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

Oct 03, 2012

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema entertains your dining questions, rants and raves.

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

I had originally planned to celebrate my early November birthday with six or so friends at the Demo Kitchen at Society Fair. However, I just saw on their site that they are now only doing the Demo Kitchen on Fridays and at an increased price of $75. Is there anywhere else that would provide a fun, foodie experience in the $50 or less range (before drinks, tax, etc.)? It doesn't have to be the same type of setting, just a fun, unique way to celebrate a food-centric birthday. I loved how this was more interactive and exciting than a regular dinner out but different than a cooking lesson type of thing, which I probably wouldn't be able to drag my friends to.

The ramen at Toki Underground, one of the hottest tickets in town, costs $10 a bowl, and if you plan the night right, you can sit in front of the open kitchen and watch your meal being assembled. (Reservations are taken only until 6 p.m., fyi.)  Not quite the same event as Society Fair, I realize, but TU's cocktails are excellent and the scene is a blast. Plus, you can continue the merriment in the surrounding blocks. The Atlas District is full of fun watering holes.


Good morning, gang. Lots to chew over today. Did you hear that Minibar has started taking reservations again, for next month? Did you see we have a dashing new barbecue joint in Arlington and another Ethiopian arrival in Silver Spring?


I'm ready to hear you rants and raves.

Out here in flyover country, we often unwind with Friday Happy Hour (half-price appetizers and featured wine) at a favorite place. But we tip 20% of the full price - after all the server works as hard, and gets paid as little, as s/he does after 6 pm.

I bet those servers fight to wait on you. Kudos for your thougthfulness.

Tom, I'm trying to add a tasty outlier to the usual suspects of Birch & Barley, Mintwood Place, Rasika, and Restaurant Eve (there are a few others I'm leaving out). What's the word on Iron Gate?

Actually, Iron Gate closed two years ago. The good news: Tony Chittum, the talented chef at Vermilion in Old Town, is taking over the space. He plans to keep the name but highlight Italian and Greek dishes. Look for a winter launch.

Tom, As a Shepherd Park resident, I was really interested in your First Bites of our new area Ethiopian restaurants. Will there be full reviews (perhaps a dual review) of them in the future?

I prefer not to broadcast my reviewing schedule, but I can promise you'll be reading more about one of them in the near future.  Both LacoMelza and Gebeta have their charms, though.

Have you heard anything about service issues? We had a very odd experience there recently that has me wondering if I want to go back, even though the food was good. Our waiter offered us a complimentary dish, since the kitchen "made it by mistake." We accepted, but he spent the rest of the evening kind of sucking up to us about it. Meanwhile, we were never offered the bread basket - which was disappointing, since I'd heard it was very good but we didn't make a big deal of it due to the freebie and the fact that we were ordering a ton of food since it was a special occasion. Fast forward to the (not inexpensive) bill, and we were charged for the "freebie." My confrontation-adverse husband wanted to let it go, so as to not spoil the night, but I insisted they take it off since it was like $50. Which they did, but with a kind of snarky attitude. Should we give it another go? Yes, I know we should have mentioned something at the time but I was trying to salvage the evening which already had kind of an uncomfortable vibe.

 Strange that a server would gift you a mistake and then expect you to pay for it. I would have fought the charge, too. (Just to be clear: Your total bill, as opposed to the mistake, was $50?)


I was an admirer of the Logan Circle seafood restaurant in its early days, but my last visit was dispiriting: indifferent service, timid flavors. The oysters are still good, though. 


A friend of mine asked me this question and I really had to think so I wanted to pass it onto you. If you had to choose your top 5 restaurants for a moderate priced meal (under $20/person for the final time where you go (DC/VA) and why?

Live online: Pressure!


Off the top of my head, I'd probably try to fit in a pork-and-pinenapple taco from Tacos el Chilango near U St. NW ...  goat biryani from Curry Mantra in Fairfax ... the vegetarian platter at Bamian in Falls Church (the garlicky spinach and sauteed pumpkin are terrific comfort) ... a crab cake at Pesce in Dupont Circle ... and one of Todd Thrasher's cocktails from the new T.N.T. Bar in Arlington in a huuuuuge to-go cup!

I have heard that you're not supposed to tip the owner of a business. But it feels wrong to me to leave the tip off just because the owner is serving. I had lunch last week at a place that usually has a server, but she was off that day and the owner was filling in. I went ahead and left a tip. If I'd left it off, wouldn't it be a signal that the service was bad (it wasn't)? What Would Tom Do?

My hunch is that the owner passed on "her" tip to the staff.  Or at least that's what a real pro would do.

Have you ever been to this hole-in-the-wall Korean restaurant in Annandale? I went for the first time and as a Korean, I was blown away. The decor is nothing to write about, but the food is amazing. Better than grandma's homecooking. It's the most authentic Korean place I've been too, the flavors are bolder than other Korean restaurants and they give you enough banchan to make a meal in itself. I don't work at To Sok Jip, but I know you love Korean food and wanted you to be aware of this jem.

Ah, you are the second person to bring up the name this week. The first was my four-star dry-cleaner and Korean restaurant tipster, Jamie. Sounds promising!

Hello Tom, Have you been to Bistro Zinc in Cleveland Park recently. I'm curious about the food now that there is a new chef.

I've not been back to the neighborhood French bistro  since Janis McLean took over the kitchen.  Anyone else care to weigh in?

Hi, Tom, Having worked in DC for eight years, My wife and I are finally making it to Rasika Penn Quarter for the first time next Wednesday. Any suggestions for a first-timer besides the apparently obligatory palak chaat?

The menu recently changed at Rasika, but if the avocado banana chaat, coconut-ginger mussels and spicy minced chicken kabob are still on, grab  'em!  Truly, Rasika is one of those rare restaurants where you can pretty much point anywhere on the list and pick a winner.

I'm looking at a weekend away in Ottawa, Canada. Do you or the chatters have any restaurant recommendations? I did not see a postcard. Thanks for all your advice over the years--my friends and I speak about you as if you are a good friend when referring to your reviews!

That's exactly the way I hope to be perceived by readers. Thanks for the kind words. You've made my day.


Unfortunately, I've never been to Ottawa. Let's hope a reader can help you out before the hour is up.

A quick look didn't turn up a postcard, so if I missed, it, apologies. Otherwise, do you or any of the other chatters have recommendations for Fort Lauderdale?

Anyone? Anyone?

Tom - Wanted to call out Cashion's for excellent service Saturday night. My wife and I frequently eat dinner at the bar there (best option in the neighborhood), but on Saturday night were taking friends from NoVa. When the bottle of wine I ordered was discovered to be sold out, the sommelier came to the table, apologized, showed us a new bottle, explained (in detail!) how it was similar and different than the one I had selected and why he thought we would like it just as much - then offered to provide it at the same price point as our selection (notable discount) and take it away if we didn't like it with our food. Set the way for another excellent meal there, and was a welcome change from "Sorry, we just sold out of that". Now my question: we're celebrating an anniversary in two weeks - we usually celebrate with a trip, but that's not possible this year. Looking for a celebratory meal downtown - focus on the food, and a place where we can talk with each other. (We love Cashions, Obelisk, and Bibiana but would love to try someplace new!)

(Insert a round of applause for Cashion's Eat Place.)


I love it when a sommelier introduces me to something less expensive than what I was looking for, or offers a deal on an alternative bottle when the one I want is out of stock.


Someplace festive where you and yours can talk? A window table at the Oval Room addresses your wish. So does the pan-Asian Source next to the Newseum. Ever been to the side rooms at Mio? The friendly Latin American dining room on Vermont is yet another idea.

Hi Tom! Thanks for doing these chats every week. This is a little early to be asking, but my parents are coming to visit in early December to see the area at holiday time, and they're planners. I've been trying to think of a place to take them for brunch that would have good food and be a little festive. We've been to Tabard Inn and Ardeo Bardeo for brunch, and they really enjoyed both, but they like to try something new each time they come. Thanks for any suggestions!

I'm betting Blue Duck Tavern will be dressed for the holidays. Even if it's not, I love the airiness of the American restaurant and its visible, you-are-there kitchen.

Hi Tom - some friends of mine are getting married and I wanted to get them a gift certificate for a nice dinner out. They are adventurous eaters; but one is allergic to shellfish/seafood. They live in Arlington; but could easily get to DC and MD. Looking for about $100 for 2, before drinks. What would you recommend?

If you want to stick with Arlington, try Liberty Tavern, Me Jana or the new Epic Smokehouse, which I previewed today in the Food section -- and which just received it's liquor license, you should know. In Washington, I'd pick up a gift certificate at Et Voila! in the Palisades, Zaytinya in Penn Quarter or Bombay Club near the White House.

Hi Tom! I am a huge fan--longtime lurker, first-time poster. I am coming to D.C. for the first time ever and was hoping you could direct me to a good restaurant that would be good for a solo adventurous eater. I was hoping for someplace with a chill bar where I could not stick out too much dining alone. Thanks for the great chats!

You have lots of options in Dupont Circle: the fish-friendly Pesce, the gracious Mourayo for Greek cooking,  the cozy Tabard Inn tucked away on N St. NW and the super-snug Al Tiramisu for pasta and the obvious.

In the 9/19 discussion, a reader wrote in to encourage you to review more upscale restaurants because he's willing to gamble $25 on an unknown but not $100. While that makes good sense, it hit me that when we go out as a family of 4, the less-expensive restaurant becomes a $100 night for us, so we appreciate those reviews too!

Gotcha. Which is why a diverse mix of restaurants is what I'll continue to offer in both the Food section and the Magazine.

Hi Tom, A colleague new to town is looking for a recommendation. She's looking to replicate the experience of a restaurant near her old home to visit with her two teenage sons next Sunday. Her parameters: "somewhere special, but not hideously expensive, ideally in a riverside location with a beautiful view no more than 45 minutes away." I'm stumped. Help?

You're colleague is asking for a lot:  Water views tend not to come with moderately-priced good food -- and then she wants the place to be close and open on Sunday?  Around here, the balcony at Bond 45 in National Harbor is probably closest to what she wants.

My foodie sister who lives in Nashville will be staying at the Embassy Suites in Alexandria for a few days. I'd like to take her to lunch on Saturday in Old Town and would appreciate a suggestion for a place suitable for conversation. She will eat anything; I prefer vegetarian options, and spicy is a plus.

Vermilion near the King Street Metro would be my first choice, followed by Virtue Feed & Grain near the water.

Blue Moon Fish Company 4405 West Tradewinds Avenue | Lauderdale by the Sea, Florida | 954-267-9888 Not a very creative restaurant, however the fish is the freshest you can have in South FL Each time my girlfriend and I make it down there that's where we feast for fresh seafood

That's a start for our Florida-bound chatter. Thanks.

For a fun retro experience, there is still Mai Kai: I just love tiki bars!

Retro works for me.

My S.O. has planned a special night on the town to celebrate our anniversary, including dinner at Elizabeth's Gone Raw. We were hoping to get a drink somewhere nice beforehand. Any suggestions? A short walk would be ok between the two places. Thank you!

The nearby Mio would be a lively start to a night of vegan eating. For something more formal, I like the bar at the plush Jefferson Hotel, Quill.

I'm changing jobs and will be working in Bethesda soon. Are there any great lunch spots in downtown Bethesda? I won't miss anything from the Eisenhower area, but I still miss the Greek Deli and CF Folks from my Dupont days.

Your best bets are probably Black's Bar & Kitchen and Jaleo for lunch in Bethesda. As for C.F. Folks, there aren't many characters like it anymore, sadly.

They have To-Go cups????

That was a joke. But I like the fantasy, don't you?

I go to a few restaurants where you order at a counter and pay before the food is delivered to the table. I have noticed that many of these restaurants have tip jars or a place to indicate tips on the receipt. My problem is that I haven't been served yet to know how much I would want to tip. Should I just give a flat tip when I pay or leave a few dollars on the table when I leave? Or, do I treat it like I would McDonalds and skip the tip?

Depending on the size of the order, I tend to drop a few bucks in the tip jar at the time I pay for my meal at, say, Nando's Peri-Peri.  But then, I'm *anticipating* good service. I haven't received it yet.


Curious how others handle this scenario?

Looking for a good and cheap restaurant for an early dinner in the Cleveland/Woodley Park area. I know there are lots of choices but haven't been for a LONG time. Thanks so much

How cheap is "cheap?"


I ask, because Petits Plats offers a three-course dinner menu for $35 -- and 25 percent off bottles of wine on Wednesday nights. Nearby, District Kitchen lists $8 pork rillettes with grilled bread, $12 spaghetti and clams and $13 house-made gnocchi, among other small plates.

You need to check out Punjabi by Nature in the Lotte shopping center in Chantilly. Best Desi food around! It has unique dishes such as egg paratha and choley bhature, which you do not see at your average kabob restaurant. I think the place is good enough to give Ravi a run for its money.

One of the many lessons I've learned from this forum is to eat breakfast before logging on to the chat.


You are making me very hungry.

We know you have been working very diligently, but when can we see it?

My next dining guide comes out (in print) Oct. 21, and thanks for asking. 


My work is not quite done; I'm still finessing, tinkering, adding -- and cutting.


Tom- Missed my window for reasonable reservation time at Bandolero for a Sat night (couple of weeks from now)--my college girls are coming to town and 2 were hot to try the Top Chef's Mexican. Your review of the noise factor alone is in part why I stalled. So....Graffiato? I can't get excited about Italian. Can you steer us somewhere delicious and fun but where we can carry on a conversation? Raskia/R-West End were booked 3 weeks to all cuisines! You rock!

If small plates and a fun crowd are part of your wish list, check out Boqueria, the youthful tapas bar in Dupont Circle.

Had an outstanding dinner there last night! The escargot hush puppies were unbelievable!

I concur!

My wife and I have $300 to spend on dinner (don't ask, long story). Any suggestions in DC or MD? We know about Komi and Minibar (and now see that one of us can barely eat at Minibar for that). Any suggestions? Food is more important than drink to us.

  If I had that kind of spare change, I'd book a table at  Sushi Taro in Dupont Circle and order the omakase (chef's choice) menu in back, or pretend to go to Italy with a meal at Obelisk, also in Dupont Circle.


Chatters, where would you send this lucky couple?

Just thought you would find it funny that someone wrote in to Prudie talking about how her teenage daughter was traumatized when her grandfather referred to the teen as a "chowhound". I think the mother even wanted to confront him about it!

Chowhound is the word I use in place of "foodie," which a lot of people detest.

I don't see any complaints about kids or bugs/rats today. Did these people forget it was Wednesday? :)

The hour isn't up yet, friend!

Any ideas for a nice anniversary dinner near Fairfax, Vienna, or Tysons? Doesn't have to be too fancy, but a nice occasion to celebrate. We've tried (and loved) Villa Mozart, but open to trying something new. Also tried 2941 a couple years ago and were not impressed.

Have you tried Nostos? I haven't returned since I reviewed the Greek restaurant, but I liked it early on. If you like Indian, the spirited Curry Mantra does a fine job.

Planning a birthday trip to Vegas for my husband's 50th and have a couple of questions. Have you been to the Jaleo in Vegas and if so, how does it compare to the DC locations? Also, we are hosting a dinner for a few friends one night and my husband has expressed a preference for either old-school red sauce Italian or a good steak house that won't break the bank (maybe $50/person without alcohol?) Apparently those two options remind him of trips to vegas priro to the explosion of higher end restaurants, but none of his previous favorites seem to still exist. Are those types of restaurants even possible on the strip?? Thanks!

I can help you with the first part of your question: The Jaleo in Vegas is exactly what you'd expect if Jose Andres got a lot of money to create a cool backdrop for his small plates menu. I loved my meals there.

Tom, Next year marks two important milestones in my life and I'll be traveling to Chicago to celebrate them. We'll have two nights for dinner, are very adventurous eaters, and cost won't be a consideration. I'd love to hear your suggestions on places to eat. Thank you for your years of hard work and commitment to our city!

You are welcome! And let me return the bouquet: I'm grateful to have such an engaging audience.


Did you catch my recent Postcard from Chicago? I'd be happy to go to any of the three mentions therein. Or are you looking for something even finer?

Hi, Tom. All my boyfriend wants for his 40th birthday is a chocolate souffle. Any advice on where I can take him that serves a good one?

Marcel's still makes souffles. And I bet if you let the restaurant know it was a special occasion, you could order the dessert at the bar there.

What a fantasy this person has...he asked the exact same question on Kliman's chat.....publicist you think?

Likely not. Probably just a consumer doing due diligence.

My husband's birthday is coming up and I want to take him to an amazing steakhouse. We already went to Bourbon Steak. What should be the next one we should try?

Across town, J & G Steakhouse is very good, and it has the advantage of a beautiful backdrop, cathedral-high ceilings, etc.

Tom, this is where you lose me. While Petits Plats' three-course dinner for $35 might be a good value, it's not a cheap dinner. Add on the tip (20% before tax) and you're up to $42, then add on tax and you're at $45.50. And that's if you're drinking tap water.

Which is why I posed the question, and also suggested some inexpensive dishes at another restaurant.

Emaiing in for reservations I'm ok with, but I'm not ok with emailing my credit card number in hopes that I get a reservation.

There's got to be a better way, huh? Especially these days.

The casual 'Coconuts' on Seabreeze Blvd serves consistently fresh and delish seafood and land fare, as well as an awesome view of a river. You can dock your boat and walk on in. Then there's 'Casablanca Cafe', again a nice view of the ocean this time and very good Mediterranean fare as well as fresh seafood and great creative salads.

Thanks for piping up.

If it is a place that I frequently go to eat...i.e. pizza joint ... I drop a buck in the jar. The bill is 6.50 for 2 slices and soda pop (can). If you frequent the place (to the O.P.) then you know how the food is going to be, else you wouldn't frequent the place. A buck or two in the jar should be sufficient.

I'm curious to know how much coffee drinkers tip? I've started giving $5 here and there to really great baristas who remember my order and start it when they see me walk in the shop -- but not every time or even every week. But I make a point of saying thanks and giving it to an individual rather than the collective.

I also detest "foodie," but to me "chowhound" suggests "glutton," not someone who appreciates what they're eating. I certainly wouldn't make an effort to excel when feeding one. Try again, Tom. (What's wrong with food lover, if gourmand is too stuffy?)

I've used food lover and food fan before. "Gourmand" sounds as if it's 1955.

Curious what kind of impact OpenTable has had on the restaurant industry and whether it is seen as a good tool for attracting customers or something more exclusive or a non-factor?

That's a good question for restaurant owners in the crowd.

Hi Tom! My grandma is coming to visit in a few weeks. Who knows how many more opportunities I'll have to spend time with her like this, so I want it to be special. I've been out of the area and now not up to speed on the dining scene. I'm looking for some nice restaurants to go to for dinner that would appeal to her steak-seafood-maybe Italian tastes as well as my veggie preferences - that isn't too loud. Thank you so much, your chat is so helpful!

In the city, Blue Duck Tavern comes close to what you want. Just ask for a table on the perimeter of the dining room. 

For the person looking for suggestions for a nice anniversary dinner near Fairfax/Vienna/Tyson's, I would like to suggest Cafe Renaissance in Vienna. It's a small place tucked into the corner of a strip mall on Rte 123/Maple, but inside you find a cozy restaurant with romantic ambience, attentive service and friendly staff, and a relatively sophisticated menu. Best of all, the place encourages intimate conversation and never pressures you or makes you feel rushed. My wife and I have found it to be a very enjoyable "special occassion" place.

I've never been, but I know it counts fans.

I think your suggestion was appropriate. I can't imagine anyone would write in asking for a recommendation to Chipotle.

I try!

I second Tom's review of The Publican in Chicago and add to it by suggesting that you snag a reservation at The Aviary just around the corner for after dinner (if you can't get a reservation, try stopping by anyway - it worked for us for our last trip out there). Very creative - and delicious - cocktails.

LOVE the drinks at Aviary!


Small point: My most recent piece on Chicago focuses on a Publican spin-off rather than the restaurant proper, which I like very much.

$225? $225?!?

You are not the first reader to point out the new, doesn't-include-booze price at Minibar.

Mango's near Chesapeake Beach, MD? Cantler's? Any crabhouses on the bay as well as Tim's Rivershore in Dumfries, VA!!!

Better answers than mine. For whatever reason -- diningguide-itis?  --  I wasn't thinking crabs. DOH.

Do you slip him cash for such outstanding service as was described here, or tell the manager to split your nice big tip, or what?

Sometimes I just leave a tip and trust the restaurant to figure out the disbursal. Other times, I'll slip an exceptional, or especially helpful,  sommelier a gratuity as I'm leaving.

Thank you for taking my questions today (yes, I submitted more than one). I really appreciate it - they were all great suggestions, particularly for one situation in which I will have to accommodate someone with very different tastes than I. Thanks for everything you do!

Glad to be of service.

Roy's (there's one in Baltimore) is famous for its souffle. It seems like every restaurant in Hawaii has copied it...

Another suggestion. Merci.

I consider the Great American Restauants to be reasonably priced, and I also enjoy Brio & Seasons 52. If the poster objecting to the $35 dinner had iced tea or iced coffee, for instance, he could still bring his dinner in under $50 per person. Wine & cocktails are so NOT necessary.

Really? I can't imagine life without gimlets and gigondas!

Heading to Charlotte next month. Any suggestions from the chatters?

I guess you didn't catch my pre-convention feature on the city?

I just looked up Cafe Renaissance. It looks wonderful, but their web page BLINKS!

It's coming on to you!

Yes, $225 seems like a lot, but if you consider that it's the flagship restaurant of one of the country's leading chefs, then it's not unprecedented. That's still $70 less than the tasting menu dinner at Per Se, for example.

One way of looking at it.

Sublime,, is an excellent choice for delicious vegetarian meals and often chosen by visiting celebrities such as Paul McCartney, Bob Barker.

Not sure how much of a (ahem) food fan Mr. Barker is, but thanks for the addition.

Medium Rare at $19.50???

We tried to go, drove out from Alexandria and arrived at 4:55 or so (5 minutes before it even was open). Had no idea it was in the middle of some random neighborhood or that we were clueless to show up that late. The wait time was like an hour already before the place was even open! What makes it so fantastic?

I think it's something you want to experience at least once, but frankly, I get bored digging for my meal after a crab or three. So the sides better be good! Cantler's has the bonus of a river view if you park outside, by the way.

I would send them to Seasonal Pantry Supper Club, where for a $100 you get a 6 course meal, which includes tax, tip and wine pairing and you still have $100 leftover to spend as you wish.

Sounds like a true ... owner of Seasonal Pantry! Which, it so happens, is the subject of my review in this Sunday's Magazine.


That's a wrap for today, everyone. See you next Wednesday, same time. Dine well until we meet again.

In This Chat
Tom Sietsema
Weaned on a beige buffet a la "Fargo" in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. In thinner days, he was a critic for Microsoft Corp.'s and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; and a food reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.

This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the '80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section's recipes. That's how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.

He covers the local scene in his Dining, First Bite and Dish columns; keeps tabs on the world at large in his Postcard From Tom column and contributes tasty morsels to the Going Out Guide blog.
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