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

Aug 16, 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.

Tom - Why are restaurants so dark that you can't read the menu or properly see the food?!?! I was at Komi a while back and respected their "no photos" policy, but used my phone light on EVERY COURSE so I could see what I was about to eat! Some may call that rude, but when I spend a small fortune on beautiful tasting and beautiful looking food, I'd like to actually see it! And Komi is far from the only offender. It's an epidemic. Do you know of any restaurants that have a "well lit" section?

You're preaching to the choir. I complained about dark dining rooms in a rant a couple years ago, after I couldn't read a newspaper -- at lunch! -- at Mastro's. Since then, the problem has only gotten worse.  

 

Small consolation: Subdued illumination might be good for our health. A 2012 study by Cornell University found that people took in 18 percent fewer calories with the lights down low.

 

Good morning, gang. Thanks for joining me for another hour of restaurant talk. Tell me what's on your mind today. 

Hi, As a devotee of the Oval Room, I wonder why you haven't reviewed it for a while and why it's never been in one of your Dining Guides. I have eaten there many times, never been disappointed in either the food or the service. Just yesterday I ate lunch there with a friend. The friend didn't like her entrée so didn't finish it. When the maitre'd learned of this he immediately asked if she would like another entrée. When she declined as she was already full and we still had dessert coming, he gave her his card and told her that the next time she came to the restaurant there would be a round of free appetizers on him. AND, it's quiet in there! you don't have to shout at your companion(s) to be heard. Just curious what you think of the Oval Room. 

You must have missed the spring dining guide, in which I awarded the long-running Oval Room three stars, an "excellent" rating.  I've reviewed the modern American a number of times over the years, as chefs have come and gone. Two years ago, I sang the praises of  the lunch deal at the bar: an entree, dessert and drink for just $20. 

Hi Tom, A friend and her family are meeting us for dinner downtown on Friday in the Thomas Circle area or thereabouts. Party of 6 includes a 7 year old; we're looking for a nice meal, not too expensive, maybe $$, where we can talk/ visit. It doesn't have to be silent, but we don't want to have to shout. Was leaning toward Lincoln, but sounds like that's super noisy. Would love your thoughts! Thanks, B

Eating in Lincoln is about as relaxing as dining next to a construction dig. Where you and your party really want to be is on the patio at Iron Gate on N St., grazing on Italian- and Greek-inspired small plates including pork gyros, gnocchi with chilies and the like. 

Hi Tom, I often see Lauriol Plaza packed on weekends and I read in this column that you gave it a 1/2 star review but I cannot find the full-length review anywhere. I love reading your blunt skewering of overrated restaurants so could you tell me what you said in it? On a related note, where would you suggest going for good, authentic tacos in admo? Michael L

Ask and ye shall receive: Eight of my most scathing reviews, Lauriol Plaza included. As for tacos in Adams Morgan, can I suggest you head to 14th St. NW instead, for the amazing basket tacos at

Mezcalero Cocina Mexicana? Trust me, they have no equal nearby. 

Thanks very much for this essay on one of the important jobs in restaurants. I started as a dishwasher in a restaurant in Dinkytown (UofM) and eventually made head line cook. It paid for my housing and meals while attending UofM classes. After graduating and going onto another profession I have a great appreciation for all the work that goes into making a good dining experience.

Thanks for the opportunity to flag my piece on the unsung heroes of the restaurant world. CNN star Anthony Bourdain told me washing dishes early in his career taught him "every important lesson of my life."

Since the racial issue is much in the news these days, would you like to comment on racial bias in seating of restaurant guests? Or are you scared of the issue? I encounter this kind of bias frequently, especially in high-end restaurants. I am small and grey-haired, a most unimposing-looking Asian woman. People have no way of knowing about my advanced degrees, my IQ, and more importantly to Americans, my net worth. Went to RPM on Tuesday. My cousin and I were the first ones through the door (reservation for 11:30 AM). In a completely empty restaurant, they chose to seat us in a two-fer, those tiny tables for two. I noticed that the white woman who came right behind us was seated in a nice, comfortable booth. Later, a young man in a t-shirt came to join her. For the next hour, every party was seated in the booths or at a table for four, even the ones who came in twos. It wasn't until an hour later when a black woman came in by herself that another small table like ours was used. See the picture? Frankly, I detest those very small tables. I thought since it was restaurant week that the place would be packed solid or I would have protested right away. But most patrons who came in after us came in twos and were seated in larger tables. I mentioned this to our server after an hour and she called the manager. The manager, an attractive blonde, told me that she felt bad that I felt that way. Now, it was my feelings that was a problem. She couldn't see the implicit bias the host (a white--skinned man who spoke with an accent, probably Latin) exhibited in the seating of the guests. Btw, the food there wasn't that exceptional. You can get better pasta in some suburban restaurants. The only thing of note is their gelato, which is house-made and is yummy. Our server, a Latina, was most wonderful also. But I take umbrage at encountering racism where I want to enjoy a nice meal and where I spend my money. When is this going to end? Should we have a list of racist restaurants where minorities should not go?

Whoo boy. While I'm not afraid to broach sensitive issues in this forum, I'm not sure your one experience at RPM should be considered the norm there (or anywhere else, for that matter). 

 

If it makes you feel any better, I've received similar complaints about profiling in restaurants from just about every demographic you can think of, including gays, twentysomethings, senior citizens, parents with babies in tow and African-Americans.

 

The best time to register dissatisfaction with a business is at the time a problem occurs.  Can you tell me why you didn't ask to be seated elsewhere when you were shown to a table you clearly didn't like? I can't imagine a host not wanting to make you happy in what you say was an empty dining room.

 

Chatters, I welcome your thoughts on the subject.

Did I read correctly a couple weeks ago - you type with two fingers? How can you possibly work so many years writing for a living and still type with two fingers? Did you lose 8 fingers in a horrible farm to table accident?

I was an exchange student in Germany the year my high school class took typing and I hated a post-graduation summer school  class so much, I dropped out shortly after I started. I never learned to type. 

Hey Tom, A friend and I ventured down to the restaurants down in the Yards Park area of DC a few Friday's ago. It was a concert night in the park so we planned to eat early around 5 since we couldn't eat a reservation. It turned out to be raining terribly. By the time we get there at 5 the concert was cancelled and tables at the two places we tried were booked with reservations with no openings, but had literally zero seated guests. We were shocked when they weren't releasing tables regardless of how late the reservation makers were. Where talking being told no even if someone was 30 minutes late. I get holding the table for some amount of time, but it seemed like both places were sending away paying customers given the outdoor concert was cancelled and it was raining cats and dogs. Is this normal?

The usual grace period, for restaurants and diners alike, is 15 minutes. Holding tables for late arrivals is a nice gesture, especially given the monsoon we saw last week, but I'm surprised to hear that the two of you were turned away by two different establishments with a sea of empty tables. Maybe if you had agreed to relinquish your table in a given amount of time you could have been seated? Storms and other disruptions are hard to juggle on weekends in particular. I'm sympathetic to owners and customers. 

Hey, Tom, I'd like to treat my vegan sister to a fancy dinner next week. What is the best there is to offer? And if you'll allow me to add my kudos to you for the dishwasher article - moments like that weave the fabric of a healthy community, and DC needs that so badly right now. Thank you!

Certainly one of the more upscale establishments in town is Elizabeth's Gone Raw, which features its (Friday-only) vegan tasting menu in a posh townhouse downtown.  But some mainstream restaurants can also make nice gifts. Not long ago, I took a vegan friend (with allergy issues) to  Rasika West End, where he found plenty to appreciate. 

If you were going to recommend 5 "must try" restaurants in DC right now (not in MD or VA) what would they be? All price points/neighborhoods/cuisines are great.

In no particular order, and off the top of my head, I'd say Bad Saint, Salt Line, ChicKo, Rasika and Jaleo are restaurants anyone interested in good food should make time for.

Good evening, Please let me know if I can recommend a restaurant for Tom to review. Thanks, Karen S. King

You bet. Right here is good. You can also send suggestions to me via email: tom.sietsema@washpost.com

Hi Tom, Three times now I've made a reservation at Barcelona on 14th Street, and all three times I've waited over an hour past my reservation time. What gives? A cursory glance at their Yelp page shows that this is a common problem. They've been open for a long time and the problem hasn't gone away, so why don't they change their ways?

Um, not to be snarky or anything, but why would you wait more than a minute for second-rate Spanish food when the city has role models including Jaleo and Boqueria? I swear, the scene is the only reason to pay attention to Barcelona.

Just got a reservation for La Puerta Verde for Saturday evening, forgetting its restaurant week. Should we wait to go, look elsewhere or keep the rez?

Hold on to that booking. This week's three-course, $35 promotion at La Puerta Verde includes some of my pet dishes, guacamole and skirt steak included.

I actually encounter this sort of thing very frequently. I guess I am being judged by my appearance (remember the saying about the cover of a book). I actually don't like to be pushy, that's why I didn't protest being seated at the small table right away. But when I saw the white woman being seated in the big booth, I started to take note of the seating trend and the racial profiling involved. Also, encountered this very same problem at Sfoglina recently.

Thanks for responding in real time. I'm sorry you feel the way you do but I want to make the point: Asking for a different table is not being pushy. You're looking after your own comfort.

Sounds like you've got an decent item for a New Years resolution. Most people who learn to type can double their speed in a month or two.

I'm pretty fast with one or two digits, actually.

Do you do research on a restaurant before you review it (chef bio, menus, other stories, other reviews) or do you go in cold the first time? Do you think this makes a difference in how you assess a restaurant?

I've done both. I've found I probably eat a little better when I do at least some research, like identifying a chef's signature dishes. I never read other publication's reviews before I write my own, though. I don't want to be influenced by them, one way or another.

Not sure why anyone still goes there with the alternatives you mentioned- plus Estadio like 2 blocks away. Barcelona is the Founding Farmers of the 14th St. corridor in terms of the popularity-to-quality ratio being so far out of whack.

I forgot to mention Estadio. My bad.

Actually, Tom, the correct response is "I'm sorry you encountered that situation" - let's not blame the victim!

I like your response better than mine.

As an ex-hostess, I would not have discriminated on race - but you specifically mentioned you are small. I probably would have tried to seat you in a two-top because they are just not built for large people. If I can fill that table with a person who would not be as uncomfortable, I'd try.

Thank you for providing some important context. Much obliged.

What do you feel like the DC area dining scene is missing or could benefit from more of?

While enough has improved on the dining front that Washington made my list of Top 10 Food Cities two years ago, I wish we had more or better breakfast spots, Nordic examples and Chinese cooking.  For starters. 

 

Chatters, what else is the area missing?

A person who types for a living cannot afford to take a month or two to learn something he already does satisfactorily.

That's it!

Is the article on Chi Ko in the printed newspaper? If so, what day? If not, will it be in tomorrow's paper? I'm a huge fan of Chi Ko (and of your work). Thanks, John

My preview of the (terrific) new ChiKo is in today's Food section. Previews publish on Fridays online; the First Bite column follows on Wednesday in print. 

More restaurants with high quality interesting food that are quiet enough not to damage your hearing. Cheers for Iron Gate Inn and Tavira and Corduroy and a few others that meet this spec.

I'm slapping myself on my forehead: YES to the plea for restaurants where you can hear yourself think!

Effective Democrats

And effective Republicans. (Fair is fair.)

We had a great dinner this past weekend at Siren, encountering probably the best service we have had in a long time. When my wife ordered an after-dinner drink, I mentioned that I was looking forward to trying a sip. The beverage director (who spent as much time at our table looking after us as our waitperson) overheard and brought me a tiny little glass with my own taste of the liqueur.

Smart beverage director. That free taste for you, and your message to me, resulted in an online plug for Siren.

Also places that discriminate against people with kids. Years ago we went to a certain Mexican restaurant in Tysons Corner Mall, were treated rudely by the hostess and someone I believe was the manager because we wanted to take our stroller with us. We should've walked out but the food was good. Get seated in a near empty restaurant not far from a large family (10+ people, who had multiple strollers with them) and told by the waitress we could sit there so we wouldn't disturb anyone. Never went back AND told all my friends about it.

Word of mouth can do wonders (see the post above) or not for a restaurant. Something tells me the hostess in your scenario is no longer in the business.

As a former restaurant manager/host for LEYE- the company that owns RPM, I agree with the other former host who said that you may have been seated at the smaller table because you are also small. You definitely should have spoken up, though, if you didn't like where you were seated! How do you know for sure that the white woman wasn't seated in a large booth because she specifically requested it? Restaurants want to make their guests happy, otherwise how do they stay open? There's also the often mistunderstood rotation method to seating sections. The server for your section might have only been assigned the smaller two-tops, but was the first server in line to be seated, thus, as the first guests through the door, by default you would end up in that section unless you were a party of 3 or more, in which case the rotation would skip to the first server with a larger table available. There are numerous reasons why you may have been seated where you are. I can't guarantee that there wasn't racism involved, but you can't definitively blame the seating on that without knowing what's going on "behind the scenes."

Bless you for pulling back the curtain a bit. And at the risk of getting brickbats, let me also say a fair number of diners go into restaurants with a chip on their shoulder, almost looking to be slighted.  Not that that applies to the original poster, just that I know such to be true.

I was in Italy a few weeks ago and I realized something: the food I got there was not overly fussed with or infused or presented on huge plates. It was good quality food, presented simply that tasted incredible. I realize that sitting in Sorrento eating bruschetta is probably as good as it gets, but is there somewhere in DC that follows the great ingredients, simple presentation path?

Your dreamy anecdote is one of many reasons I hope Obelisk reopens sooner rather than later.

 

That' a wrap for this morning. Let's meet again next Wednesday, same time. I'd like to hear more of your thoughts re: bias in restaurants.

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: