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

Jun 12, 2019

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.

Waiters and sommeliers interrupting table conversations are now so prevalent that I found myself, while hosting a backyard cookout, saying to my guests (who were engaged in a good conversation), "I'm sorry, but I'm going to play that waiter who interrupts you mid-sentence to ask if anyone would like another hamburger or hot dog." EVERYONE laughed knowingly. When it happens in a restaurant, I usually tell the waiter, "Thanks for stepping on my punchline." Am I being too brusque or cruel? For me, there's no worse wait-staff behavior.

Punchline-robbers seem to be more prevalent, or maybe I've become less patient. Cease and desist, interrupting severs! 

 

Anyone who's paying attention knows not to disturb a party when a story is being told or patrons are leaning into each other. The signs are obvious, or should be. If a diner needs something, all he or she needs to do is look up and around for a server or manager. 

 

By the way, I'd love to borrow your restaurant line, but I'm afraid it wouldn't be very professional of me.  

 

 

THIS JUST INAlfredo Solis of El Sol acclaim finally has an answer for his suburban customers who want to know “When are you going to open in Virginia?”  Solis tells me he’s acquired nearly 4,000 square feet of space in the Cedar Park Shopping Center in Vienna, where he plans to offer fast-casual lunch service, full evening service, a full bar showcasing tequila and mezcal and — thanks to a much larger kitchen than he has in the District — a broader menu. Fans can look forward to more moles (including green mole), chicken pozole and Mexican blue corn ground on site. Jessica Solis, the restaurateur’s sister, will serve as executive chef in the siblings’ first business outside Washington, where they also co-own Mezcalero and Little Havana, one of my favorite new restaurants. Solis is aiming for a mid-September launch of the 80-seat dining room. 

 

Happy Wednesday, everyone. For today's Food section, I flew to Houston to eat in one of the smallest restaurants I've ever reviewed, the "multi-sensory" Eculent in nearby Kemah, Texas. Houstonia magazine called it one of the world's best restaurants, and I had to find out if that was true.  

 

Got a dining question? Toss it my way. 

Hi Tom, My husband and myself after a long stressed filled months, booked a last minute trip to Florence and surrounding Siena region leaving this weekend for a week. Can I have some suggestions for restaurants. We have decided all we want to do is have good food, drink wine and relax. We have done sightseeing last time around......

Chatters? It's been ages since I've been to Florence. I'm posting this at the top of the hour in the hope a stressed-out audience member finds a good restaurant or three. 

We came here for dinner on Friday night, and everything was excellent. It was a lovely night on the patio and we devoured the calamari and pasta. Towards the end of dinner, me being the clumsy person I am, knocked my champagne glass over which then shattered on the table with prosecco everywhere. I only had a little bit of prosecco left anyhow, but it was still a mess that I made. The staff cleaned it up immediately, then set down a new glass and poured me a fresh full glass free of charge. It was just exceptional service and I wanted to give the Van Ness Sfoglina staff and team a shout out for being great. Will definitely be back!

No one stocks better servers, in all his many restaurants, than the esteemed Fabio Trabocchi, whose empire now extends to Venice and who just informed me that as of June 17, he's going to serve dinner only at Fiolawhich he plans to renovate and turn into a "world-class restaurant" in 2020. 

Hi Tom, While I'm sure there are many, which restaurant (or two) do you feel is generally underappreciated by DC diners? Maybe it's due to a lack of new menu items or a tired decor, or maybe even due to some previous negative reviews, but are there any restaurants you really love that don't get enough appreciation?

I'm surprised to be able to get a table, anytime, at Johnny's Half Shell in Adams Morgan. Chef Ann Cashion's terrific food warrants a bigger audience. It has serious competition nearby, at the Line hotel and Tail Up Goat, but I'm not sure that fully explains the tables going empty there.

 

Hitching Post, the subject of my review in the Magazine this Sunday, is another place that people don't talk up much. But they should, given its history (it opened more than 50 years ago) and solid southern menu.

