.

Hi Tom - everyone seems to be in a bad mood today! I didn't think you were being snarky....

Geesh!

Heading to Portland next week. Do you have any recommendations for places to try? Not picky at all here. Thanks!

Can you fit me into your suitcase? Portland was my No. 1 pick when I ranked America's best food cities three years ago.  You're in for a treat. The capsule reviews within my Valentine to the city should help you plan your meals, drinks and snack attacks. 

You often recommend folks complain to the manager, but I really don't think most of them care. Several friends and I ate at a popular upscale neighborhood restaurant and the service was just bad. The server never asked if we wanted a second round of drinks, never asked how things were, didn't ask us if we wanted dessert, didn't/couldn't tell us what was on our charcuterie/cheese plate . We spoke to the manager, and after asking for specific examples of our issues and excusing them away ("she probably didn't think you wanted more wine"), then told us our server was "going through something." Not to be callous, but I don't care (I mean, I do care as a human, but didn't need to hear about it.) We weren't asking for anything comped and the manager certainly didn't offer. We haven't been back even though we used to eat their fairly regularly. And,I've noticed on review sites that a mangers at various restaurants will respond to a negative review with "please contact me", and the reviewer will update with some version of "I tried to contact the manager, and never heard back." It seems like managers pay lip service to wanting to know about problems, but in reality they don't want to deal.

Diners don't want to hear excuses.  At the very least, they want to feel as if they're being heard. There are always going to be some bad apples out there, but I really think most managers want their customers to leave a meal happy. Don't let one or two bad experiences keep you from bringing issues to the attention of supervisors. They can't be everywhere all the time and they need your feedback.

If you’re looking for a great women-owned restaurant, Pizzeria Paradiso is owned by Ruth Gresser AND has a female beverage director as well!

But of course! Thank you for weighing in.

Thanks to the reader who wrote in about getting charged for what he or she assumed were free refills. A few years ago, I was at a restaurant in DC on a very hot, humid day, and drank 3 or 4 lemonades (I can't remember for sure, but I think they were fountain soda lemonades, not freshly squeezed). I should have asked if the refills were free but I didn't, and was shocked when I was charged for all the lemonades on my bill. Since then I've always been sure to ask whether refills of any kind are free. Sometimes I get a chuckle out of the waiter/waitress ("Of course, it's free!") but I don't mind that. Better to check than end up with a surprise on the bill!

That was pretty much my response to the problem I addressed in a recent roundup of reader questions in the Magazine: Servers should tell you if refills are gratis or not, but patrons should ask if they're not told. 

I just had a wonderful birthday dinner at Kinship with a friend. The dinner was outstanding as was the service. When the main course was served I asked if we could get the Parker rolls which I remembered from City Zen. The waiter said he would see if there were extras because they only came with certain entrees. We did get them. They were delicious. My question is: should I have been surprised that there was a $10 charge on the bill for them. I asked the waiter who explained that the rolls were labor intensive and sent over the manager who said we should have been told of the charge. He ultimately took it off the bill but it still left a bad taste in my mouth. 

Those warm-from-the-oven rolls at Kinship are indeed a treat. I think the server gave you the heads up about a possible charge when he described them as labor-intensive and tied to certain dishes. Not all bread is created equal. You were lucky to get them gratis, this time at least. But again, you should have asked, and the restaurant should have mentioned the price.

I understood you perfectly. I drink a lot of water. My boyfriend doesn't. I ask for more water when mine gets low. He doesn't. And if the water pitcher/bottle is left at the table I fill my glass and his when the near empty. No big deal folks...

Sounds like the best solution of all is for the restaurant to leave a pitcher of water on the table. It says "help yourself" -- or not.

I find tapas and small plate restaurants can work well with kids. The meal can move faster. There is not so much waiting as food starts coming quickly. A great way to try some new things without worrying about anyone hating their entire meal and going hungry. Additionally, eat at off times, when our kids were small we did a lot of 2:30 - 4:30 restaurant meals. I felt less stressed in a less crowded restaurant and the kid gear fits easier when there are less people around.

Great advice.

I mean no snark by this, but before you take your kids to even a modest restaurant, try serving them some practice meals at home, where you can guide them in polishing their "dining out" behavior. That way parents and children alike -- as well as fellow diners, and restaurant employees -- have a better chance of an enjoyable experience eating out.

Fair enough.

Hi Tom, I am travelling to Baltimore for the first time in a few months. I want to try a crab cake as crab is the one type of seafood I kind of like and Baltimore is known for it. Can you think of any restaurants that won't break the bank, aren't chains, and will have a great crab cake and non-seafood food, either entrees or just great sides. I'll be staying in the Inner Harbor area so somewhere close or a quick cab ride away would also be appreciated.

Probably my favorite place to go for crab cakes in Baltimore is Faidley's in the sprawling Lexington Market.  Weighing in at six ounces, they rely on crab from the Eastern Shore, some mayonnaise and mustard to hold the cakes together and a little time under a broiler. Bliss.

Hey Tom - I'm headed to Anthem for a concert this weekend and was looking for a pre-show dining option on the more casual side. Do you have any recommendations, besides Hank's, that offers a more casual vibe? Thanks.

Book a reservation at either Mi Vida for Mexican or Kaliwa for a menu of Filipino, Thai and Korean dishes.  Both places are lively and both are hopping on concert nights. Don't plan to drop in without a confirmed reservation, in other words. 

I need a reservation for 6 for Saturday night (April 21st) in DC after a daylong conference and rally at the Capitol. Found some online but they're already fully booked. Yikes! What suggestions do you have for other restaurants that take reservations and wouldn't be too far from the Capitol Hill area? Thanks!

Have you tried Joselito yet? The Spanish restaurant has a nice back room, wrapped in windows, that would be ideal for a group your size.  Ambar would be good, too. I'm a big fan of its Balkan cooking. 

Morning Tom, This is kind of personal but I don't mind sharing and maybe folks have some thoughts out there. One of my 84 year old dad's greatest pleasures is dining out, and when we stay with local favorite places he does great and we do great. When we venture outside of that norm, say when he visits me here in DC or for some reason my parents end up at a new venue, we are all of a sudden faced with some challenges that are new to us as he ages and with a recent diagnosis of dementia, like bathroom accessibility, limits on wine consumption, enough space to move around, and not being overstimulated by the environment. I'm a planner by nature and was wondering what's the protocol for contacting a restaurant ahead of time to ask some questions to gauge how well we will do and once we are there how much help can we ask for? It's usually little things like a quiet table or be near the bathroom, some more personal help like at places we know/know us if he's taking too long in the bathroom can someone pop there head in just to do a scan that all is well, or have the bartender water down his drink. That's a lot to ask for someplace new I know, but it's the new way of thinking for us when we do go out so we can limit stress and frustration and have a nice time. Does it make sense to call ahead to talk with a manager or staff or is it too much to ask for/burden a restaurant with? Our days are numbered where we can go to new, unfamiliar places or even go out with him, and just trying to think about how best to accomplish this. Thanks so much in advance for readying this.

Your father is lucky to have such a concerned and considerate child. I'd love to hear from members of the industry, or diners with similar situations, but I think doing your homework puts you at a real advantage. Yes to reaching out to a manager (but please, not at high noon or  7 p.m. on a Friday!); flagging your special needs on Open Table or similar reservation service; and maybe even scouting the restaurant ahead of a visit and checking out the dining room (and introducing yourself to a manager).

 

Best of luck to you, by the way.

Hi Tom, we were at a popular, higher-end restaurant having a great meal when my wife noticed something weird; there was a station in the center of the space where wine glasses (and other things) were kept. A staff person, was wiping the glasses and sticking his nose inside each glass, taking a big sniff before "approving" them. While we appreciate tidiness in a restaurant, this seemed kind of gross. Any ideas about this?

I'm guessing he was checking for soap residue (the smell)?

Tom, you may want to take a harder look before recommending Kaliwa, after all of the recent controversy. Hair in food, rude manager(s), cops called on patrons, etc. Here's some background- https://www.popville.com/2018/04/how-not-to-deal-with-hair-in-an-entree/ It sounds like the patrons were a nightmare, but also like the restaurant has some systemic problems. Either way, plenty of better, casual options at the Wharf.

There are always two sides (or more!) to these stories. I haven't talked to the parties involved, but the diner who was escorted out by police, and subsequently copied me on her Facebook post, more or less lost me when she went into this diatribe about (and I'm paraphrasing here) chefs watering down their food for an audience who might not appreciate the real deal and turning a service dispute into a racial incident (when the staff involved includes non-whites). I wish I had more time to address this, but I don't.  Maybe we can take it up again next week.

Rightly or wrongly, the question about dining with an elderly parent immediately reminded me of the earlier question of dining with small children. And I thought, "The suggestion about eating at off times would likely apply in this situation, too."

You bet.

Hi Tom, I tried submitting this last week but alas your chat was canceled and I suffered a very long and boring Wednesday. So, My husband and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary in Washington during the Cherry Blossom Madness, er, Festival. It was cold but the feelings were warm at every restaurant we visited. I'd like to give a shout-out to Fiola Mare, the Hay Adams bar, Martin's Tavern, Bombay Club, Kapnos, and Joselito. We were treated like dignitaries by all the hosts and hostesses and servers and not like some random couple having dinner, which to them we were since we did not tell a soul about our special date. Thank you all for making our weekend really special. You are a credit to our city. Well done.

I'm blushing. But thanks for the field report. It's especially gratifying, given the stiff competition in the industry for talent, both in the dining room and in the kitchen. 

After you mentioned the Tavern at Rare a few weeks ago in your chat, I went there with my father when he was in town. The food was great, but the service was extraordinary. They treated my eight year old daughter with as much care as my father. While it's not a place I would take all children (my daughter thought it was "a very fancy restaurant"), they made sure that we all felt comfortable. Great job all around!

That doesn't surprise me. The hosts and servers I've encountered at the Tavern have been consistently  great. 

I know you've discussed this, but you have more clout so I'm reviving it. Had a longstanding reservation at Requin with a family friend (so I'm not going to drag her into my politics and demand she cancel). While they've got bigger fish to fry right now, they should put prices on their online menus, especially for such a splurgey place.

For sure, restaurants need to let consumers know what they cost.  If it helps, the price range for larger dishes, meant to be shared, at Requin is $36 to $75.

More likely sanitizer residue - it makes all the wine taste like vanilla if any if left behind!

Well, there you go!

 

Thanks for another lively chat. I look forward to fielding more questions, rants and raves next Wednesday, same time. Enjoy the rest of the week, everyone.

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 sidewalk.com; 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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