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

Sep 05, 2018

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.

Hey Tom - I haven't had luck getting my questions answered during your live event, so I'll send it again beforehand and see if I have better luck! You often say head to a manager with problems during a meal. What would be an appropriate response from a manager for a customer feeling wronged in some way? For example, I was out with five other friends at a nice (but not terribly fancy) restaurant and our meal arrived 40 minutes after we placed the order. Drinks and apps had been ordered prior, so some food came in the meantime, but we waited. Apologetic server noted the kitchen being "slammed with a 12-top in the next room." One friend was not happy that only our apps (3) were comped after he complained - he thought the drinks should be (since a few ordered an extra round during the wait) and some or all of the meals. The rest of us thought that sounded unreasonable for a table of six. Manager did not agree with him, and he left very angry. Another example, at a Chinese place, we ordered spring rolls, and only realized pork egg rolls were delivered after a vegetarian among us realized what she was eating. Should we expect just the rolls comped? Or would most managers comp the whole meal for the table? Or do you suggest that just so a manager is aware of problems but not expect restitution of some sort? An argument could be made that if a customer is unhappy, a manager should "make it right" but I am not sure what a reasonable definition of "right" is. Thanks!

"Make it right" all depends on the situation.

 

In the first scenario, a free round of drinks (along with the already comped trio of appetizers) would have been a nice gesture. Asking for entrees to be comped is pushing it, I think.

 

The pork roll mistake is altogether different, since it sounds as if the menu didn't fully describe the appetizer and the vegetarian didn't inquire if the dish contained meat ahead of ordering it. In that case, and assuming the rest of the party ate the spring rolls, an apology from the staff is probably the most a customer should expect. 

 

P.S. The earlier you submit questions, the better your chances for seeing them published in this forum. I generally preview/pre-address queries several hours before the live chat, sometimes even earlier in the week. 

 

Coming up Sunday in the Magazine: a look at three off-the-Strip restaurants in Las Vegas, where I found good Italian, Japanese and modern French for the travel issue. 

 

Happy Wednesday, everyone. I'm racing to finish the fall dining guide, so I won't be hosting a chat for the next TWO Wednesdays. If you have a pressing restaurant question, please get it in before the hour is over. Our next discussion will be Sept. 26.

 

Let's get cracking.

Hi Tom, Love the weekly chat - and am very appreciative for the detailed review of La Vie you published last week. I'm curios to know, now that a week has passed, are there any other details you wished you had written *or* not written about? Surely you have been hearing a lot of different feedback from readers (e.g. the straw comment), so wondering if there is anything else you would want to clarify or revisit now that some time has passed.

Such a good question. While I took some heat for using the word "woke," which was meant to be topical/funny, and for challenging the restaurant's use of plastic straws, which some groups argue make their lives easier, that was a single sentence in a column of more than 1,000 words. I stand by what I wrote. 

From the reporters interviewing restaurant guests of La Vie, they all seemed to have enjoyed the food and had a good time. Why do you think it deserves zero stars when it seems a lot of people actually enjoyed it?

I only caught the report featuring diners on WUSA. Were there others I missed?

 

All I can say is, I went three times, ate what I ate, experienced what I experienced, and filed a punch list for how La Vie might improve. And I have dozens of emails from readers who told me they wished my review had come out *before* they ventured to the waterfront restaurant. 

My husband and I love following your recommendations for dining out in DC; you’ve never led us astray! We’re taking a vacation to the Amalfi coast in 2 weeks and wondering if you can recommend any restaurants there. We’ll be in Amalfi, Praiano, and Positano. It’s so hard to know based on online reviews - the same place will get everything from 1 star tourist trap ratings to 5 star best-meal-ever ratings. Please help if you can!

I'm throwing this out to the crowd today, as I've never been to the Amalfi coast (lucky you). 

I have a deep sympathy for waiters and everyone involved in the delicate and demanding restaurant industry. However, a recent dinner with 6 of my friends for my 24th Birthday at Whaley's was one of the most bizarre and worst dining experiences in recent memory. I had heard only good things about the trendy seafood restaurant on the wharf, but when we dined on an august Tuesday night I was only met with confusion. Even for a Tuesday, the restaurant was practically empty and yet this was one of the longest dinners I've experienced in DC. We ordered wine by the glass and appetizers of oysters. We waited an hour and a forty five minutes for raw oysters. What was so bizarre was that the waiter would check in on us all the time, way more than a normal waiter might at a busy restaurant, and yet had no updates and we had to ask for another round of wine during this hour and a half. He seemed very eager to go over every facet of the menu with us (even when we didn't ask) but did not seem to be clued in to ask if we wanted another round of wine/beer. After an hour and a half of waiting, confusion and asking for some bread (they didn't have any so we paid $5 for 3 unappealing flatbread crackers), he came back out and asked us again about specifics for our oysters--and we realized he might not have even put our order in yet. My friends and I were just so confused and utterly famished that we were just so relieved when the oysters finally came almost 2 hours later that we were silently laughing and trying to make the best of the absurd situation, all the while wondering if we should have spoken up and said something to the waiter. Or asked if anything was wrong. After speakign with coworkers about the situation, I'm wondering if they would have really made a table of adults wait 2 hours for their appetizers. Sometimes I feel like a young group of females getting dinner at a restaurant gets stereotyped, but even though it was my birthday--we were not a rowdy crowd just girls looking to get together and have maybe a glass of wine or two. I just wonder if the restaurant really didn't have their stuff together or somehow thought it was okay to just make us wait that long? The dinner ended up taking well over 3 hours. He also would come out and bring us drinks we did not want and ask for--and then made it seem like he was doing us the biggest favor in the world by comping the alcohol drinks at the end. It was a very strange experience and I just wanted to hear your thoughts on the establishment and being taken seriously at restaurants.

You lost me when you mentioned the delay. It took almost two hours for a round of ... oysters? At the 10-minute mark, you should have piped up. Then again, wasn't the waiter constantly checking in? Something about this complaint doesn't compute. What am I missing? 

You often get complaints about the poor service given to women who dine alone. It's happened to me. But I want to give a shout out to Sfoglina Downtown. I live in the suburbs but was spending the weekend in town to attend the Book Festival. I'm 75 and had a solo early Friday dinner at SD. I ate at the bar and the 2 bartenders could not have been more attentive and pleasant. The meal was delicious and when I indicated I was too full to order dessert, Wilber (one of the bartenders) presented me with a mini biscotti and a glass of champagne! I felt like royalty. Obviously, the Trabocchis run a class establishment. I look forward to the opening of Sfoglina Rosslyn since I live on that side of the river.

A round of applause, please, for the bar tenders at Sfoglina in Upper NW!

Hi Tom, My brother's in-laws are visiting DC for 6 days in November, and since I previously lived in DC (but recently moved to Chicago), they've asked me for some restaurant recommendations. They're staying by the convention center, but are willing to travel to different neighborhoods. They have a fairly conventional palate (BBQ is their favorite) and modest budget. My preferences are a bit different, but I don't want to steer them wrong, so I told them I'd ask the person I'd trust the most for some great recommendations--you! Thanks so much for doing these chats!

My spring guide, a round-up of new restaurants, is full of ideas. At the top of my list would be the Tavern at Rare Steak and Seafood downtown and Unconventional Diner near the convention center. The just-opened Little Havana, an exploration of Cuban fare on 14th St. NW, is another winner. Encourage your in-laws to be adventurous this trip; DC is a world capital with the restaurants to prove it. 

Did you hear anything from them after your take-down -- er, review?

Personally? No. But the owner did comment to Washingtonian, among other media outlets. 

One can reasonably surmise that La Vie didn't have a photo of you posted in the kitchen, to alert servers and cooks as to your identity, should you enter the house!

Honestly, I'm not sure my image in the kitchen would have righted the multiple wrongs at La Vie.  The crew can do a couple things to *try* to impress a critic, but ultimately, they can't suddenly cook better. 

One of the best meals I've ever had in Italy was at the restaurant for the Hotel Covo dei Saraceni in Positano. Everything we had was phenomenal, from the local Greco di Tufi wine, all of the seafood dishes, and their home made lemon sorbetto served out of a local gigantic lemon. I still dream about that meal a year later.

Thanks for sharing your dream.

Maybe I'm misreading the intro question, but it seems that they ordered the veggie spring rolls and were delivered the pork egg rolls, not that they misunderstood what they ordered.

If that's the case, the restaurant should have apologized profusely, sent out the correct appetizer and not charged for it. 

Why didn't you ask where on earth your oysters were when he "checked in and yet gave no updates"?

My question, too. Squeaky wheels are more apt to get oysters, faster. 

Last week I wrote about our recent experience at Le Diplomate for our anniversary celebration - issues with service and food and having not received a response from the restaurant yet. Following the chat, the GM reached out to us via email and not only refunded our bill but is also sending us a gift card for a return visit. We were pleasantly surprised by their reaching out and very appreciative of their handling of this issue after the fact. We were not expecting to have both the bill refunded and be sent a gift card and we are very appreciative. Hopefully our return trip will be much better than this recent visit and we just caught them on a bad night!

Happy to hear Le Diplomate reached out to you, and in such generous fashion. 

I was at Nordstrom during their Anniversary sale. I selected three button-down shirts, a belt, and two pairs of slacks. When I went to check out there was a line of other customers ahead of me. It took me 10 minutes to get to the head of the line. When I got there I complained about the wait and said that I expected them to comp me the belt and one pair of slacks. They refused. What do you think? Didn't Nordstrom have a responsibility to "make it right?"

Funny. 

I sometimes go to the bar at our local restaurant and sip a glass of wine for an hour or more. I'm sensitive that bartenders rely on tips and restaurant needs income so is there any rule of thumb on how much someone seated at the bar should order per hour? Let's assume it's a slow night and several seats are empty. Thanks!

Let common sense be your guide. An hour "or more" sounds like a long time to occupy a stool when you're nursing a single glass of wine. If it's truly a slow night, and there are open seats -- and you're not chatting up the bar tenders much -- I suppose it's OK to linger. But you need to limit the impulse (or order more wine or some food) when a seat is needed. You don't want to be branded a "camper." 

As a vegetarian, I always ask - and often even if it says vegetarian! For example, a lot of Thai restaurants have dishes in their vegetarian (not vegetable but vegetarian) section that have fish sauce in them. I *always* say at Thai restaurants - no fish sauce please, if it usually dies have fish sauce. I'm a vegetarian so please make it without fish sauce'.

Proof that being pro-active has its rewards: fewer mistakes, for instance. 

Tom: My father is going to be buried at Arlington sometime in October. I live in Richmond and will be driving up, and family members will be flying in. I've been asked to set up a lunch close to Arlington for everyone. The requirements are American grill type restaurant... no Italian (for fear of spillage), no sushi for the mid-westerners, etc... if there is a place that has a private room, bonus points. We will probably have 12-15 people. This is going to be the one time a lot of the family has gotten to be together for years, so I want it to be special, but not over the top. Suggestions?

The best options for what you want are probably Me Jana for Middle Eastern and SER for Spanish. Both restaurants offer a sense of style and varied menus. Further, they are within a mile or so of the burial site. If a reader knows of something closer/more convenient, please let me know. 

Anyone want my accumulation of published restaurant reviews? Most from the last century and including six-loose-leaf-notebook collection of Phyllis C. Richman's reviews. Free to anyone willing to pick them up at my Dupont Circle condo. John Chester 659-4791

Any nostalgic restaurant buffs out there? 

Years ago I worked in a now defunct Mexican chain restaurant. A customer commented that the beans were very gritty. The server realized he was eating a beef enchilada. She profoundly apologized, got a manager and the table's meal was comped. The customer was calm but obviously terribly upset. Sometimes food restrictions are about deeply held beliefs. This has stuck with me for two decades. Made me think more about food restrictions and accommodations. This is an area where food service people need to work hard to assure is correct.

I don't know about you, but in just about every restaurant I visit these days, the server includes in the greeting, "Any allergies or food issues we need to know about?" The question is a helpful prompt. 

