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

May 22, 2019

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Hi Tom, a few weeks ago my boyfriend and I had a bad visit at Ted's Bulletin on 14th St.-- we're frequent visitors, but this was the third in a string of visits where we experienced inattentive service (food and drinks never brought, water never refilled, waiters disappearing after taking our order etc.) After our visit, we wrote a Yelp review outlining our concerns. Someone from the restaurant's holding group reached out to us and through direct messages on the platform invited us back so that they could make it up to us. The message said, "would it be possible to invite you and your boyfriend back in for a meal on us." We thought this was above and beyond and were impressed, as we were not expecting anything from our review, other than our opinions being heard by others. We agreed to a date and time with the restaurant. We experienced great service from our waiter and the manager came over and told us she had spoken to the holding group about our review and apologized. At the end of the meal, we were given the check and were charged in full for everything except our drinks (iced tea and coffee) and a pop-tart, which was about $12 total. We were unsure what to do, as we had taken the invitation for "a meal on us" to at the least, include entrees. In the end we paid bill and when we got home, we messaged our contact from the holding group to compliment our waiter and to tell him that we felt as though it was not clear what a "meal on us" meant. We never heard back from the holding group and we now feel as though we were led back in under false pretenses, as we had not planned to patronize that location again after our past experiences. My question to you is this: are we being unfair and were we expecting too much from their offer? Was there a way to address this with the manager during our visit without seeming like we were trying to get something for nothing?

"A meal on us" should be obvious: gratis food and drink. I don't see how the restaurant could have messed up twice like that. Then to have corporate ignore your follow-up email? That's a sloppy thing to do. 


All that said, you ignored my regular and no doubt tiresome plea for customers to say something while they're still in the restaurant and while the restaurant can make immediate amends. You missed an opportunity to leave on a happier note. 


For insurance, I would have printed out the "invitation" and shown it to a manager in the event you received a bill. 


Good morning, everyone. I'm just back from several days in Santa Fe, where the happiest memories involved a trip to Georgia O'Keeffe's home in Albiquiu, a massage at the Japanese-style Ten Thousand Waves and some art shopping on Canyon Road. The food? Let's just say I wouldn't race back to Coyote Cafe, the Inn at the Anasazi or Restaurant Martin, restaurants whose menus revealed little about the region. Indeed, the single best dish I ate was at the excellent farm market in Santa Fe: a blue corn pupusa stuffed with beans and cheese. 


In this week's Dining column, I address a number of questions and concerns from readers. One missive prompted me to add accessibility to restaurant reviews going forward. I also have Laura Hayes of the Washington City Paper for nudging me in the right direction with her excellent story on the subject. 


What's on your mind, food-wise? I'm here to help. Let's get cracking.  I'm on a tight deadline today and I leave tomorrow for a work trip, so I only have 30 minutes to spare for the chat. My apologies in advance. 


I am a childless 25 year old woman and I am close with my soon-to-be 13 year old niece. Since I was in town last weekend, I decided to take her to a fancy dinner followed by a musical in the city to celebrate her upcoming birthday. I made reservations at a nice restaurant ahead of time and showed up at the restaurant with niece in tow. When I gave my name to the hostess, she asked my niece's age. I told her that my niece was 12, and then to my shock I was told that we couldn't be seated because the restaurant had a no kids under 13 policy. First of all, if that policy is so strictly enforced, I should have been informed when I called to make a reservation. Second, if I was misinformed when making the reservation, the restaurant should have seated us anyway since it's their mistake! And third, my niece is almost 13! She should be been let in regardless of any policy! I was infuriated. I spoke to the manager who claimed that he was sorry but he just "couldn't" seat us because it is against restaurant policy. Is this common? I can't believe that restaurants really set policies that wouldn't allow someone of my niece's age in.

You're right: restaurants need to clearly state their house rules both online and in any communication with potential patrons. 


May I ask where this was? It's hard to imagine a Washington restaurant that would banish a near-teenager and a reservation holder -- especially when they're in the door. 

Tom, My son is graduating next week from high school. His ceremony is being held at DAR Constitution Hall. The family and I were looking for a place to eat on the early side (his ceremony ends at 5 pm) within walking distance of DAR. However, it seems to be kind of a food desert around there. We were going to hoof it over to Old Ebbitt, but they don't have any reservations during that time. Any suggestions as to where a group of 6 could go and have a nice meal, i.e. not super expensive but not fast casual, either? It'll be 4 adults and 2 teenagers. The teenagers will eat anything and aren't picky. Thanks much, Jim

The walking distance between the ceremony and dinner at Woodward Table on D St. NW is about 14 minutes. The American restaurant, featured as one of my favorite dining spots in January, is relaxed and creative and moderately priced. Book there (and quickly). 

Hi Tom! Hoping the second time's the charm for submitting this question... My husband and I are headed to Montreal at the end of May for a long weekend and are wondering if you have any can't-miss recommendations? We're open to fine dining or casual, and pretty much any cuisine (although to be honest, heavy French food is not our favorite). Many thanks!

Montreal, anyone? I haven't been there in ages. And while I've got you, other posters are inquiring about good dining options in Boston,  Cincinnati and Williamsburg.

How do you keep your discernible food skills up to date?

Eating out 10 or more meals a week, and experiencing a wide range of cuisines in the line of duty, seem to work for me. 

Following up on the prior chatter asking about where to have lunch in Adams Morgan: my first choice would be Brothers & Sisters, the lobby restaurant at The Line hotel. Not a huge menu, but interesting choices are well prepared, and nobody minds if you linger. On Fridays only, both Bul (good Korean) and Sakuramen are open for lunch, too.

Brothers and Sisters is a fine idea. The all-day menu includes such interesting possibilities as duck consommé with lime leaves, vegetable Bolognese and desserts by the talented Pichet Ong

First Chinese restaurant to get a Michelin star, but the prices are YIKES. We're going to a show at Wynn and trying to decide where to invest our money. If not Wing Lei, do you or other chatters have a recommendation?

Wing Lei is one of the most beautiful dining rooms in Las Vegas -- also one of the most expensive and under-whelming experiences during my visit to Sin City last year. (The Peking duck was all show, minimal flavor.) I actually had more fun off the Strip.  Any chatters care to weigh in with an alternative in or near the Wynn?

Hi Tom, I’ve been reading your chats for awhile now. About two years ago, I did the omakase menu at Sushi Capitol and loved it, but I did not enjoy eating the one sushi piece that include roe on top. I couldn’t get beyond the texture. I’m interested in trying the new Sushi Capitol location, but is it rude to ask for a substitution or to omit it? What’s the best protocol if you know there is something on a tasting menu you will not eat?

Let the chef behind the counter know up front about your likes and dislikes. (They typically ask, and if they don't, you should pipe up.) No chef wants to serve diners things they don't like. 

Tom, I know it is a completely different beast from reviewing restaurants, but do you ever attend food festivals? Last weekend, I went to one in Las Vegas and the quality and quantity of food was incredible. I've never tried so many delicious dishes. As a food lover, I wanted to know if you attend any? Or would it interfere with trying to review restaurants run by many of these same chefs?

I've been to state fairs and the like before. They can certainly be fun. I prefer to eat restaurant food in restaurants, however. The dishes tend to "show" better at the source. 

Tom ...long time reader, even after leaving DC. In fact, my wife and I bonded over how we enjoy your work. (too much brown nosing?) Anyhow..we are coming back to DC in mid-June, but for the first time bringing our 7- and 9-year-old kids. They are NOT mac n'cheese or chicken finger kids .... but not white linen table cloth either. They will eat most foods, just not on super-spicy side. One allergy (peanuts) to watch. Looking for suggestions (you or readers) of lunch and dinner options for kids who enjoy eating out. I never went to Comet when I lived in DC, so that is once dinner. Going to a tour of the Capitol Monday am, so a lunch option nearby? Doing the Holocaust museum and other Mall stuff; Old Town and Georgetown, perhaps; visiting AU (alma mater); may make reservations at Zaytinya. All neighborhoods are options. Thanks!

Good call on Comet Ping Pong. I think your tribe might also enjoy the Spanish fare at Joselito on the Hill; the whimsical French-American menu at Central Michel Richard near the Mall; and Millie's for seafood and ice cream in Spring Valley. Safe travels!

