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

Nov 22, 2017

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.

Thanks so much for supporting those of us who eat out with young children. I appreciate that you regularly point out that not all kids are terrors at restaurants. My husband and I simply don't have the budget to pay for a sitter every time we'd like to try a restaurant, so it's either eat out with the kids or eat out just a handful of times a year (and as someone who enjoys eating out, that would make me really sad). I know not every child can be easily trained to behave at a restaurant, and some parents don't have the patience or desire to deal with it. But I believe most average kids probably can be taught. In my family we eat together and practice restaurant behavior at home every night, so when we do go out it isn't a big jump from what they already do at home. It's easier, actually, because restaurants are such interesting places with all the hustle and bustle and new foods to try and people-watching. Most waiters also seem to understand that parents with kids don't want a leisurely dining experience, and they are accommodating with getting some type of food item to the table quickly. It also helps to dine on the early side, of course! It's not perfect. Generally the hardest time seems to be when they are 1-2 years old. We have had occasions where my husband or I have had to take a toddler outside to quiet down. But we have received enough compliments from patrons and waiters at restaurants over the years for me to feel like we're doing a decent job. If you ask my 5-year-old son his favorite things to do, he will definitely have "eating at restaurants" on his list. He has developed an excellent memory for dishes he has tried at different places. When we drive/walk around town now he can give a running commentary informed by his short life of dining out: "There's the restaurant where the sushi guy made a panda out of my orange!" "That's the spicy pizza restaurant." "That's the place with the best tortillas." I would dine out with him even more often if budget allowed!

Great post. Thanks for sharing. You sound like awesome parents. 

 

I collected some late suggestions from last week's discussion and plan to highlight them in my next round-up of reader comments in the Magazine. Look for the column Dec. 10. 

 

Thanks, everyone, for joining me the day before Thanksgiving. Are you invited out? Staying home? Tell me what you're looking forward to the most tomorrow.  My brother is preparing what sounds to be an epic early dinner. We're bringing crab dip, based on a recipe from Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen acclaim and an apple-gingerbread cake that appeared in the Post Food section. I predict an extra-long walk before the feast tomorrow. 

 

For the luxury issue of the Magazine, out this Sunday, the Post sent me to New York to check out some of it's shiny baubles. I came back with reviews of four transporting restaurants, including a terrific Mexican place near Broadway and a meatless marvel from a famous chef. 

 

A RESTAURANT RESPONDS: Le Diplomate would like to reach out to the poster from the 11/8 discussion who couldn't get the drink she wanted. Here's a missive from the French eatery:

 

Hi Tom,

I apologize this email was not sent to you sooner. We were very disappointed to read of our guest’s challenging experience at Le Diplomate. We love that we were the “birthday splurge” of choice, and we take it very seriously that this experience fell short of both splurge-worthy and standard expectations.

 

No guest should have to go through a series of miscommunications to get her drink of choice; the standard is to get it right the first time. 


In general, no guest should ever feel that they can’t reach us to give us feedback. Hearing from and listening to our guests is sincerely important to us. Between our teams in DC and Philadelphia, we have dedicated resources to monitor and respond to all guest feedback via all communication channels. Had we received an email from this guest, it would have been met with timely, personal attention. We have checked all of our email links, and they are working properly, but something clearly went wrong with this communication.


We would love to offer this guest a “Birthday Splurge Do-over” with our compliments. Please send this guest my contact information so that we can apologize to her directly for this series of blunders, and offer her a wonderful experience from start to finish with us whenever she would like to return. 


I thank you for always taking feedback seriously, and helping us making personal connections with our guests.


Sincerely,


Jenna

 

Director of Restaurants 

S T A R R R E S T A U R A N T S

134 Market St. Philadelphia, PA 19106

Direct: 267. 238.3661

 

 

 

On with the show!

 

 

A good restaurant will not be "destroyed," as the poster from last week feared, by the occasional unfair one-star review---every place gets some! Just make sure that you are doing all the good stuff that gets you five-star reviews to drown out the boors. Oh, and savvy Yelpers know to read the reviews as well as looking at the stars. There's always going to be that one weird person who rates the food awesome, the service awesome, but "No Diet Pepsi. One star." In any case, Tom, I think you should reconsider your disdain for Yelp. It's an invaluable tool for me as a business traveler. You're invaluable, too, but I can't ask you EVERY time I want to go to a restaurant. Without Yelp, I'd be stuck asking random strangers (who may or may not know anything about food), or going by what the outside of the restaurant looks like. I'd have many fewer good meals if not for Yelp.

Thanks for writing. I can see your point about crowd-sourcing and reading between the lines regarding Yelp.  But the review site comes with some notable drawbacks, one of which is the lack of resumes behind the reviewers' names. 

 

In search of good food away from home, it's important to know *who* to ask and to pose the right question.

 

Over the years, I've found staff in so-called ethic markets, wine stores and cookbook shops to be useful in gleaning restaurant recommendations, for instance.

 

Never ask someone for "the best" restaurant, a question likely to lead you to somewhere fancy rather than interesting for a visitor.  Better to ask a discerning local (see above) where they eat on their own dime, or where they take friends from out of town. Their responses will reveal whether they're more attuned to food or atmosphere.

Here's a quote from your last live chat: "And noise, which I've tracked with a sound meter since 2008, continues to be a huge problem for diners." I really hate loud restaurants where I can't hear my tablemates. I hated them before they were trendy, I have hated them through the trend, and I still hate them when we're (dare I hope???) on the downslope side. I live in Richmond, VA now, and recently from Central Ohio, and I've heard restaurateurs say they like the noise. Why, oh why, oh why??? Do other patrons like it? Am I the anomaly? And while we're on the subject, recommendations in Richmond? (Especially quieter ones).

The feeling among a lot of restaurateurs is, no diner wants to walk into a mausoleum. Diners, they insist, like the buzz and the hum of an "alive" restaurant.  

 

It's increasingly difficult to find peace and quiet AND quality food in the same place. And if you do, you're likely to pay for the combination: conversation-friendly dining rooms have become luxuries. 

 

Regarding your other question, Richmond has an interesting food scene.  Here's my latest dispatch from the Virginia capital. 

Hey Tom , I've been a fan of this chat since I worked in the hospitality industry till now , where I don't . I feel as though your chat has just started to devolve into a laundry list of greivances with little or no mention of actual food or restaurants . A lot of quibbling about subjective slights ( that server isn't a mind reader ...) Anyway , I'm here to actually talk about food and wine ( remember that stuff that we use to pay for that made us all really happy ?). I acquired a very rare magnum of German Riesling that is leaking . The wine is fine but needs to be consumed in short order . Can you think of anywhere that serves either fantastic spicy Food or a lot of organ based dishes ( Pates , Foie , sweet breads , etc) that won't charged me more to open the bottle then the bottle itself ? Cheers and thanks for all the hard work , gotta be tiring to mediate all of these problems .

I shared your post with my friend Dave McIntyre, the Post's wine columnist.

 

"Presumably the bottle is leaking through the cork and the capsule," he replied. "That suggests a cork issue, letting oxygen in and wine out. (The cork may be old and crumbly, the bottle may have been stored upright letting the cork dry out, the bottle may have been overheated or even frozen at some point, etc.) So yes, he probably should drink it up."

 

 

Both of us agree a good place to enjoy your magnum would be Q by Peter Chang in Bethesda.  Dave also served up some guidance for you, or anyone else hoping to bring wine from home:

 

"Wherever you recommend he take it,  he should call ahead and speak to the manager or sommelier, explain the situation and make sure they would welcome his bottle (and of course, inquire about the corkage fee). Once at the restaurant, he should still order something from the list (even if just a few glasses of other wine, for variety) and if the sommelier has given him special attention, offering him/her a taste is appropriate."

 

 

 

I love buying gift certificates to restaurants as "thank you" presents, especially around the holidays (less stuff, more food!). Some restaurants make this very easy to do online via their websites. Applause to them for doing so and a gentle ask for other notable restaurants to consider doing so. Thanks!

I agree: I'm inclined in recent years to buy experiences for people rather than "stuff." Gift certificates to restaurants are a great way to show someone you appreciate them. 

Hi Tom, Just curious if you've heard this before and maybe you can give a restaurant's reasoning. Went to a chain/pub Saturday at 5pm for dinner with 4 friends and was told they were fully booked and that they weren't taking walk-ins. The restaurant was empty, but decided to try another place. The second place had the same issue. Went on opentable, made a reservation for the first place, went back in. The hostess gave us a bit of side eye, but we were seated. What is the reason for not seating in an empty restaurant? Why couldn't she have suggested we look on open table for reservations? I have written to the restaurant as well- no response.

Without asking the restaurant, I can't explain why an establishment that claims to be fully committed (but isn't) would turn away guests who are ready and willing to eat.  Can anyone else explain the weirdness? 

Quick question: Is there a reason my last seven or so questions, submitted to you in advance, have not been addressed? I can rarely join at 11 AM Wednesday, but would be happy to hear from you (I'm always brief, preferring to word-process to tighten my questions before submitting them.) Is it simply the sheer volume of what you receive?

I receive hundreds of submissions every week  and I log on a day ahead of the live chat to pre-address as many questions as I can. (Some posts require me to investigate a problem, or look up some facts. As casual as the chat is, I want it to include accurate information.)

 

I'm sorry I haven't been of any assistance to you yet. How can I help you? I don't have the answer to every question, but I aim to address a variety of issues.

 

Hi Tom, love your chats and please don’t change a thing. The format, questions and reviews as well as your kind answers and comments are great. Re a server asking, “Are you done with that?” let’s just ban that question altogether. First and foremost, it’s bad grammar. As my grandmother used to say, “Turkeys are done (cooking), people are finished (eating).” I agree “May I take your plate?" has a much better ring to it. Happy Thanksgiving.

I'm in your grandmother's corner.

 

If there's a single phrase that needs to be banished, it's "are you done with that," especially if the string of words includes "working" after "done."   A close second contender for Siberia is "No problem" in response to "thank you." 

So, are you cooking or not? What's on the menu and what will the decibel level be?

I'll be making the aforementioned crab dip. My SO is baking the aforementioned apple-ginger cake. The decibel level will be dependent on the amount of wine consumed and the volume of the Christmas music.  I hope to keep it under 75 decibels.

 

My ambitious brother sent me the following menu he plans for tomorrow at his roost:

 

Arugula Salad with sliced apple, poppy, goat cheese and pomegranate  and lemon balsamic vinaigrette

 

Brown Butter and Sage squash soup

 

Roast Turkey (organic/free range), mashed Russet potatoes with homemade gravy

 

Green bean casserole

 

Stuffing (two kinds)

 

Sweet Potatoes

 

Home-baked rolls

 

Pie...TBD

 

 

Vino, San Pellegrino and cocktails of your choice...

 

 

 

Tom, looks like my wife and I are both off on a Tuesday in December. What would be two good choices for a fancy lunch (last dinner out was Komi - agree with your review)?

Lobster ravioli and tiramisu in the luxe dining room at Fiola in Penn Quarter strike me as a sure fine-dining bet. 

One of my favorite DC memories was from a few years ago - I had Thanksgiving lunch alone at the Oval Room, and afterward wound up taking advantage of the beautiful day and strolling on the National Mall, visiting for the first time the WWII, Korean, and Vietnam memorials. It looks like the weather forecast is hopeful for a near-copy of the day; any other suggestions in the same vicinity?

What a delicious memory! Are you asking for alternative dining or strolling suggestions? I'm unclear.

My husband & I celebrated at the Cheesecake Factory in Columbia. We had a lovely young server who is studying nursing; she was friendly, efficient, professional, just great; she kept my iced tea refilled. We shared a basket of good, warm bread. He had a skinnylicious chicken salad sandwich (mostly chicken), which he loved. I had their chicken Madeira, ditto. We shared a delicious coffee and cream cheesecake. Happy Anniversary To You was written around the plate in chocolate sauce. It wasn't complimentary, but we did't expect it to be. The check with a 22% tip was just under $60. We had a great time. You (and many of your readers) may not think much of the Cheesecake Factory, but we loved it.

That's a sweet story, and I'm cheered to hear the casual chain restaurant made your anniversary lunch a truly special occasion. 

Sometimes no ice means a person wants more of a beverage, but sometimes it is something else. I have two co-workers who have gone through chemo and for a time could not handle cold beverages. So when they ask for no ice, they really mean no ice. Please restaurants take people seriously when they say no ice.

Duly noted.

Hi Tom, My boyfriend's divorce is finally coming through and we are making plans to celebrate! On my list of places to enjoy: Pineapples & Pearls, Metier, Marcel's & Obelisk. Which of those would you suggest for an evening of lively and interesting elegance? Thanks!

