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

Jul 12, 2017

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.

Any word on whether Donald Trump will partake of the tasting menu at the Eiffel Tower's Le Jules Verne restaurant with M. and Mme Macron tomorrow? I can't picture him eating lobster, olives, caviar, etc., let alone sipping fine wines. Or will he commit the massive protocol faux pas of ordering the kiddie meal of well-done steak with ketchup?

  Nothing happens during such important encounters without a lot of back and forth between protocol chiefs and other strategists in advance of a visit. A foreign leader isn't going to serve his guest something the guest doesn't like without at least offering an alternative, for instance. For the record, Trump is a tee-totaler; his brother died from the effects of alcoholism. 

 

But don't forget: Trump was a fixture on the New York social scene for decades before he became President of the United States, and he's certainly encountered other than steak and ketchup along the way.  (Remember the frogs' legs he sampled, pre-Inauguration, while interviewing Romney at Jean-Georges in New York for a Cabinet position?)

 

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to another 60 minutes of food talk today. What's on your mind, dining-wise?  In lieu of a restaurant review this coming Sunday, I addressed several reader rants, including one about out-sized menus and another about compensation for spilled beer.

 

Talk (type?) to me.

Tom, I'm sure you saw the piece in Sunday's Post about the potential hearing damage from noisy restaurants to both patrons and employees. Thank you for citing decibel levels in your reviews. Can you possibly begin citing decibel levels in your First Bite column? I realize those columns aren't full-fledged reviews, but most of your readers would likely want to know how noisy the eating environment is going to be. I personally don't return to venues where the noise level is so high that you can't hold a decent conversation without practically shouting. The high-decibel vibe may appeal to some patrons, but not those who are hearing-challenged or those who wish to protect their ears.

 Here's the story that ran over the weekend.

 

 Let me raise the topic with my editor. If a restaurant is uncomfortably loud, chances are, I'll mention that in anything I write. Increasingly, it's become a challenge for me to come up with fresh ways of telling readers a place is deafening. And especially with new restaurants, it's frustrating to find they haven't addressed sound issues before they've opened, when it's easier and less expensive to do so. 

Hi Tom, I was wondering what you think of restaurants that display a menu with no price information on their website menu. I had assumed that only expensive high-end restaurants would want to do this, i.e. if anyone has to ask the price, they are probably not in the restaurants intended demographic. However, the restaurants I've encountered that don't display price information on their websites menus actually seem to range from cheap/low-end to pricey/high-end. This includes restaurants that (at least to me) seemed to have very fair/reasonable prices, so I'm not sure why they would not be more forthcoming about prices. It's usually possible to check reviews to find info. about the pricing, but I am not sure whether there is some strategic reason as to why restaurants would make it more challenging to find this info.

Along with their address, phone number or email contact, restaurants need to include up-to-date menus along with prices on their websites. To omit such basic information is to potentially lose business. Offering directions and info on Metro stops,  parking availability and accessability are other ways to make restaurant-goers happy, readers constantly tell me. 

Hi Tom! I'm not sure if you have answered this question before, but I'm hoping you can help me now. We're a group of six females going out in the Maryland suburbs (Bethesda, N. Bethesda, Rockville-ish areas) on a Saturday night to celebrate one of the ladies getting married. We're all over 30, so it's not going to be a raucous group, but we'd like to be able to have fun. I'm looking for suggestions so that a vegan, a vegetarian, and a picky eater in the bunch will all enjoy themselves as well. Thanks!

The freshly-minted True Food Kitchen in Bethesda should be at the top of your list. It's a chain with a mindful, vegetable-leaning menu, but also a handsome setting, interesting cocktails -- pretty much everything it sounds your group needs for a festive night out.

Hi Tom, My stomach continues to thank you for these weekly chats! A few weeks ago friends and I had reservations at Osteria Morini for 5 people. We were thrilled with the amazing weather that night, and asked the host if there was any outdoor seating available. She noted there was only one table for 5 available on the patio, but the existing group should be finishing soon. She noted they had already been there for almost 2 hours. We were happy to wait, but 45 minutes later, the group still had not moved. We even noticed the staff do their best to nudge them along (appropriately clearing dishes, etc.). Needless to say we eventually took a table inside and had a wonderful meal, but what is the responsibility of both restaurants and diners to have better timing etiquette? I know they were paying guests, but almost 3 hours on a Saturday evening, especially when they had clearly finished their meals and drinks? On a related note, I wish establishments with the available space could offer more outdoor seating options for larger groups. Thanks!

The restaurant industry has a word for people who linger long after they've eaten: campers. And it's up to a host or manager to move them along when the restaurant is busy or other diners might be clamoring for their table.  

 

Two hours seems like plenty of time for five people to finish a meal. Two hours and 45 minutes is pushing it.  A staff member could easily have intervened with something along the lines of, "We're so glad you were able to join us tonight. If you'd like to stay, can I show you to the bar? We're busy tonight and could really use the table for guests who've been waiting." 

Tom - relatives will be in town this weekend, and I'm looking for recommendations for restaurants. There will be 2 kids (4-5 years old) in the group. Both very well behaved at restaurants and fairly adventurous eaters, except for not liking spicy food. One adult can't eat seafood, but another tends to eat pescatarian. Will likely eat on the early side due to the kids. Adult entrees $30 or under preferred. DC proper or at least somewhere metro or bus accessible.

I've got the perfect spot for you: Millie's in Spring Valley. While the restaurant serves an abundance of fish, the menu offers alternatives including a fried chicken salad and steak with fingerling potatoes, and the nautical setting feels like a day at the beach, replete with a fleet of picnic tables and an ice cream window outside. 

My wife and I have noticed the past few times we've dined at upscale restaurants (in DC but also at restaurants abroad) that we've been seated at the back corner of the restaurant. We've wondered if there is a stigma for being seated in the back, rather then areas more in view of other patrons. We're in our early 30's and are always smartly dressed but are not the biggest spenders. Are we reading too much into this or is there a reason we would be seated at the back?

I think you're reading too much into the situation. How could a restaurant predict your spending habits, especially if you're "always smartly dressed," as you put it? Also, the backs of some restaurants can be pretty inviting. If you don't like where you've been led, you can always ask for another table. 

Tom, Welcome back! Was wondering if you have had a chance to revisit The Grill Room since the hotel became the Rosewood (nee Capella) and Frank Ruta left the kitchen. Or have you heard anything? Is it still a standout in Georgetown? Thank you

I hear crickets from or about the hotel dining room in Georgetown. Has anyone here been in recent months? The space deserves a star chef.

Hi Tom, I remember a post from a few weeks ago about a guy who was changing a baby on top of a table in a fast food restaurant. Well, I saw the same thing on July 4th when I was walking by a restaurant on K St around 6 pm-- a man was changing a baby on a table on an outdoor patio with diners sitting just a few tables away. There was a restaurant employee setting up umbrellas outside who didn't do anything about it. I'm not exactly sure which restaurant it was so I won't call anyone out, but I just wanted to chime in and say that I really hope this isn't becoming acceptable practice! I was grossed out, and I wasn't even eating there.

I'm going to try to un-see this scenario, but for Pete's sake, there are several reasons restaurants have restrooms and one of them is for changing diapers. Under no circumstance should diners be subjected to seeing what you did. So inconsiderate/dumb/careless of the dad there.

Who is responsible when a customer knocks a tray of something (say red wine or a plate of pasta with red sauce) all over a server. Is the restaurant responsible for replacing something like a white polo? Or do they pass that onto the server who is blameless? I'm not advocating adding it to the bill for the customer but I am curious.

In a case like that, I'd love to think that the restaurant would reimburse the server for a customer's mistake.

My guess there are two reasons for this problem. One, some restaurants have 2 or more locations, and the prices are different, but they don't want to have 2 menus listed. The other is the fact that too many businesses create a website and forget it. I was looking online for some nightlife activities and one website had upcoming events listed from 2013.

If I've said it once, I've said it a million times: restaurants need to have a person or two in charge of their websites and making sure they're current. I, too, am tired of clicking on a link to see winter menus or a Father's Day promotion. In 2017, there's just no excuse not to have a reliable online presence.

There's a certain resort town I'll never go back to after a restaurant hostess came over after less than 90 minutes and said, "It's time for you to go." In those words! (Yes, I know I'm being unfair to the rest of the town, which is why I'm not naming it.)

That's ... direct! One way to prevent such problems is for busy restaurants to let diners know in advance that they'll need the tables back within a certain time period. It's not the first thing a diner might want to hear, but at least they can plan accordingly -- or find a restaurant that doesn't mind anyone lingering.

To have only one drinks menu / wine list per table, while the waiter hovers asking whether he can get anyone a drink as soon as they've sat down. Print up enough to go with each food menu, restaurateurs!

Yep!

Do restaurant designers realize how alienating high noise levels in restaurants are to their customers? There are a number of places where the food and service are fine, but you have to shout to be heard and you certainly can't hear the specials when they are recited. Would it make any difference if we pointed this out to the management? We have crossed those places off our list.

Yes! Yes! Restaurants need the feedback. If enough customers let them know they will be going elsewhere for meals because they can't hear, at the very least the establishments have a chance to woo them back (by installing sound-proving, turning down the music, whatever). 

Hi Tom. I need your advice re a squirmy issue. My husband and I frequent a restaurant where we know most of the wait staff. The staff is very professional, we’re friendly and polite towards them. Lately though one of the waiters has been a bit touchy with me, a pat on the back and an arm rub during our last lunch. Ick. My husband wants to say something, I told him I will handle it. I plan to talk to the restaurant owner who is often there as hostess/manager (her husband is the head chef). What language would you suggest I use? My biggest concern is that the waiter will know I said something, and things may be awkward. Of course we could request a different waiter from now on but that’s never a guarantee. Help!

A pat on the back seems harmless enough, unless it goes on and on, but ... an arm rub? I'd draw a line there.

 

Bottom line: servers should not be touching people. You might try reacting by moving forward when a pat occurs or slipping your arm away from a hand in motion. If that doesn't work, enlist the help of a manager. "Gee, we really like eating here, but some staff are a little too friendly. Can you remind them in your next meeting not to touch diners?" 

Hi Tom - I was the customer who was seated at the kitchen counter when I had a reservation and when there were a number of empty tables. Thank you very much for your reply in your "rants" article. I will be sending the restaurant a copy of your post in an email. I don't want anything from them, but I do want to give them a heads up that their actions cast a negative light on what was otherwise very good food, wine, and service.

So glad I could be of help. And how smart of you to send the establishment your concern.

My parents are celebrating their 50th anniversary next month in Santa Fe, a city they love but haven't been to in awhile. My brother and I want to give them a gift certificate to a restaurant that will be special but not so fancy that they will have to pack an extra outfit. While they are fairly adventurous eaters, they prefer the Southwestern cuisine when they are there. I saw an older write-up on Restaurant Martin, but I wonder if you have been to the city more recently and have other recommendations. Thank you!

No question, Restaurant Martin remains the best of the higher-end restaurants in Santa Fe, where your parents ought to do themselves a big favor and book a massage at the blissful Ten Thousand Waves. 

Moved back after a 40 year absence. Now in search of the best wings without driving to Dinosaur BBQ in Baltimore (my favorite place when I lived up north). Happy to treat you to Dinosaur wings or hope that you can suggest something a little closer. Thanks.

My favorite chicken wings at the moment are within easy reach,  at Johnny's Half Shell in Adams Morgan. The plump grilled bites come with a cooling Green Goddess  dip that's so good, I could eat the spread by itself.

Hi Tom, I am the reader that asked for a restaurant recommendation in Anchorage a few weeks ago to celebrate my mom's 80th birthday. We chose Simon and Seaforts because of the view and had a wonderful experience. I requested a table with a view and was contacted by the manager David who assured us they would make it happen. We had a great table in a corner right in front of the window with a fabulous view. Our server Jason was also very attentive and was great with our kids. Despite some reviews saying the food was average, I thought it was really good. I would definitely recommend the place. Thank you and your readers for making my mom's birthday celebration a memorable one.

Thanks so much for the feedback. I'm glad some readers found the perfect place for Mom.

If you had to choose one for a romantic dinner, which would you pick? Thanks.

Having been to the Ashby Inn recently, and having enjoyed my dinners there under the new chef, I can vouch for the dining destination in Paris, Va. My favorite roost is the cozy underground bar, by the way. 

Why did Ripple close?

 In a few words, lack of business, and despite good reviews.

 

  On a more delicious note, Ripple's last chef, Ryan Ratino, tells me he plans to open a place of his own, Bresca, at 1906 14th St NW in September. He'll be weaving aspects of fine-dining with a casual approach.

 

The Ohio native's changing menu will include dishes from his youth (picture walleye pike) as well as sea urchin linguine with summer truffles.  Bresca,  Ratino says, is Spanish for honeycomb, its hexagon shape evocative of strength, efficiency and harmony.  Bresca's drinks program will be created by the esteemed Juan Coronado, late of  Barmini

 

I, for one, can't wait for the place to open.

For the dad changing diapers in public, not all restaurants have changing tables in men's rooms.

Yeah, well, there has to be a better place to change a diaper than in the center of the nation's capital.  I wonder if he asked to "borrow" the women's restroom for a few moments?

You can try my husband's direct, but jokey line, said with a smile "Hey, you can look, but you can't touch". It is quite effective, and is somewhat bizarre enough that people take the hint despite not knowing if it is a joke or not.

I like it, I like it.

Tom, having lived in Spain for over three years, the protocol is that the table is the customer's as long as they want it. Now I realize in the low-margin US Restaurant industry, this isn't always practical. Without the staff (politely) reminding diners who have finished that there are others waiting, these folks may not have realized the situation they were creating.

The United States and Europe look at a lot of things differently. What works abroad doesn't always translate well here. I blame the restaurant in this scenario for not asking the campers to move along shortly after the two-hour mark. 

People often ask for recommendations for good food and family friendly restaurants that are reasonably priced. Why do you never recommend one of the Great American Restaurants? They have a range of food choices and are all over northern Virginia (and one in Gaithersburg). They are my favorites, especially coastal flats and Artie's.

I was a huge fan of the locally-owned restaurants for years in the early 2000s, and plugged them a lot here and in print, but I've been less enamored of them recently, with a few exceptions. Thanks for reminding me to give them another look-see.

Not all women's rooms have changing pads either!! Even the most "family friendly" restaurant can be lacking.

Okay, make it  a towel on the floor. Not ideal, I realize, but better than within view of fellow diners.

I agree with the chatter who suggested that it's usually the restaurants with more than one location. Each location has different prices. But there's usually a "choose your location" feature that lets you delve a little deeper. And yes, outdated menus are annoying. I ran across that at Not Your Average Joe's recently. My wife and I went specifically because she wanted to try something she saw in their online menu. Only problem -- it was an old menu and they'd removed the item. When she tried to order it without even looking at the menu at the restaurant, though, the waiter got confused and pulled the manager in. To his credit, he explained the situation and said they'd make it for us anyway. Score!

The takeaway: If you have your heart set on a dish you see online, you ought to call to verify said dish is still available.

....you know how the rest of us don't go to places that are too loud for us, or places that won't take reservations, or so on? Perhaps you shouldn't take a diaper-wearing child to restaurants that don't have changing tables. Please?

Food for thought. At the very least, the parent of a charge in diapers might want to make a phone call to verify a changing station.

It is never acceptable to change a diaper where folks are dining. And on top of the table? That's disgusting and shows lack of any regard for fellow diners or couth, quite frankly. If you will be with a wee one, call ahead to ask about facilities. Don't frequent restaurants that don't provide them, request facilities, or go next door. But there is no argument for being gross. I would have called him on it.

Thanks, Mom!

If the "campers" had been asked to move, it would have been all over social media, in Yelp reviews, etc., about how rude the restaurant was, how it ruined their evening, etc. I can't see how the restaurant can win.

That thought occurred to me just as I hit "publish," but I hope consumers of online reviews take comments with a grain of salt (knowing there are always two or more sides to a story). I know I do, after years of looking into reader complaints.

 

Where did the time go today? It's past noon already. Thanks for joining me today and let's meet again, same time next week.

In This Chat
Tom Sietsema
Tom Sietsema has been the Washington Post food critic since 2000. In leaner years, he worked for the Microsoft Corporation, where he launched sidewalk.com; the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; the San Francisco Chronicle; and the Milwaukee Journal. A graduate of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, he has also written for Food & Wine, Gourmet, GQ, Travel & Leisure and other national publications. In 2016, he received an award from the James Beard Foundation for his series identifying and rating the "10 Best Food Cities in America" the previous year.
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