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

Oct 26, 2016

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.

Always notice during the hot summer months at many nicer restaurants we frequent that prefer "business casual" dress, there are always those folks who show up in shorts and t-shirts. We notice, reservation or not, while they are rarely turned away, they are often steered to tables away from view of as many diners as possible. Not looking to open up a hornets-nest on restaurant dress codes, but I'm wondering, why don't more people at least take the effort to dress to the level of the restaurant(s) they are dining in? And do you see the same things when you are dining as well?

Hoo boy, I know this is going to bring out the haters. My feeling is, dress codes should be followed in restaurants that suggest them. In brief, looking neat shows respect for both the restaurant and for fellow diners.

 

[From the archives: Yes, it's summer. But you can't wear those shorts in these restaurants.]

 

I can't tell you how many times I've heard from readers who save up for a Big Deal Meal and take the time to dress up for the occasion only to find some of their fellow diners in sloppy or minimal attire. You don't have to spend a fortune on clothes to look respectable.  A decent jacket and white shirt (for men) can be had for under $100. 

 

Good morning, chatters. Thanks for joining me for another hour of food and restaurant talk. if anyone is in the market for an inexpensive good time -- specifically, ramen and cocktails in a cool DC setting -- look no further than the new Haikan, from the owners of Daikaya and Bantam King. Haikan is the subject of my Sunday review in the Magazine, which went online earlier today.

 

Lots of questions await. Let's rock and roll.

Where can I take a large group of Washingtonians who have been to every new and old place in town to celebrate? Looking for great food, wine and a festive atmosphere - as well as the potential for there to be a wow factor even the second time around. I was thinking about Masseria. Thoughts?

How large is the group (a dozen or 30)? Where else have they been before, and liked? What says "wow" to you? Help me help you by offering more specifics. 

I count at least 4 restaurants you've mentioned that have apparently gone downhill. Is there a way to know about these, other than reading your thoughts in the chats?

I wish I could send out a "diner beware" alert every time I encounter lesser food (or service or ambience) in a restaurant I've previously praised, but I can't.  For now, you just have to rely on recent reviews (preferably, an evaluation that's a year or less old) and my responses to reader requests in this forum.

I understand that new restaurants demand your attention, for obvious reasons. But what are some of the oldest restaurants in DC that have maintained their quality over the decades?

Great question, and one I'm thinking about anew (already!) as I start looking at candidates for my spring guide, in which I revisit previously reviewed restaurants.

 

  A sterling is example of mature-and-good is The Prime Rib, one of the city's senior steak houses. I'll always have a soft spot for the restaurant, the subject of my debut column in the Magazine after I became food critic in 2000.

Any suggestions for new (or newer) restaurants that serve crab cakes in the DMV area?

My go-to crab cake at the moment is at the relocated Johnny's Half Shell in Adams Morgan.  Mostly seafood, based on crab from Maryland, the model comes with French fries and coleslaw that are every bit as delicious as the main event.

Surprised to see Garrison fall off the Fall Dining Guide list. Following so many positive reviews for Garrison and the chef, what happened? I have only seen the restaurant improve since its opening.

Garrison came up in last week's chat. The restaurant was dropped in part because when I visited over the summer, the menu didn't celebrate that fact (the once-good vegetable section was stuck in winter, for instance) and dishes that I once considered favorites had slipped in execution.  I should note that the situation has improved since then, based on a recent dinner there. 

I know you always advocate speaking up promptly if there is a problem, but what about when it's not really a problem so much as a critique. Twice now, I have been to a restaurant, and left pretty sure I won't return, not because the food was awful, but because there is much better food in the area (not DC btw). When asked "how is everything" I really don't know how to respond. It's perfectly passable, and I don't need anything changed this time, and anything I might mention sounds like it belongs in a review. There are times when I would give such feedback, but not the standard wait-staff "how is everything"

Chefs and restaurant owners, do you really want the unvarnished truth from customers? I welcome your comments. It's one thing to have someone complain about a flaw in a dish, another to basically dismiss your restaurant for being meh in comparison to the competition.  I mean, how does a business response to that?

Hi Tom, Love your reviews. I generally don't dine out much in the city, but next Friday, I may do so in DuPont. What's your go to Italian in DuPont?

Two places come to mind. They are Al Tiramisu on P St. NW and La Tomate on Connecticut Ave. NW. The former is good for fresh seafood in particular; the latter is known for some of the best people-watching in the neighborhood, thanks to its broad windows facing the street. 