I like all the restaurants you're considering. Pineapple and Pearls, however, best fits your requirement for a "lively" experience, based on the interaction with staff and novel food preparations.

Hi Tom, Can you please name some fine dining venues in DC that offer live music with dinner? Happy Thanksgiving!

The Prime Rib, Ocean Prime and Mastro's -- all steakhouses -- serve live music with dinner, as does the supper club 701 in Penn Quarter (albeit later in the week).

Ha, sorry about that! I was looking for alternative dining suggestions that would allow for a stroll on the Mall afterward

Try the aforementioned 701, sibling to the Oval Room you enjoyed last time.

Hi Tom! I'm looking for a place to eat for a group of 4 before catching the Mean Girls Musical at the National Theatre, ideally somewhere that is less than a 15 min walk away. I was looking at the pre-theater menu at Tosca, but do you have any other suggestions? Thank you!

Tosca, which I highlighted in my fall guide this year, would be an excellent place to find yourselves before a show. Another possibility is Central Michel Richard, which also has a pre-theater menu. 

Hi Tom -- here's a nice story. Went to dinner at Farmers and Distillers last Saturday night with six friends, my first time there. I'd ordered prime rib medium rare, and it came out way TOO rare. My friend had the same issue with her lamb chops. I almost never send food back, but the bloody steak without any sear at all was bothering me too much to eat it. We had a great server who took care of it. And then a manager came over to our table to apologize and offer us desserts on the house. We weren't making a bit deal about it, weren't complaining and the place was packed out, and it felt like a really nice gesture on their part, to just take the time to acknowledge us. It's definitely made me want to return there, especially for brunch and their delicious looking donuts. Plus the food was really great -- especially those desserts!

Happy to hear your under-cooked meat problem was resolved and gratis desserts were doled out as an apology. I'm still not a fan, however. 

Hi, Tom! My husband and I went out to Del Mar last Friday for a celebratory dinner and the experience was superlative. The somm, Ryan, was a gem and helped us pick out a lovely bottle of cava. Our waiter was great and made some helpful suggestions on the menu. We ended up ordering the lobster and langostine paella and it was met the mark - especially the crispy bits at the edge of the pan. The other dishes, including the ahi tuna, were also nicely executed. The space is absolutely beautiful. Thanks for giving us the nudge we needed to try this place out! By the way, I couldn't help but notice as we were walking in that Kith and Kin had quite a few empty tables, while Del Mar and Requin were hopping.

I think you just made Fabio Trabocchi's day. Del Mar is everything you say it is, a grand addition not just to the Wharf, but to the Washington dining scene in general. 

I actually disagree with you here, though I think it's more of a generational language barrier than a question of intent or manners. People say "no problem," to mean that thanks aren't even needed, similar to "think nothing of it," "happy to help," or "my pleasure." IMHO, nowadays, for younger folks, "you're welcome" is seen as more formal, and even a little more cold, because it implies that the favor was an inconvenience. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on this though--what part of "no problem" bothers you? Is "my pleasure" equally bad?

Hardly a day goes by that a reader doesn't complain about "no problem." The response seems to grate on more than a few people.

 

Call me old-fashioned, but "you're welcome" is never out of style in my book. Simpler still: A smile and a nod in response to someone saying "thanks."

My complaint about many restaurants is the music they play. I assume it's popular music, and I can't tell the difference between Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and Lady Gaga, let alone all the groups. I wish they'd play light classics or even Broadway tunes. And some family restaurants we visit play country music. Arrrrrgh! As for Thanksgiving, we will be going to the buffet at Club Meade on Fort Meade. We prefer buffets for holidays, and they are often hard to find. Although I wouldn't mind cooking, I hate cleaning up with a passion.

The drawback with buffets: no leftovers to snack on later!

Given today's increased awareness about social issues affecting the restaurant industry, what do you believe is appropriate and relevant to mention in a review? Would you note that a restaurant had only male staff, or than there was no one of color in the front of the house, or that there had been charges of unfair working conditions or hostile work environment claims brought against the restaurant? Even if not mentioned, would any of these affect your review or should a restaurant review be confined to food, service and ambiance only?

I'm against preachy reviews. I guess I prefer to highlight the positives in restaurants as I see them. Years ago, for instance, I was pleasantly surprised by the mixed clientele I repeatedly encountered at then-new Marvin off U St. NW. 

 

Certainly if I encountered something egregious, I would flag it in my column, as when I called out the supposedly female-friendly STK for its un-PC business cards.

Sometimes a restaurant doesn’t have the waitstaff to support seating more tables, even if the restaurant is mostly empty. It could be for any number of reasons - a server called out and the manager is waiting for backup, etc. What you see is empty tables, but what the server sees is a fifth or sixth table that he or she can’t handle comfortably until more hands arrive to help. This happened to me multiple times when I worked at restaurants.

Thanks for weighing in.

My "no sauce please" kiddo* LOVED your mom's Goulash recipe (made per the recipe). Not sure what the magic is, but please tell your mom. Plus, it's much like my Minnesota Grandma made. Yay! *She eats other so-called weird stuff though (sushi rolls, seaweed salad, even "yay, brussels sprouts!" - so I don't know what the deal with sauce is).

My mom will get a kick out of hearing this about her hotdish, as we like to call anything "hot" in a "dish" back home.  As she herself says, “It isn’t very fancy, but it is what it is.”

 

Here's the recipe.

Hi Tom - happy Thanksgiving eve. Obviously, your vocation requires you to be "on" when you are out to dinner. I was wondering, where you would choose to go to switch off and relax in an off-the-clock, average citizen capacity, knowing the food/service/ambiance always hits the spot? Is there anywhere in particular in/around the DC area that has earned the title "Tom's Happy Place?" Thanks as always!

Given its proximity to where I live -- and a reliable comfort food menu --  I'm inclined to hang at the relaxed Buck's Fishing & Camping on a rare night off the clock.

I agree with the other poster that music at restaurants is frequently obnoxious - I mean, I really don't need to hear crummy pop country. Background music should be just that - able to fade into the background. In my own home, I tend to play Motown or other oldies at gatherings, as the music is universally liked and doesn't drown out conversation.

Yes to Motown!

Tom, is there an ideal time of year to visit the Inn at Little Washington to get the very best seasonal offerings? I'm looking at planning a celebratory trip for next February, but could delay until April/May if you think it's worth it!

Honestly, I've been to the four-star dining destination in all four seasons and each offers something special. I will say, however, that it's always fun to take dessert on the garden patio when the weather permits in spring and summer.

A server saying 'no problem' is kind of like the literal translation of the French 'de rien' (it's nothing), which is their way of saying 'you're welcome'! I had a server at Jaleo Monday evening ask me if I was still working on one dish. Same happened at Kapnos Taverna in CP a few weeks ago. It doesn't bother me, and I'm 54.

I appreciate your chill attitude. But "no problem" grates on more than a few diners' ears.

We had a reservation for Central's pre-theater this month. Good thing we checked on how late their valet was open -- just until 10:30, and Mean Girls ended at 10:45. We cancelled and went somewhere else.

Good to know!

Hi Tom. Heading to Santa Fe in a few weeks. Any recommendations? Thanks and Happy Thanksgiving!

Here's my last set of recommendations from a few years ago. Have fun. I love the desert!

"No Problem" implies there may have BEEN a problem leading the recipient of the phrase wondering WTF? Generational or not...others in that same group have used 'no worries', and although the same rationale may be applied here - lack of any worries v. lack of any problems doesn't weigh the same. Agree with Tom - just say 'you're welcome'...same amount of syllables.

We win! LOL

Some diners don't like "no problem," I'm OK with that. But a reviewer who begins a comment with "honestly" drives me crazy. Does that mean the rest of the time you're not being honest? C'mon, man!

Fair is fair! I will try to refrain from typing "honestly" down the road ...

Greetings from Houston, Tom, where my wife and I are visiting from Alexandria for the week. El Real, Anvil, Julep, and Helen: check. We hope to dine at Cuchara tonight. Thanks for a terrific piece on America's best food cities, which gave us a handy, reliable list of recommendations and reviews for our travels.

Cuchara! Love it. Love Houston.

Hi Tom - I just want to wish you and yours a nice holiday. It's the perfect day to recall the good things (wonderful restaurants, happy kids, pleasant and informative chats) and keep the not so good (poor service, loud kids, cranky chatters) in perspective. Thank you for all of the time you spend with us and your wonderful advice!

What a great way to end today's chat. One of the highlights of my week is this Wednesday ritual. I'm grateful for everyone who posts here; I learn from you all.

 

Be safe. Eat well. Be kind.

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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