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

Oct 14, 2015

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.

Are you home from LA? Sorry about the weather - really, it's not usually this hot here! Without scooping yourself, anything you want to say about the trip? I love our food scene here, and I'd like to imagine you at the taco stand in the tire store parking lot...

I just returned from Los Angeles Monday night. Initial impressions: Great produce everywhere. Lots of juice joints. Lots of  terrific grocery stores. Fine Asian -- Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai -- everywhere. Not-great service, in particular at Providence, considered to be the city's top fine-dining establishment. 

 

Good morning, everyone. In case you missed it, my 2015 fall dining guide came out in print Sunday. The collection of nearly 40 favorites ranks Rose's Luxury No. 1 and finds six four-star restaurants. (Here's a breakdown, courtesy of my Food section colleague Becky Krystal.)

 

Thanks for joining me today. I won't be here next week, because I'll be racing to meet my next Best America's Food Cities deadline (Los Angeles). But I'll be back in the host's seat Oct. 28.  Let's rock and roll.

Tom, my wife is planning to take me to Del Campo for my birthday soon, and now we see that it's dropped off your fall guide. Is this just due to a good slate of new spots knocking it down the list, or should we be reconsidering? (And if so, where's the best comparable alternative?)

Victor Albisu remains a major player in the city with his meaty Del Campo, left out of the dining guide this year only because the competition is greater. Book away, in other words. 

Tom - I so love trying all your restaurant recommendations (I have a check-list). I live in Reston , and am willing to travel on weekends to such great locations as Volt and wait in the line at Rose's Luxury for hours. And only 30 minutes away, Clarity in Vienna. But weekdays after work, time limits me to the Reston/Herndon area. I have been to every restaurant in the Reston Town Center, way too many times. Any recommendations in Reston or Herndon? I used to love Passion Fish. Not so much lately. Are there any hidden gems I've missed out here in the Reston area?

Have you dropped by the new Red's Table, which replaced the Lakeside Inn in South Lake Village Center? I've not been yet, but I initially heard good reports about the brothers-owned establishment, which lists seafood stew, dry-aged steak ad sweet potato gnocchi on its menu. 

My husband & I dine out just about every weekend--often, as one of our twenty-something daughters would say, "geriatrically early." Rarely is a restaurant full when we're seated. So why does the staff invariably seat us right next to a group of other diners? Often we'll just ask for another table, but it's kind of annoying.

One reason might be because the restaurant wants to keep diners in one waiter's section. At any rate, I agree the practice is irritating in a dining room with lots of open seats. 

Hi, Tom! I'm getting together with about 5 other friends for dinner on an upcoming Friday night. We've been friends for about 15 years, and one is coming back into town so we're going out. We are up for anything in terms of cuisine, just want a place where we can enjoy a good meal, catch up, and not feel rushed if we want to take our time. Is that even possible on a Friday night? with less than 2 weeks' notice? :) We are all in DC so want a spot in the city somewhere. thanks!

You can go one of two ways: Choose a veteran restaurant that you might all remember from your time together in the city or check out someplace new, and create a fresh memory. Good places that have been around for years include the recently redone 701 in Penn Quarter, Buck's Fishing & Camping near politics & Prose, 1789 in Georgetown and Obelisk in Dupont Circle. Among the more current options, consider Riggsby in Dupont Circle, Chez Billy Sud in Georgetown and Due South near the Navy Yard. 

Hi Tom, I am looking for a spot for a business dinner on a Monday in February. It will be about 75 people and they prefer to order off the complete menu (or have more than a few entrée choices). This is a group from the west coast so a nice view would be a plus. Money is usually not a factor. Thank you!

I'd start with one of the city's best restaurants, Fiola Mare, on the Georgetown waterfront. The views take in both the Potomac and the Kennedy Center; the menu tilts seafood and Italian. 