Hi Tom, my daughter is finishing up a trying year at school and I want to treat her to a special meal. She loves fried chicken and biscuits, but I don't want to end up at Popeye's! Any thoughts on a restaurant to get great Southern fried chicken, but with nice ambience? Thank you!

Two words of advice: Unconventional Diner on 9th St. NW. The American-with-a-twist restaurant serves what you want, along with "granny gravy," for $23 on its dinner menu.

 

Would you settle for fried chicken ($18) with cornbread ($9) or hush puppies ($8)?  I ask, because all three are offered at the very good America Eats Tavern in Georgetown. 

Tom, after six weeks of nervous uncertainty, I emerged from my organization's re-structuring with my job intact. Whew! To celebrate, my wife and I will dine out somewhere special in July. We've realized our main criterion for spending time and money at a restaurant is...service. We both want top-notch professional service. We usually head to the Oval Room and are perfectly happy to do so again. I thought I'd ask if you had your list of best-in-the-business. Cuisine and price are not a concern for this dinner. Thank you.

Good service takes many forms,  but always makes you feel glad to be there. I admire the relaxed-but-conscientious attention at places including Little Pearl, Et Voila! and Himitsu as much as the more formal but gracious style at Fiola MareKomi and Marcel's

Hey Tom, new to your chats but I've been reading your reviews for a bit now. I recently went to a restaurant for dinner and a beer, by myself. When I told the host it was just me he suggested that I sit at the bar. So I sat at the bar. I wanted to sit outside but assumed maybe somewhere in the Solo Dining Book of Rules it's best to leave tables for 2+. At the time I came in it wasn't too busy but became packed shortly after I sat down, maybe that is a factor. Thoughts?

Single diners should be able to sit at the perch of their choice (not a four-top table, mind you, but a two-top). Did you ask if you could sit outside? Or did you just head to the bar? 

Where’s the best food for an Omnivore and a vegetarian to go for a special dinner (for 2 mom’s breaking free for a night!)?

My best answer depends on your location, budget and preferred cuisine, but since you didn't share those specifics, I'll throw out Bombay Club (Indian) downtown; Sababa (Middle Eastern) in Cleveland Park;  and Oyamel (Mexican, by way of the author of the new Vegetables Unleashed) in Penn Quarter. 

Hi Tom, My dad is visiting this weekend and he loves crab cakes. We are tied up in the evening, so I was hoping to go somewhere for lunch on Saturday (or Sunday if necessary) to show him a good DMV crabcake. I was thinking Johnny's Halfshell, but they aren't open for lunch. Where would you suggest for the best crab cake for a weekend lunch? DC would be preferred, but willing to drive up to 30 minutes (i.e. not Annapolis or Baltimore). Thanks!

Count me a fan of the crusty crab cake, served with freshly creamy cole slaw, at the long-running Old Ebbitt Grill next to the Treasury. The restaurant is wildly-popular, however; reservations might be tough. Easier to access: the aforementioned America Eats Tavern in Georgetown, where a more herbaceous -- but just as enticing -- crab cake goes for $19, a hedge of creamy coleslaw included.

Hi Tom, My mom is visiting DC next week and I was wondering if you have a suggestion for a nice dinner ($$-$$$) Thursday night near Dupont/Logan circle. We like good food and are mildly adventurous. Also, any Annapolis recommendations? We love seafood! Thanks!

Iron Gate is my suggestion for Dupont Circle. It opens with a handsome bar followed by a cozy dining room or dinner under the stars on a patio. As for Annapolis, there's no finer dining destination than Flamant, but you better book fast. 

"Am I the only patron conflicted by listening to Michael Jackson in the wake of the “Leaving Neverland” documentary?" Yes. Yes you are. If we were to avoid listening to any musician with a checkered past, the restaurants would be really, really quiet...

Well, Jackson was recently in the news again, and for depressing reasons. 

HI Tom! I am looking for a family-friendly restaurant in Fairfax that I can bring a couple of 3 year olds to during normal dinner ours. Plus if it has a decent whiskey or beer list. I'm just not familiar with the area, thank you!

Artie's to the rescue! I had occasion to cool my heels at the bar there recently, while waiting for Mama Chang to open across the street.  The all-American restaurant has something for everyone on its menu, and a parent has to appreciate that the options for the four kids' meals include carrots and unsweetened apple sauce. 

