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

Jun 03, 2015

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

We often hear from you that it is better to bring up problems directly with the restaurant rather than complaining later online. And I think that I have read you agreeing with other restaurant critics that it is fair to give a new restaurant time to settle in before reviewing - and that publishing a bad review is generally worthwhile only if it is necessary in order to warn people away from a place that they would otherwise flock to. (Better to spend time telling people positive news that they can use, about what's good). In light of those things I have been struck by your last two First Bites - especially of Bar Civita, which you "first bit" with a generally negative vibe about 2 or 3 weeks after it opened, including gripes about service and seasoning that you could have more usefully covered with a note to the owner. That seems like a bad and mean use of your clout, especially for a restaurant that is trying to bring something that the neighborhood desperately needs, and that has (in my opinion) gotten off to a very good start. So I guess my question is: are you in a grumpy mood or what?

I always go into a new place hoping for the best, and I think I give First Bite subjects a fair shake, as I visit most places not once, but twice.  That was the case with both Bar Civita in Woodley Park and Provision No. 14 on 14th St., two newcomers that need some serious polishing.


Regular readers know my previews of restaurants are snapshots rather than fully-formed pictures.  And while I'm receptive to talking to restaurateurs on the phone, I don't think it's my role to send them private report cards. My job is to look after readers.


Good morning, chatters. I may have to bow out early today, so I'm hoping you can send me your most pressing questions early in the discussion. Let's get started.

Tom, Tom, Tom! I hoped my comment on the on-line version of your review of Kapnos would get to you or the editors in time, but then I realized the magazine would have already gone to print. Here's your opportunity to recognize your mistake of mythological proportions! In a review of a Greek restaurant, don't you think the Greek god of the sea is a more fitting reference than his Roman counterpart? Not to say that Neptune wouldn't also appreciate the cooking at Kapnos. But still. Your loyal readers expect better!

Honestly? I referenced Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, in a review of Marcel's last year and I didn't want to repeat the example in my critique of Kapnos Taverna. My apologies to any students of mythology I may have offended by using a Roman reference. 

Hi Tom, Of late, I have been dining out a great deal in the DC area with female friends, dates and/or companions. I continually have to ask wait staff to refrain from clearing my plate (I tend to eat faster than my female friends) so as not to make my female companion(s) feel as is they are eating alone or feel the need to hurry up and finish their food. What is the proper etiquette? Should I pace myself even more or should wait staff refrain from clearing a plate until all have finished? Thanks for your input! Pat B. Arlington, VA

I realize some restaurants ask servers to clear dirty dishes as soon as a diner finishes the last bite, even if not everyone is eating at the same pace, but you're right and they're wrong. 


Next time a plate snatcher appears, put on a smile and say, "You know what? I'd rather you wait until we're all finished eating before you remove any plates."

Tom you've probably covered this before but I thought I would ask anyway. It seems that many high-quality restaurants don't seem to invest any time teaching their waitstaff how to serve wine. My biggest gripe is when they fill your glass too full to swirl which essentially keeps the customer from being able to really enjoy smelling the wine. Often, but not always, those same waitstaff seem to want to hasten the speed at which they can pour out the entire bottle as to justify their asking if you'd like another. I also don't appreciate having to ask for a chiller or an ice bucket for a white wine or rose when it's summer time. I'm hoping that maybe you could shine a little more attention to these issues which probably seem very minor but for those of us who enjoy wine, are not. It's bad enough to be a wine geek but to be forced into it by your inexperienced (or worse) waiter feels even worse. Thanks for any consideration you might give this issue.

 I hope your complaint is the subject of staff meetings around town tonight.  I, too, have noticed a lot of poor wine service of late.  And yes, a chiller of some type is a nice accompaniment to a white or a rose in the heat of summer. (I prefer my reds to be on the cool side as well.)


Almost as bad as getting too much wine poured in one's glass for the preview is getting too little.  I swear, my last few meals I've had servers pour a tear-drop of wine for my approval. For starters, you can't smell it, let alone taste such a miniscule amount.

Hi Tom. Do you have any recommendations for dining in Nantucket? We are making our first trip to the island and will be eating out most meals. Thank you!

Nantucket, anyone?

Other than New Heights -- and District Kitchen (which I hold responsible for taking out what is left of my hearing) -- any good restaurants near Connecticut Ave. and Calvert? Or are they all just providing fuel for desperate tourists and the hotel crowds?

 I haven't dropped by in awhile, but my meals at Afghan Grill -- a source of steamed leek dumplings, sauteed pumpkin and meat kabobs -- have always been pleasant.

Hi Tom! Thanks for the great chats. Wanted to sing the praises of Preserve in Annapolis. Went there over the Memorial Day wknd and we were hot/tired/had waited too long to feed our young kids. None of that mattered, thanks to the awesome folks at Preserve. The food was amazing (cheddar grits with fresh veggies and perfectly oozy eggs; thick cinnamon chip french toast you could swim in). Even better was the service-- the staff was really sweet with the kids, warm, and incredibly responsive. Overall, a terrific place that I'd strongly recommend.

  I haven't been to Preserve for brunch, but I've had several nice dinners there.  In fact, the new restaurant, from a couple who used to work at Restaurant Eve in Old Town, is the subject of this Sunday's column in the Magazine (which goes online today).

Hi Tom, I'm traveling to Charleston in November for 3 nights and am putting together my dining list since some take reservations a year in advance. I referenced your recent article to compile my list but wanted to know how you would rank the following restaurants. Which would you do for dinner vs lunch? Husk, McCradys, Fig, Hominy Grill, Edmund's Oast. Many thanks in advance, I'm a huge fan!

Based on my research for the Charleston story, part of my Best American Food Series, I'd send  you here:


Lunches: Husk, Hominy Grill

Dinners: Fig, Edmund's Oast, maybe McGrady's (not my most memorable meal, to be honest)

Hi Tom, My wife (just got married over Memorial Day weekend!) and I are headed to Philadelphia this weekend for a friend's wedding. Any suggestions for a good place to get brunch on Sunday morning? Preferably not crazy expensive, but any cuisine is OK. Anywhere new or fun worth checking out? Thanks and keep up the good work!

High Street, which serves breakfast from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., is where you want to find yourself. Rival Brothers coffee, house-made bagels, breakfast sandwiches filled with pastrami hash -- what's not to like? 

I realize that restaurants will need to sweep or mop the floors from time to time. If someone spills a drink, it is to be expected, but just sending an employee out with a broom to sweep up during the lunch or dinner rush seems a bit odd. Spending several minutes poking around the table and chairs makes conversations uncomfortable. I think that restaurants that are busy for several hours need to focus on cleanup when guests leave the tables and not try to clean the whole dining room filled with guests.

Which restaurant is doing all this sweeping at high noon? Or at prime time at dinner? Unless a table is framed in baguette crumbs or pools of Diet Coke, brooms and mops are best left for less busy moments.

Why can't the restaurant add 20% to the bill and save me the pain of figuring out what I owe? It is especially annoying when I pay cash. If a diner does not want to pay the tip, it could be erased or blocked from the total before paying. Most people pay 20% without question.

I wouldn't be so quick to say everyone tips 20 percent -- or presume that diners don't want to do their own calculations.

I feel like I'm becoming an old fuddy-duddy (you kids get off my lawn!!!) but my parents were in town for a week and we ate out almost every night and maybe I was more sensitive to it because I was with my parents, but I am surprised at the significant amount of foul language I heard at upscale restaurants (including one of your go-to recommendations), not just from the patrons, but also from the staff. I think partially because of more open floor plans in restaurants, you could hear foul language in kitchens and at server stations. We also had to wait in a bar area for a table last week, and heard a very inappropriate set of comments from a bar tender to a (drunk) patron who seemed to be a regular and very interested in the bar tenders nightly activities. Am I becoming a prude? Shouldn't managers talk to their staffs about the fact that some patrons (like my 75 year old mother!) have different standards of sensibility than they do?

Everyone -- staff, diners -- has to remember restaurants are public places. If you're going to curse, do so in a whisper.

For one thing, if you know you eat fast how about trying to make an effort to slow down a little? Maybe try to match the pace of your companion? ("she's still eating side salad, so I'll hold off of attacking my entree for a minute") Second of all, as a somewhat slow eater, it's obvious when I'm the last one eating regardless of whether the faster eaters' plates have been removed. Plate removal for me has no effect on my comfortableness: usually I don't give a crap. I'm not going stuff my face like a chipmunk to get done faster. Lol.

Thanks for chiming in.

Hi Tom! I have a $100 gift card to spend at any Bryan Voltaggio establishment. I'd like to take my girlfriend to dinner, likely on a Saturday evening, and neither of us have been to any of his restaurants. We have a car, so location is no issue. Which would you choose and why? (And are there any we should definitely avoid?)

The crown jewel in the Voltaggio empire is Volt in Frederick, which I just detailed in my spring guide. But I also have a soft spot for Aggio, the chef's restaurant-within-a-restaurant in Friendship Heights. 

Planning a day trip to Monticello for a 1st wedding anniversary in 2 weeks. Has to be a day trip, but wouldn't mind having an early dinner before heading back to Fairfax. Can you recommend anywhere in C-ville or between here and there? Particularly curious about that Bavarian establishment on Rt. 29-- my husband loves sausage. Price shouldn't be insane, and we won't be dressed for super fancy-- but creative cooking is something we both appreciate. Thanks!

One place you might try is Alley Light, the tucked-away lair of chef Jose De Brito. It has the feel of a speakeasy and the flavor of a bistro. Half the menu is on a paper list and half is printed on a chalkboard. The small plates I've sampled -- chorizo-comte cake, asparagus salad with ricotto cheese and pistachio pesto -- have been original.

Tom, I'm submitting early in the hopes that you will publish this. Our dear friend, the owner and proprietor of La Cote d' Or in Falls Church, Raymond, tragically passed away after a brief illness. He poured his heart and soul into the restaurant, and he was the consummate gentleman and host. Ever the true Frenchman, I will always remember him busting around the restaurant while stopping for a sip of Bordeaux from time to time. He welcomed me and my wife to the neighborhood, as I'm sure he did for countless others. Rest in peace, dear friend.

I'm sorry for the loss of your friend. He sounds like he she have been cloned.

Have you ever eaten at Tortino on 11th St, between Logan Circle and the Convention Center? I have never heard of it but someone told me they really enjoyed their dinner there recently.

I last ate at Tortino about three years ago. I recall a nice arugula salad, a good pork chop and panna cotta for dessert. The place has homey quality that appeals to me (or did at the time.)

Just a PSA that your 2010 review is still spot on -- people, stop going to Georgia Brown's! You deserve better food for such high prices! Was there last week and the shrimp and grits tasted like it came from a frozen dinner. It may have. Grits were mushy, shrimp overcooked and the so-called andouille sausage was all flat but cupped, like mini-pepperonis you buy from the grocery store in a stack (hopefully that makes sense). It was most definitely some sort of processed frozen meat and tasted awful and slimy. I cannot believe that dish costs $27. Highway robbery. While we were there a busload of like 50 people came in for lunch -- I guess that is how they stay in business. This "famous" restaurant is giving Washington a bad name.

  This just in: the restaurant I panned five years ago has welcomed back Neal Langermann, who previously cooked at the southern restaurant.  He's the corporate chef for Capital Restaurant Concepts, which owns Georgia Brown's, along with Old Glory, the new Neyla in Reston and other establishments.

How true. My mom only tips in prime numbers, and its a silly little joy to add to the end of her meal.

Love it.

Would like to take my teenagers out for ramen (we have fond memories of enjoying great big bowls of the stuff at cheap eateries in Japan) but where? We tried Toki Underground and there was a waiting list of 80 people! We don't mind going for an early dinner if that will help us get a seat somewhere.

Next best for steaming noodles is the ramen joint below the Japanese-inspired Daikaya near the Verizon Center. The most engaging place to work your chopsticks is at the narrow ledge that rings the stainless-steel kitchen. “Men hairimasu!” the cooks repeatedly call out, letting their colleagues know “noodles are entering” the steaming stock pots. 

Hi Tom, Please please kindly take my question. I have less than 3 months until I visit Spain. I'm going to Barcelona, San Sebastian, and Costa Brava (leaning towards the Tossa Del Mar region). I think I'm set for Barcelona but am all over the map with San Sebastian restaurants and haven't got a clue about Tossa Del Mar. If I remember correctly, didn't you recently travel there? Do we have to do Michelin in San Sebastian? If you could pick one, what would it be? Are there any reservations that I should be making this very second? I know many places are booked 3 months in advance. Any help/guidance you can provide is very much appreciated. I'm so excited and so nervous about making the wrong restaurant choices. Eating well is a priority when traveling!

Arzak, on a hill overlooking San Sebastian, is a must. My dinner there was long and glorious and punctuated with table visits by the lovely chef, Elena Arzak, who runs the Michelin-starred establishment with her equally gracious father, Juan Mari. One dish was especially astonishing: lobster served on a video monitor that doubled as a plate, with "waves" crashing in the background. We also drank a red wine that had been cellared in a cage in the ocean and came to the table encrusted in what looked like dried seaweed.


A short drive outside San Sebastian awaits my all-time favorite fish restaurant, Elkano, in the seaside town of Getaria. The modest restaurant is a special place, run by a guy who only hires fishermen to cook the day's catch over outdoor grills. The wild turbot there is spectacular, as is hake throat, a Basque treat served with green sauce.

My husband and I live in Charlottesville, VA and are big sushi fans. We lived in SF, CA for 10 years and Sushi Ran in Sausalito is still our favorite. In C'ville, we go to Ten or Now & Zen on date nights, Tokyo Rose with the kids. We have just found out that we're able to take a trip up to DC for a mid-week night sans kids, so we'd like to go out for sushi, somewhere special where it'll feel like the rare night away that it is. We're happy at the bar or at a table. We'd like to be right in the city if possible. Any suggestions?

The liveliest scene -- and some of the best raw fish in the city -- is found at Sushi Taro, a second-story Japanese restaurant in Dupont Circle. At lunch, I typically see a lot of Japanese  business types, a good sign.

My partner and I have some recent success to celebrate and are looking for a truly special dining experience since we rarely have the opportunity to indulge in a swankier experience. What restaurant do you recommend to knock it out of the park for a memorable date night? We're open in terms of cuisine and location in the DMV. We have at times dined at more well-known establishments (cough, Blue Duck Tavern) and been disappointed by food that failed to impress.

I realize I mention the place a lot, but Fiola Mare on the Georgetown waterfront is a real treat if you're partial to seafood from an Italian chef.  The service is tops and there's always a politician, movie star, ambassador or other bigwig in the mix of diners.  In short, the place is delicious and fun.

Tom - A couple of weeks ago there was a request for your Postcard from Paris. The link provided had a bunch of Postcards, but nothing from Paris. We're going to be in France in September and would love to have your recommendations. Thanks in advance for a devoted Left Coast follower...

My most recent Postcard from Paris.

Hi Tom - Thanks so much for your seemingly tireless dedication to keeping your fans informed about the food scene. Could you please explain the "Farm to Table" claim being made by so many restaurants? I would like to think my food gets some preparation in - say - a kitchen. What am I missing?

Now over-used, the phrase refers to the focus some chefs say they place on acquiring the freshest local ingredients and the role of producers (farmers and others) in that process. 

I know you have given some NYC recommendations recently, but any favorite spots you have for lunch on a Friday and Saturday?

Here's my most recent dispatch from the Big Apple.  In addition, Marta (from Danny Meyer) is good for pizza in a light-filled setting and Russ & Daughters does an awesome pastrami-cured salmon on a pretzel roll.

Suggestions on a restaurant in the District (or near a metro station) with a good prix fixe menu for under about $35 (excluding drinks/tip)? Any type of cuisine is good, we're all adventurous eaters. Have a friend who wants to go out to a nice set course dinner for all the June birthdays in our group. Some of us are a little more hesitant around price, but I think $35/$40 would be palatable to everyone.

A bunch of good restaurants have attractive pre-theater and/or fixed-price offers: 701 in Penn Quarter, Ripple in Cleveland Park, Ris in the West End and Zentan near Logan Circle.  Keep in mind, you might have to dine on the early side of the evening to take advantage of the deals.

Good morning Tom - I just wanted to share with you about my Friday dining experience. One of my children has a very severe peanut allergy, and we were dining at morini which had notes of the condition on our reservation. Our lovely server also had the information. Italian restaurants are usually safe bets regarding peanuts, but the dessert menu had one with the offending item. We made sure not to request any of those desserts, and all was great. But the thing that was the highlight was the pastry chef coming to the table with the desserts to explain what they were and also reinforce that no contamination had occurred at all with the peanut items and the other desserts on the table. One of our kids at the table not allergic mentioned to him that he never gets to eat peanut butter because of his brother. Then, the chef whispered in my ear if it would be ok to bring out one peanut butter cup for my son, which was of course a "yes." So he reappeared with two little candies and told him that they were just for him and not to share with a smile on his face. It really made my son's night and the rest of us too. I just wanted to share this with you. The server also mentioned that he was up for an award, so best of luck to him!

What a class act -- and what smart marketing! That sounds like Alex Levin you're talking about, the pastry chef at Osteria Morini.

We were having an excellent breakfast at a small cafe once when an employee went over to the front door (six feet from our table) and began spraying it with glass cleaner.

Man, I so hate Windex on my waffles.

Tom, don't take this the wrong way, but seriously, I don't get it - why do people write in to you for advice on where to eat when they travel? If I'm going to City A, I certainly wouldn't limit my options to places that a food critic in City B liked. If you're going to Nantucket, or Pittsburgh, or wherever, then do your research and figure out what the locals there think, or, gasp, be a little adventurous and go with your intuition - who cares what someone in Washington D.C. thinks?

With all due respect, I do quite a bit of research ahead of my trips and I tend to come back with good recommendations (some of which readers continue to use and enjoy years after I've written about them).  Why *not* trust the critic of a major publication who covers the world as part of his job?

Made it and it was awesome! A hit! except with my 9 year old who could not fathom whipped cream in place of buttercream icing on a cake. His loss was other's gain!

More slices for you and the others, right?

Tortino remains an excellent source for good Italian food in the neighborhood. I brought a group of 12 there for dinner in February. The service and food were amazing. My out of town guests were impressed and happy -- and the bill was a lot less than some of the other (overpriced) Italian restaurants on 14th St.

Thanks for the feedback. Much obliged.

Tom, earlier you stated, "I prefer my reds to be on the cool side as well." More times than I'd like to remember I have received a bottle of red wine that was warm, and I had to ask for an ice bucket to cool it down. I know that red should be served at room temperature, but I don't think that room should be the kitchen. How often do you encounter this problem?

Too much of late! "Cellar" temperature (58 degrees or so) is more to my lining than "room" temperature.

We, Tom's loyal fans, do. He gives the same care & attention to his reports from other cities that he does to his DC/Md/Va beat, and we can trust his judgment. More than we can Yelp or Urbanspoon.

That's so nice of you (and others here) to say.

Hi Tom, I'm curious if you had the chance to try Next during your trip to Chicago. If so, did you find the experience worth it? I have tickets to the Tapas menu in a few weeks and looking forward to giving it a try.

Hate to say, but my trip to Sicily via Next a year or so ago was .... middling. I think other flavors were better in the oft-changing concept.

Husband is turning 40 and with 3 kids under 5, we rarely get to go out to non-family-friendly dinners. I'm planning a nice dinner out for 8 adults with no dietary restrictions. Husband loves good quality food of all sorts, but hates restaurants that are overly pretentious, loud, or that don't take reservations. He makes excellent steaks and Italian at home, so other options are best. Bonus for a place with a good scotch menu and stellar martini. Any suggestions?

I can't vouch for the martinis, but the cooking and the ambiance at Rasika West End, 2941, Marcel's, Oval Room and Grill Room are mighty impressive.

Can you suggest a good restaurant where I can break up with my girlfriend? Preferably not too expensive.

How about outside Little Serow, which you probably won't get into (the line!) and where she can't get too upset in view of so many strangers?

I have this problem all the time with my wife, she is a very slow eater. I'm pretty sure I'm not a fast eater as I'm usually one of the last in my party to finish when I'm out with others. One time when I did try to slow down, my wife just slowed down the same amount so I still finished before she did...sometimes you just need to make pleasant conversation as your companion enjoys their meal after you have finished.

Stated like a diplomat.

I haven't dined at the restaurant proper, but had outstanding delivery last week. The sauteed pumpkin and spiced eggplant are to die for. Quick service too - they were at my door with my piping hot food in 20 minutes!

They deliver? Awesome.

Hi Tom, Have you been to CS Pizza in Rockville? We were there this weekend and loved all of the Neopolitan Pizzas we had. Next best thing to 2Amys but in Rockville!

Yep, I've been there several times. Wish the place were closer, too.

Hi Tom, I'm going to the new Tupelo Honey Cafe in Arlington tonight (a friend from Asheville recommended it). Have you had a chance to check it out yet, either in Arlington or one of its other locations? Any suggestions on what to order (or not to order)?

The Asheville import only opened on Monday! So YOU are going to have to tell ME how it goes tonight.


That's a wrap for today, gang. Sorry to have to leave the chat early today, but I'd rather make an appearance for a short time than not be here at all to address your questions. Have a delicious remainder of the week. Let's do this again next week, for a full 60 minutes.

In This Chat
Tom Sietsema
Weaned on a beige buffet a la "Fargo" in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. In thinner days, he was a critic for Microsoft Corp.'s and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; and a food reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.

This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the '80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section's recipes. That's how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.

He covers the local scene in his Dining, First Bite and Dish columns; keeps tabs on the world at large in his Postcard From Tom column and contributes tasty morsels to the Going Out Guide blog.
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