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

Jul 11, 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.

My husband and I were at a restaurant (Lillie's) seated close to a table of six where one man was exceptionally loud and disrupted our dinner. When the waitress asked if everything was OK, we mentioned that the man next to us was extremely loud, which she acknowledged with a nod of her head, smile, and shrug. What can patrons do in this situation? Can we expect the management to intervene?

If your neighbor is disruptive enough to interfere with the enjoyment of a meal, for sure. The server should have brought your concern to a supervisor, but you could have registered the complaint, too.

 

An easy, diplomatic way to address the problem: "Folks, we're glad to see you're enjoying your time with us tonight, but if you could use your indoor voices, our other guests would appreciate it." 

 

Big news for fans of the peripatetic chef Peter Chang: His 13th Chinese restaurant, due next winter, will be an ode to the women and good cooks in his life, including his grandmother, mother and wife and fellow chef, Lisa Chang.

 

The aptly named Mama Chang will be on the ground floor of a renovated office building at 3251 Old Lee Highway in Fairfax, where Chang, a former chef at the Chinese embassy, got his start feeding the general public at China Star, says his daughter and head of business development, Lydia Chang. 

 

Unlike the chef’s previous restaurants, including Q by Peter Chang, Mama Chang will focus on home-style cooking and the flavors of Hunan and Hubei rather than Szechuan. “It goes to his heart,” says his daughter. The forthcoming menu will feature dishes including tea-braised pork belly stew with bean curd and expand to offer dim sum brunch after launch. Look for an interior with a feminine touch: crisp, modern, lots of white, green with plants. 

 

It's great to be back in the host seat after two weeks away. Tell me what's on your mind this morning. I'm all ears.

Hi Tom! My boyfriend and I are heading to Europe for a two week vacation to Marseilles, Nice, Milan and Lyon. Do you have any restaurant recommendations? Particularly for a restaurant in Lyon that won't blow our budget. Thanks so much!

It's been ages since I've been to either city, but I'll post your query in the hope a chatter or more can help you out.

Hi Tom! After going through some changes and also in support of a dear friend I have taken the modern step of notifying people I meet of my identification and personal pronoun choice. This past weekend, after telling my waitress my preferences (which are not relevant to my complaint), I was treated with mocking and laughs for the remainder of my meal (restaurant to remain nameless!). For instance, she would sarcastically say things like "what would the woman like?" and "is she enjoying her meal?" with an emphasis on she and her. Honestly, I was shocked to have to deal with this in 2018 - especially in a bold and progressive city like DC! Do you see this as an area where employees need more awareness training like they are getting for race issues now? I am very curious to hear your opinions on this. I would love to think I can safely dine in our fine city without facing ridicule or derision. Thanks!!!

At the risk of sounding unsympathetic (and I'm not), I'm curious why you felt the need to share your pronoun choices with a stranger. I can imagine being served soup to nuts and never once having to announce/address gender.  Your server could have simply asked, "What would you like?" and "Is everyone enjoying their meal?" 

 

Or maybe I'm missing something here. 

Not a question, just a story, but it certainly illustrates a core Tom Principle. Had dinner recently with a friend at a moderately upscale steakhouse that I frequent perhaps 6-8 times a year. Our server was young and seemed nervous. My friend began to relate to me his first experience as a waiter, in which he muffed opening a wine, and ended up with the cork pushed into the bottle. I'm not sure if our server actually overheard that, but in the next minute or two, he managed to mangle the cork of our wine, leaving chunks and pieces in the neck of the bottle. He was very apologetic, and hustled off, returning with a decanter and a sieve. He then proceeded to spill about a quarter of the bottle onto the table while pouring it into the decanter. The surface of the wine still had a layer of cork flakes and grit, even after being sieved. It really was kind of funny; almost like a comedy skit, but he obviously wasn't going to take any steps to correct the situation. Anyway, when our server hustled off again, we asked a different one to send a manager. I briefly (and calmly) described what had happened. He surveyed the bottle, the cork, the wine in the decanter, and the tablecloth...and you should have seen the look on his face. We got a new bottle and new table settings immediately. I felt kind of bad for the server; he was clearly not ready, and I think the place set him up for failure. Hope he didn't end up in trouble. But involving a manager early and politely did indeed correct all problems. We still chuckle about the incident; it was like a scene from I Love Lucy.