Hi, Tom, Any suggestions for somewhere fun to go for drinks before dinner at Bindaas? Thank you,

Well, the closest bar to Bindaas is a door away: Ardeo, the Indian establishment's sister (American) restaurant.  If you're looking for something different, try the arty, wine-themed Ripple on the same block. Great drinks, great service.

My wife and I are going to Sushi Taro (our 3rd time!) for my birthday early next month and I wanted to see if you had any recommendations of what to ask for. We love it, were beyond excited the restaurant was recognized by Michelin, and are always interested in trying something new!

The spot that excites me most there is the chef's counter in the back of Sushi Taro, where omakase is served. The menu there changes from season to season.

Hi, Tom. I've noticed your preferences changing as some Alexandria restaurants (Restaurant Eve, Hank's Pasta Bar) fail to maintain quality after their honeymoon. If you went to Old Town tonight, what's your current favorite or two? I'm guessing Vermillion or the Majestic, but perhaps you've got a King Street update for us.

I'm disappointed with what's been happening in Old Town of late. Have Alexandria's chefs forgotten how to cook or keep up their dining rooms? I don't have an explanation for the decline in quality.

Tom, in a recent chat, you made a comment that the local Thai food options had gone down hill. But not too long ago, you favorably compared our local Thai scene to the cooking you experienced in Thailand. I was curious to see if you could elaborate a bit more.

Ah, I was referring specifically to no-reservations Little Serow (only), whose Northern Thai food reminded me of my meals in Chiang Mai. 

Hi Tom! I'm going to be in New Orleans for a week in the spring. I read up on your recommendations, but am wondering what are the top picks? I am a huge lover of New Orleans everything, but this will be my first trip down since I have had the financial flexibility to treat myself to some nicer options. Looking for at least one fancy dinner night (around $150 for two) and any other recommendations for hidden gems! From your long list or other options, what would you recommend??

I adore Upperline, as much for the service as the drum fish with hot sauce, among other specialties. And I would definitely make time for some wine and live music behind Bacchanal in the Bywater.  For a cheap lunch, head to Guy's Po-Boys for the peerless grilled shrimp.  All are flagged in my survey of New Orleans from last year.

I have culinary dilemma. I have been tasked with finding a location for my office’s holiday lunch. My office has a diverse palate where some don’t want to stray far from the standard American fare ( e.g. Penn Commons, Hill Country BBQ) to those who would love places like Espita Mezcaleria, China Chilcano, or Rasika. Do you have any suggestions on a culinary compromise?

Consider 701 near the Navy Memorial. The supper club look is a nice backdrop to an American menu that runs that gamut from hamburgers and crab cakes to salmon in coconut broth and cauliflower schwarma. (I actually attended a Christmas party lunch there a few years back, which was a great success.)

A potential business client is coming in for a meeting later this week. We are looking for a great restaurant in the downtown to Penn Quarter area for dinner. Our requirements are good food, approachable, relatively priced, no small plating sharing, and reasonably priced. I have no idea if our guests are picky or adventurous eaters so I don't want to go some place too exotic. I also don't want to do a $100 a person steak house as we don't want to give the appearance that we are extravagant spendthrifts. In the past we have gone to Alta Strada which was a perfect mix for us. Any similar places that you would recommend?

You made a good choice with Alta Strada, among my 52 favorites in this year's fall guide. If you want something different, but equally delicious, I'd suggest Nopa Kitchen + Bar in Penn Quarter. It's handsome and priced right (for downtown) and offers plenty of variety (cod, chicken roulade, steak frites). 

I've been looking to buy a gift card to a nice restaurant in D.C. as a thank-you gift for someone who went above and beyond recently. Many of the restaurants where I've been looking had unclear or complicated processes (Mintwood -- no clear place on the website to buy one; Dabney -- need to print out a PDF[!] and mail/e-mail it in for the card then to be mailed back). Luckily, Rose's Luxury makes it easy -- online form and it's emailed directly and immediately. So easy! Just raising it as a suggestion to those restaurants -- you may be missing out on gift card sales based on your user experience for those.

Thanks for submitting this. Catch that, restaurants? You want to make it as easy as possible for people to spend money in your dining rooms (even from afar). 

A couple of comments on this. First, the dress code of a working person has become more casual over the years especially with new tech jobs. If someone is getting off work and going straight to a nice dinner, they probably are not going to bring a change of clothes so that they can "fancy themselves up." Second, why does it matter what the person next to you is wearing? As long as their hygiene is acceptable, it shouldn't matter if they are in shorts and flip flops; the dress does not affect the taste of the food. Lastly, places that we have to wait in line for are going to demand more casual (comfortable) clothes; when these places (Rose's, Little Serow, etc.) are setting the bar for cuisine, they are probably also setting the bar for attire.

 1) If you know you're going to a restaurant with a dress code (and that's the important point), throw a jacket or good shoes in your car or gym bag and put them on before you head out. Simple enough.

 

2) Shorts and flip flops might be appropriate for a casual restaurant, but not a place where people are apt to be celebrating or doing business or whatever. Put some thought into the night.

 

3) Neither Rose's Luxury nor Little Serow have dress codes. And I see your point about dressing "comfortably" but hopefully not "sloppily" for both.

My parents are in town next week and I was going to try to get a spot for 3 at Bad Saint, any tips for how early to get there, or what the wait has been like recently? Planning on trying for Monday and would appreciate anything to help me figure out what we are in for.

There are a few tips embedded in my recent mini-review of the white-hot Filipino restaurant. If you absolutely, positively want to dine there, I suggest you splurge on a line-waiting service such as TaskRabbit. (Think about it: wouldn't you rather spend the time with mom and dad at a museum or monument than hanging out on a sidewalk for several hours?)

You reviewed this restaurant a long time ago, but I have to say, thank you for giving it no stars. The food was so amazingly unspectacular, bland, and brown, although it did take me back to eating at truck stop buffets in the upper midwest (although to be fair, the casserole spread at Iowa 80's all-you-can-eat buffet is still far superior to FF's offerings.)

Uh, June wasn't *that* long ago, was it? Founding Farmers claims to have experienced a slight uptick in business, but I can't help but notice how much easier it is to get a reservation there these days. Just saying. 

Hi Tom, Do you or your readers have any suggestions for either of these cities in South Africa? I'm not looking for gourmet cuisine, just a tasty meal in nice ambiance, for a price that won't make me gag (entree and 1 glass of wine < $40).

Chatters? I've never been to South Africa (he types jealously).

If the way other diners are dressed is enough to ruin your evening, you need to adjust your attitude.

It's not that simple. If you've saved up for a special evening and take the time to dress up, you appreciate it when others follow suit. It's not being pretentious; it;s showing some class and respect.

What are your current thoughts on Blue Duck Tavern for dinner? Worth a visit for a special occasion?

I haven't been recently, but there are other places I'd steer you to for that type of cooking right now (the Dabney, for starters).

I remember several years ago, after a good, but not spectacular meal at Rogue 24, RJ Cooper asked how we liked dinner. I offered a few comments, tried to be constructive, and he got really angry and began shouting at me.

R.J. was just being R.J. (Where is the chef these days, anyway? Atlanta?)

If you really think the crab at Johnny's Half Shell is from Maryland, I have a bridge you might be interested in.

Actually, I confirmed that with chef-owner Ann Cashion just yesterday.  Maryland crab isn't long for the menu, however; she'll be using Gulf crab soon, she said.

But it does affect the ambiance my friend - making an occasion out of a special dinner. Recently my husband and I dined in the courtyard at Dar Moha in Marrakesh for our fifth wedding anniversary. This Moroccan experience was made one of the best of my life because of the magic of the ambiance in the twinkling courtyard - as well as the food and service. Dining is not just about food - but about the experience. Each patron has an effect on the ambiance and the experience. When you go out for a special dinner you want it to be special, atmosphere and all.

Well put. Thanks for weighing in.

Hi - We have friends coming in from California who used to live in DC. We would like to find a restaurant that would be new for them, but a quiet enough place that we can have a real conversation, and where we can get a reservation even with only a day or two notice, and that won't break the bank. We would also like a place where the food doesn't come so fast that we would be practically shoved out in an hour or so. We eat everything, but would prefer Italian if we had to choose. Thanks!

Is this a serious question? For some reason, I feel like I'm being punked. Because restaurants that are new, inexpensive, easy to access, sans small plates and quiet to boot are practically non-existent in DC.  If someone can think of a place that covers all those bases, please chime in.

has a chef ever recognized you and made various unkind comments about your restaurant review a la "Chef" movie?

No. Those kind of rants are generally delivered outside my range of hearing.

Thanks for the warning. I predict that all the readers of this chat will stay away in droves. what does this diva think he's accomplishing?

Well, the chef left DC awhile ago ....

Hi tom, I have two days off from work tomorrow and Friday. What are some of your favorite places right now for lunch in DC?

All-Purpose in Shaw is open for lunch. I'm a big fan of the Caesar salad pizza offered only in the afternoon. Another place I like to go for the midday meal is Centrolina in CityCenterDC for sublime pasta or chicken paillard. 

I can't stand seeing flip flops in nicer restaurants. Unless you are a male model and have perfectly pedicured feet just don't do it! And for women in open toed shoes the same goes, have a nice pedicure and pretty polish or just wear closed toes.

Catch that, diners? No toes, please.

Could not agree more about dressing on a level with the restaurant you're patronizing. Tee shirts and flip flops are for McDonalds. And if its August and you're a tourist sweating in a tee shirt head back to the hotel and change so you can actually enjoy Rasika or wherever. And if you're local you ought to know better,

Preaching to the choir.

Do you have any recommendations for a special occasion meal in Cleveland in February? We'll be there for my husband's birthday.

Based on what I tasted there ahead of the GOP convention this summer, I think Edwins or Trentina are where you want to reserve.

Did you try this cider bar for your fall dining guide? What were your informal thoughts?

Honestly? It bore little resemblance to anything I ate or drank in San Sebastian last year. Not a fan.

On the OTHER hand... Sometimes (frequently?) one person's concept of dressing up isn't quite what others might have in mind. We were at an upscale inn recently in the Gettysburg area, and there was a couple at the next table. They were probably in their 40s (just for a frame of reference). They were both "dressed-up". He in a suit that would have set off alarm bells on a used car lot. And SHE was being held in to her dress from the waist up by what had to be magic and, I don't know, scotch tape? Neither of their appearances was enhanced by their attire - to put it gently. Gotta give 'em credit though. Clearly THEY thought they looked great! Just thought you might like a bit of fun imagery!

What's the aural equivalent of an earworm? Because I can't erase that mental image now!

I want to second the request to make it easy to purchase gift cards. I have family in San Francisco. We have purchased gift cards for them on line - one through Open Table, one directly from the restaurant. Both times it was a breeze. We were asked when we wanted it delivered, got a confirmation e-mail that it had been delivered, and another that it had been "opened" (or not, in case it was sent to the spam folder).

Thanks for chiming in.

I am the most casual sloppy dressing person you'd ever cross the street to avoid, but I do own a jacket and leather shoes and agree with you on dressing appropriately for restaurants, although I do draw the line at neckties and tipping 20 %.

Neckties look nice, but they're basically accessories that have no purpose. So I'm in agreement with you there. Curious what you tend to tip? I imagine its less than 20 percent.

An earworm. What you want is the visual equivalent. ;-)

VISUAL, yes. Sorry, not enough java this morning.

I find mentioning deficiencies to the waitstaff to be awkward. Often, there really isn't much they can do. Even more awkward is when the manager seems going to tables fishing for compliments. I wish they would say "tell me one thing we can do better!"

What a *great* suggestion!

Any thoughts on Bistro L'Hermitage in Woodbridge? We live in the area, and it's so much easier than driving into DC. Thanks!

I like L'Hermitage! In fact, I re-reviewed it for my last spring guide and gave the bistro two stars, a "good" rating.

I highly recommend Codfather Seafood and Sushi, a 10 min ride from downtown Cape Town in Camps Bay. Small casual restaurant 2 blocks from the water. Great atmosphere and some of the best seafood I've ever had. Your waiter will take you to the fish counter at the back of the dining room and help you pick out your dinner -- they encourage small portions so you can sample multiple types of fish, including those native to the area. Definitely make a reservation!

Reader to the rescue, and just as I'm about to sign off!

Well, it's a lot more awkward for the manager or owner to try to fix something they didn't know about, so you really owe it to the restaurant (and future diners) to mention things at the time.

Agreed, and thanks for pointing that out.

As someone who wears a suit to work everyday, I've never loved the idea of getting dressed up for a night out. Of course, we eat out 4-5 times a week, and head to more casual spots. Eating out is more utility for me than special occasion. I'm not adverse to doing business casual if the dress code is stated, but really unlikely to pick a place that requires jacket/tie for the husband. Also we spend our weekends in a place where people getting off boats head to any restaurant, leading to even more casual attire. If someone is underdressed in a restaurant, I figure they are a tourist who probably didn't pack anything appropriate but still wanted a great meal. Life is too short to be offended. After all, we were seating for an early dinner after a hike in the Shenandoah - in casual attire and without reservations - only to find ourselves surrounded by prom dates.

Does everyone feel as if they were heard today?

 

I'm off to lunch. See you here next week. Thanks for joining me today.

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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