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

Sep 19, 2012

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

A friend is planning to propose to his gf and came to me for ideas. He initially wanted to propose to her when they go to NYC to see the Xmas tree, but she turned down the idea of going to NYC for the holidays. Backup plan is to take her out to dinner somewhere nice and perhaps walk to somewhere with nice scenery (maybe a garden?) and propose? Do you know of any good restaurants that have nice scenery (and is upscale enough that warrants them dressing up?) I struggled coming with ideas other than 2941 and then thought maybe someplace in DC was better, but I'm not familiar with DC restaurants. Do you guys have any ideas? The only issue is she is a pretty picky eater - she tends to stick with "safe" food and won't eat sushi or any seafood (besides regular old tuna). Chicken and veggies are the norm for her. Thank you so much!

My inclination is to send the two off on a drive to somewhere delicious (but not over-the-top)  surrounded by rolling countryside: the Ashby Inn, in other words.


One of the details to keep in mind with a proposal is to pop the question in a place you think might be around for a long time -- you know, a place where a couple can celebrate future anniversaries (fingers crossed).


Chatters, feel free to chime in with other ideas.


I got an interesting query from Washington reader Will Caggiano recently and I'd love to hear from people who find themselves in similar scenarios:


“I know the concept of being a regular is not a regular part of a food critic’s lifestyle, as you mentioned in last fall’s guide, but for those of us who are regulars, the question of how much to pay/tip when a bartender or server comps a sizable fraction of your food and bar tab perpetually puzzles me,” writes Caggiano. “Up to this point, in most cases, I end up tipping so generously that the entire ‘regular’ discount becomes practically moot, which seems to defeat the purpose of the love and feels sort of awkward. Realizing that as an upstanding critic, you can’t and don’t accept such love from restaurant staff, I wonder if your readers might chime in. "


Happy Wednesday, gang. I'm off again next Wednesday, September 26, but only because I'll be wrapping up the forthcoming fall dining guide. As much as I hate to miss a week here, I hope you understand why I might want the extra time to finesse the package.  I'll be back Oct. 3 to take your questions and comments.


Pour yourself some coffee and let's talk restaurants.


Hi Tom, My friends and I were debating this at the end of a meal the other night and it seems there is no consensus, so I would love to hear your take. Is it proper to tip your server based on the pre-tax total or the post-tax amount?

I tend to tip on the pre-tax amount, but I also tip slightly generously (a tad over 20 percent) if the service is good or better.

Hi Tom, I just returned from a trip to Rome and ate at Ditirambo based on the recommendation in your postcard. I stuck to vegetarian dishes but still had a nice meal including zucchini millefeuille, testaroli with pesto, and incredible pistachio gelato with black pepper. I noticed that the postcard was from 2008, any plans to return there for an update?

So happy to hear you ate well based on that Italian Postcard.  My immediate travel plans do not include Italy, but rather Vietnam (in November) and New Orleans (in December).

What was the name of that unbelievably inexpensive Italian restaurant that endured almost forever in a desolate stretch of downtown around 7th St? I used to go there precisely because the waitress was so pushy -- If you took "too long" looking at the menu, she'd grab it and say, "Forget it -- I'll bring you something." And she would. I loved her, the way John Cleese loved the hotelier on whom he based Basil Fawlty.

Chatters? I'm drawing a blank.

Hi Tom, submitting early in the hopes that this one gets seen, as I have no clue what to do. My fiance and I are trying to plan our rehearsal dinner at a well-known downtown restaurant. Our first email got us the name of an event planner contact, but not much more; repeated calls and emails over the last two weeks since then have gotten no response. (The last time my finace called, he was told the event planner was in a meeting and that he could leave a message. He asked if there was any other way he could reach her since she hadn't called back before; he was told huffily that "She's very busy." Too busy to answer one phone call in over two weeks? I'd go somewhere else, since obviously if this is the level of responsiveness we can expect, it's a bad idea to book there, but this place is our overwhelming top choice due to location, food options, and event space. What can we do to get someone to return our calls? Should we just give up? Do you know of any restaurants with private or semi-private event space for 25-35 people with a similar price point, location, and food options to Vidalia?

(Are you referring to Vidalia?!)


It sounds as if you have your heart set on this one restaurant, but given the lack of communication, you should seriously reconsider.  If the staff isn't helpful now, do you honestly expect them to improve for a rehearsal dinner?


Other establishments with good food and extra space around Washington include the Oval Room, Fiola and Marcel's. I wish you luck.

Tell me if I'm being petty. My husband and I tried Pacifico Cantina in Barracks Row for Sunday brunch. I wasn't especially hungry, so I ordered chile con queso. Not only did the dip taste like off-brand Velveeta with a metallic aftertaste, it came in a small cup...which was barely half-full. I even asked the waiter if it was a mistake, but no, it was the correct portion size. (Luckily, a runner came by with an unclaimed bowl of cheese dip, which the waiter gave to me, bringing me up to one full cup of dip. Yay.) The ingredients involved can't bee too expensive (off-brand Velveeta, metal shavings and canned tomatoes, as far as I can tell). And the cup itself was small. So why only fill the cup halfway? And, yes, I feel like I'm making the old complaint, "The food is terrible...and the portions are far too small!" But really...if they can't even give me a full cup of cheese for $8, why would I return to bother with one of their entrees? It just strikes me as pointlessly stingy.

Not sure how to respond to your question, but if you think something is not right about a dish, just pipe up.

The point of a wedding to is allow a couple's friends and loved ones to wish them well, not impress with the quality of the menu. The hurt feelings from that slashed guest list are going to last a lot longer than the raves about the restaurant food.

Fair point (regarding a wedding-related post from last week).

or maybe AJ ristorante italiano

But I never had nasty service at AV, and I don't recall the Italian stalwart as having that kind of reputation.

My husband is supposed to make a reservation for our 25th anniversary next Wednesday, but he'll wait until the last minute and then he'll pick a boring steakhouse. Can you recommend someplace that will appeal to his traditional tastes as well as keep his more adventurous half happy? We live on the Hill and don't want to get mired in mid-week commuter traffic so downtown or other Metro-friendly locations would be preferred.

Congrats. Bourbon Steak is the best all-around steak house in the city right now, but its location in Georgetown might not be what you want. Your best bet is probably  J&G Steakhouse, in the W Hotel, which has much more than meat to recommend it.

Hi Tom. I'm looking for a place in D.C. to host a 30th birthday party for my husband in December (nothing like the competition of holiday parties to make you plan ahead!). I'd prefer a private room that can hold 12-14 people. So far, I've mostly looked into fine dining options because those are the places I could think of that fit the criteria. Seasonal Pantry is at the top of my list, but since we would like to foot the bill, I'm not sure we want to spend quite that much. Can you help me think of some more affordable options?

Seasonal Pantry, which I'm reviewing Oct. 7,  can seat a dozen folks, max. Are you looking for a particular type of cooking? If your party is up for some spice, either of the Indian-themed Rasikas (the original is in Penn Quarter, the spinoff is in the West End) would be fun choices. If it's American fare you're after, I'd point you in the direction of  Blue Duck Tavern.  And don't forget the loft at Zaytinya, which does excellent Middle Eastern mezze.

Tom -- My second child is due in a few weeks, and a terrific friend wants to organize a night out with some girlfriends as a last hoorah (for a while). Suggestions on where a small group of ladies (all of whom have kids and don't get out as much as we used to) should dine on this precious, precious evening? Somewhere in NW or Arlington preferred. Moderately priced. Thanks!

Liberty Tavern would be my first choice in Arlington. There's a little something for everyone on its menu, which falls into the price range I think you want.  In the District, you have a bunch of great places to consider: Oyamel for Mexican, Jaleo for Spanish tapas, the new Hank's Oyster Bar on the Hill,  Izakaya Seki for Japanese ...

When comped something, we tip on what the bill would have been, plus a few extra dollars.

Thanks. Anyone else?

Tom, thanks for all your indispensable advice over the years! I've got a quick question- I've never had paella and I'd like to try it out. Where's the best paella in the area? I'm in Loudoun County but I'll head to DC or MD for an excellent meal. Thanks!

The best paella around is the one served at Jaleo in Penn Quarter. And now through Sept. 30 is the ideal  time to check out the Spanish classic: The restaurant is celebrating its 10th annual paella festival with variations including black pasta with octopus.

Dear Tom - you had a much better experience at Southern Hospitality than we did! We experienced indifferent service, food that was cold by the time it got to us, and a truly epically loud dining room. From watching the staff and the other patrons, it seemed to us that this was yet another place that served food but really wants to be a club.

Thanks for the feedback. I visited Southern Hospitality twice for today's preview and was obviously charmed by the staff.  I know the restaurant's happy hour is hopping. The food is ... merely OK.

Used to live in Crystal City, and loved the dim sum on Sunday at Fortune........but have been gone several years. Visiting CC over the Columbus Day weekend, and would like your recommendation for a good place?

Two of my favorite places to indulge in Chinese small plates are A & J in Annandale and the Source (for Saturday brunch) in Washington.

Where, this side of Amsterdam?

I haven't encountered a good "rice table" in the area in forever. Chatters?

One of the most pretentious words ever. When I read/hear it all I can think of is "snob".

I'm weaning myself off the term. "Chowhound" and "food fan" are now my preferences.


The frequently used food word that grates on my ears: Veggies.

What was your reaction to the Houston Chronicle forcing their restaurant critic to not be anonymous any longer?

I don't think Alison Cook, who I consider a pal, was so much forced as she was encouraged to do more public events. On the rare occasions I speak in public, I've always worn a modified disguise. 

I figure out how much the food/drink is at regular price, and then tip 20% pre-tax. We have a happy hour at a restaurant weekly. They know us and constantly give us free drinks. Since we're adventureous eaters as well, we've become one of their taste testers for new dishes. So we look for something on the menu that's similar and then pay 20% 'tip' on that.

Thanks for weighing in.

Hi Tom, Family friends from Paris with 3 teenaged daughters are coming to visit. It's been suggested that we take them out for a dinner on the Dandy, but while the cruise is pretty, the food isn't. Where would you take them for a nice Washington view with good food?

Good call. Those cruises are touristy.


I like to take visitors to 701 and sit outside, weather permitting. The view of the Navy Memorial fountain is certainly pretty and all one has to do to see the Capitol is get up, walk a few steps and face left.

I dine alone fairly often. Sometimes it is just easier to stop for dinner instead of fight traffic. When dining alone, I seem to notice two extremes for the free bread or chips that are often served. Either I get a whole loaf of bread or big basket of chips that would normally be shared by 3-4 people or I get one skimpy slice of bread or the smallest possible cup of chips. Either, I find myself eating way too much, just because it is there, or wishing I had just a little more. Why can't restaurants find that happy medium?

Consider your plea passed along.

The problem isn't the words that people use, it's the people who use them. No matter what words you try to banish as being pretentious, the pretentious people will just start using your new words. It's a zero sum game.

Food for thought (so to speak).

Hello Tom. A friend will be back in the area next week and 10 of us would like to get together with him for a group dinner at a Korean restaurant (he spent his high school years in Korea). I made a reservation at DaMoim, but am open to other suggestions. Most of us are pretty adventurous, but some cannot do too spicy. Not too pricey and lively atmosphere would be a plus. Thank you.

Han Sung Oak in Falls Church has what you want: Good service, lots of space, plenty of food (seafood pancake, bibimbap, kalbi) that's not fiery.

My fiance and I are getting married in a small courthouse ceremony on a weekday morning. Some family will be there - there will be about ten people including us. Suggestions for a nice, celebratory lunch that is decently close to the courthouse?

I haven't been there since I reviewed the restaurant, but I'm looking forward to returning to Elisir, which is just a walk or a short cab ride away from the courthouse.

After a particularly disappointing dinner at Ted's Bulletin, the bill came and we realized that a dish that didn't seem right was in fact not the correct dish and came with a large price tag. When we called the waiter over (he had already made a mistake of serving my vegetarian friend cornbeef hash along side her omelet after she specifically asked for it to be left off when ordering) he was unhappy and visibly so. He took it off the bill, and despite the fact that this was clearly his fault, we still tipped on the original bill. But won't be going back to Ted's anytime soon.

Thanks for allowing me the chance to remind everyone to double-check their bills. I see an average of four mistakes a month -- often in the restaurant's disfavor, I should note.

My team won a company award that we can spend for a party. We work near Penn Quarter and have over $100 a person. Where would you recommend we go. If we decide to invite significant others that obviously cuts the money in half so where would you recommend we go then?

If $100 a person, go to the Source, Central Michel Richard or Fiola. If $50 a person, try Jaleo, Zaytinya, Mandu (nearish) or Hill Country.

My husband and I have a few things to celebrate (anniversary, promotion) and would like to do so with a nice meal. He eats meat but I'm a vegetarian. Can you recommend any restaurants in the area that offer vegetarian tasting menus?

If price is no object, CityZen is my suggestion. The restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental offers tasting menus for both meat-eaters and herbivores.

I think we would be open to any type of cuisine, but you didn't help me out on price at all! Checked with Blue Duck - they are full, and it would have cost more than Seasonal anyway. I haven't heard back from Rasika. Are there any other options that are more casual and significantly less expensive?

Seasonal is almost $100 a head if you book the whole table. So you want something less than that, with a private room, too? I'm not sure I can help out with your own space, but you should look at Et Voila! in the Palisades and Perry's in Adams Morgan.

If you will allow me to add, La Taberna del Alabardero also does a nice paella. Though I think that they would do well to update their image a bit, which in my taste is slightly on the frumpy side.

I love the space, but Taberna's food can't compare with Jaleo's. I keep going back to the high-ender downtown and keep leaving disappointed. The food is overly sublte.

As much as I like Elisir, why not walk a block or two to Fiola or Rasika?

Because I mention both those restaurants a lot already.

Oh, please. You expect the restaurant to know EXACTLY how many pieces of bread or (even better) EXACTLY how many chips you want? If they bring too much, ask them to remove some, and if they bring too little ask for more. Or tell them the precise number of bread slices or chips you want. They are not mind-readers (and no, I do not work at a restaurant).

I'm smiling.

Hi Tom! I just had to rave about a recent visit to Bourbon Steak at the Four Seasons. While the food was outstanding (and my god, those truffle rolls should be illegal), what really blew us away was the service. I can't even begin to count how many high-end restaurants I've been to lately where they act they're doing you the favor of allowing you to eat there. The Bourbon Steak staff were a delight and paid us just the right amount of attention. While the prices mean that we can't be regular visitors, we definitely will be recommending it to our friends for special occasions.

Thanks for the feedback.

Why on earth do so many folks insist on this sort of public display? I am a woman, ad I'd be pretty moritifed if my husband had 'proposed' to me in such manner. Why not do it privately, and then go out for a really kick-butt meal to celebrate? Unless of course the dude is afraid she'll say no and hopes the public venue, uh, encourages her to accept? It also seems like a rather more mdern approach is to actually discuss and - agree - that marriage is a good idea beofre doing something so dramatic in an open form. But maybe that's just me.

I'm not big on public proposals, either, ESPECIALLY after I watched a bunch of rejection videos on You Tube not long ago. But to each his own.

Hi, Tom, Took a friend to brunch at Palena Cafe and was disapponted all around. Goofy service, mediocre food, and the setting left much to be desired. I understand casual, but there was trash on the floor, a used napkin on the windowsill, and a broken-down chair at the next table. I've always wanted to try the restaurant for dinner, but my glimpse of that space included a rundown bathroom, with peeling paint on the door. It felt like they didn't really want to do brunch, or care about the customers' experience in the cafe. Not a good lure for the more up-scale half of the business.

I agree, the Cafe has been a disappointment lately.  Someone is not paying attention; the service has really taken a nose dive. Chef  Ruta, your food deserves better!

The chatter is probably talking about Bebe on Indiana Ave. That space became Le Paradou and is now Fiola.

It was once Bice, not Bebe. But I don't recall the servers there being rude, either.

El Manatial in Reston has a wonderful one!

Good to know. Haven't been there in ages.

For those looking for a nice restaurant to host a dinner for a small or larger group, I recommend Me Jana. It's conveniently located in Arlington and has a variety of dishes with a Lebanese/Middle Eastern emphasis. I have eaten there a number of times with small and large groups. You can get a pretty reasonable fixed price meal for larger groups which is really nice with plenty of food. I held a memorial dinner there not long ago for 24 people and everyone raved about it. There is not a separate room per se but there is a more private area at the back. The owners and staff are wonderful. And no, I don't have any investment in the place. Just like it a lot.

Great recommendation. And thanks for the reminder to go back there.

If I feel like doing the math, I'll tip on the pre-tax total. If not, it just depends on what was comped. If its just one drink, I'll just add the cost of that drink to the tip. If it was an entree or something, I'll just leave a big (like, 35-40%) tip. Either way, I try to account for it. Usually, I've found that that sort of thing goes both ways.

Lots of generous diners in today's chat forum. (I like it, I like it.)

Yes, Tom. I also insist that everyone stop using the following words: "food," "eat," "dining," and "and." NO ONE CARES WHICH WORDS YOU DON'T LIKE, PEOPLE! Get a life.

Did you forget to eat breakfast this morning?

Dear Tom, Last night, I ducked into one of the Lebanese Tavernas for a late dinner. My goodness, how that place has declined! The food was so-so, but what really irked me was a bait-and-switch on the wine. We ordered glasses of NZ Marlborough sauvignon blanc for $9/glass, one of four white wines listed on the menu. We received very strange tasting wine. We asked the waiter for clarification, and he insisted that the glass was indeed sauv blanc. He brought a fresh glass, but still no improvement. Then another waiter came over and he insisted that the glass was indeed the sauv blanc from the menu. We asked to see the bottle. At that point, the second waiter admitted that they were "out of" the NZ sauv blanc and instead had given us "the best wine in the world," a Syrian sauv blanc. We asked instead for the Italian pinot grigio from the menu, and again we received an inferior glass of a vintage NOT on the menu. At the end of the night, we were charged $9/glass (the menu prices) for the glasses of wine we didn't drink, although the kitchen did send out some complimentary baklava (in raspberry sauce, very odd). We won't be returning.

There's lots of fodder for lots of restaurant meetings in today's food discussion, I'm thinking.

Where should I take an out of towner for brunch this weekend if we are going for the food (not the drinks)? Looking for something more casual and not expensive....Bar Pilar was my first thought. Thanks!

Unless Bar Pilar has improved its menu since my spring guide, I'd rather do a casual brunch at Eatonville, Chez Billy or Et Voila!

Would you like to hear my take on the importance of reviews of bargain vs. pricier restaurants? Oh, you would? Great... I'm a single guy here in DC - no family, no plans for one in the near future. I'm not loaded by any means but I make a decent salary and being single, have fewer obligations at this point in my life. I am pretty good about saving, but I generally have a little spending money to play with, which is nice (and a good portion of which is spent on dining out). I obviously appreciate variety in your coverage of the DC restaurant scene, but honestly reviews of expensive places are far more helpful to me personally. Here's why: If there's a place I know very little about that seems like a pretty good bargain, I (and most of my friends) am okay with betting $20-$25 on trying the place out and seeing if it's any good. If it is, score - if not, lesson learned and we'll hit Arby's or whatever. But a place that's going to set us back $100-$150+ per person... that's something I'm less willing to hope for the best with - and yours is an opinion I value, Tom, in deciding which restaurants are worth the splurge and which aren't. I know my circumstances are probably somewhat unique, and for some diners spending $20-$25 on meal out might be a splurge, but at any rate that's why I particularly appreciate your reviews of higher-end restaurants (though I always enjoy your writing in all its varieties!). Thanks!

Thanks for the kind words. Since I write for a general audience, I try to vary my reviews from week to week by featuring different cuisine styles, price ranges and locations, although many of the big deal restaurants tend to be in or close to the city. I'm glad you think it's important for the Post to hit the big ticket places.

Not surprised your service wasn't as great as Tom's, that's what happens when you're a food critic. The wait staff go to the ends of the Earth to assure you get great service.

Uh, no one knew me there.

I scored with my visitors from Paris with a trip to Mount Vernon. The kids had a picnic outside on the lawn overlooking the Potomac, and the adults ate at the Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant. Not world class cuisine, but they loved the surroundings.

A picnic! Great idea! I'd be sure to pack something very American -- say, barbecue and sides from Hill Country or some such.

Tom, why did you assume Vidalia?? If you've got some dirt, spill!

I didn't assume; the poster indicated such.

Curious what you would do in this situation even though this is not a fine dining situation. I was in line at Chipotle last weekend and about 4 burritos were lined up (in the process of being made) when an extremely rude woman came up to the counter, butted in front of everyone and demanded that a new taco be made for her daughter because she dropped it on the floor. She just handed the dish over to the employees as if they should guess by sight what was in it. So all 4 burritos sat there, getting cold while they tried to handle this woman. I actually felt badly for the employees because I don't think they were entirely clear on what she wanted or how to make a new one (since the contents were unclear). What would you do in this case? I guess I wish I had more of a backbone to tell this woman how rude she was being to just push right up to the front and demand service like that. I guess I didn't want to pile on by complaining to a manager or asking for a new burrito when I already felt badly for the workers doing their best to handle her.

In cases like that, I try to be EXTRA nice to the staff and thank them for their efforts. (I'm a big believer in karma. With any luck, Ms. Nasty will get stuck in traffic and miss her hair appointment next week.)

So how was your brother's bday dinner at Seasonal Pantry?

How did you know my brother was at Seasonal Pantry, but not for his birthday?

Tom - I love the Ashby Inn and think that Tarver King is really talented but I'm not sure it falls into the "chicken and veggies safe food" category.

But I remember having a very good chicken dish there in the past few years, which is why I suggested the destination.

Tom, why do you continue to play this game. It's OK. You're a food critic and a well known one at that. It's how the system works, just wish you would admit to the fact that you get preferential treatment. There are websites out there that show who you are and have your name and aliases up there. It's all good.

I don't pretend I'm not frequently noticed in restaurants, but I think I know when I'm not.  And just because I'm recognized doesn't necessarily translate into good service. You'd be surprised!

New Hampshire native who's been loving your chats for several years, and am eager to finally dine at Rasika when my husband -- a fine Minnesotan like yourself -- and I visit DC for 2 days in October. Got any other "must-chews" for breakfast or lunch? We will be touring the usual sights all over the city, so any location will do...I just wouldn't want to miss any of your all-time faves for the other 2 meals du jour. Thanks!

Definitely put the new Mintwood Place on your list, as well as any branch of Teaism for breakfast and CF Folks for an easy (diner)  lunch.

Always PRE-TAX. Why? Tax is not a service, therefore you should not tip on the tax.

Hospitality workers will argue, but I hear you.

Or they could stop by Society Fair for picnic provisions both kids and adults should like!

Excellent idea.

Rasika and Blue Duck are affordable for a couple who wants to foot the bill for over a dozen people? Tom, when did you turn into a Romney??

Ha! I was thinking about private rooms first, cost second.  And this is a LIVE CHAT, so give me a tiny break. ;) I'm typing as fast as I can.


Gotta head out for lunch, gang. As I mentioned earlier, I'll be back to chew over your comments and questions Oct. 3. In the meantime, dine well.

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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