Hi Tom! My parents are visiting DC for the first time in almost a decade, and they've specifically requested a seafood dinner (they live in rural PA where good seafood is hard to come by). I'm not a seafood eater, so I have no idea where to start. I know Del Mar is amazing, but I'm worried that the "spanish style" may throw them off. Any other ideas greatly appreciated!

Are you familiar with the breezy  Pesce in Dupont Circle? I've had a couple great lunches there lately, and consider it one of the best sources for fish and seafood in Washington

Hi Tom, Are there any Burmese restaurants left in the DC area? The old Burma was a favorite of mine and there was one in College Park and a couple in Northern Va. but all seem to have vanished. Do you know of any? Mark in Marriottsville

Thamee, on H St. NE, is putting out some stellar Burmese food (tea leaf salad, mohinga, shrimp fritters) in the space that used to house Sally's Middle Name.  The newcomer, whose name translates into English as "daughter," just started serving brunch (breakfast is a big deal in Burma). Go!

Tom-- Coral Sisk, a Florence based writer, has a list of 38 Essential Restaurants in Florence, which based on my experiences is very good. Includes high end and inexpensive places, as well as a Google map showing locations. https://www.eater.com/maps/best-restaurants-florence-italy

Reader (and Eater!) to the rescue. 

Bit of an odd question. First, thank you for all your reviews, greatly appreciate them. I have noticed in the past few years, restaurants in my area have not been faring well in your reviews, for which I tend to agree. My question is, how best to convey to restaurants in my area that I care about the quality of their menu/food and want them to strive for better. The obvious answer may seem to be vote with my feet and don't go, but that's not the point. I want them to take their food more seriously and I want to keep going to them. I want restaurants in my neighborhood to be the ones that seek great Tom Sietsema reviews, and not just cater to tourists. I live here, I will be a frequent customer, but not if they let they quality of their menu slide to lowest common denominator. I want to tell them this, without sounding snarky, so that my area can have great restaurants, not average ones. How best to let them know that, and taken to the next step, convince them of it?

It sounds as if you're a regular and known to staff. If that's the case, you're coming from a strong place. Restaurants want to retain your business.

 

The next time you visit one of these places, and you find it lacking, consider pulling a manager aside at a quiet time and letting that person know how you feel. Stick to the facts, and be sure to offer specifics. Say it with a look that shows you care, because you clearly do. Then repeat as often as you find necessary, and with other people in a position to turn things around, too. 

Hey Tom, curious what you think. On Sunday evening, my wife and I had a 5:15 reservation at Le CouCou in NY based on your recommendation from a few years ago. We were visiting from DC and, in general, love Stephen Starr restaurants. It was a hot day in NY and 90% of the male population was walking the cIty in shorts. I called to make the reservation months in advance and the receptionist said nothing about pants being required. Also, the day before the reservation, the restaurant called (and in fact left an obnoxious voicemail saying to call back and confirm, or the restaurant would cancel). When I called back to confirm, again, no one said anything about pants being required. We arrived, and I was wearing shorts (nice khaki shorts with a nice shirt, not workout clothes). The restaurant said we could not be seated, and the manager said it was my responsibility to read the website before arriving. Generally, I respect a dress code and think a restaurant certainly can have one, but in 2019 is it a fair expectation to assume a customer will read a restaurant website re a dress code when even very fancy restaurants rarely have a dress code nowadays and where restaurant websites are regularly non-functioning (granted, Le CouCou may be an exception)? On a side note, had the manager simply said, “I’m sorry, we have a strict policy but I have no choice and appreciate you making a reservation months ago”, I probably would not have resented the treatment so much. Instead, he pointed in the direction of Soho (at a designer store where pants probably would be $200), and said why don’t you just buy a pair of pants? I recognize there is some gray area here, and I don’t feel entitled to flout a clearly communicated dress code, but I felt (based on the overall circumstances) like the restaurant did not value our business at all – especially since it was 5:15 and the restaurant was near empty (they could have just placed us in a corner). What do you think? Who did responsibility lie with here? Thanks as always for these weekly chats! We love them.

I'm sorry you missed out on the popular French restaurant. I just checked its website, and sure enough, the dress code is there and specific: "At dinner, we politely request no shorts, flip-flops, sweatpants or tank tops, and we ask that gentlemen remove their hats. Jackets are not required." 

 

That said, the restaurant should have taken a pro-active approach, both when a receptionist had you on the phone ("Please note, we have a dress code in place") and again at the door (with a placard or some such posted next to any posted menu). 

While I understand no one wants to be interrupted while speaking, patrons at tables rarely sit around in silence. Usually, people are continually talking to one another- especially large groups- and that puts the waiter in a bad position. Either she politely interrupts or sits around waiting for a pause in conversation that may not come. Often when a waiter chooses that route, patrons complain that it took too long for the waiter to come over and take the order or check on the table. So there really is no way to make everyone happy in this situation.

If the host let the server know from the start that he or she would raise a finger when the party was ready to order, that would solve the issue. (But it would also require the server or a back-up to keep a steady eye on the table.) 

The two moms planning a dinner out should think twice about the Bombay Club, where a friend and I were routinely and inconveniently interrupted throughout our catch-up dinner. And the mains (we're both vegetarians) weren't as good as they have been on previous visits.

I was there just this week with a vegetarian and she loved the broccoli with shaved coconut, the paneer with vegetables and the fried kale. But thanks for weighing in.

Mandalay in Silver Spring is one of our favorite restaurants. Bandoola Bowl, which is a fast-casual Burmese restaurant, serves a wide variety of Burmese salads that are easily a meal opened up recently in the Georgetown area on Wisconsin Avenue. A

Mandalay doesn't hold a candle to Thamee. The last time I was at the former restaurant, the place was also a mess and the service bordered on surly. 

Hi Tom! I am wondering if you had any dinner recommendations for me and my boyfriend for my "golden birthday." We are huge foodies and have gone to a bunch of high end restaurants throughout the city with tasting menus etc, but are now kind of over the small plate testing menu scene. I am wondering if you had any recommendations for a good, decently priced, restaurant of any kind! We love trying new things! Our current favorite is Officina, but would love something new! Thanks so much!

Little Havana on 14th St. NW is great fun: Cuban-Caribbean cooking -- black bean soup, slow-roasted pork, seafood stew -- and true-tasting daiquiris in a dining room with a splashy mural of Havana. Another option is the cozy Pappe for northern Indian food in Logan Circle, where you should aim for a window table or a (snug) booth in the rear. 

My sister is visiting from New York and I’m continuing to try and convince her that DC has a worthy food scene (your prior recommendations of Inn and Fiola Mare have done a good job so far). I have a reservations at both Kith/Kin and Hazel. What does the most trusted man in DC dining suggest between these options? (Open to a separate suggestion if I can get seats on Friday)

The pressure! The pressure! Those are two very good choices, Kith/Kin in particular, since there's nothing like it in the Big Apple (and the chef has been in the news a lot of late, partly for his memoir). If you want another option, though, consider the posh Punjab Grill downtown for upscale Indian. 

The Quarterdeck in Rosslyn makes a strong argument for the best crab cakes in the area. A plate of two cakes and two sides goes for $29. They're quite a treat.

Another reader proposes BlackSalt in the Palisades. 

This is why civility has gone the way of the doo-doo. It's after 5, it's not a lobster shack on the beach, wear pants. I'm so tired of the anything goes mentality. I was at a professional seminar (The legal profession) the other day and someone had pj's on. Not kidding.

Now *that's* a stretch. Did someone lose his luggage or what?

Just had the fried chicken at Central Michel Richard last month, and it was fantastic! It was crisp, and not at all greasy or heavy. And the mashed potatoes were light and fluffy!

But of course! Thanks for the memory jog

The last several meals I've had at relatively new, upscale dining options in the District have all shared one thing in common - no serving utensils with appetizers. Places like Elle, District Winery, Due South, etc. Is this a trend or an aberration? And is there any reason appetizers should come without serving utensils?

Your complaint has come up a few times in this forum. Maybe some public shaming will motivate the offenders to set out some serving utensils. 

The post did an article a while back featuring rooftop dinning. A restaurant that allowed a private party on the rooftop was mentioned. Do you know the name of the restaurant.

The Weekend section ran a piece on rooftop bars last month. Maybe your answer awaits therein. Monday marked the debut of the new, 150-seat rooftop restaurant in Arlington, Buena Vida Social Club, which finds skewered meats, tacos, empanadas, beach drinks and more in the open air. 

Hi Tom! Thanks for this wonderful chat. Just last night my partner and I went to Tiger Fork (in part based on your and other chatters' rave reviews!). It overall was a wonderful experience, but I was left wondering about a point of allergy etiquette. I am strictly gluten free, and include that information in all reservations I make online (in the "comments" section). When the restaurant called to confirm my reservation, they mentioned they knew we had a gluten free diner and that the server would be prepared for that. Great, I thought! But then, when we showed up and I mentioned this to my server, his reaction was "Oh, that's good to know, but your options are going to be very limited." He was perfectly polite, and was very right - of the roughly 20 item menu, only three items (and none of the mains) could be made gluten free. While these items were delicious - and my partner thoroughly enjoyed the other gluten-full things he got as well - I was left wondering why in my other correspondence this didn't come up. I'm used to having to check menus before I go places, but this one was hard since most of the gluten was in the sauces. And I do appreciate that the restaurant kept me healthy, which is my primary concern! But I wonder if you think that in the phone call that I had with the restaurant someone could have said - just so you know, our menu has very limited options for the dietary restriction you've stated. It's a bit like when tasting menus note that they can only make limited modifications, or when other restaurants note that they are not suitable for children. It's just useful information! I felt like they knew this all along and didn't say anything - and I felt a little manipulated and it left a bad taste in my mouth. Thoughts?

I put your question to one of my favorite dining companions, who suffers your plight. She responded with the following:

 

I empathize with the chatter. But I think the responsibility falls entirely on the diner, not the restaurant. I also wanted to go to Tiger Fork (and other restaurants like Mama Chang, Bad Saint, etc. but they’re not good options for someone with celiac.) In every case, while I do note GF in all my reservations, when I look at a menu online if I am not %100 sure there are GF options I am happy to order, I call and speak to a manager and go over every GF option available on the entire menu with them. Better to not go then to be disappointed. 

 

 

My wife is a teacher, and her last day with students is Friday the 14th. She is craving a celebratory dinner with interesting cocktails and an entree menu that doesn't sound like the place next door. Any suggestions for the West Side of the Potomac?

The closet best place that comes to mind is Addie's, where you can celebrate your wife's forthcoming time off with 

I have a friend coming into town next week for her birthday, and we plan on having a nice leisurely lunch somewhere in DC before heading down to the Wharf for a concert. I want to choose something that isn't too expensive, and perhaps a small plates kind of place--she loved Jaleo last time she visited--that has a good variety of non-fried, healthier (or healthy-ish) options on the menu (she had weight loss surgery last year so I want this to be a treat that she can feel good about!). Also, thanks for hosting this chat--it's always a highlight of my week :)

Someone who WANTS small plates? I can't believe my eyes. A lot of your fellow food enthusiasts want anything *but* these days.

 

 But I digress. you should take your appetite to Zaytina in Penn Quarter for Middle Eastern mezze, which is coincidentally owned by the same chef as the nearby Jaleo.

I went to Florence two summers ago - cannot rave about the food enough. The following are musts! -La Giostra (get the pear ravioli and burrata) -Trattoria dei 13 Gobbi (get the rigatoni) - Mercado Central de Firenze

All sorts of recommendations are coming in. Here are a few posts: 

 

Sienna

Antica Osteria Da Diva was one of the best meals of our trip to Italy! We ate in a cave, my husband had an entire Florentine steak on his own (I'm a vegetarian so couldn't help out, note - you order by the kilo) and I had an amazing risotto dish served out of a wheel of parmesean tableside. Go!

Florence

Trattoria Za Za is in a bit of a touristy location, so I didn't expect much, but the food was phenomenal. Highly recommend the soup sampler and whatever risotto they happen to have that day. La Prosciutteria has the honor of making the best sandwiches (panini) I've ever had.

Florence

Hi Reader, please head to Trattoria Zà Zà in Piazza del Mercato Centrale and eat the truffle ravioli for me. It's open for lunch and dinner if I remember correctly.

Florence

Emiko Davies lives in Firenze with her husband Marco Lami, who I believe is the sommelier at the Four Seasons. She just published a piece in Newsweek about her favorite places in her home city. https://www.newsweek.com/guide-florence-italy-1418452 She also organizes private food and wine experiences.

Q: Florence/Siena URGENT REQUEST

We used the EAT ITALY app by Elizabeth Minchilli when we were in Florence and Rome and it was great. She has great restaurant recommendations that you can view by area. Everything from a slice of pizza to fine dining. You can't go wrong taking her advise.

 

Florence

Although it's been several years, highly recommend Trattoria Cibreo (next door to the much pricier, fine-dining Cibreo). Communal tables, No phone, no reservations, and (gasp) no pasta, supposedly because the kitchen is so small he can't tie up a burner all evening just for boiling water. Go early. Also, there is a place for very good pizza close by, Il Pizzaiuolo. http://www.ilpizzaiuolo.com/ Be sure to ask for the buffalo cheese mozzarella on your pizza for just a few bucks more, well worth it. Ciao!

 

"...the restaurants would be really, really quiet..." Please! We can all use a little more quiet conversation when dining instead of loud music.

Right? 

My son is turning 27 and would like a nice family dinner in Bethesda (his new abode) to celebrate. Thoughts?

What kind of food does he like? What kind of atmosphere would he appreciate?

 

 On the high (French) end, there's Bistro Provence, with food by the esteemed chef Yannick Cam.  More casual is Duck Duck Goose, with dishes including stuffed roasted Japanese eggplant and branzino with white beans.

 

For a traditional American dining experience, there's Woodmont GrillThe selections — burgers, roast chicken, Key lime pie, nothing that requires explanation — are unchanged from years ago, but the routine is welcome when the execution is solid and the food shows flair.

I hate this too, but I also think that they can't really win. If a table is really enjoying themselves, there isn't really any good time to check in. But then if you don't refill their drinks or ask if everything is good to give them a chance to fix something, then the same table may complain that the wait person disappeared.

True, but some servers are definitely better at "reading" tables than others. 

If they can call to confirm your reservation, they can take 5 seconds to let you know about the dress code. If the reservation was made by phone, they were on notice that the guest might not have looked at the website. If the reservation was made on the website, then the confirmation should have noted the dress code.

Yes, yes, yes. (Or oui, oui, oui.)

If the restaurant is a place special enough to make reservations MONTHS in advance, has a michelin star, and is described online as HIGH END and FANCY... I would think a patron would be able to deduce that wearing shorts would make you grossly under-dressed and stick out like a sore thumb, official dress code or not. Not defending dress code enforcement, just saying this seems like common sense?

Fair points all. 

Tom, you aren't the only one with those mixed feelings. And as for the OP, of course lots of musicians have checkered pasts, but there is a line. A DUI or drug offense, I can shake off. But molesting children is a little more serious. So considering whether to play MJ or R Kelly is a legitimate question.

Bless you, reader. 

I am a huge fan of cooking shows and love watching the kitchen in action. Are there any restaurants in DC or Maryland with open kitchens where one can get an up close experience? I seem to remember Michel Richard's Central having counter seating with a great view. Also, are reservations essential for these seats?

Plenty of restaurants have what you want these days: Masseria, Pineapple and Pearls and Gravitas, for instance,  all sport ring-side seats and yes, you'll want to ask for them when you book. Some places get you extra-close to the action; Tosca, the lobbyist retreat downtown, has a table right inside its kitchen. 

 

That's a wrap for this week. Thank you for keeping me company for the last 60 minutes. Please come back next week for more restaurant talk. 

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.
Recent Chats
  • Next: