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

Aug 23, 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.

What are your thoughts on the alleged incident at the Prime Rib? Have you ever experienced such outrageous discrimination?

For readers who may not have read about what happened at the Prime Rib, a veteran Washington steakhouse, here's the story.

 

The gay couple that were denied a shared sundae because "it doesn't go with the ambiance," as a server told them, declined to comment any further.  I put in a call to the general manager earlier this morning and am waiting to hear back, but a server at the restaurant informed me that the waiter in question was dismissed on Monday. 

 

I have to think discrimination is not a regular occurrence at the Prime Rib and this was an unfortunate one-time experience with a single employee.  Since the story ran, no one else has come to me with anything to support an anti-anything attitude at the establishment.

 

Have I been in similar situations? Once, in a big deal restaurant where I asked for a corner table in the main dining room and a hostess told me she couldn't seat two men there.  For what it's worth, my guest was African-American. Weirdness ensued when I complained.

 

On THAT note ....

 

Good morning, everyone, and thanks for joining me for another 60 minutes of restaurant talk.  If you like Greek hospitality, be sure to check out my review of the new Our Mom Eugenia in Great Falls. The dips and mixed grill are particularly good.

 

Let's begin.

 

 

Tom, my wife almost always requests a different table from the one we are led to by the host, usually an obvious upgrade like a window or a booth. I cringe, but she is almost always accommodated, usually with "Oh, that's fine, enjoy your meal." And if you stop and think of it, hey, why NOT ask if you really want something else? And even I am quick to request a table well away from a family with small children or a group that looks like it will be boisterous. I came to enjoy the food, not to have my other senses assaulted. We are of course unerringly pleasant about it.

There's no harm in asking for another table if you don't care for the one you're given. I can see situations where the request can't always be acommodated -- a busy Saturday, an advance request by a regular for a certain spot -- but by and large, restaurants want to make sure customers are comfortable and satisfied. 

If it's too dark to read the menu, I just whip out my cell phone and turn on its flashlight function, making sure it's beam hits a waiter at least once. Once I've decided what I want to eat, I turn off the light, only to turn it on again when he comes to take our order. I'm only partially exaggerating. (Seriously, I do all I can to not flash on my fellow diners.)

While I sympathize with anyone having to order in the dark, I'm not sure subjecting a server to a klieg light is the best way to communicate your displeasure to the ownership. Whatever happened to "Can you please turn up the lights or bring me a votive? I can't read the menu." Better yet, you could ask to see a manager and raise the issue with someone in a position to shed light (pun intended!) on the problem. 

A co-worker and friends will be in DC over Labor Day weekend and need restaurant recommendations. They are coming from Texas, so they're not interested in Tex-Mex or BBQ. They're staying in the Woodley Park area and will be using public transportation. Where should I tell them to go? Hank's Oyster Bar, Buck's, Pop's Sea Bar seem to be mentioned often but are there others? Probably want a relatively casual atmosphere and moderate prices. Thanks!

Woodley Park is, for the most part, a dispiriting restaurant zone. I'd direct your visitors to nearby Cleveland Park for Indian street food at Bindaas or Adams Morgan for seafood at Johnny's Half Shell. Via the Metro, your friends also have easy access to Penn Quarter, where they might explore Middle Eastern small plates at Zaytinya or Asian-Latin cooking at China Chilcano.

Hi Tom, love the chats and your insight into the restaurant industry. In the last chat, an Asian woman shared with you the poor seating she received at a near-empty restaurant. Your response was, "why didn't you bring it up when you were clearly dissatisfied." I love you, but responses like that are PART OF THE PROBLEM. Do you know how exhausting (and embarassing) it is to ALWAYS have to ask for a better table? Every. Single. Time? To *always* be seated in the back, or in the dark, or near a restroom, or near a server's prep station? Even if you don't know that experience, I'm certain you can empathise? The writer shouldn't HAVE TO ASK to be seated in a comparable manner as the other guests. This happens often, Tom. It really does.

Well, OK, but what would your advice be? Seriously, if no one with a gripe says anything, the problem isn't going to go away. Piping up -- saying something -- is the first step toward resolving an issue or making others aware of a situation. You don't mention your age or sex or race, but maybe you can shed some light on experiences that have left you feeling discriminated against. 

Hi Tom--Love the chats! Our 30-person office is considering locations for our annual holiday party. It's a lunchtime event and we want a private room, great food, and a white-tablecloth ambiance (which unfortunately many of the newer restaurants lack). In years past we've done: 1789, Marcel's, Bourbon Steak, Blue Duck, Fiola Mare. Do you have any recommendations for this year? Thanks!

Fiola in Penn Quarter, sibling to Fiola Mare in Georgetown, has the space and quality you're looking for, as does Rasika West End.

Hi Tom, My parents are coming to Maryland for Christmas this year. Our tradition is to go out for a nice dinner on Christmas Eve. Do you have any restaurant recommendations for Christmas Eve dinner in Montgomery County or DC?

I admire advance planning, but you might want to ask me this question closer to when restaurants start publicizing their holiday menus. 

Missed the chat in real time, but as a host, I wanted to weigh in. Like the manager said before me, it most likely had something to do with rotation (making sure each server gets an equal number of tables) and that server being first, or many other behind the scenes reasons. Floor plans with reservations are typically done before a restaurant opens, and hosts try to stick to them to make sure all parties are accommodated (and guest requests for tables are met).

Thanks for the industry perspective. 

Hi Tom, I'm curious what your audience thinks about parents taking young children to restaurants. My husband and I (empty nesters) were recently at a nice restaurant in Rehoboth. There were several families with toddlers inside, one in particular had two lively little darlings screaming and throwing utensils, which the mom kept picking up while the dad gave everyone a sheepish what-can-you-do grin. They left before we did, having to remove their double-wide stroller that was blocking another table. The wait staff cleaned up all the food underneath their table (there was a lot). I hope the couple tipped like Rockefellers. After our $200 meal we vowed never to return. The food and service were good, but it was more cafeteria experience than fine dining. Honestly, is this a trend that's here to stay? I don't get it. I'm fifty years old, my parents did not take us with them to dinner all the time (they also did not go out as often as we do today). When we did go to a nice Washington restaurant it was when we were in high school, and definitely a treat. Anyway, maybe this is more rant, but toddlers in restaurants isn't fun for other diners, and certainly not for the servers.

Your rant is bound to provoke lively discussion, in part because of the setting you describe: a beach community in summer, when people tend to be more casual about everything (including bringing kids to restaurants).

 

Here's my take: I actually like seeing well-behaved children in restaurants -- emphasis on well-behaved. Kids should not be allowed to throw things or run around in restaurants, for safety and other reasons, and adults (parents) should be quick to address issues as they come up: take the rowdy one out for a quick stroll, pick up food that's been dropped, etc.  Like you, I'm no fan of those car-size strollers, having been bumped one too many times in the past.

 

I wouldn't paint all children with the same brush. I've eaten with plenty of fine, pint-sized diners. But parents, who know their charges best, have to be careful in their choice of restaurants. Fine-dining isn't meant for everyone.

Tom, the thing that I pine for in the DC dining scene is decent Cuban food. We go to Mi Cuba occasionally, and it is just good enough to scratch the itch a bit, and the staff is lovely, but it is tiny, the wait for a table can be interminable, and finding a place to park in that neighborhood these days is a nightmare. I still dream of the dear departed Omega in Adams Morgan and then La Cantanita in Clarendon. Whisper in some industry ears, Tom. Make this happen!

Do you know about La Limena in Rockville? The menu is part Cuban, part Peruvian and wholey delicious. 

Tom, you gave a positive review of Millie's in Spring Valley when it opened. But both good and service have gone straight downhill since. In particular, management appears to be seriously inadequate if not missing. Folks are happy to have a dining spot in this restaurant-barren neighborhood but poor management and disorganization doesn't compensates for a place to sit outside with the kids. Aside from your annual re-visit to some of your reviewed restaurants, it would be helpful for your readers to have periodic updates available from either yourself or other guests to avoid big disappointments. Millie's is a perfect example of getting a good review upon opening and awful if not worse a month or two later.

I'm so disappointed to hear about your poor experience -- already? -- at Millie's. Have other customers noticed the same?

 

While I try to keep tabs on the most popular restaurants, I can't justify re-reviews so close to initial critiques at the expense of other establishments. One reason I host these chats is to share information, including restaurant updates, with readers. 

Unfortunately the parents with ill-behaved children are the least likely to realize it., and the most likely to assume no one in the restaurant minds their disturbances.

You might be right there ...

I read comments where folks are saying he was a poor immigrant from wherever. Really! I am guessing a waiter working full time at the Prim Rib is making a $125K + a year or more. He isn't some poor waiter at Denny's who is just above the welfare limit.

He had been employed by the restaurant for several years -- long enough to know what not to say to his audience.

Tom, easy one: What's your favorite burger in DC? Not necessarily the fanciest, or biggest, or most ridiculous toppings. Just simply the most pleasurable to eat.

Let's just say Kyle Bailey is as good with beef as with fish at the freshly-minted Salt Line in the Navy Yard. His double-decker sandwich with house-made pickles and French fries is all too easy to finish.

Tom--You routinely tell your readers to address problems as they arise in a restaurant so they can fix them. What do you do when you get home with takeout and realize everything's wrong? We had this problem Monday night at Cafe Rio in Burke (I know, not exactly fine dining). Half way through eating we realized 1 meal had the wrong meat filling, 1 had the wrong toppings, and 1 meal (nachos) was completely missing the meat. I generally check before I leave the restaurant to see if everything is in the bag, but I don't inspect every dish. I called the manager who offered to "remake our food." This wasn't realistic for me (3 kids under 5 who are hungry, approaching bedtime, and a 10-15 minute drive to the restaurant). What's appropriate in this situation?

The manager offered a do-over and the timing wasn't right for you, correct? Had I been you, I would have written down the time and date and manager's name, snapped a photo of the order, alongside a receipt -- for proof -- and returned for your "refund" at a better time.

Tom, at first I certainly thought it sounded like anti-gay bias as well. Then I read the comments on the Post article, and some rationally mentioned that high-end restaurants often supply two plates and two forks or spoons -- for the "aesthetics" that this waiter mentioned? Maybe the Prime Rib responds this way to all such "share a dessert" requests? It would be easy to crowd-source an answer to this question.

That's a possibility, but the fact the server was fired suggests he meant otherwise.

Georgian! The cuisine is the best of the former Soviet Union, in my humble opinion, and there wine scene continues to improve. I've read about some monthly get together in private homes. A restaurant open to the public would be VERY popular!

I'm second in line, after you. Georgian food (soup dumplings, cheese bread and vegetable pates included) is among the best in the world, I concur. 

My mother's cousin owns the Prime Rib and we eat there on special occasions. Quite a few of the wait staff are LGBTQ. Certainly this was offensive not just to the dining couple.

Fair point. The server I spoke to on the phone said he was "baffled" by his former colleague's commentary.

Since I like to get take-out when I go to another town 40 miles away and have too often gotten even the the wrong order more than once, I now ALWAYS check before I leave! I know it's hard when everyone is waiting, but who wants the wrong things! I've gotten glared at more than once by staff, and huffed at, but when they're wrong, I try to not gloat. And the staff want tips...If you want a tip, please do it right!

Better to be safe than sorry!

Hi Tom - my husband and I are hoping to get away for a night. At the top of our wish list is a really great dinner. What do you recommend right now within driving distance of DC? In the past, we've done the Inn at Little Washington, Volt, and Woodberry Kitchen as little foodie retreats. I thought about Patowmack Farm, but they aren't serving dinner the Sunday we are planning to be away. What other options should we consider? Thanks!

How about Flamant, the new European-style restaurant in a bungalow setting in Annapolis? I was smitten by the setting and the service on recent visits, and it was a treat to see former DC chef Frederik De Pue at the stove again. 

Would appreciate your comments: Arrived for an early dinner at all-day restaurant that I have frequented at least 1 – 2 times a week for various meals since 1985. Am known to staff as they are known to me. I usually tip 20% and am pleasant. This time restaurant not busy. Waitress #1 took my order. Much time passed; I thought, perhaps, that the chef was taking a short break. In the past, Waitress #1 was always reliable. Waitress #2 passed by and asked if my order had been taken. I said that #1 had taken it. #2 checked; it had not been placed even though the chef had been there. Waitress #1 on floor entire time and had seen me during that time. Finally #2 brought me my dinner. Later both waitresses apologized and told me that dinner had been comped. Uncharacteristically, I did not leave a tip but about a week later returned and gave #2 her due. This restaurant does not have a clearly visible manager to approach. Generally at quiet times waitstaff indicate that any vacant table is available. Question: Was giving Waitress #2 a tip later the correct thing to do? Or what do you suggest I should have done. Hopefully this situation will not happen again. Thank you.

I think you did the right thing by rewarding the second server, even if after the fact. Trust me, she'll remember you. Diners shouldn't feel obliged to tip when the service is such that a meal is comped to make up for it. 

I doubt it, since the server said "it wouldn't be proper" (HUH?) "for two GENTLEMEN" to share a dessert. Like it would have been OK for two women, or a man and a woman?

Thanks for the follow-up.

why don't you get the full story from the waiter and management before you start hurling your accusations around?

I'm happy to provide more context as it's forthcoming. Like I said up top, I reached out to the general manager this morning and have yet to hear back.

We went a few weeks ago. Lobster rolls looked beautiful, but tasteless. Hard to know exactly, but we have had lobster rolls in many other places. Crevice marinade was sour from too much lemon. My wife's margarita was watered down and too sweet. A manager asked and we told him abt lobster rolls, and he agreed to talk to the chef. Disappointing

Uh oh.

I'm not the person who brought this up, but since you asked them what their advice would be, I'll offer mine. If I continually had a common problem in restaurants around the area and didn't feel comfortable or was too exhausted with having to address it every time, I would probably write you a note about it in this very chat. The problem is, that's what the diner did and the responses she got had more time devoted to telling her that she was perceiving the situation wrong than addressing the discrimination problem. Sure, her example may not have been the best one but I wish you had taken more time to address the actual topic she brought up rather than pick apart the example she provided. One thing that I think might actually help the problem (in addition to people speaking up at the time it happens, because I agree with you that that's part of the solution) is to have you actually talking about it more, making the restaurants who pay attention to your work more cognizant of the problem and how they can address it on a larger scale than each individual customer.

Given the nature of this chat, I try to respond the best way I can, in the shortest amount of time. I didn't set out to pick on the original poster -- far from it -- but I know from  experience that there are often multiple sides to a story and what one person perceives as a "slight," another other might see as a "favor." Complicated issue. Happy to air all views.

Tom, A note from behind the curtain. New open table software assigns guests to tables based on the size of the party and the "turn time" or estimated dining time. Tables for two are assigned or reserved first so that larger tables and possible large party reservations can be accommodated. Hosts tend to sometimes err on the side of caution (sometimes too often) but I doubt it is malicious because the software is designed around number in party and time. Guest requests wouldn't change the algorithm - only the restaurant can do that.

Interesting! Thanks for sharing.

My husband & I (in our mid 70's) went to a restaurant that served very good food at reasonable prices with friendly, efficient service. But we will never go back because the chairs were extremely uncomfortable--plain wood with no padding in the seat or back. There was only one banquette, but it held 6, so we didn't ask for it. I sent them an email and also posted on Yelp about the good food and service and uncomfortable seating. We never heard back. I'm really unhappy about this because I would love to go back if only it were more comfortable.

Some restaurants stock pillows or cushions. I assume this one doesn't. Did you share your discomfort with a manager? 

Friends and I went to a lovely restaurant in Nashville while visiting the city. The service was excellent, we declared the food and drinks some of the best we'd had in a long time. When the check came, the waiter graciously offered to split it for us. We used two cards and paid the rest in cash. Because the experience had been superb, we tipped well over 20%. Shortly after we left the restaurant, we received a call from the manager. He said that we hadn't left any cash and we still owed part of the bill. The friend who paid with cash checked and double checked her wallet and purse, and we all recalled counting the cash we put in the folio while we were calculating the tip. We explained this to the manager, and he remained adamant that we had stolen from his restaurant and left the waiter without a tip. Mortified, we went back to the restaurant to try to remedy the situation. The manager refused to consider that someone had taken the cash. We certainly didn't want the waiter to be short, so we all contributed additional cash in the amount we originally left. Through it all, the manager continued to be very rude. Did we handle this correctly? What would you have done?

The moral of the story: if you leave cash, make sure an employee picks it up before you depart. I know, I know, sometimes you just want to bolt after a meal, but your experience is a cautionary tale. 

 

The fact you returned to the establishment after the manager called should have been evidence of your good intentions. Same for the generous gratuity you say two of you left on credit cards. Did you bring that to his attention?

 

Time's up, folks. Lots of good questions today. Let's do it again next Wednesday, same time.

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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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