Poor guy! But good for you for piping up early in the meal.

 

Years ago, at the San Francisco Chronicle, I went undercover as a waiter at the (then) white-hot Stars restaurant, where I was called out by my first table for several notable fumbles. I can relate to the nervous server, in other words. Then again, it sounds as if neither of us had sufficient training. (I got an hour to "rehearse" before my dinner shift, as I recall.)

 

Hi Tom, My husband and I tried Hummingbird on Saturday night. We were looking forward to it after the favorable review and it's inclusion in your dining guide. The food was tasty but the portion size was ridiculously small. My husband ordered the lobster linguine and the bowl had maybe 1 cup of pasta at a price of $26. My rockfish dish was slightly larger but not very big either. We also tried their special of fried oysters for an appetizer which came with 8 tiny oysters. The service was fine and everything was well cooked but we won't be going back. My husband feels that they are catering to the tourist crowd that will only visit once and not have to depend on repeat customers. I have been to other restaurants by Cathal Armstrong and have not had this problem.

"If you see something, say something," goes the Amtrack security alert. Did you register your complaint with a manager? 

My wife and I have an upcoming business appointment in Richmond, VA and we were hoping to grab something while there. What might be the best place for lunch. It doesn't have to be fancy, but somewhere we can have a good conversation and great food.

I'm a big fan of the "dry-fried" chicken, among other Chinese dishes, at the Peter Chang in Richmond, a city whose dining scene I explored a couple years ago. (Dinner finds more interesting choices than lunch, I'm sorry to report.)

As someone who drinks a lot of iced tea, I've recently had 3 different otherwise respectable and well-regarded restaurants attempt to charge me separately for each refill - leading to outrageous total charges of up to $16 for plain old ICED TEA. This almost never happened to me before in my long life. What is going on - is this some sort of new conspiracy to drain poor patrons of their last bloody cents ?

Good lord, what were you knocking back, Da-Hong Pao from the Ming Dynasty? 

Hi Tom, It never occurred to me that I wouldn't love Kaliwa so I was shocked to find it mediocre at best. Drinks appeared so quickly there could not have been time to shake the cocktails. Our food arrived within a few minutes, telling me the dishes weren't being made to order. The whole fried fish was covered in a congealed sauce, as if it had been sitting under a heat lamp for a while. The bibimbap, for $19, was small, an uninspiring bowl of rice, few veg and an egg; the fish stew too salty with not much flavor. One good dish was the lamb stew, but it was not enough to make me want to go back. Over priced, it under-delivered. I wonder if the location and turnover of possibly many tourists discourages a restaurant from providing a fine dining experience. It reminds me of restaurants on the Georgetown waterfront, think Sequoia, who for years have capitalized on the view while ignoring the quality of their food.

Even on its worst day, I wouldn't put the new pan-Asian restaurant in the Sequoia camp.  Did you go on a concert night, I wonder?  Not to excuse Kaliwa, just to keep things in perspective. Concert nights are crazy on the waterfront. 

Hi Tom, Love the weekly chats. Looking to get my friends a gift card (in the $200-$250 range) to a nice restaurant in DC for their wedding. I definitely want a place that takes reservations, so they can actually use the gift card! What ideas do you have where 2 people can eat within that price range? Thank you!

Lots! Off the top of my head, I'm recommending the international Chloe near the Navy Yard,  the Gallic Primrose in Brookland and the innovative Bresca on 14th St. NW.

the article in the WSJ link indicates restaurants are moving to high tops and bar stool seating instead of tables and chairs - https://www.wsj.com/articles/pull-up-a-stool-restaurants-squeeze-in-more-seats-1530711001?mod=hp_featst_pos1

This story reminds me of the piece I wrote last year, on 

tight tables.  Stop the madness!

Hi Tom. I'm a Seattle native who will be celebrating my midweek birthday while in DC later this month for work. We will be at the Washington Convention Center during the day and staying near Farragut. Any thoughts on a good place for dinner where I could get a reservation two weeks out? (I do have a Shellfish Allergy)

Hello, Seattle! Your post reminds me that I'm overdue for a trip to my old stomping grounds. Ahead of your visit to the #other* Washington,  you should try to reserve at restaurants you won't find in the Emerald City:  Del Mar, for opulent Spanish (hold the seafood paella); A Rake's Progress for Mid-Atlantic fare in a former church; or Rasika West End for contemporary Indian in an alluring setting.

Hi Tom, curious about your opinion on disclosing whether or not we'll be hosting our wedding at the restaurant we're having it at! Right now we are in the process of booking it at the restaurant where we had our first date, but we've told them it's just a private dinner event for 20, I'm concerned if we let them know we'll be coming from the chapel there will extra costs tacked on, curious if you or your industry folk readers think there's any reason to let them know or keep it to ourselves that it's a wedding dinner--thanks!

I'll throw this one out to the wedding planners or insiders in today's forum, but my hunch is, the more info the restaurant has in advance, the smoother your party is likely to go. 

Sorry for the accidental Submit. I HATE this trend. I'm 5'2" and climbing on & off bar stools is a real nuisance. It's also impossible for my 88-year-old mother, who happily dines out but can't manage these high-tops. As you say, stop the madness!

Let's hope restaurants are tuning in. Incoming posts on the subject fall in your camp. 

My husband is “blessed” with a voice that carries great distances. Without realizing it, he can be heard across the largest of dining rooms. We have developed a signal so I can let him know when he's getting to loud. I just bump his leg with my knee under the table, and smile. There’s no embarrassment or hard feelings. So if folks have a partner with a voice that carries, it might be nice to work out a subtle way to remind them to “use their inside voice”.

Couples have to be a team, I agree. Thanks for sharing your strategy. 

Several weeks ago I wrote to you about good restaurants for our family to try on our July 4 trip to DC. We took your advice and went to Rasika, Salt Line, Unconventional Diner, Tiger Fork, Maydan, Jaleo and my 9 and 13 year old loved them all! The kids loved the lobster roll at Salt Line, the whole atmosphere at Tiger Fork and Maydan (“mom! It’s down an alley!”), the flan at Jaleo, the spinach (!) at Rasika, and the waffles at Uncoventional Diner - and they think I am so smart at finding good places to eat! We did go over budget a couple times (when your kid asks for more crab and you live in a landlocked state you can’t say no!), but it was 100% worth it. I cannot thank you enough for your recommendations and for having this chat - and now my kids are agitating to go back to DC (just when it’s not so hot!).

Your post made my week. Thanks for writing. Your kids sound like fun. And kudos for exposing them to such good eats. 

We will be in town next week for a few days with our two boys, 11 and 14. They are not particularly adventurous eaters, particularly after a long day of sight-seeing. Of our nights in town, we will be at a National's game one night, so will partake of ball park fare, and have reservations another night at Jaleo (a concession by the kids to me). One night we have a fairly limited window to eat somewhere near our hotel - downtown at approximately 14th and H. Would really like good pub food, pizza or maybe mexican in a location that is walkable and teen/somewhat picky eater friendly. Suggestions? Thanks from Kansas City.

One of my favorite destinations for pub grub is the handsome (but casual) Tavern below the stately Rare Steak and Seafood.  It's close to where you'll be -- 15th and I streets -- and delivers great service, comfortable seating and stellar versions of everything from a burgers and salads to spaghetti and meatballs and butterscotch pudding. Trust me on this!

Last week, my husband and I were trapped in the parking garage at The Kennedy Center for one hour after a (wonderful) performance of "Hamilton." We had allowed an hour and a half to get to my birthday dinner at Little Pearl, but when we realized we were going to be a half hour late, I called the restaurant to let them know. When I told them my name, the hostess immediately said "Oh yes. Happy birthday!" and told me not to worry, that they would hold our table for us. When we arrived, just as promised, a Reserved sign sat on our table, they greeted us warmly and served us glasses of complimentary bubbly. The Angel Eggs, which I'd first heard about on this chat, were an incredible surprise! When my husband told the server how much we liked them, she brought us another order. We thoroughly enjoyed our dinner and the service.

That sounds just like the restaurant that earned spot No. 5 on my recent Top 10 list of newcomers in DC. 

Tom: Your Wednesday amuse bouches are terrific, but we are anxiously awaiting a review of the rest of the restaurants on your top new restaurants (e.g., A Rake's Progress). Any ETA?

Your wish is my command (it published earlier this morning). 

Tom - our son's future in-laws are visiting DC this weekend for the first time. We have arranged for a tour of the Capitol but are trying to think of a place for lunch that would have a great view of DC. POV at the W hotel is not air conditioned, which may explain why I was able to get a reservation, but our guests are from a cooler climate and it's supposed to be in the 90s and muggy on Saturday. I am at a loss. Can you please help? Many thanks from a faithful follower...

Will you settle for a good view of the Potomac and the Kennedy Center? If so, Fiola Mare is where you want to reserve a table for lunch. Be sure to let the restaurant know what you're up to; the "view" tables are pretty popular.

We were recently eating at a casual seafood restaurant. There was some music being piped into the dining room. The table behind us, was playing their own music on the cell phone. Most assuredly loud enough to be annoying. I think it was the two different types of music playing at the same time at about the same volume that really made it annoying. Other customers kept looking around trying to find the source of the music. The server sort of shrugged. People have every right to enjoy themselves out at dinner, and this was a casual environment. But it felt rude to me. This may be a cultural difference, and I could be insensitive in not wanting to hear other people's music while dining. Not sure the best way to handle.

Has the offender ever heard of ear buds? Playing personal music is a no-no in just about every public setting i can think of. 

As Tom said, you probably should give them a heads up that it will be a wedding event...after you get a price from them.

Clever!

Hi Tom, Hoping you can help us out for a special occasion. Trying to find a dinner spot for 25-35 people, of varying age and mobility, with reasonably easy parking, and an ideal price of $50-$75 pp. It's a bonus if it's a BYO and not too far from Bethesda (but we will travel)...I know this is a tall order, thanks in advance!

The venerable La Ferme has much of what you're seeking: a Chevy Chase address, a parking lot and agreeable price points. By complete coincidence (really!), I heard back this morning from a reader who had taken my recommendation to go there recently:

 

La Ferme

I just wanted to thank you for reviewing La Ferme a few months back, and thus making me aware of it. My fiancee took me there for my birthday, and it was lovely. The food (properly made and delicious risotto, a salad that was on special that day, sweetbreads, and sea scallops) were all really good, the service was absolutely spectacular (the moment when the waiter came over, noticed us both about to put bread in our mouths, and turned around only to return as soon as we were done chewing was the kind of thing I've only experienced at fine French restaurants IN France), and the setting is both attractive and, most important, quiet. The pianist was a nice background note but never intrusive, we could talk in normal voices and hear perfectly well, and we were so far from everyone else in the mostly full restaurant that I didn't worry about being overheard. All in all, a great experience, and I thank you for making that possible by just making me aware that it was an option.

Welcome back, and thanks for re-reviewing Vermillion. With the closure of Restaurant Eve, are there any other top-tier places in Old Town (besides Vermillion). I feel like Alexandria's dining scene is withering away. (Even longtime local spots like King Street Blues and Geranio announced recently they have closed.)

The one other  upscale dining destination that comes to mind as worth the trip is probably Hummingbird or the seriously tiny Nasime for Japanese. I like Vermilion a lot; it would be a better restaurant with a bit of a makeover. 

what is your recommendations for the Waterfront area?

The new Wharf, you mean? I've covered the dining scene there pretty extensively, from the start. Among the better options are the aforementioned Del Mar, Mi Vida for Mexican and Kaliwa for pan-Asian cooking. 

Hey Tom, I saw your "A Rake's Progress" review on the website today, so I thought it might be a good time to chime in with some accolades for the place. My husband and I have been 3 times and have found the service to be impeccable. Our server from our first visit has recognized us on subsequent visits, and always made us feel valued (shout out to Mike!). Also, two thumbs up to a restaurant that leaves plenty of space between tables. The food is also very delicious, although on two of our visits we had at least one dish that did seem a bit over-salted, like you mention in your review. Plus, a recommendation for other readers: Go early! If you plan for an early dinner, the sun comes through the gorgeous stained glass windows, which light up the entire restaurant a gorgeous color. Also, the added benefit of casual banter with the friendly servers and a quieter meal!

Early meals are very much to my taste, probably because I get up at the crack of dawn. Thanks for suggesting such. 

At first I misread Kansas City's comment, thinking *she* was the one making a concession to her boys by agreeing to take them to Jaleo, knowing their appetites would end up costing her through the nose. I would think the kids would love Jaleo! There are so many options. Maybe she just needs to help them understand the menu?

Correct. There are dozens and dozens of tapas from which to choose at my favorite small plates source in the city (an amazing 25 years old at this point).

A lot of the wedding sites will suggest not disclosing the fact that it's a wedding as a "hack" to avoiding the markup, but my friend was once a party planner at a large restaurant. If the couple said "wedding," they got her, and she was the wedding expert on staff. If they didn't, they got whoever was available. So by disclosing, they got the person who was accustomed to handling weddings, and, as you said, got a smoother experience.

Thanks for weighing in. Great post.

This is in response to a recent question about a steak not coming out to the diner's satisfaction. It reminded me of an experience I had when The Source had first opened in DC. The steak I had ordered came out well done and I had ordered it medium rare. A member of my party complained to the server and I was given a new steak, cooked perfectly, AND Wolfgang Puck came out to apologize, took a picture with us, and gave me a signed cookbook. That was fantastic service.

Awesome save on the part of the restaurant. Every mistake should be handled so .... personably, right?

Hey Tom, I just got back from Spain and had the pleasure of visiting Restaurante Botin in Madrid. What a great experience. The place started in 1725. I was wondering if you have ever been. With so many new restaurants opening every day, it was an honor to pay respect to the past that can always inspire. Hey, suckling pigs are always new!

Thanks for sharing. I was unfamiliar with the establishment. Given its status, I'm wondering if it also holds the record for first restaurant to be reviewed (and who the early reviewer was)? 

Another reason you were probably able to get a reservation at POV is because is food is overpriced and mediocre at best. The staff is not the best. Please don't take out of towners there for a meal - for a cocktail *MAYBE* if you don't mind waiting in line, pass the dress code, and think the view of the White House is worth being jostled by club goers.

You are reading my mind ...

You might be able to get a lower price by not telling them. But I think you would do better to try and negotiate. They will feel resentful - maybe even swindled - if they feel you have tried to pull a fast one. Do you want resentful people handling your reception? Wax lyrical about your first date and how you want to hold your wedding reception there and move into discussing your budget.

Superb advice. 

Um...isn't the issue here the server's inappropriateness? Whether or not this diner's request is reasonable to you, isn't the issue that they were on the receiving end of sarcasm? It didn't sound to me like the server innocently forgot the request in the bustle of dinner. Look at it this way...lots of women don't like how they are referred to by some servers ("ma'am", "young lady") and if they ask the server to refrain and the server pointedly continues, wouldn't you think the server was out of line?

Mocking a customer is *never* the right thing to do. 

-Going to NYC tomorrow and will be seeing two Broadway shows and a play at the Minetta Lane Theater in Greenwich Village. We’re staying in Midtown but will go to the UES Museum Mile and The Whitney. We’re covering a lot of ground and would love restaurant recommendations with one of them being Italian. Thanks so much.

If its Italian and near Broadway you want, consider Esca for crudo and pasta, although my favorite pre-show restaurant at the moment is Empellon for top-notch tacos and margaritas.  Of the recent crop of eateries in New York, I'm partial to Simon & the Whale in the Freeland Hotel, where just last week I enjoyed great service, green gazpacho and a first-class schnitzel in an Arts & Crafts setting. 

My husband and I want to try a new restaurant Friday but don't have reservations. Between San Lorenzo and Lupo Marino, which do you think 1) is better and 2) we'd have a better chance of getting in to (don't mind eating early or late or sitting at the bar). Or, is there an old favorite that may be new to us we should try instead?

My answer awaits in today's Food section, where I preview the new Lupo Marino, which is better for its looks than its taste (although the fried food is satisfying). 

I am an Indian-American. I just left my last job and my boss gave me a gift card to an Indian restaurant. I've never mentioned my preferred tastes for any kind of food. Some of my colleagues thought it was racist. I just thought it was a clueless, but nice, gesture. What do you think?

Had I been your boss, I would have asked around about your tastes in restaurants before buying you a gift certificate. (Never assume, in other words.)  But I'm of your mind: the gesture is nice if clumsy. 

Tell them. If you're looking for a basic private dinner, there shouldn't be additional charges. But if you're looking for a longer time period, music, etc it might change. That said, I held a wedding in a restaurant with no "wedding" charges.

So far, most of you seem to be advocating for mentioning the wedding to the restaurant in advance.

I've generally had a good experience asking tables to moderate their voices. As a psa - I think this is one of the reasons Ameicans have a reputation for being loud. As a Brit, I take notice of the amosphere and adjust my voice - so if the cafe or train etc is quiet, I will automatically lean forward and speak in a low voice so as not to disturb the quiet room. I don't think Americans have this habit as much.

YOU CAN SAY THAT AGAIN. 

A local high-end restaurant is very busy, after stellar reviews and based on the chefs' previous stops. My wife and I and another couple arrived at 6:25 pm for our 6:30 pm reservation. Just before we were seated, the hostess said, "We'll need the table back by 8:30." I was really put off by this form of welcome. But we aren't dawdlers and we were finishing dessert at 8:20 when the maître d' came by and asked us if we'd be needing anything else. We got the message: Yes, please bring us the check so you can turn the table. Flawless food and great wait-service, but: Was the management out of line to deliver this hurry-up message? On my way out, I told the hostess, quietly and firmly, that her "welcome" on our arrival set our teeth on edge. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts, plus views from people in the restaurant business.

Depending on the establishment, couples are generally allotted 90 minutes for a table, quartets 30 minutes or so more. Or say say a lot of restaurant insiders. A busy place can set its own rules, of course, and I think the time limit you were quoted sounds fair, even if the way it was relayed put you off. 

Thanks for your Duck, Duck, Goose review. Made it to the restaurant for cocktails and a few small bites and couldn't agree more with you, it is a great addition to the neighborhood. Celebrated a birthday there and was surprised to see a birthday card from the kitchen staff and a hat from the owner. Super nice touch in addition to good food.

That is indeed a thoughtful gesture, so smart of the staff at Duck Duck Goose.  

 

This post, another shout out to a restaurant, followed the one above today: 

 

We went to breakfast at Le Diplomate on July 4th and shortly after our drinks were served, my boyfriend notice a spot on his shirt, like he rubbed up against the car. As he is dabbing it with water, our server arrives with Shout wipes! It was a little, but very impressive and set a great tone for the rest of our meal and day!

Any recommendations for a nice, under $20 per person (not including alcohol) brunch in Georgetown? My fiancee and I are shopping for wedding rings in Georgetown and want to get some brunch there on Sunday. We're not picky eaters, but we don't want to spend too much money.

Jose Andres recently opened America Eats Tavern in the heart of  Georgetown.  I love the atmosphere and the easy-to-split $18 fried chicken. 

"Do you want resentful people handling your reception?" That's what bridesmaids are for!

;))

Lately, I seem to find myself getting to a restaurant about an hour before closing time. While, that is enough time to be seated, order, eat, and pay before the restaurant closes, the experience feels off. The other day, I was eating when one of the staff members started putting the chairs on the tables to sweep up the floor. Nothing says, "Please leave" more than giving customers a clear picture that the place will be closing soon.

Yep. Placing chairs on tables ought to be the last thing a server takes care of -- and preferably after the last diner leaves. 

 

That's a wrap for today, folks. Thanks for joining me. Let's do it again, next Wednesday, same time. 

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: