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

Dec 18, 2013

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

I'm going to New York City during Christmas week and can't get a reservation at either Carbone or even Carmine's. Are there any good places (preferably Italian) you can think of that would be a little less-touristy, and thus less crowded, in Manhattan?

Perfect timing. I was in the Big Apple over the weekend and took my nephews to Il Buco Alimentari, a casual and friendly restaurant in NoHo. Good service; better salumi, pasta and pizza; convivial farmhouse look.


Lots to chew over today. Bar Charley rolled out a new menu -- by a new chef -- just last night. After some fine-tuning, the Roof Terrace at the Kennedy Center deserves some applause. And there's legal drama over at Rogue 24, where my colleague Tim Carman reports that a business partner is suing the chef and his wife for breach of contract.


A house-keeping note: This is my last chat of the year. Next Wednesday is Christmas, after all, and the one after that is New Year's Day. So our next discussion will be at 11 a.m. Jan. 8, OK? (Yes, I'll miss you.)



When I was a kid, one of the first things you would get in a restaurant was a basket of warm, soft rolls and some soft butter. Heavenly! Now there are many places that don't have rolls or any kind of bread at all. While I do love cheese biscuits at Ruby Tuesday and Red Lobster, I don't care for bread with hard crusts which some places offer. Also often they are room temperature; that's bad enough but even worse if the butter is cold and hard. What happened to warm rolls?

Warm rolls are going the way of matchbooks and pay phones in a lot of restaurants. But they haven't completely disappeared. You can still find hot rolls at places as diverse as CityZen, Vidalia and Woodward Table.  And don't forget the enormous popovers that start meals at BLT Steak downtown. (I, too, dislike rock-hard butter, by the way.)

I have reservations at Villa Mozart in Fairfax this Sat. Still a good bet? It's my DH's b-day, he adores Italian, and I'd like to stay in Va (we may cab it so we can both imbibe freely). Probably too late to get reservations elsewhere, so **fingers crossed** that you still recommend it.

Let's put it this way: If Villa Mozart were a little closer to where I lived, I make it one of my regular pitstops.

Catching up on previous chats. Tom, I live in Baltimore but grew up in DC and LOVE the Post. I read it faithfully every day and often travel to DC for dinner. I live one mile from Shoo Fly and really appreciate your review because I visit Belvedere Square a few times a week and have been curious about the new place. Keep up the good work!

Thanks for supporting my decision to review a place an hour away from the District.  Even though the review was tough,  I thought readers might want to know how it performed, given that it shares owners with the distinguished  Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore.

we knew that one of our favorite Italian-ish restaurants was going downhill when the small bottles of olive oil at each table were replaced by dishes of foil-wrapped butter pats.

Foil-wrapped butter is fine for a diner, less welcome in a restaurant with any ambition. You'd be surprised where the stuff turns up!

Hi Tom! I am a long time reader and fan from the West Coast. On the few occasions that I have traveled to DC, I am always delighted to eat at restaurants that I have read about in your column/chat and once, I bought a Post to read your column for the first time ever in print! You have the patience of Job and a sense of humor to boot, to week after week, put up with the complaints and snarky comments and "why don't you review restaurants in such and such a location" questions. I hope that I speak for your fans in saying that we are so happy to have you at the Post and grateful for your weekly sessions. I don't read to find out how much to tip for take out orders or to gripe about the kids at the booth next to is just lovely to be entertained and educated in style. Happy New Year, Tom.

Your kind post made my week. Thanks so much for taking the time to write. Happy holidays to you, as well.

Our son and daughter-in-law will be visiting at the end of the month. We'd like to treat them to dinner at a nice Greek or Middle Eastern restaurant as an anniversary gift. We live in Gaithersburg. Anything in the area that is metro accessible would be fantastic. What would you recommend? Thanks. Betty A. Otten

My go-to place for traditional Greek tends to be the gracious Mourayo in Dupont Circle. Over in Penn Quarter, Zaytinya beckons with terrific Greek/Lebanese/Turkish mezze, or small plates.  Different personalities, both winning in their own ways.

I'm glad that most restaurants no longer serve rolls. It gets rid of the temptation to fill up before the meal on empty calories. I must say though, it was worth it to nearly spoil my appetite feasting on the delicious bread basket at Le Diplomate!

I'd hardly say the onion foccacia, warm cornbread and dinner rolls at, say, Vidalia, are wasted calories!

Tom is having some technical difficulties. He'll be back in a few minutes!

Hi Tom! I finally get to go to Rasika this weekend and couldn't be more excited! My top is taking me for my birthday. So, I know you usually rave about the place, but what menu items can't be missed? Any suggestions for how to pace our dinner as far as appetizers, entrees, etc. would also be appreciated. Ciao and happy holidays!

Honestly, the menu at Rasika is one of those rare lists where you can point anywhere and score something wonderful.  I'd go for a mix of seafood, meat and vegetables -- something tame, something wild -- and be sure to fit in some nan.

Hi all - we're having some technical difficulties, so I'm now logged in as my producer, Maura. All the answers from her are actually from me.

Hi Tom - love reading your chats, and hoping you can help me out with a suggestion for lunch next Monday. It's my parents (60s), me (30s) and my 2 year old daughter. We'll be over by Eastern Market so I was thinking Barracks Row would a good choice. Any suggestions for a casual environment that would be relatively quick for a toddler? Any cuisine is fine by us. We do Matchbox all the time, so I'd love something other than that. Thanks and a very happy holiday to you!

Consider Montmartre for French bistro fare or Cava for easy Greek.

I went to Osteria Morini this past weekend for my one year anniversary. The food was wonderful, but our meal was spoiled by a hovering, overly aggressive waiter. I am certainly not opposed to attentive service, however, our waiter visited our table about every 5-10 minutes, and spoke to us each time - making us feel like we needed to put our fork down mid-bite, stop our conversation, and respond to him. We ordered several courses to share, as he recommended we do in his lengthy opening speech when we first sat down. Our waiter told us that his "rule" is that he will "never put an order into the kitchen without asking" us first. This meant he checked in with us 2-3 times per course to ask how close we were to finishing up. We ordered a bottle of wine, and he asked before refilling our glasses every time, instead of just refilling when they were running low. I am of the mind that service should seem effortless, but our waiter needed our guidance about every step of the meal, which made the meal seem belabored and exhausting. After eavesdropping on some of the other servers at nearby tables, my partner and I came to the conclusion that this hovering/talkative serving style is coming from management and not our particular waiter. When a different waitress came to our table to remove our place-mats after our entree, she awkwardly rolled the paper place-mats up in front of us while saying "I'm not crazy, I promise, they force us to do this." We would have said something to the manager, however, we did not want our waiter to get reprimanded. It's a shame, because the food was great! Unfortunately, I don't think we'll be back until they change their style of service. Any thoughts, Tom?

Restaurants need to drop their epic introductions (listening, Del Campo?) and remember that most of us -- even tourists! -- know that appetizers come before entrees and if anyone wants a back story on the chef or the restaurant, a waiter can surely help out. I'm sorry to hear that about an otherwise promising new Italian destination. No one wants a robot as his waiter, right?

Just a shout out for great service. Last night we ran a little late on our reservation and then even later ordering since my daughter had to wait outside for over a half an hour for our cab driver to return to bring her the cell phone she left in the cab. As a result, it was nearly an hour after our initial reservation time before we ordered (besides the drink I ordered while I waited). Never once did I feel pressured or hurried. Just great patient service throughout. And the food was fantastic!

So glad to hear that about Le Diplomate. Of the fresh faces on the scene, the French bistro has been among the most consistent -- no easy feat, given its nearly 300 seats. Take a bow, staff.

How hard is it for restaurants to list their Christmas Day menus on their websites? I'd like to know what I'm in for if I'm paying $70 for a meal.

Got that, Restaurants That Are Open Dec. 25? No one wants to gamble on a tradition.

Tom, What's your favorite place to eat after experiencing technical difficulties? ;)

A good bar!

My family has been going to Capitol Steps for the holidays for years and we always went to Ten Penh before the show. Alas, my little brother will not have the opportunity to eat TWO servings of their curry shrimp this year. Suggestions in the general area for a family that loves good food?

Hate to break the bad news, but the Asian eatery has been closed now for some time. Try Michel Richard Central for its clever salads and novel burgers.

Two recent events demonstrated that there are still restaurants that know how to handle situations that have gone sideways. Our party of 4 showed up at Bobby Van's on a busy Thursday evening, with reservations and a Groupon. Unfortunately, the reservation was for the *other* Bobby Van's location, which is not where the Groupon was valid. The host at the location where we showed up said he would call the other location and cancel our reservation, and he assured us that we would be seated at his location "in a few minutes." "A few minutes" turned out to be about 90 seconds, which was a pleasant surprise. On an equally busy Friday night, a different party of 4 had reservations at Indique Heights at 6:15. Unfortunately, we had to come from Dulles Airport, and of course traffic that night was even more horrendous than it usually is. We made two or three calls saying we were stuck (or *still* stuck) in traffic and asking to push our reservation back. All were met with a pleasant, courteous, "of course we can do that," and when we finally arrived around 8:00, we were seated with minimal delay. Bravo, Bobby Van's and Indique Heights!

The Christmas spirit lives!

Just a note that I had read your review, and many others, that referenced the long introduction at Del Campo (and many other reviews had mentioned poor service.) I think somebody has been listening because although we noted that we were first-time diners to the restaurant, the intro to the menu was short and sweet. And we had great service; our waiter was very professional and was good about reading our table on a busy Friday night. It was overall a great experience and I'll be back.

Funny. I went back, I think I was recognized as That Guy and my waiter at Del Campo *still* went on and on and on about the dishes. Tedious.

Tom, I love your column and chats. I've been reading for years - I lose track. I remember way back to when how to pronounce your name was a regular topic of discussion. Anyway, I wanted to put out there that Attila's in Arlington is a darling Turkish place. There's a restaurant, separate take-out section, and a separate grocery all run by the same family. I love the pita and hummous and go there to eat just that, but there are many delicious specialties. Please try it someday!

I will, thanks to your prompt. Sounds lovely. And Turkish is one of my favorite cuisines.

"\My top is taking me for my birthday..." My "top"? Little to much info IMO.

I believe that was a typo. I hope that was a typo! Or some abbreviation for significant other, perhaps?

Tom, I am so underwhelmed with the dining options in Arlington. Sure, we have a handful of standout, more-upscale restaurants, and a fair share of small ethnic places, but I feel that in general, food in Arlington is extremely mediocre. Especially in terms of everyday food, what are a few of your favorite spots?

This moment, I'm keen on the fledgling Water & Wall, from chef Tim Ma of Maple Ave in Vienna.  But I hear you; Arlington is not so delicious these days.

Seconding Burbank. Thanks for time, effort, and passion you put into this job. You are one of several reasons I buy the Post and visit this website. May your new year find plenty of cilantro-free dining and meals with your mother and her home cooking!

Ha! Actually, I love cilantro. (It's fennel I don't love.)  My mom is flying in from Minnesota tonight. My SO made three-bean salad in her honor.

Rose's Luxury.... Good grief was that ridiculous. The waiter went on and on and on about how it's like being at great dinner party blah blah blah and the server is still working on his jokes, etc etc. He was so busy with his schtick when other customers started arriving (we went early, per your advice) that he forgot to return with the promised dessert menus for at least 10-15 minutes. The place is precious and twee enough without that routine. The food was quite good, but when you're serving cutesy items like popcorn soup, you don't need the hipster wannabe comic waiter on top of it.

Really? I can see where the spiel might grate at some point, but I didn't mind it at all during my visits there. Maybe I was happy to say something positive about developments on the Hill.

Really? Pupatella, Thai Square, Willow, Ravi Kebob, the aforementioned Atilla's (haven't been there, but it sounds like it's worth a trip), Curious Grape, ...? Seriously?

Okay, I forgot about Pupatella. But Willow, sorry to say, tastes like I'm eating in 1995. And that sad room!

What on earth are restaurateurs thinking? What can possibly be so different and/or special about a menu that can't be just read on the menu? It's beyond tedious. It's stupid.

If I had a dollar for every waiter who told me the chef promoted local ingredients and made friends with farmers and cured his own (fill-in-the-blank), I'd be retiring now.

I hope he used chick-peas and not those awful tasteless (and well-named) wax beans.

He couldn't find wax beans at the store. So maybe he made a two-bean salad?

Is that yet another euphemism for what I usually refer to as "necessaries"? If so, may it borrow it for future use?

No, really! My computer went down on me twice! I'm sitting at the desk of my glam Weekend colleague, Maura.

Maybe I was thinking of Eventide; I can never keep the two straight. Oh well, de gustibus, I suppose.

Eventide used to be good.

I was walking down 19th street and came across a new Cuban Restaurant. The food was incredible. My mom is from Cuba so it was nice to get authentic style cooking like mom used to make. The service was quick and it was not so expensive for the amount of food you get.

Good to know. I love black beans and rice and ropa vieja.

Just logging in ... sorry! Keep our reservations at Rogue 24 or go elsewhere? Thank you and merry Christmas!

I'd keep 'em. I really like the space, the drinks and the chef's briefer menus.

...but as a long time reader I would like to wish you a happy and healthy New Year and say thanks for all of your hard work on behalf of those of us who enjoy dining out. I especially appreciate this chat and your patience with, and willingness to post, the sometimes snarky posts that you receive...

And on that cheery note, I bid you all a delicious holiday or two and look forward to chatting again on Jan. 8.


You are the best Christmas present a food critic could receive.

In This Chat
Tom Sietsema
Weaned on a beige buffet a la "Fargo" in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. In thinner days, he was a critic for Microsoft Corp.'s and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; and a food reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.

This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the '80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section's recipes. That's how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.

He covers the local scene in his Dining, First Bite and Dish columns; keeps tabs on the world at large in his Postcard From Tom column and contributes tasty morsels to the Going Out Guide blog.
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