Ask Tom -- Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema discusses the DC dining scene

Nov 02, 2011

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, These chats are a great resource and I read them every week, so thank you for all your insights. My boyfriend's parents are visiting in a few weeks, and I want to show them some of the best DC has to offer (last time, we didn't do much planning, and the resulting meals were not particularly good). They are well-travelled, and are coming from Switzerland (where they have taken me to some excellent restaurants). Any recommendations in terms of restaurants that serve food that is uniquely American (I'm not exactly sure what that would be... but I'm not very interested in the America Eats Tavern) ? Thanks!

What a fun question to contemplate.


Burgers are uniquely American. One of the best -- anywhere -- is served at Palena Cafe, which is also conveniently located near the Cleveland Park metro.


Majestic is good any time of the week, but especially so on Sunday. That's when the Old Town destination features "Nana's Sunday Dinner,"  a homey, $22-per-person supper that varies from month to month. September, for instance featured lasagna, Caesar salad, rapini, house-baked bread and tiramisu.


What would a trip to this country be without some barbecue?  Hill Country in Penn Quarter dishes up a taste of Texas and has the bonus of being close to a lot of the museums and monuments your guests are likely to want to see.


Chatters, where would you send visitors from out of the country? Let's get a list started for BPV.


Good morning, gang. Thanks for distracting yourself from work for the next hour or so. I'm eager to take on your questions and comments.



Dear Tom, I enjoy reading your reviews, but have noticed that most of the foods you talk about are shell fish or pork dishes. There are some of us that can't or won't eat either of those foods and would occasionally like to hear about beef or chicken. Do you just not like beef and chicken, or do you believe that the quality of a restaurant revolves around their ability to handle shell fish and pork?

I'm smiling, because almost every time I dined with my predeccessor, Phyllis Richman, I inevitably ordered a pork dish and she would inevitably respond, "I knew that's what you were going to get." 


I love pig!


But I like a lot of other protein, too, and I wouldn't be doing my job if I ate only what I felt like eating.  Indeed, a glance at my last 10 or so reviews in the Magazine shows me slicing or spooning into arctic char at Seasons 52, chicken thighs with pepperoni sauce at Graffiato, mock turtle soup (made with veal) at America Eats Tavern, lamb shank and whole branzino at Nostos, shepherd's pie at Virtue Feed & Grain, steak frites at Le Zinc, grilled beef at Four Sisters, rib-eye at GrillMarX. Coming up this Sunday, in my review of Thai X-ingI end up eating chicken masaman, whole pompono and a field of vegetarian choices.


Bottom line: I don't just write about shellfish and pork.

Hi Tom! My parents are visiting DC for their first time and I would love to take them to a nice, very "Washingtonian" Brunch this Sunday. Perhaps even with live jazz or nice music. What do you recommend? Thanks!!!

Too often in my experience, whenever you add something besides food to brunch -- live music, a postcard view -- the meal suffers.  Georgia Brown's offers a jazz brunch downtown, but based on its regular menu, I'm disinclined to point you in that direction. 


For a traditional brunch, try Cashion's Eat Place or Tabard Inn. For something a bit different -- Washington is a world capital, after all -- consider the Belgian-themed Et Voila! in the Palisades, the Indian-accented Bombay Club near the White House or the very good beer purveyor, Birch & Barley in Logan Circle. 


All are pretty popular, by the way. You'd be wise to make a reservation.

Hello Tom- It is seldom that I am annoyed by anything that happens in a restaurant and I am forgiving of almost everything. But something happened last night that gave me pause. My husband and I had dinner, complete with holding hands across the table as well chatting, when at the end of the meal, the server asked if we needed separate checks. It caught me off guard. Did we not look like a couple? Did we look like we were on a terrible first date? Am I totally overanalyzing this and the server was just trying to make their life easier by asking ahead of time? I would be curious to know what you and those in the industry think of this. Thanks so much!

  Honestly? I think you're being too sensitive. Of all the things that can and do go wrong in restaurants, being asked if you want separate checks is not even in my Top 100.


   I'm curious where you dined.  Outside of  diners and cafes in tiny towns, very few restaurants ask if you want separate checks anymore; they tend to leave it up to customers to let them know.

I recently went to Kinkeads and read your spring 2011 dining guide review before going. And while walking through the open dining room that faced the kitchen the din was unbearable. I was so relieved when we made it to "Olney" or as I liked to call it the nice nook with a window over looking Penn Ave. I was so relieved that I hadnt asked for a kitchen view seat per your suggestion. The privacy and quiet were an absolutely amazing compliment to an even greater meal, and I definitely did not feel neglected. I definitely suggest anyone who wants a quieter dining experience to ask for table #3 in the window rather than a view of the kitchen!

Hey, if you like "Olney"  -- my term for a seat far removed from the action -- you should sit there.  But I think a lot of people enjoy the scenery provided by an exhibition kitchen (not just at Kinkead's, but a lot of restaurants).

Tom, I often go out to lunch or dinner with some friends of mine who are in their 60s and 70s. They are all well-off financially or at least comfortable. But they leave what I think are very low tips, 15 percent of the pre-tax total. Could you help me out by providing some guidelines regarding what is the appropriate range for tipping today and also clarify that, in most restaurants, tips are pooled and divided among wait staff and bus staff and they pay taxes on tips. My friends seem to have outdated notions of tipping, and I'm hoping to get to the point where I don't have throw more money on the table to make up for them. Thanks.

The general rule for tipping in 2011 is between 18 and 20 percent of the pre-tax total for good or better service.  Tipping less than that amount indicates 1) the service was lacking or 2) the tipper is still using a rotary phone.  


Also, while we're on the subject (and this may sound harsh), tipping is part of the restaurant experience and if you don't have  money for a gratuity, you shouldn't be eating away from home.

Hi Tom! Fingers crossed that you can get to my question this week! I really need your help!! I'm in need of a restaurant for Thanksgiving dinner with my mother who is coming in town. I've called Restaurant Eve and Vermillion and neither is serving. What places worth going to will be open? DC or NOVA.

While I have yet to see their holiday menus, I know some of my favorite destinations plan to be open November 24. They include Bourbon Steak in Georgetown, Vidalia downtown, Perry's in Adams Morgan, J & G  Steakhouse near the Mall, Bistro L'Hermitage in Woodbridge and Trummer's on Main in Clifton.  That sufficient for a start?

Have you gotten any recent feedback on Fiola? I have been reluctant to return to the restaurant because of negative comments about service, etc. Recommending these days or not? My first visit was great, but it's been awhile.

Feedback? How about first-person experience?


I returned for dinner last month and was charmed by the suave service --  "Artur S" is a good reason for cloning --  and the very good cooking, in particular the rafts of toast piled with sweet crab, the tender veal cheeks arranged on risotto and the bucatini lavished with a treasure trove of seafood. 


Now is a fine time to be dining at Fiola.

Tom: My husband and I would like to do an overnight and dinner at either the Ashby Inn or the Inn at Little Washington - probably will not manage to find the time until January. I'm pregnant with kid no 2, and we would like to stick the toddler with the grandparents and go off for a romantic weekend before we re-enter life without sleep. I can afford to either stay and eat at the Ashby Inn, or stay elsewhere and eat at the Inn at Little Washington. Which would you choose? Or is there another option that we haven't thought of? My husband's looking forward to good wine, and I'm looking forward to good food and a night without a two year old crawling into our bed. Thanks!

Both destinations would make great choices. Just for the record, I've given friends and family gift certificates to stay at the Ashby Inn, and everyone who has slept there has enjoyed the experience. I've never overnighted at the Inn at Little Washington, which I've dined at probably 20 times over my tenure, but the experience is on my bucket list.


The wine service at both places is excellent. Food-wise, I'd give the Inn the nod. Come to think of it, I like the idea of combining two experiences: dinner in a fabled restaurant followed by a comfortable room a short walk or drive away. So, in this instance, go with Door No. 2.

I'm sure this wouldn't work when you are eating for work but when you are just out for pleasure and may not be giving away what you're really doing and therefore, your identity - Do you ever like to eat at the communal, "family-style" tables at some restaurants? Why or why not?

Yes! I've done the communal thing (on the clock) a lot over the years, both on the road and in Washington, at restaurants as diverse as Joe's Noodle House in Rockville (where I actually met a Chinese tipster at a big round table) and Buck's Fishing & Camping in DC. 


I very much like that style of eating, which is sometimes accompanied by strangers who like to talk and to share. A couple years ago, I found myself solo at a communal table at Nopa in San Francisco. I ended up making friends on both sides of me -- and trying more than a dozen different dishes in the process.

Hi Tom, Love the dining guide, the chats, all your work. Now that the dining guide is done, are you planning to travel and do a slew of postcards? My SO and I are headed to Charleston on a semi-spontaneous romantic getaway. It will be our second visit this year. Maybe we will see you there!

I've written from Charleston, but it's been a few years. 


On my radar: Lima, Peru (where I'm heading for Thanksgiving) and Vienna, Austria (over Christmas), although I'm not committed to a Travel column for either city at this point.


I recently returned from St. Louis, where I had a blast, drinking at Sanctuaria, eating (twice) at Farmhaus and knocking back way too many local delicacies, frozen custard and world's fair donuts included.

Anything going on over there? The phone number is "not in service"

"Thank you for letting me know," says Bobby Beard, co-chef at the Atlas Room -- which is very much open for business.

I am the original poster. The restaurant was Lost Dog Cafe. It was great service all around. Asking if we needed separate checks at the end of the meal was them doing something weird, rather than them doing something wrong.


Hi Tom, Husband and I are taking a day off next week when both kids will be in school - a date day! Where should we go for lunch? Or should we do breakfast followed by a late lunch, to get our foodie itch scratched twice in one day? We have to take both kids to school early, so we don't get the luxury of sleeping in (those days are over), so we will be up and out pretty early. Thanks for your advice!

I like the way you think! How about breakfast at Johnny's Half  Shell on the Hill (the quiche is tops, but so are grits and grilled meats) followed by some museum-hopping or shopping, then lunch at Central Michel Richard on Pennsylvania Ave. NW, the super-cozy La Chaumiere in Georgetown or the always-delicious Oval Room downtown?

You certainly don't! I wonder whether the poster focused on this because of his/her problems with those foods.

Very likely. And as for readers out there who don't eat meat, and are likely to write me now, let me just say, some of my best friends are vegetarians.

Tom: A while back you had several chefs and restauranteurs participate in you weekly chats. Any thoughts of resurrecting the practice anytime soon?

I'm definitely open to the possibility. Who would you like to hear from?

Thanks for the chats. I am hoping you might be able to help me out - as I am coming up blank. I am looking for a brunch/lunch location near the Kennedy Center (for December 24), that would get us out in time for a 1 p.m. show. We will be ten people, ranging in age from 2.5 (but very, very good in restaurants) to 80. All but one of the group will literally eat anything, and one is of the "beige buffet" mindset mindset in your bio - if there is something somewhat "accessible" on the menu that would be great, but that's not a requirement. Price is wholly unlimited. Alcohol is the only necessity (family + holidays). Thank you!

Your best bet is going to be a hotel venue. As in Seasons in the Four Seasons in Georgetown. As in Urbana in the Hotel Palomar in Dupont Circle (just a short cab ride away from the KC).  I notice there are still seats available through OpenTable  at J & G Steakhouse in the W downtown, too.  Good luck!

Hi Tom, can I get suggestions for some killer gyros in NoVa? I'm having cravings and dont' know where to best satisfy them!

It's been a few years since I ate one there, but the Greek Deli on 19th used to be good (if not "killer").  Maybe a chatter can weigh in with a better example?

That's fine if you're there for the floor show, but a lot of us like to be able to converse when we go out to dinner together.

I count myself in that crowd.

My husband and I of 7 years were eating a restaurant recently and as we were leaving a lady stopped us and said, "I just have to ask, are you on your first date?" It was really strange. My point is, I think you're right about the poster being sensitive, we can't expect a waiter to read our body language to know if separate checks may or may not be appropriate.

I'd take that comment from the stranger as a compliment!  You must have appeared interested in one another. I can't tell you how many unhappy couples I see in restaurants, people who have nothing to say to each other. So sad.

Tom, I have a TIME SENSITIVE question, please. Tonight, my partner and I are taking two life-long friends to Komi. The pre-fixe dinner is $135 per person. Wine parings will be an additional $70 per person. Therefore, dinner will cost about $820, plus tax. What is the appropriate gratuity for pre-fixe dinners wtih wine parings? Thank you for your guidance and, as always, for taking our questions.

Knowing how well you are about to be treated at Komi, I'd venture a starting base of $165 or so for the tip. (Did these friends save your lives? What a treat they have in store. Tip:  Treadmill before dinner!)

Hi Tom -- your views are so helpful and so much fun to read. Thank you for them! I'm hoping you can help with a perpetual question -- where to go for a good breakfast, both during the week and on weekends. Not brunch, and not croissants and coffee, but a good breakfast. Preferably in DC, but we'll travel for food! Thanks.

The aforementioned Johnny's Half Shell does a nice job with breakfast, and there's the real possibility of a celeb sighting (well, a pol) in the dining room.  I'm also partial to Teaism, which has several branches around town. I think I could eat those cilantro scrambled eggs with tea-cured salmon every day.

Howdy Tom! My partner's dad will be in town Saturday and wants to have lunch downtown. Old Ebbitt-style would be perfect if (a) he hadn't been there before; and (b) it was a little better quality. Any thoughts? Maybe Chef Geoff's? All of the other places I've thought of are not open for lunch.

How about a restaurant that comes with a side of history instead?  Like Old Ebbitt Grill, Occidental Grill is close to the city's attractions. But the latter tastes better.

Why have you never reviewed this fantastic Italian restaurant in Cleveland Park? They are struggling, but should be on the best restaurants list! Did they offend DC royalty? ;-) Please check them out and give their world a boost. It's my favorite place to eat alongside of America Eats. Thanks!

Actually, I have reviewed Dino before. But it's been a few years since I've returned, in part because there are so many new restaurants to cover but also because I think the menu is way too big and more complicated than it needs to be. For every memorable dish I've eaten there, three others are ... far less so. Love the wine list, though!


The owner, Dean Gold, is clearly a hard-working guy (and yes,  I saw his email blast asking customers to write to the local critics who he thinks are ignoring his restaurant).  I guess I want a compelling reason, other than a slow dining room, to revisit?

Jose Andes comes to mind. Michel du Richard. The Armstrongs. Eric Zeibold. Jeff Trunks. I'm sure ther eare tons of others, but I'm blanking out right now.

Great list, except for some misspellings. (With a last name like mine, you'd be sensitive, too.) Thanks.

If the Armstrongs are reading, they might want to update the link to their Sunday Supper site as it only shows options for June, July and August!

Get on the stick, Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong!

Considering they probably have a framed, blown-up photo of you in their employees' lounge, Tom, I am not surprised you got suave and charming service at Fiola. Too bad about the rest of us -- mere mortals who are not famous, not VIPs, but we still have to pay the stratospheric prices for Mr. Trabocchi's (admittedly delicious) food and be ignored by the charming and the suave.

Hey, it's only an 8 x 10.


I take it you have had lesser service there?

still does a very good gyro

Good to know. Thanks.

Hey Tom - I'm trying to think of a good spot for a first date in the city next weekend. We're in our early-to-mid-20s, and pretty much anything food-wise should be fine. A good beer list would definitely be a plus, but it's not a deal-breaker. Honestly, though, my biggest concern is just making sure I'm not coming off as trying too hard. Any help for this hopeless romantic?

Good beer? That's easier than ever. For something casual, I'd suggest the new District Commons or Pizzeria Paradiso, an early advocate of suds on its menu (and poised to celebrate 20 years in business next week).  If you want something more yupscale, try  Birch & Barley in Logan Circle.

Why do people like Cheescake Factory so much? I find the menu to have a multiple personality disorder with all those pages and choices. I have kids and don't get to often the nicer places you discuss, but out of chains I find this restaurant to be confusing at best. Even the waitstaff looks like they are in hospital if not straight jacket attire with all that white.

I think part of the attraction of the Cheesecake Factory is a menu that offers a bit of something for everyone and portions that bring to mind a holiday. They are B-I-G.  I'm turned off by a lot of the details there, starting with the plastic menu.

Last year, we had a great Thanksgiving meal at Corduroy. They offered a traditional turkey dinner as well as several other options.

I can envision that. And I like having options. Not everyone likes turkey, after all.

I have not been ignored at Fiola, but I see some of their top staff air-kissing, oo-ing, ah-ing and fussing over people there, and it annoys me because it's so flagrant.

So ... Italian, no?


Seriously, I hear you. Some restaurants are really bad about making an obvious fuss over some customers at the expense of others. Not good.

Birch and Barley as 'yupscale'... I nearly choked on my coffee, sir!

I did that on purpose and I'm pleased that someone noticed.

It tries to be all things to all people. Which is why I don't eat there, unless I'm feeling a craving for cheesecake, and I'm too lazy to make one.

Yeah, but that cheesecake is the size of my head.

As a former waiter back in late 70's I usually tip 20 to 25%. If there are issues during the meal I know whose fault it is from experience since the only job I ahvent done in a restaurant is manage. I ahve only stiifed a server twice in 35 years of eating out on my dime. Both times it was the server's fault. When the party next to you is getting better service because they were older and another time because the service was just awful and the server's fault entirely. And in tip section I write stiff so there is no miscommunication.

One thing I've learned in my time in this job: Never assume anything. (Among other things, "older" doesn't necessarily mean "better tippers")

I know it hasn't been on your radar lately but the 1789 is usually open for Thanksgiving but you better make reservations today.

I love the idea of eating in one of the restaurant's clubby ground-floor rooms and strolling around leafy Georgetown streets afterwards.

Tom, a couple of weeks ago you said my wife and I should dine at Obelisk instead of Eola for our kids-free weekend in DC. Once again, you steered us right: the meal was one of the most memorable we've had. Each course was sublime (except for the choice of squab ravioli, that was "just" excellent) and with the wine pairings it made for quite the experience. The service was top notch as well. We decided it's going to be at least an annual tradition.

Very cool. Thanks for your field report from one of my favorite restaurants in the city.

Just wanted to say a word in support of the service (and obviously the food) at Fiola. I'm a mere mortal, not a reviewer or even blogger, and ate dinner there a month or so back. Our servers were pleasant, friendly and informative; they easily agreed to a few changes to the fixed menu; and they gave good, reasonably priced wine recommendations. I've had similarly good service at lunch.

I have no way of verifying who you are, but in the spirit of fairness, I'm posting your rave for the restaurant.

I completely agree, but they make my favorite chicken salad sandwich. It's my guilty pleasure - the equivalent of sometimes just needing a trashy reality show even though there is much better television out there.

It's all about moderation, right?


My guilty pleasure is Popeye's with "Cops." 

I am so delighted to hear you were in St. Louis! Living there (here), and reading this chat every week, I have often wondered what you would think of our restaurant scene. And I have been to both restaurants you mentioned! I feel so hip.

I wish DC had a Farmhaus. Kevin Willmann is a very good chef. His $10 lunch plate (fried fish with hush puppies and red beans and rice on my stop) is one of the best meals I've eaten all year.

Hello Tom, Adour is also offering a 3 course meal on Thanksgiving.

I can't think of a more beautiful backdrop to the bird.

How many restaurants with no plastic menus, small portions and an air of arrogance crash and burn and go out of business? How is the Cheesecake Factory's stock doing? When was the last time one of their locations went under? Chain restuarants offer consistency and make folks happy. If they didnt there wouldnt be so OBSs. right mate. Good day!

I don't disagree.

back when Susan B Anthony dollars first came out I was waiting tables. i ahd a regulars and this couple would come in every other Sat for dinner and ask for one of my tables. that particular night I was swamped and it was busy. The couple got great service I just dint get a chance to tell them good night. Looked at the table quickly after they left and it looked like I was left 8 quarters on a $28 tab after taxes. Hey this was the late 70's. I was thinking next time they come in I need to buy them a round to make up for the crappy service I gave. Well I later got to that table and the tip was 8 Susan B Anthony. Couple came in and the husband asked how did you like that tip. we alughed and I did buy them a round.


Plaka Grill in Vienna makes an outstanding gyro. They have the traditional Chicago style (strips of that pressed meat off a spit), but I prefer the Plaka style (which has chunks of pork roast heated on a griddle so they get a little crunch to them). They are also the only place in the area that I have found where they serve fries in the gyro like I got on the streets in Greece.

I. Am. So. There.

Tom, I won an award at work and got $125 to spend on a dinner of my choice. While that's not enough to go all out, it's more than I would spend on a typical evening out. Where would you blow $125? I love Rasika, but don't need to repeat, and love sushi, but not for this night out. Other stipulation is that dining partner is gluten-free, so no pasta/bread/beer-centric places, please! Many thanks for all your great advice.

If I had $125 to burn, right now, I'd probably do it at Et Voila!, BlackSalt The Source or Oval Room.

Pawtomack Farm is offering Thanskgiving dinner in Lovettesville.

Another promising venue.

Hey Tom: How was your dining experience at the Supper Club hosted at Seasonal Pantry a few weeks ago? Is a full review in the works? Thanks!

Um, that wasn't me. But I very much enjoyed my meal at Seasonal Pantry -- back in July.


Thanks for a fun hour. I'm off to lunch. See you back here next Wednesday, same time.

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 moderates the Sietsema's Table discussion group. His new video series, Tom Sietsema's TV Dinners, pulls back the curtain on a critic's life -- in and out of the dining room.
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