I am always uncomfortable when servers hover then clear plates while other diners are still eating. I feel it is rude to the person who is not finished. I was thrilled at Sfoglina when the staff seeing that my husband was still enjoying his meal did not take away my plate even though it was clear I was done (the food was so good there was nothing left!) Hearing, "are you still working on that?" is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. Your thoughts?

Animals "work" on their food. People "eat." And for the umpteenth time, dishes should not be removed from the table until every diner is finished. 

This post illustrates perfectly why it's so critical to raise issues with a manager in real time. From this account, it sounds as though these guests were fairly passive (or laid-back, to put a more positive spin on it) diners. But it seems like it should have been clear pretty quickly that these issues weren't going to resolve themselves. I'm not trying to blame the diners for the bad service they endured -- and it truly sounds bizarrely bad -- but I strongly believe it makes sense for guests to point out problems while they can still be fixed. (I'm a former restaurant owner and frequent diner.)

You are preaching to the choir. The best time to raise an issue is in real time, when the problem can be resolved, on the spot. No restaurant wants customers to leave dissatisfied, only to write to Yelp or me. 

I am less likely to complain about a minor annoyance in a restaurant because I don't want anything for free just a more pleasant dining experience. I feel like asking for a manager has become the same as asking for something for free. No, I don't want a free dessert or glass of wine, just prompt service and a check quickly after I ask for it. Not a twenty minute wait and a slice of cake.

I think it's important to let managers know that, too, by declining the freebie and restating your intent. 

Looks like the poster is looking for an option that serves what they called "American Grill" to please pickier palates. In that case, maybe Carlyle in Shirlington? GAR restaurants are great for this kind of thing. Everyone should be able to find something they'd enjoy, and the service is uniformly tremendous (helpful on a hard day).

Great suggestion. Thanks for chiming in.

We took a Vespa tour up and down the Amalfi Coast, and stopped at this little trattoria for lunch. It's off the beaten path, but food was delicious and service was friendly. They even send you off with a shot of their homemade limoncello. Here is the trip advisor link: https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g580208-d1500566-Reviews-Ristorante_San_Giovanni-Scala_Amalfi_Coast_Campania.html

Limoncello and Vespas, huh? You're brave. 

A reminder that while a comp meal is nice, making sure the issues get fixed is better. Recently sent an email letting a place know their service and food had gone waaaaay downhill. They cited new employees and other changes, and invited us for a comp meal. It was better (because we were clearly marked as VIP), so I decided to revisit them on my own dime yesterday. Guess what? Almost every service issue was back. Fool me once...

Boo. I hate when that happens. Which is why I always visit a restaurant multiple times before writing about it for a starred (or not!) review in the Magazine. 

After my father's funeral at Arlington, I took the family to lunch at Del Ray Cafe. It was perfect. They have an upstairs room for 18 (we squoze 22) and they took excellent care of us. I did some research beforehand. Runners up, that had more of a "grill" type menu (as the poster requested) were Columbia Firehouse in Alexandria, and Liberty Tavern in Clarendon. Rhodeside Grill would also be a good menu and location, but no private room, and a sports bar/tavern atmosphere. (As long as there's not a big game on.)

Another reader to the rescue. Thank you kindly. 

If we're attending a performance after a restaurant meal, we always tell our server at the outset of this fact. Generally this results in prompter service.

Again, it pays to be pro-active. 

The poster said they sat and waited for nearly two hours for oysters, and had many occasions to talk to the waiter, yet she has time and mental energy enough to speculate that age and gender are the problem?

I'm scratching my head, too. 

It would seem like common sense to me that rather than it being an incident of truly horrible service (or very poor oyster shucking), it was simply most likely that the server spaced on the order, hence the frequent check-ins and lack of updates. Don't forget that servers are people, not machines, and as a former server, I can attest that we've all had the moments where we suddenly remember that we forgot to put something in or fire off an entree. If something is taking that long, some raw no less, it's probably good ol' human error and is worth a simple "And the oysters are on their way, right?"

For sure, but a two-HOUR delay is pretty serious, don't you think? And what was the server thinking, passing by these women, apparently over and over, and never asking if they wanted more than vino? 

Just a comment on speaking to managers; my wife often goes out of her way to speak to a manager to compliment our server or the chef for excellent service or food preparation.

Bless you. We're all plants that need a little watering. 

Tom, this is one we hope you can help with regarding a hostess who is always so engaging and helpful. Obviously we tip the wait staff, but is there some way to acknowledge this person who makes sure we get a table we will enjoy and always with a smile?

I like the way you think. Hosts need loving, too!  My inclination would be to put whatever amount of money you think is appropriate in a card ($20? $50? It depends on how often you go and what she's done)  and present it to her the next time you're in the restaurant. 

Hi Tom, I'm headed out to SF next week & very much looking forward to it. I have dinner reservations at The Progress based on your "best food cities" series from a few years ago. However, looking at the pretty-short menu I'm second-guessing a little bit, also there's only 2 of us so the "family style" dining might not be very effective...heard anything recent about it? Stick with it or find somewhere else? thank you!

I haven't heard anything about Progress to make me steer you from your reservation, and I recall eating there, memorably, with just one guest in tow. But if you're looking to an alternative, and you don't mind standing in line for the opportunity, the new Che Fico is fantastic. I fell in love with the Cal-Ital restaurant when i dined there earlier this summer. 

Hi Tom. Submitting early since I have a weekly meeting at 11:00 which causes me to miss your chat every.single.week. It makes me upset to miss the live chat but it's always fun to read during my lunch hour :) My husband and I will be visiting DC for a little over 24 hours at the end of the month. Do you have suggestions for a place we could go to dinner, possibly with outside seating since we love sitting outside? It would have to be a late dinner due to my husband's work schedule (around 8:30) and reservations would be preferable since we'd like to just walk in. I'm also getting lunch with my parents, who live in D.C. so they know of you and all of your recommendations! They are pretty adventurous and have eaten at Rasika, Fiola Mare, and many more I can't even name right now. They are leaving it up to me to choose where to go. Would you have recommendations for both? Thank you! (I'm staying in the Mayflower Hotel so anywhere near there would be fantastic--price is not an issue).

Lunch: Are you willing to Uber or hike to a restaurant? Because the immediate area around your hotel is not the most exciting, food-wise.  Consider checking out the new Wharf and a meal at the elegant Spanish statement, Del Mar, whose owner counts Fiola Mare in his stable. 

 

Dinner: A lot of outdoor seating tends to be first come/first serve, but among the city's al fresco options, those that offer both good food and reservations include Mi Vida for Mexican at the Wharf, Momofuku for Asian in CityCenter and 701 for contemporary American in Penn Quarter. 

I was just reading an older review of yours about Tortino. Is the restaurant still around and if so, is it still Good? What puzzled me is that you stated "I adore the place" and you raved about the food. Yet, you gave it only two stars. Am I missing something? Thanks.

That "older" review ran this year! Also, two stars is "good" for a neighborhood restaurant.

 

As I've said before, I'd much rather be conservative (but fair) with my ratings, and have diners be surprised/delighted by what they find, than throw stars around and have readers question my raves. 

Hi Tom, I have a foodie friend visiting from San Francisco next week who REALLY wants to go to Maydan. I've been stalking the website for the past 30 days for a reservation but alas! no luck. What time do you recommend we line up? 4:30pm? Any ideas on where to go around there is we don't get a table? Thanks so much!

The first come/first serve seats at the bar go FAST once the doors open at 5 p.m. If you really, really want to eat at Maydan, someone needs to be in line no later than 4:15 or so (depends on the day, actually).  

Hey Tom - one thing that always seems to boggle my mind is that almost every restaurant only provide one drink list or wine menu for the entire table. Any reason why restaurants would do this?

The single drink list bothers me most. There's no reason why a restaurant can't offer one for everyone (of age) at the table. It makes good business sense: the faster a party can order one round, the more likely they're apt to ask for another. And when cocktails cost upwards of $15 in even routine places, customers deserve better upfront. 

Thanks again Tom!

Trust me, I'd much prefer hosting a chat than facing the biggest deadline of my year. 

 

And that's a wrap for today, gang. Thanks for the lively back-and-forth. Let's do it again, September 26 at 11 a.m. Be well. 

 

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