Looking for suggestions. Thank you!

At the top of my list is Pappe on 14th St. NW. The lunch-time thalis are a delicious bargain. 

It's like classical music radio being the most listened to station in the area, but nobody wanted to advertise to old people, so classical music migrated to public radio permanently about 10 years ago. Now it's the restaurants' turn: Spoken English has solved the pesky-old-folks-invasion problem in their restaurant by eliminating seats and non-communal tables. You've written that it really wasn't that bad, but ultimately, am I right?

I sympathize -- to an extent. Spoken English is the chef's riff on tachinomiya, the standing bars popular in Japan. The idea is for people to mingle, possibly share food and so on. Adding more tables isn't really feasible in the small space. 

To tie two of the topics in your column today together--high top seating is not accessible. For seating to be accessible it must not be too low, it must not be too high, and feet must be able to rest flat on the floor (the foot rings often on high top seating do not meet this standard). Accessible seating must have a back to the chair too. Having said this, I am conflicted by your decision to include accessibility information in your reviews. I think the needs are so varied, that those of us with disabilities are better off calling the restaurant ourselves. I suppose very broad information--only accessible by a flight of stairs, low lighting which might make it hard for those with low vision, only low bench seating with no backrest--will be helpful.

Thank you for your feedback. I'm going to do the best I can. (There's no pleasing everyone, that's for sure.) But I'd rather do something to help readers rather than just leave the topic alone. 

We are huge fans of Bistrot Provence in Bethesda - you never give it a second of your time. It's probably the BEST French restaurant in the entire DMV - why do you ignore it? And, recently someone asked you for a duck place - the BEST duck confit is at Bistrot Provence. Please give this great chef some attention... he's still doing everything well.

Hey, now! I'm not ignoring the French stalwart on purpose. Indeed, I referenced Yannick Cam's restaurant in my recent feature on the Washington chefs tribute menu (served through the end of May) at Masseria.  But come on, there are hundreds of worthy candidates for review consideration at any given time. And to be frank, my most recent meal at Bistro Provence was more correct than delicious -- and really, really expensive. 

Joe Beef, Vin Papillon, Vin Mon Lapin, Liverpool House, Au Pied de Cochon, Maison Publique (also does great brunch on the weekends), Le Bremner, Garde Manger, Mckiernan (for lunch or dinner Thursday, Friday and Saturday) Schwartz (for Montral Pastrami or 'Smoked Meat'), Nora Gray, Elena, L'Express, Olive et Gourmando's (for great pastries and sandwiches - breakfast/lunch) - I think that's a good start

Reader to the rescue! Merci.

Sorry, I should have noted - Montreal does heavy french food the best and most of that list is of that category.

I concur.

Hi Tom - My dad requests dinner at Joe's for Father's Day every year, but I'm hoping to change it up a bit. Any suggestions for a newer steakhouse (or restaurant with a good steak)? Good seafood options are a plus for the rest of us!

My favorite steak place right now is St. Anselm near Union Market. It's lively, it's got great seafood (go for the monster prawns or oysters cloaked in smoked butter) and a selection of tasty butcher's cuts mean you don't have to spend a lot for grilled beef. 

I'm conflicted as to whether I should congratulate you on your excellent review of Kaz or berate you for spilling the beans about my go-to spot for excellent sushi and small plates. I've been eating at Kaz for 13 years and can't say enough great things about it. Their ankimo (monkfish liver), when it's on the menu, is one of those special dishes you don't find many other places. And second the sea bass napoleon rec. I suppose I'm glad you gave credit where it's due -- thanks, and keep up the good work!

Thank you for the kind words. It was a real pleasure to return to Kaz Sushi Bistro after too many years away. I think it's important to salute some of the veteran players in the industry on a regular basis. It should't be just about the new, new, new, right? 

Went to an otherwise delightful restaurant today, but we noticed that they had a baby changing table in the women’s room but not the men’s. PSA to restaurants: If you are going to put changing tables in your restaurant, you really need to do both restrooms. It’s not a good look in 2019 to only put them in women’s rooms.

Consider this the PSA of the day. Kudos to the aforementioned St. Anselm, by the way, which has a changing table -- inside one of the stalls -- in the gents' restroom. 

Your column of Masseria bringing back some of Washington’s iconic dishes...and your thoughts in a previous chat on other past dishes that you’d might include on such a list...brings up another question. Are there current dishes that you think we’ll look back on as important, game-changing or iconic in five or ten years from now?

Probably the most-copied dish I've see in the past decade is the crispy fried spinach (palak chaat) made famous by chef Vikram Sunderam. Most recently, I encountered a version of the Indian appetizer at a soul food restaurant. 


Anyone care to add to the list? 

Thanks to a link from the Washingtonian food news letter, I read the article posted by Craig LeBan of the Philadelphia Inquirer about his trip with Michael Solomonov to Israel on a research trip for his new restaurants (the Inquirer picked up all the expenses and Mr. LeBan will not be writing the initial reviews of the new restaurants - but at some point he will). Also included was an article from Chef Solomonov’s partner, Steven Cook, explaining why they did it. My question, would you, have you and/or have you ever been offered the same opportunity?

Years ago, when I was writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, I got to go to Italy with a small group of writers and others. Our informal guide was Roberto Donna, then of Galileo restaurant downtown. We toured his native Piedmont, ate an unimaginable amount of white truffles and drank endless glasses of asti spumonti (but also Barolo). It was wonderful, and I didn't have to write about any of it (which probably made the trip more relaxing).

We had dinner at Disfrutar in Barcelona last week -- and it was fantastic. We did the Grand Classic tasting menu with wine pairings. The Yuzu Saki was my favorite. We also want to recommend Valmas Restaurant on Calle Mallorca. It's woman-owned, small, but delightful. The chef was a finalist on the Spanish version of Top Chef.

Thanks for the feedback about one of the best dining adventures in Europe and for the fresh tip for Barcelona. 

I will be stuck for several days at Gaylord Place for an internal training conference. Is there anywhere within, say, 5 miles of that place decent to get dinner? Bonus points for good (well, better than awful) wine list. I won't have a car but several of us are willing to take a cab somewhere - but it seems like coming back into town (perhaps to Primrose) is too far. Thoughts?

I'm not a fan of much around the Gaylord. Your better bet is to trek to the nearby MGM National Harbor and dine at Fish by Jose Andres. I like a stool at the bar there. And you really owe it to yourself to have at least one meal in Washington proper. (I take it you're from out of town?) Among the better, reservable places are Momofuku for modern Asian, Chloe for a global menu and Poca Madre for innovative Mexican. 

Hi, Tom. Thanks for the chats. I'm a young(ish) diner who finally has enough disposable income to eat out at nicer places, and there are a few things I think others seem to take for granted that I don't know the answers to. I'd love your help with a couple things: 1. What are we supposed to do if we ordered a bottle of wine but didn't finish it? Obviously we'd like to take it home (we're not driving) but is it gauche? 2. Is it rude to order one part of a meal at a time? For example, it's fairly easy to decide what you want when there are appetizers and main courses, but a lot of places have small plates you're supposed to order several of, and often, after passing them around and sharing, I want to order more, which I didn't know when we first placed the order. Is there etiquette on doing this right? I can kinda see how it would throw off the kitchen and server.... 3. Can I ask for a better table if I don't like where I'm seated? Is there a polite way to say "this table is awful and I see plenty of free tables that are much better?" I feel like I'm often seated near the door to the kitchen or, worse, a table in the middle so I'm constantly being brushed against as people pass by. But I also understand there are reservations and they need to distribute the number of customers among the servers equally.... Thanks! Happy spring!

Welcome to the club! Happy to address your questions.


1) You can ask for any remaining wine to go in the District, Maryland and Virginia. It's not tacky. It's smart. 


2) Some restaurants want you to order everything at once. others allow you to order a few things at a time. But in a small plates establishment, I prefer to order no more than three plates at a time, so as to avoid both covering my table and having the entire meal arrive at once. 


3) Yes, you can ask for a different table if you don't like the one to which you're led. But keep in mind, seats are a finite thing and some seemingly "free" tables may already be tagged for reservations. 


Those are short answers to good questions, but I'm in a bit of a rush today and I hope the responses are useful.


My husband and I recently tried the Happy Hour at Normandie Farm Restaurant in Potomac, MD. We live in the community and were longstanding customers, having celebrated our daughter's Bat Mitzvah and Rehearsal Dinner there, as well as many special occasions and holiday dinners. While at Happy Hour we ordered two round of drinks and had dinner. We liked the food and music very much. However, before I could finish my second glass of wine, the Maitre d' came over and said because we had come for Happy Hour and our table was reserved, we had to leave. We were shocked and very offended because we had been there under two hours and our table (unlike some of the others) had no reserved sign on it. Although, we noticed that an apparent regular customer had been eyeing our table (despite the fact that there were other tables available). Needless to say, we will not be back for any reason. My question is: Is it ever appropriate to explicitly ask customers to leave because of the length of their stay (as opposed to more discreet and polite hints like clearing dishes, refilling water, asking if there is anything else we would like and bringing the check unsolicited, etc.)? Signed: Put Off in Potomac!

The time to set time limits is when people sit down (in this case at least, involving happy hour).  Am I missing something here, though? I'm not sure why a restaurant would ask guests who are still eating (or drinking) to vacate a table.


So-called campers, are another matter. Those are folks who have finished eating and over-stay their welcome, even after the check has been presented or paid. If there are reservation-holders to be seated, I think a restaurant has a right to move lingering diners along -- diplomatically, of course. 

Hi Tom, My daughter is soon to be 21. She spent 15 months in Spain on extended gap year so we are looking for a young, hip, but not too expensive Spain restaurant for our celebration. XoJoy

Jaleo in Penn Quarter, one of my Hall of Famers, is where you want to toast your daughter. Jose Andres's tapas destination is delicious, varied and high-energy, just as its name suggests. 

Hi Tom! Long time reader, first time asker--I have a date coming in from Austin this weekend who "loves all food" (ugh) that I really want to impress with our dinner choice on Sunday night. Hoping to find something that won't break the bank, will still have a reservation for 2, and will showcase the special dining scene in DC that can absolutely hold its own against Austin. Thanks!

You can demonstrate your great taste by taking your date to the divine Centrolina in CityCenter, where you should sit at the welcoming bar if you can't snare a two-top. 

Dear Tom, I noted your praise for Rare Tavern last year and was finally about to go this month, when I realized that the Tavern as you reviewed it no longer exists. Instead, according to the restaurant’s OpenTable listing, the tavern is no long accepting reservations and they are “now offering the Steakhouse experience on both floors of Rare.” What gives? I was looking forward to checking out the tavern, but am less interested in paying for the full “Steakhouse experience.”

I reached out earlier this morning to the restaurant's chef, Marc Hennessy, who sent me the following: 


"Rare hasn’t gone anywhere. Due to demand, we opened up the steakhouse on both floors and now offer a smaller Tavern menu at the 60-seat bar/oyster bar area. At lunch, the menu incorporates much of the previous tavern menu. At dinner, white table cloths and candles are now on all tables. We’re working on some physical changes now, too, to keep the noise from the bar out of the 1st floor dining room."


Hi Tom, I'm looking for a few recommendations for a nicer lunch near the White House (or at least somewhere within walking distance). No real price constraints, and we'll eat anything but would prefer something other than sushi. Thank you for the help!

Two of my favorite spots early are the Oval Room for modern American fare and the Bombay Club for Indian cooking served in an elegant setting. Both offer outdoor seating in good weather, by the way. 

Good morning Tom! I am going to District Winery in Navy Yard for a wine tasting to celebrate my birthday with two of my girl friends. We are debating between Chloe and Osteria Morini for a fun dinner after the tasting. Do you have any preference? Ideally we'd like to sit outside. Thank you!!

If it's a view you want, book at Morini, where I recently enjoyed a plump veal chop, a lovely snap pea-almond salad and a pasta made delicious with sweet crab and ramp butter. The restaurant offers some nice outdoor tables shaded with outsized orange umbrellas. 

Why, if it's where your father wants to eat? It is his day, after all.

But maybe the poster wants to introduce Dad to what could become a new favorite.

My husband made reservations at Gravitas and we are excited - but I don't eat meat (fish is ok). I'm assuming we should call them and confirm they can accommodate me... but more generally speaking, do restaurants that offer tasting menus regularly anticipate accommodating guests' dietary restrictions? Or is it more of a "you get what you get" attitude?

It all depends on the restaurant and you're wise to call ahead to make sure you're in for a treat rather than an ordeal. A number of better restaurants now offer both regular and vegetarian tasting menus. Gravitas, btw, should be able to accommodate you. 

My visit to Pappe last weekend was underwhelming and disappointing. I ordered what you recommended in the spring dining guide -- spicy chicken tikka and the maharaji thali. Both were mediocre and not as good as closer-to-home Indian places such as Masala Art and Indique. The tandoori gobi starter was better. Delivery of food was very slow despite an attentive server (a friend had similar slow service on a different visit). I felt like this was another experience where critics overhype places because they are new. The spicy chicken tikka raises a pet peeve -- why do restaurants label dishes as spicy (or 3 peppers) then not make them spicy? People who don't want spicy are never going to order them anyways.

Thanks for the feedback, although I don't think I "over-hype" restaurants that don't deserve the attention or accolades. At least I try not to. Your dinner doesn't sound like the restaurant I've been to a couple times lately. Sorry to hear you were underwhelmed. 

Fat Canary, the Cheese Shop (next door to each other), A Chef's Kitchen (hard to get weekend reservations), and for a college dive - Paul's Deli.

And just before I sign off. Thank you.

Although the Ted's Bulletin diner's complaint could have been easily resolved by somebody picking up the check, the thing about complaining at the time is that usually, by the time you get to that point, the evening has been pretty well wrecked, and then the customer is asked to make an enemy of his or her sever by going over their head to add an unpleasant conversation to an unpleasant dining experience. No matter what they tell you, not every manager wants to hear your complaint (and chefs detest criticisms of their cooking). The urge to cut one's losses is, I think, rational and reasonable. As is exacting (assuming one's complaints are legitimate and documented) a little satisfaction on line. Restaurateurs never say "oh, we didn't deserve that" when Yelpers pile 4 and 5 star reviews on thoroughly mediocre (or frankly awful) restaurants, but they sure develop thin skins when subject to a little honest criticism.

Lots to chew over here. Thanks for weighing in. And you're probably right about chefs not wanting to hear criticism on the spot, in their own restaurant (but better than on Yelp, for all the world to read, right?) But I still think the original poster should have handed the manager the bill for the second dinner and said, nicely, "I'm confused. I thought Ted's was treating us tonight."  

From the Holocaust museum you are really close to the Wharf. My kids love getting shrimp from the boats, getting falafel wraps from Falafel Inc, and ice cream from Dolcezza. There are a ton of options and there is a splash pad at the end of the Wharf (by the giant swings) that is perfect for a hot day.

Parent to the rescue! 

Hi Tom, While I live a few states away, I always enjoy reading your posts to keep in the know of the latest in DC dining and have been following the chat with keen interest as my spouse has a conference in downtown in about a month and our daughter (6yrs) and I get to join in on the trip. To make the spouse jealous while noshing on banquet hall food, my daughter and I are looking for suggestions for 3 days of delicious lunches. She loves Indian food so as per your recommendations, we enthusiastically await our reservation at Rasika. Can you please help me fill the other two days? Suggestions for all cuisines and price points are welcome and she is well behaved in fine dining restaurants, with one consideration. To help hold her attention during the meal, are there restaurants you can recommend that have either a great chef's table or counter, or otherwise an open kitchen layout where tables have a good view of the action? Thanks very much!

As I mentally scan the horizon, I see the exhibition kitchen at the multi-story Officina at the Wharf; the bustle behind the line at the pan-Asian Kaliwa nearby; and the open cooking area at the charming Little Havana on 14th St. NW. Here's wishing you two a delicious show or two. 


That's a wrap for today, folks. Thanks for joining me. I'll be back in the host seat next week for a full 60 minutes. Enjoy the long holiday weekend. 

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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