Tom, Upon reading your 2015 Fall Dining Guide, I realized just how many restaurants that used to be mentioned are not around anymore. Since I began reading your reviews and chats in 2001, I remember the following being highlighted in reviews, asked about in chats or the Dining Guide- Citronelle, Palena, City Zen, Tallula, Ceiba, Locanda, Kinkead's, Johnny's Half Shell, Minibar, Viridian, Eventide, Galileo, TenPenh, Butterfield 9, Colorado Kitchen, oh and can't forget Mie N Yu!

Johnny's continues to operate on the Hill, but not at the level it did when the seafood restaurant was based in Dupont Circle. As for Minibar, it's very much open -- and continues to deliver a four-star experience, as I described in my dining guide

What is name and address of new place near the stadium in SE with Southern food

You're thinking of Due South, from the owner of Bayou in Foggy Bottom. The southern-themed restaurant is at 301 Water St. SE

 

The vast majority of restaurants I've been to lately has put me on a seat or bench made of solid wood. Not even a hint of cushion. It seems the more expensive the restaurant, the more likely it is to have uncomfortable seating. I realize most Americans are overweight, and perhaps have ample padding of their own, but not all of us do. Are restaurants so eager to turn over seats they're trying to ensure no one lingers over their meal? In my case, all they're doing is ensuring I won't be a return customer.

I've said this before, but it would behoove restaurateurs to give their seating a test-drive before buying chairs and banquettes. I agree: lots of uncomfortable perches out there.  However, I hope you raise the issue with managers before boycotting a business. 

Like many others, I was appalled to read that you had endorsed Rose's Luxury as the best restaurant in town. Its practice of not accepting reservations severely limits the number of elderly and disabled patrons to say nothing of pregnant women who are forced to stand on line for hours with no seats, no protection from the weather, and no restrooms. All of the advantages of the practice are to the restaurant, and all of the disadvantages are to the patrons. Yet you heartily endorse the place. So I ask: do you review only the food or do you take into consideration the entire restaurant? From your callous disregard to the questionable business practices of this place, it clearly seems to be the former.

I review the entire dining experience, with an emphasis on cooking, which accounts for roughly half of my rating. But as you point out, service and ambiance are important factors. 

 

Not every restaurant is meant for every customer. Just as I wouldn't send a vegan to a steak house, I wouldn't point someone who doesn't (or can't) abide lines to a popular restaurant that doesn't accept reservations. As I mentioned in an earlier chat, there are options to standing in line. TaskRabbit, for instance, is one of multiple services offering human place-holders.

 

I sympathize with those who can't wait in line for whatever reason, and expressed the opinion in a news story I wrote about no-reservations restaurants.

 

Tom, My mom will be in town for Thanksgiving and I'm planning a series of special meals with her that week. We're lined up for dinner at Blue Duck Tavern, cocktails and snacks at Rose's Luxury, lunch at Taco Bamba. We've still got an unplanned dinner on Tuesday of that week... Where would you send us? No real restrictions other than staying in DC or Northern Virginia and that it needs to feel special. I'm tempted by a number of places in the Dining Guide - Masseria, in particular - but wanted to get your thoughts. Thanks - loved the Guide!

Masseria would be a terrific choice. The restaurant, outside Union Market, is modeled after an Italian country home.  Your mom might also enjoy the Taiwanese-Cambodian cooking at the contemporary, multi-level Maketto on H St. NE.

Hi Tom! I'm going to Paris for a long weekend in January and was wondering what your favorite places to eat are? We want to splurge on at least one nice dinner while we're there.

I reached out to my pal Alec Lobrano, the former European correspondent for Gourmet, for a few ideas. Here's a cheat sheet from one of the best in the business:

 

Le Servan: "Suberb modern bistro in funky 11th arrondissement."

 

Restaurant David Toutain: "Brilliant young chef."

 

A Mere: "Brand-new casual restaurant in funky hip 10th arrondissement. Excellent food, great wine list, lots of fun."

 

Chez Omar: "Fun place in the Marais for couscous, fashion crowd"

 

Josephine Chez Dumont: "Best old-fashioned bistro in Paris on the Left Bank."

I’m going to be spending a couple of weeks working on the 1700 block of I Street NW. I’m aware food trucks congregate nearby at Farragut Square, and also plan to hit Breadline, Bub and Pop’s, Equinox, Oval Room, and the Bombay Club (old favorite). Am I missing any good places for lunch or wasting my time at any of those on my list?

Sorry to report, BreadLine is closed. Equinox is most interesting for its vegetarian fare. Oval Room is slightly less compelling than it was last year, but its sibling, Bombay Club remains terrific. On the more casual side, don't forget Teaism near Lafayette Park.

Hi Tom, my office is hosting a foreign delegation next month, and we'd like to take them to a nice dinner. We need a private room for about 12 people in the Georgetown/Foggy Bottom area. The folks we're hosting have a seafood heavy diet at home, so I'd like to go with a place that isn't seafood focused (sadly that means no Fiola Mare). I'm leaning towards The Grill Room but would appreciate your advice on good venues for this type of event. Thanks!

Funny, as I was reading your question, Grill Room popped into my head. I love the glass-wrapped wine room there, which I believe is big enough for your group. Nearby, in the West End, Marcel's would be my choice. The latter serves French-inspired fare.

Can you suggest a place for dinner, any cuisine, in Pentagon City area for a dinner on a Monday night with mom? We are two women in our 30s and 60s. She'll be driving so convenient parking or valet service would be good.

Honestly, there's not much that's good over there. Your best bet is probably Lebanese Taverna on S. Joyce St., part of the home-grown Lebanese chain.

I'm not in Virginia much so I don't know the geography well. What is the best restaurant in or near Tysons Corner these days? Money and cuisine not an issue, but interesting and gracious preferred. Thanks!

My favorite place to eat in Tysons continues to be Nostos, home to a Greek menu and charming service.

Last week, my boyfriend and I dined at Liberty Tavern, looking to try their new autumn menu. I ordered the octopus to start, and at first bite, it was clear that it was overcooked to the point of being barely edible. I debated saying anything (since we've joked that Liberty Tavern may turn into our new "neighborhood spot" due to our increased attendance as of late), but as an avid chat reader, knew the only solution was through mentioning the issue to the waiter. Thankfully, the waiter was great - he whisked the dish away, apologized, offered other options, and handled everything gracefully. Within minutes, the manager also came over, acknowledged the dish was mistakenly overcooked, offered multiple substitutes (I picked one, they brought out two, both complimentary), and made me feel valued. Kudos to Liberty Tavern for great customer service and for solidifying their spot as our weekly go-to in the neighborhood!

Take a bow, Liberty Tavern. If only every restaurant offered your brand of hospitality, this would be a quieter forum.

Four stars for Rose's Luxury and Little Serow? I cannot believe any restaurant that doesn't accept reservations can possibly be a four-star experience. I do not remotely associate "extraordinary dining" with standing on a sidewalk for hours in unknown weather. My appetite is not whetted by the prospect of eating at 5pm or 10pm (or possibly sometime in between, depending on the breaks). When I think about their no-reservations policies I think of pure greed, disdain for their customers, and aloofness toward physically challenged people. Do I think of four stars? Oh hell no.

I stand by my statement above. There are options to standing in line. The cooking and service at both restaurants is extraordinary, and consistently so.

New Yorkers like to wait "on line" while the rest of the country waits "in line." Any other phrases you read that automatically define the chatter's location to you?

If someone calls a drinking fountain a "bubbler," I know she's from Milwaukee. And Midwesterners refer to sodas as "pop." 

Is Central still a nice spot for a special occasion meal? We're trying not to break the bank and see that they have some high-end takes on burgers that might be just the thing. Would we be better off at Fiola or another spot in the Metro Center/Penn Quarter area?

The burgers at Central, including a lemony chicken sandwich and another made with shrimp, are very good.  Fiola is a much different experience; the bargains there are available in the bar area.

Hi Tom! My friend and I are staying in DC the night before the Marine Corps Marathon and am looking for a good Italian restaurant for some pasta dishes as prep for the race. Do you have a couple suggestions that aren't too crazy so our stomachs aren't gurgling the next day? I've been to Fiola and Fiola Mare (which are fabulous), but that would probably be a bit much that night. Thanks!

I'd check out Posto on 14th St. NW or Bibiana downtown.

Sorry, but suggesting that people hire someone to stand in line for them is somewhat ridiculous. My guess is that the people who actually wait in line themselves find it particularly annoying when someone shows up at the last minute and takes a spot he or she has paid someone else to stand in.

It might annoy some folks, but it might also be the only option available to say, the elderly or those who can't stand for long periods of time.

Coastal Flats introduced its brunch menu this weekend. My husband and I were there Sunday along with our daughters and their families. Three of us loved the bacon Marys (2 virgin, one not) and the others had various mimosas, which they also enjoyed. One daughter had the crab cakes and eggs, while the rest of us had the downtown scramble with sugared bacon, caramelized onions, grilled mushrooms, and new potatoes (I joked with the manager that I was glad they didn't use old potatoes!). Of course there was the bread basket from Best Buns! We managed to find room to share a white chocolate bread pudding among the six of us. To be honest, I enjoyed it much more than I did the brunch right across the street at Ted's Bulletin, and so did my family.

Coastal Flats, take a bow. The seafood restaurant is part of the Great American Restaurant company based in Northern Virginia; CF is the group's first foray into Maryland.

Hi Tom, I'll be in New York for a rare business trip and would appreciate any recommendations for lunch. Within a mile of Grand Central and on the nicer end of the spectrum are my only requests. Had a wonderful lunch at the Capital Grille last year, but thinking you could recommend something a little more unique, thank you!

Check out my recent survey of New York, with capsule reviews of more than 20 restaurants.  In Midtown, the options include Aquavit for modern Scandinavian, the Modern for contemporary American and 21 for a retro experience. 

Your response is an indication of the precise reason some people object to the no reservations policy -- it precludes people who are unable to stand for a long time, which demonstrates the restaurant's lack of consideration. Personally, if they want to have a no rez policy, that's fine, I will just go elsewhere.

Plenty of delicious alternatives out there, that's for sure! 

So now I not only have to pay a price for the food and service, I also have to pay for waiting to get in? You do realize that not everyone in the metro area has a load of disposable income, right?

Of course I do. I'm just providing an alternative for those who 1) can afford it or 2) might be willing to save up for the experience.

I moved there in July. There's a French/Vietnamese place in Lake Anne center that's decent. The Thai place (Hibiscus, I think) by Home Depot is pretty good. Pho Reston 75 in Tall Oaks Center is not as good as what you can find in Eden Center, but still decent. More than just pho, too. The italian place in North Reston, near the Giant, is OK, but the portions are too large. Euro Bistro in Herndon was very good several years ago but I haven't made it back there yet. Getting to be brats 'n' kraut season though. Anita's in Herndon does good New Mexico-Mexican. Haven't found a Chinese or Indian place that's worth a repeat visit yet.

Thanks for chiming in.

Reading some of the comments here, I have to wonder if some of the restaurants aren't setting themselves up for an ADA complaint. I hope some of these fine dining restaurants have set up, or are drafting, official policies to accommodate the patrons who are incapable of standing in their lines.

Another option for those who can't stand for long: folding chairs. I've seen them used at both the aforementioned no-reservations restaurants.

We love Jackson's.

Another good option.

"My guess is that the people who actually wait in line themselves find it particularly annoying when someone shows up at the last minute and takes a spot he or she has paid someone else to stand in." ...does it really matter? It's not like someone is line-cutting or jumping over you. They paid someone to stand in line so they don't have to, ok. And why does that matter? You're getting seated at the same time as you would as if the person in front of you had stood in line themselves rather than pay someone else. So, why would anyone bother getting annoyed at that? I don't know; I guess I just don't see it as a big deal. Seems to me like if you don't like the policy, pick another restaurant. *shrug*

Equal time for an opposing view.

Yes, you may have to pay that in addition to the price of the food and service. You might also have to pay for garage or valet parking. Or those fabulous new shoes you wear.

It's a matter of priorities, in other words.

Don't miss Sushi Yasuda, or if you can't get in there, Sakagura (hidden across the street); I get up to NY a lot for UN-related meetings and we always end up at one of these two.

Yes!

More ideas: the Turkish place in Worldgate Center in Herndon. Carryout from Pollo Peru in the Home Depot center. Taste of the World on the Herndon/Reston border (although I haven't been there in awhile). The food at Silver Diner is surprisingly decent with lots of healthy/healthyish options. If you're desperate, there's always McTacoHut! :-)

I'm counting several weeks' worth of meals there now.

I'm not sure how Roses handles it, but my favorite ramen joint (Toki Underground) makes it very easy. Put my name in and give them my mobile number. I get a text when my spot is ready. We usually repair to a nearby spot for a drink (Granville Moore) and arrive refreshed and ready. Did any of those complaining think to ask the restaurant about how they handle it? I would further note that such policies would not be necessary if diners would not show callous disregard to the restaurant when it comes to honoring their reservations.

Thanks for writing in. Hank's Oyster Bar in Dupont Circle is one of several restaurants benefiting from the success of no-reservations Little Serow. (People hang out at the former, waiting to be buzzed by the latter.)

For goodness sake! Tom reviews restaurants' food and service and provides additional information--for instance, that you have to stand in line at Rose's Luxury. It may be a drag, but it doesn't negate the quality of the food. Asking him to ignore the restaurant is silly. Are you going to ding the Inn Washington or Volt because they're both a haul to get to, and people who can't drive/don't drive/can't ride for that long can't go?

Bless you, dear reader.

Hey Tom - why haven't I seen you mention any of Black's restaurants recently? I find the food exceptional at most of his restaurants, but I haven't heard you recommend them in this forum or in your recent dining guides. Have they slipped?

No particular reason, other than about 1,000 new restaurants seem to have opened this year. (I exaggerate, but you know what I mean.) The best-known of the bunch, BlackSalt, is currently under much-needed renovation. It's expected to re-open in the near future. 

I just called them....

Oops! My apologies. What I *meant* to type was that BreadLine changed hands a few years ago and may not be the product it was when the OP ate there.

Tom, you've been doing a lot of traveling this year. And I really appreciate the city guides you've put out. But may I politely ask: in what other city did you stand in line for hours to get into a "four star" restaurant?

I don't recall waiting in lines in other cities, but I *do* recall the hassle of buying * tickets* for popular restaurants in Chicago and San Francisco, among other markets.  The online system is worse, to me, than standing in line.

I'm one of those folks who physically cannot stand (or even sit) in long lines. Therefore I do not dine at restaurants that require this, but rather at those that either take reservations or are insufficiently busy that I can get a table fairly soon after entering. To restaurants that have ridiculously long lines I say: Your loss!

Yep.

We are probably beating a dead horse here, but I also don't see the big deal with waiting in line. I'm 8 months pregnant so now isn't the time, but I've been to Rose's (twice!) and loved the food and service so much that I look forward to going back someday. We stand in line for other experiences all the time if we think they are worth it - amusement parks, new iphone releases, standing room only space at a ballgame, the list goes on... If you don't think the experience is worth the line, then why not just skip it and move on?!

Fair point (and from someone who currently can't stand in line for a stretch).

 

That's a wrap for today, folks. Thanks for joining me for the discussion. See you here again on October 28, when my survey of LA comes out.

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 sidewalk.com 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.
Recent Chats
  • Next: