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

Oct 31, 2012

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Hi Tom, I've run into a situation a number of times recently that raises a question of restaurant etiquette. Hopefully your opinion will help find a remedy to an awkward impasse. A friend and I walk in to a restaurant bar, there's a vacant stool and the lady takes a seat. We are told that another vacant seat is being "saved" for a friend. It is determined this friend is not on the premises. Asking a person to "give u a seat that isn't actually taken doesn't seem unreasonable to me but my requests along that line have invariably been met with hostility. I understand that people want to go have a smoke, make a phone call or visit the restroom etc. and may leave their seat while they do so (usually leaving a drink at their spot at the bar). If their companion "saves" it for them while they're away momentarily, that's not a problem at all. I'm speaking about people that aren't even in the building. Here I am ready to spend money and I have to stand when there's a perfectly good stool unoccupied right there. I have not called a manager to mediate any of these incidents (yet) but I imagine they would value a paying customer over someone that's not present and may or may not show up. This practice violates the time-honored protocol of "first come, first served" and I think it's pretty presumptuous. I mean if you want a reserved seat, take a table, right? What do you think and what's your advice?

  As someone who stood next to a coat-draped stool at the jam-packed Drafting Table  last night, I totally sympathize with your plight.  In my case, a young lady next to the unoccupied chair was saving it for a companion who didn't show up for another 10 minutes.  Rude.


Here's what I think:  Somebody who is present (and ready to start a tab) has the first right to a stool at the bar.  The only exception I can think of is someone who is parking (actually parking, not looking for parking) and might be a minute or two away from said free seat. 


The easiest solution is for the restaurant to post signs around the bar: "Bar seats are first come/first serve and cannot be reserved."  That way, customers don't have to feel sheepish about approaching the seat savers.


Happy Wednesday, everyone. I hope you are all safe and sound and ... dry at home and office.  I actually managed to get some work done during the worst of the storm (thank you, Tabard Inn, for staying open) and thank goodness, because I had nothing but wine, coffee and an Asian pear in my refrigerator.


How did the rest of you fare?


House-keeping note: I'm out of town next week. Our next online get-together will be Nov. 14.


Let's rock & roll!

As someone who travels quite a bit for work, I find myself eating by myself at restaurants fairly often. What's your preferred method for eating solo? Grab a seat at the bar to watch whatever sporting event is on? Bring along a book? Just look around the restaurant to keep an eye out for eye-catching desserts?

As regular followers of mine know, I'm a huge fan of bellying up to bars for meals.


For starters, there's an intimacy to a counter that a table-for-one lacks. Bars often feature menus of their own.  Bars allow you to chat with strangers (or not) and catch up on your reading (or not).  As someone who gets five newspapers a day, I'm always grateful for the chance to read all of them.


Amomng my favorite destinations these days are the counters at Rasika (either the original or West End), Central Michel Richard, Woodberry Kitchen, Restaurant Eve, Mintwood Place, the Source, Zaytinya and Jaleo.

My Mother-in-law and I had lunch at Virtue 2 weeks ago. It was our first time there. I've been to Eamonn's and Majestic before, so knew the food would be good. My MIL had oysters as an app and I had the onion tart. The tart was wonderful. I had the shrimp and grits for my entree (nearly as good as what I've had in New Orleans) and my MIL had the salad du jour, which had grilled rockfish on it (very large piece of fish with a nice crust, which our server said was due to their putting a very light coating of flour on it prior to grilling). I will definitely return. BTW, when the server asked what I'd be having to drink, I ordered a diet Coke and told her I was driving, which always heads off any issues a server may have w/ my not ordering alcohol (MIL had a beer).

Not that you need to explain your motivations to the server, but I appreciate the line.  And I'm glad to hear that Virtue has retained its virtues.

May have to cancel reservations at Cityzen and they are not available on the night we need. For a special occasion, where you would you me right now? Have been to Komi, Restaurant Eve, Citronelle so prefer to try something new..

Are you adventurous? If so, the omakase (chef's choice) in the back bar at  Sushi Taro makes a special evening. I'm also fond of the southern cooking at Vidalia and the contemporary American surprises at the Oval Room.

I wrote into the chat on 9/18 asking you for recommendations for our visit to DC, and wanted to thank you! We had an unforgettable meal at Rasika. I now "get" why you recommend it so highly. The range of flavors in each dish was amazing. Delicious, full of depth, unlike anything we'd ever tasted. That spinach app is to die for. Tom our waiter and Santosh the maitre d' made the experience a warm, welcoming and delicious one we'll never forget. We also had a fabulous lunch at the Tabard Inn and made a reservation at Mintwood Place, which we regrettably had to cancel due to time constraints. People, listen to Tom Sietsema -- he knows where your taste buds will do the happy dance!

Your post made my day. Thanks for the feedback.

Tom- Enjoy the weekly chats! Fairly new to DC. Where can I get that old school Italian restaurant vibe? Like in Brooklyn or the Bronx? Do we have a "Little Italy in the DC area? Grazie!

Nothing "old school" and good comes to mind. I'm going to throw the question out to the peanut gallery today. Chatters? Any advice?

My Mom and I will be in town for a Redskins game in a few weeks. (We both no longer live in the area.) I try to take her out for fun and interesting dinners while we are here. Last year we were able to go to America Eats and Rasika, which she loved. I am looking for new places to take her (we have been to Jaleo and Zaytinya). I would like to stay near-ish to Penn Quarter if possible, but only real requirement is metro accessible. She can be a little hard of hearing, so a place that's not crazy loud is also a plus (already crossed Mike Isbella's G'twon restaurant off my list). Thanks so much from a reader who left DC 4 years ago, but still reads your columns and chats religiously.

Fun, interesting and not too loud:  I'd say the recently relocated minibar, which opens Nov. 2, but it's a near-impossible reservation.


Otherwise, one of your best bets in the area is a table in the back of Central Michel Richard on Pennsylvania Ave. The chef, David Deshaies, is as playful as his employer. Love his chicken schnitzel, the rich lobster burger, the seafood stew and the aptly-coined "celebration cake" that makes you the center of attention for as long as the torch on top sparkles.

Good morning, Tom. Celebrating our tenth anniversary on Saturday evening (only day sitter was available). Having spent far more on a bathroom remodel and realizing that this weekend his Halloween weekend, can you recommend a not-too-expensive (below $$$) Arlington restaurant where we could have an interesting meal and bottle of wine without ghoulies. Many thanks.

I can't promise you won't run into any Big Birds or Honey Boo Boos at Liberty Tavern, but one of the many reasons I included the Arlington restaurant in my fall dining guide is because it can be whatever you want it to be: a date night or an excuse not to cook.  Another reason, of course, is that Liam LaCivita is a solid chef.

Hi, Tom. My husband surprised me with dinner at the Inn at Little Washington for our 4th anniversary this weekend. Unfortunately, we were seated at a bad table - I was directly on the other side of the wall from a swinging door that banged every time a server went in or out. I'm a little surprised they let a problem like that exist - I'm sure I'm not the first diner seated there! My husband tends to be a "mind over matter" guy who doesn't like to cause trouble, but in my opinion, we were paying way too much to put up with a distracting door, so I kindly asked for a solution. Luckily it was late enough in the evening that another table in a much better location had opened up. Our waiter actually did seem a little annoyed by the whole thing ("well, I'm not sure I can do anything to quiet the noise of the door"), but the server who actually accommodated the move was extremely gracious. Earlier in the evening, we also had to request that our white wine glasses be replenished, and it took several minutes to get our waiter's attention so we could even bring up the banging door problem. If it wasn't for your chats and encouragement about addressing problems as they occur, I probably never would have been brave enough to bring up these issues. Overall, it was a great experience (the food was amazing!), but not the perfection I was hoping for. I can't help but wonder if some of this goes back to our age - looking around the room, we were by far the youngest diners there...well, except for the teenager with her parents (lucky girl!). I hate to say it, but we simply weren't doted on like the rest of the room. As someone who has dined there more than once - does this laissez faire service seem normal or did we receive subpar service?

I'd hate to think the problem at the Inn at Little Washington was related to your youth. Perhaps it was just that one server, because his colleague who came to your rescue showed more finesse/commen sense?


You have every right to expect perfection in a destination restaurant than can cost $300 or more per person on some nights.  And if something isn't quite right -- a squeaky door in your case -- it's fine to ask that it be fixed or if you can be relocated. 


Also, instead of responding with "Well, I'm not sure ..." your server should have said something like "Oh dear. I'm so sorry. Let me see how I can make this better." 


Sometimes, it's all in the delivery.

Hey Tom, Love your chats! I need helping picking a restaurant to wow my boyfriend for his birthday. Some of our past favorites include: Komi, Little Serow, Thai-Xing, Izakaya Seki, Ray's and Jaleo. Any ideas? Thanks!

That's a fun list you have there!


If you haven't been to Blue Duck Tavern in the last year, you owe it to yourselves to taste the work of new chef Sebastien Archambault. Bombay Club is delicious and romantic and Cityzen shows off the cooking of a four-star chef.  All very different venues, but each festive in its own way.

Hi Tom-- I was meeting a friend for dinner at a restaurant we go to at least once a month. I was running late and happy hour was almost over, so she ordered drinks for the table and the waitress gave her a very judgmental look for ordering multiple drinks. When we tasted the drink, it was clear from the taste and the color of the drink there was little to no alcohol in the drink-- it was just juice. We were wondering what we should have done in this situation. I don't like feeling judged for having a cocktail and don't like paying for a mixed drink and getting juice.

   Your friend had every right to order a couple drinks ahead of the happy hour cut-off.  (Just two, right?) Maybe the server was upset by what she thought was hoarding. 


I wasn't there to witness it, but your friend could have explained you were running a few minutes late and she was tasked with ordering happy hour drinks.


Bottom line: If the cocktails tasted diluted, you should have piped up.

Ozzie's in Fairfax or better yet the Little Italy Deli in Centreville. Best veal parm next to mom's. Great sausage and pepper sub. Best lasagna in the area. another good one in the San Vito also in Centreville. San Vito and The Little Italy Deli have better food and feel more like Brooklyn or Bayonne, NJ than Ozzie's. Nothing in DC comes close.

Grazie for the suggestions. There's really nothing but big chain places to not recommend in the District.

Tom - I missed a dinner at Westend Monday night because of the storm which gives me a chance to ask you about it. A lot of items look really great, especially the apps. Any hot tips? Thanks!

Yes. The new chef, Devin Bozkaya, works magic with duck liver mousse and pan-roasted striped bass in a sort of bouillabaisse. My updated review of Westend Bistro by Eric Ripert comes out Nov. 11 in the Magazine.

Dear Tom-- Two weeks ago you recommended that I take my Bethesda dinner group to Food, Wine & Co. Let the record show that once again you NAILED IT. Everyone had a great dinner from start to finish, and the restaurant staff consistently did everything they could to make our experience enjoyable. A special shout-out to Diana from their events team, who went above and beyond to pave the way for our group. Thank you so much, sir, for steering us in a rewarding direction!

I'm eager to get back to Food, Wine & Co. myself. Thanks for the feedback and kudos to Diana.

Hi Tom - Thanks for the Fall Dining Guide - love it! I received a nice gift card ($100) to The Source as a thank you present. I have never been there before, but am excited. Would you recommend that my wife and I use this to subsidize a dinner or use it pay for a full dim sum brunch? Thanks!

Tough choice there. I like brunch, lunch and dinner at the Source! But if you're trying to keep costs down, the Saturday brunch is the time to go. Be sure to order a Bloody Mary there, one of the city's zestiest.

I just finished reading Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential. How would you rate him as a chef and/or the menu at Les Halles, where he was executive chef?

Well, I never had his cooking, but I did eat at the (late) Les Halles here.  It was fine.


Bourdain is an excellent writer. But it's not as if he's some Michel Richard or Eric Ripert.

I was looking for a great place for a celebration dinner back in April, and after looking through your old columns and chats, I settled on Vermilion. It was wonderful. Absolutely perfect. Thank you so much for the recommendation - it was exactly what I was looking for - good food and very, very romantic. The ambiance (is there a way to say that word without sounding cheesy?) was amazing. Any suggestions for somewhere else like Vermilion, but not actually Vermilion? We'd like to try a new place, but somewhere in the same price range or less, hopefully in VA or DC. It was such a great experience the first time around; we can't wait to roll the dice again!

I'm eager to see who replaces Tony Chittum when the chef  moves into the city to re-open Iron Gate Inn. Big shoes to fill in the kitchen at Vermilion!


The Tabard Inn in Dupont Circle can be cozy, especially if you ask to sit in one of the quieter upstairs dining rooms there. It might not be close enough for you, but Villa Mozart in Fairfax is quietly romantic. I'm also fond of Cashion's Eat Place in Adams Morgan. The lighting, the jazzy sound-track, the soulful cooking all appeal to me.


That help?

Hi, Tom! What's the spiciest food you've ever eaten in Wash DC-area restaurant? I feel that I have world-class spicy tolerance and want to challenge myself. Thanks!

Well, recently I had some super-fiery ghost peppers at the new Fuego Cocina in Arlington. Eating even a few snips was like kissing a welding iron.


How about you?

As a bartender I can assure you that we also have distinguished guests in the dining that may take after dinner libations at the bar, or regulars that show at a certain time daily or weekly. Obviously not the same as a lone person hogging the bar, but there are exceptions to the rule!

So you personally reserve stools for them? That's a bit different from diners hoarding seats. How do you do that, by the way? Tip the stools toward the bar or shoo strangers away or ...?

Tom, I'd like a few choices for your top places for the freshest oysters in DC? A decent wine list to go with them would be great too, but first the oysters!

Old Ebbitt Grille, Kinkead's, Hank's Oyster Bar on the Hill, Pearl Dive Oyster Bar in Logan Circle  ... all count good oysters and vino to match.


Chatters, help me expand the list.

I fondly remember going to Luigi's some 50 years ago, and thought it was old time Italian. Maybe it might fit the bill for the person looking? I don't live in DC anymore, but can still remember that restaurant.

Luigi's is probably the chatter's best bet in the city proper.

I find that there is not enough room at the bar to eat a meal. if i get a small salad and a main course, plus a beer, i find myself overflowing into the other people's space - no? are some bars deeper than others? and you find space to read newspapers??

I'm not a small guy, but I have no problem, unless the bar is jam-packed. I seek out a bar's corners, where possible, and I know how to fold a paper into book-size, if need be.

Tom- Have you ever heard of a situation where a restaurant refuses to correct an order? A little while ago the waiter at La Caraquena in Falls Church got our order wrong (which I worried about when he didn't write down our large order). I nicely pointed out that he brought out the wrong type of arepa, and asked for the one I ordered. After checking the computer, he insisted he was correct and refused to replace the order. When I asked if he was accusing me of lying, he shrugged his shoulders. I asked to speak to the manager, and was told he was the only one there. I tried calling the restaurant, but the manager was not in, and no one answered the two emails I sent describing the situation. It's a shame because the arepas were outstanding. Obviously there's nothing to be done except not going back (and publicly shaming them), but have you ever heard of a server refusing to replace an incorrect order?

One reason to fear waiters who don't write down requests: They often get 'em wrong.


I'm not sure what you can do now, other than to 1) not go back  to La Caraquena or  2) insist the next waiter write down your order so you can verify it before it goes to the kitchen.

What's the best way for someone who knows nothing about Indian food to approach this place? My inclination would be to get the tasting menu and leave all the tough choices up to the chef, but would that be too risky for a very adventurous but very inexperienced diner?

Look for ingredients you like, point and sit back.


Seriously. It's actually a challenge to find dishes that won't wow you at Rasika, either one.  That said, the "starter" dishes include the crisp baby spinach tosed with yogurt and date chutney and the black cod marinated in honey and dill. Don't miss either.

Have you tried Otello, just south of Dupont Circle? It's been a few years but I enjoyed it when I was last there.

Man, I think it's been 20 years since I last dined there.

Melted ice since it was ordered in advance???

Ah, interesting point. (I learn so much from you smarties.)

I have reservations for a birthday dinner at Rays (the original). Worth keeping?

If you like good meat, affordable wine, family-style sides and zero ambiance, Ray's is a keeper.

If I showed up at a bar and the bartender told me the only open stools were not available to me but were reserved for "distinguished" guests or regulars who were not there, I would leave and not be back. And tell my friends.

Again, it's all in the delivery, but I catch your drift.

Most commonly in the older days and upside down glass on the coaster was a classy and inviting way to do it. The younger crowd tend to push it away and disregard the gesture now. And often gets defensive when you explain the rule to them. Even a full "mocktail" at the spot gets ignored, and quite simply, looks trashy when the guest does get to the seat. Tipping bar stools is tacky, and a tripping hazard. And few people understand that as well....

You sound as if you speak from experience. Thanks for weighing in. So, what's the solution for 2012?

I don't understand this sentence.

"Apps" is industry slang for appetizers or first courses.

Ha! You do have a way with words.

And if I didn't, there'd be trouble here in River City.

Ciro's in Stone Ridge, VA comes close to old school Italian-American, but has a bit of "real" Italian mixed in as well.

Haven't been. Thanks for the tip.

Seriously, I'm tempted to find a space and dust off the family recipes. I don't understand why it's so hard to make really good Italian-American food around here. There seems to be market for it.

Please do "dust off the family recipes" and open an old-school Italian dining room. But be prepared to have an army of Italian diners comparing your chicken parm and your "gravy" to what they grew up on!

Um, Carmine's in Penn Quarter? I can't think of a better classic Italian-American place in D.C. right now. (And I was really hoping Graffiato would have been a new version of A.V., just with delicious food to go with the old school design -- but it too went the modernist route on both food and decor.)

The barges of food at Carmine's, and the sheer size of the place, turn me off.  I gave it a decent review, but personally, I don't care for that style of eating.

This is a little off topic but - if a bar doesn't have hooks underneath the bar for purses and coats, they should really reconsider that. The floor is not an optimal space for these. I think this also cuts down on purses on stools, etc.

Even guys appreciate hooks under the bars. I use them for small umbrellas and brief cases myself.

I don't fully understand this diner's complaint. They received the wrong order, which it sounds like they ate and found "outstanding." Maybe they got a bad waiter for the evening, but this hardly sounds like a disaster.

True. Those arepas aren't all that expensive either, as I recall.

Hi Tom, I'm heading home to the bay area (CA) this winter for my sister's 30th birthday. She wanted to go to the French Laundry, but we've only managed to get on the waitlist, so it's not a guarantee that we'll get in. I've gone through your postcards, michelin guides, zagat, etc. and still can't decide on a good alternate. If you had to pick one great restaurant in the area to be our plan b, what would it be? Also, we've already been to chez panisse...thanks so much!

I loved my last dinner at Meadowood in Napa. As luck with have it, my waiter knew me: He had come from the Inn at Little Washington! Small world.

What about that place in Spring Valley, behind the Wagshal's?

DeCarlo's? It's great for old-school cocktails, but a disaster as far as the food goes. I was there a few months ago, because I've been looking for something old-school myself.

Dear Tom, The experience that the chatter described is a concern to us as well and we thank you for bringing it to our attention. We're glad that we were able to resolve the situation but we clearly could have done so in more gracious and immediate manner, as we strive to do with all of our guests. I'd love to speak to the chatter personally and ask them to contact me directly. I can be reached at 540-675-3800 or by email at Sincerely, Thomas F. List II General Manager

Ah, right in the nick of time! Thanks for the prompt response, Thomas.

Closest thing to the Bronx Italian eateries would have to be Esposito's in Fairfax on Rt. 50. Old-school, homey place, good food.

And another idea. Thanks.

The various Clyde's locations are a good bet. Same owners (and oysters) as Old Ebbit, but much easier to get in and find a seat. We occasionally have an afternoon date at the Clyde's in Alexandria near the Mark Center before picking up the kids.

Yep, since Clyde's and Old Ebbitt are related, proper oysters on the half shell should be the case throughout the family of restaurants.

Where should a relatively adventurous carnivore go for dinner tonight (in MD or DC, Metro accessible) now that his vegetarian wife is out of town for a few days?

Ah, when the cat's away, the mouse will beef up, huh?


I'd go to Bourbon Steak for cocktails and a great slab of dry-aged meat. Then Uber home.


Speaking of home, I need to get outta here and pack for a tropical climate. Thanks for another lively hour, gang. I look forward to chatting again on Nov. 14 at 11 a.m.


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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