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

Dec 05, 2012

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

I had what I found to be an odd exchange with a manager yesterday at brunch at one of the Great American Restaurants and wondered what your take would be. The waiter brought me a large styrofoam container for me to pack my leftovers in. She had taken the time to write the date and contents on the lid, but did not offer to pack them herself. A manager came over to check in with us on a different issue (my husband's order came out wrong and was corrected with no problem) and I mentioned to him how difficult it was to pack my own leftovers given the small space available on the table, the size of the container and the size of the plate. The manager told me that in the future I could ask the waitstaff to pack the leftovers for me and they would do it "if they had time". I didn't pursue the discussion further, but is it now too much to ask that a restaurant take the extra minute to package the leftovers? Generally speaking the GAR restaurants bend over backwards (almost too backwards if you ask me given the number of people who came over to apologize about getting my husband's order wrong) so this seems like a complete anomaly to me. Thanks for any thoughts you have.

Some people tell me they prefer to pack up their own leftovers, because they don't like the idea of anyone touching their food and they're able to save exactly what they want (if not everything).


Personally, I'd rather not deal with the mess at the table.


The manager lost me after he said his staff could assist you on your next visit "if they had time."  Huh? Isn't wrapping up food part of service?



Top of the morning, ladies and gentlemen! The big news of the week -- well, so far, because you never know what titillating food gossip is just around the corner -- is the soon-to-launch Range in Chevy Chase, which has been well-documented by my colleagues Tim Carman and Alex Baldinger here and most recently here


Chef-owner Bryan Voltaggio (of Volt, Lunchbox and Family Meal in Frederick) generously gave us the exclusive via a video tour he recently conducted, and which can be enjoyed below. (Notice the sound track courtesy of Led Zeppelin, recently showcased at the Kennedy Center Honors?


There's nothing Voltaggio  hasn't thought of in the 14,000 square feet of space. I can't wait to check out the cocktails, the oysters, the in-house baked breads and more.


Lots more to chew over today.  For starters, has anyone else checked out the sprawling new Bungalow Lakehouse in Sterling, where the former chef of Central Michel Richard is cooking? Heard about the eight-courser  Cityzen is serving for New Year's Eve, featuring dishes selected by the restaurant's customers?


Let's begin.

WOW, they had the nerve to point out what the concept of a starter was? Remember when Aggain condescended to the suburbanite? Where are they now? Not in Rockville. Note to anyone who opens up in the burbs. We are not stupid rubes. If you look down on us, because of your perception that we are yokels, you will lose customers in droves. For all you know the couple sitting at your table could be gourmands and highly sophisticated. Sophisticated enough to see the condescension. Take note.

I think there's a fine line between enlightening customers and making them feel like cavemen.  But in my conversations with the chef and the owner, I think the pronunciation guides were done with the good intentions. 

Hi Tom, My partner and I are regulars at a local bar and restaurant near our house. We're close to the staff and want to purchase holiday gifts for the ones who wait on us regularly. But, I first wanted to know if you could ask the pros who read the chat 1) if this is acceptable or appropriate (sure we tip, but is this seen as unethical)? and 2) if you have any ideas of what an acceptable gift could be and a price point (we spend about $25 ea per visit/5-6 visits a week). Thanks!

Industry insiders, tell us what's appropriate/appreciated!

Hi Tom - thanks for the chats! I'm overweight, not obese but on the higher end of normal. Many times when I order a Coke in a restaurant, the server looks at me and asks, "Diet?" I find that extremely insulting and judgemental - when I eat out, I want to enjoy myself. I don't need to know that someone (who is going to be tipped by me, by the way) thinks I need to restrict my calories. Lest you think I'm being hypersensitive, the circumstances that bother me are those when the server doesn't ask the same question of others in my party, including other women. Anyway, that really clouds my enjoyment of the occassion. And for anyone wondering, I drink soda seldom, but when I do, I drink the regular version since aspartame gives me a headache. Thanks for the chance to vent a little!

Happy to let you blow off some steam -- and to let servers know that a request for "a Coke, please," is just that.  (And while we're on the subject, if a woman who appears to be pregnant requests a glass of wine, don't judge. )


This just in, from the Source restaurant:


"I'd like to apologize to the couple who wrote in to the chat last week detailing their less than satisfactory experience at The Source.  I'd be grateful if you could share my contact information with the chatter directly so I can speak to them personally."

Scott Drewno
Regional Executive Chef
the source. by Wolfgang Puck
575 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20001
O:  202-637-6105


Thanks, chef, for following up on the complaint. Let's hope the poster sees herself here and connects with you.

My birthday is approaching soon and I was going to have a "nice casual" lunch with my wife near Federal Triangle/Penn Quarter where we work. I was thinking of Teaism but we have been there a lot and I was wondering if you have a different idea. I am not looking for a big deal or a big meal - we will do that at dinner just something not too expensive with good food. Thanks

Nice-casual? Check out either Nando's Peri-Peri on 7th St. NW for its spicy chicken or Pho DC on H St. NW for lotus stalk salad, curry puffs and the signature noodle soup, which comes in about eight different styles.

Hi Tom – My girlfriend and I just got back from a two-week vacation in Switzerland. I was surprised there are no Postcards, given the amount of travel that must happen between D.C. and at least Geneva. Do you have plans to go there? We had some great meals – and not just the fondue! Yes, it's all very expensive (very easy to drop $40 or more on lunch), but the quality of the food is great and there are some neat little finds – such as Wystube Isebähnli, a tiny place we stumbled on down a little alley in Zurich, where we had a wonderful three-course meal (there are four- and five-course options, too): parsnip-spice foam soup; prawn with risotto, branch celery and Granny Smith apple and parmesan foam; venison filet on blackcurrant sauce with chanterelles, cabbage and celery mousse. Cozy, intimate atmosphere, probably has a bunch of regulars. Or Nix’s in Lucerne, with a chalkboard menu that changes daily. And the Carouge neighborhood of Geneva had a ton of places packed with people, including Qu’Importe with a ridiculously delicious chicken with vegetables cooked and served in a pot. Add these to your list!

Actually, I wrote about Zurich in a 2004 Postcard from Tom.


I remember eating very well there. Casa Ferlin near the train station served some very good house-made pasta; Kronenhalle, near the Kunsthaus (fine art museum) was a feast for all the senses, dressed as it was with works by Matisse and Picasso and offering a menu of air-dried beef, veal steak with morel mushrooms and the divine roesti -- hash browns gone to heaven; local fish, rabbit and deer were among the specialties of Zunfthaus zur Zimmerleuten overlooking the Limmat River.

Hi Tom, Thank you for the opportunity to publicly thank Rustico's Ballston location, and especially its manager, Ian, for a fantastic recent experience. A few weeks ago, about 20 of us attended a friend's wedding, with a four-hour gap between the ceremony and the reception. We decided to pass the time at Rustico and when I called to ask if they could accommodate us the staff said they were happy to reserve space in the bar/lounge area. Our server was patient and responsive when dealing with the comings and goings and the food and drink requests of such a large group, and the manager, Ian, even arranged to have a cake delivered from Buzz Bakery to celebrate the birthday of a member of our group. I already liked Rustico's craft beer selection and carrot hummus (if you haven't tried it, do yourself a favor--it's amazing!) but they earned my loyalty with their service and accommodating spirit. I have no connection to them other than as a satisfied customer, but I thought others should know. Thanks!

And now, the world knows of Rustico's hospitality. Bravo, Ballston branch!

Trying to make reservations at PS 7s to no avail. The phone line is a never-ending cycle of the same recording: "Our reservations mail box is full. Please hold for attendant." And has the restaurant listed as offline. Did it close?

Owner Peter Smith has said he'll contact me when he has news. And that's all I'm going to type for now.

I agree with the OP. I too am on the larger boned side of life, and find that when I order a soda (I'm usually the DD), the server always says "diet coke right?" or something to that affect. If I want to drink diet I will ask for diet. I personally don't like the after taste of diet coke, and if I want something I want all the calories to go with it! After all, it's my body, my choice and if you don't like it go find another job.

Thanks for sharing.

Why not double your tip or give them a 100% tip? All the servers I know would greatly appreciate that.

Money works! Flattering color, right?

As a waiter at one restaurant for almost 5 years now, I find that while gifts are nice, the best form of a happy holiday is continued patronage in a city that has plenty of other options. My regular guests are nice reminder that some people see waiters as more then just empty bodies serving them food for a living (who we appreciate too) but regulars remind us more so that we are actually remembered and appreciated. Generally speaking, that's most often how we receive appreciation for our work!

I'm puddling up now.

We unexpectedly have family that have offered to watch our toddler on Saturday night, so we'd like to go Christmas shopping and have a romantic holiday dinner. We're thinking about strolling around Georgetown, but are looking for a dinner recommendation that is both good and would likely be able to seat us on a Saturday night. Any suggestions, or do we need to find another neighborhood? Many thanks!

The coziest destinations in G'town are La Chaumiere, Bourbon Steak and 1789, all of which may be fully committed for the weekend at this point.  But it wouldn't hurt to get on the phone and do some sweet talking. If you're considering other parts of the city, Bombay Club downtown and the Source in Penn Quarter are both elegant options.

when I worked at [insert name of ubiquitous coffee chain here], some of my regulars that I had developed rapport with regularly gave small tokens of appreciation around the holidays. The tip policy was to pool tips, so technically we were supposed to put those types of things in the 'pool' to be divided up. So, it might depend on the tips policy of the establishment. Me personally, in some cases, I kept the gift if it was hard to value or more personal (like campaign memorabilia that I collected)... if it was a gift card or something, more often than not I put it in the pool.

Good for you. Not all staff work equally hard, though. I'm inclined to hand a token of my appreciation directly to the server I like, and discretely.

People have grown and prepared the raw ingredients, packaged, transported, cooked and cleaned the food. And some are going to draw the line at wrapping it to go? Huh?

You'd be surprised how many diners fret about what happens behind the closed doors of a kitchen, especially when there's been a problem with their order.

I am a size 2 petite female and I often get asked if I want diet when I order soda. So it is at least not a question only posed to larger people.

Glad to hear that.

Hi Tom and Chatters, I won't be able to participate in the chat but am hoping you can help me with a Christmas gift for my husband. We both like trying new restaurants in the area. We live in DC but are not constrained by those only near a metro. I would like to take him out to dinner at one of the places recommended in your dining guide or others you think would be appropriate. Since Inn at Little Washington is outside our budget, where would you recommend we go? I'm looking at spending $150 but could go to $200 for two people, including wine/drinks. If this means going to one place or I can treat him to two places, that's fine. We've been to Komi and was not as taken with it as others. From your list, we've enjoyed or have been to Corduroy, Cityzen, Bourbon Steak and Oval room. Tabard Inn, Liberty Tavern, Central, Rasika, Zatinya, and Jaleo so any recommendations for places we haven't been to would be greatly appreciated. Many thanks!

I vote for the recently reviewed Westend Bistro (no longer "by Eric Ripert") or Blue Duck Tavern.


Chatters? Your suggestions?

I had to laugh at your comment "And while we're on the subject, if a woman who appears to be pregnant requests a glass of wine, don't judge." Many years ago I waited tables and served a VERY pregnant woman a glass of red wine at her request. I have read that, especially in the last months of pregnancy, a small glass of wine VERY occasionally will not harm the baby. Ended up having to call an ambulance for the woman, while I do not AT ALL believe the wine had anything to do with the 911 call merely a coincidence, it still sticks with me to this day, and makes me chuckle.

Every time I watch "Mad Men," or visit Europe, I know an occasional nip by Mom-to-be is probably not going to do any harm to an unborn diner.

Hi Tom, I am going to take some very hardworking colleagues of mine to dinner on Thursday night. They're all at a hotel at 15th and M. Honestly, I thought Jaleo would be perfect, but it's nowhere close. Do you have a suggestion of a fun place around there where I could spend $30-40/head, not including alcohol? Thanks.

Right around the corner, there's the festive Mio, serving island food in just your price range. Go for the cheesy arepas, smoky octopus, and a spin on lasagna made with ground veal and plaintains.

Hi Tom, love your chats and all your work. I've been dying to ask you about Jaleo's new look. A few weeks ago I went to the DC location for the first time since the makeover. I was, for the most, part puzzled. The redesigned entry way--big improvement, but I guess I didn't really buy into the whimsy? modernity? of the decor. It went over the top for me when my favorite chicken croquettes were served in a shoe--I guess it's like a glass slipper, except shaped like a tennis shoe and bright yellow shoelaces? I'm a modern lady, but have no interest in eating out of something that reminds me of gym shoes and all that relates. Unrelated: based on your dining guide, my husband and I booked a table at Vidalia as part of our Christmas present. We live by your dining guide, sir, and that is not an understatement!

I love the snacks  served in the sneaker! It speaks to the whimsey at Jaleo and the reality Washington isn't as conservative a town as outsiders might believe.


Vidalia for a Christmas present? Sweeeeet.

I've seen people fired from my tip pooled restaurant for pocketing tips even if they're specifically left for one person... could be a touchy subject!

Yikes. Ok. I guess it's better to ask before handing over some green ...

We are former DCers returning for the weekend and would love to get a great meal -- but our options are a little limited by the baby we're bringing along. I'm guessing somewhere like Mintwood Place is out of the running, but the little guy will likely sleep through most of the meal. Any suggestions on places that are, if not baby-friendly, at least not baby-hostile?

I think as long as you dine on the early side and deal immediately with a fussing baby, most restaurants are cool with infants in their dining rooms.  


Mintwood Place is good not just for the cooking, but because the hum of the place is likely to put your wee one to sleep.  Among some of the newer places, you might also consider Izakaya Seki and Rasika West End.

is it worth trying/

Um, depends what you're looking for. Did you catch my recent preview of the Jeff Buben newbie downtown?

On Sunday I made reservations for Fuego before I'd finished reading your review. We went that night with eager anticipation of a zesty meal, but what we got was mass-produced, bland factory food: "Mexican food" for people who don't like Mexican food. The salsas were more decorative than substantive. They're not as good as you get from a food truck. The carnitas were greasy and not as good as I cook at home. The beans were the consistency of baby food and had no distinctive flavor. There wasn't even a hot sauce to liven them. Goat? "Sorry, we're out of that" (at 6:30 in the evening). The "homemade" chorizo was a waste of someone's time because it's better from a package. The worst of it was the desultory service. The waitress seemed like she didn't want to be working. We sent a drink back because it was sour and lacked sweetener. They replaced it at the end of the meal. I tried to order a second margarita (the highlight of the evening) but couldn't find the waitress. We asked a busboy and he said he'd send her. By the time she arrived, I'd finished my food. She never asked "How is everything?" and she was clearing plates from the table as she was replacing them with the next course. And the total bill, nearly $100 for three of us, was high considering how little we'd ordered. I wanted to tell them I wasn't happy. But they're not interested. The waitress never asked. There was no manager in sight. The hostess station didn't acknowledge us as we were leaving. I've searched their website for a "contact us" but there is none. You are an advocate of letting a restaurant know how you feel, but what are you supposed to do when the restaurant, in effect, has its fingers jammed in its ears and is saying "La-la-la-la-la .... I can't hear you"?

This does not sound like the Mexican restaurant I visited four times, and I'm sorry to hear about your unpleasant experience. Has anyone else been to Fuego Cocina of late?

This is no different from ordering coffee and being asked "Regular or Decaf?" I think it might help for you to be less defensive. That said, servers should ask "regular or diet?" rather than just plain "Diet?"

How would "regular" or "diet" go over with the original poster, or the other larger chatters? I could get behind that way of  asking.

Americans need to get over this. Babies are born all over Europe to mothers who drink wine regularly. There's no "small glass VERY occasionally" about it. And it's not the place of a server to police the patrons.

Uh huh.

My sister and I exchange $50 gift cards at Christmas- a zero sum gain but it serves as an incentive for each of us and our respetive spouses to go out for a date night. She lives in Eagan, MN and I was looking for a few suggestions of a restaurant (or other idea- theatre, museum, etc.) for something to give. I don't want to just ask her to pick the place as the surprise should be part of the idea. She and her husband are open to most things and I am not expecting $50 to cover the whole night, but I don't want it to feel like a drop in the bucket of the bill either. Do you or the chatters have any suggestions?

I had a lovely dinner this summer at The Bachelor Farmer in Minneapolis, which celebrates (updated) Midwestern cooking and is owned by the governor's sons, Andrew and Eric Dayton.  At the time, main courses ran between $16 and $28 at the Warehouse District destination.

Tom, We are hosting friends from Chicago this Christmas, and wanted to go out to dinner at an Italian restaurant in Fairfax. My husband and I are vegetarians and our friends eat everything. Any suggestions that will fit us and is a bit festive? Thanks.

The best Italian restaurant in Fairfax, Villa Mozart is featuring a three-course dinner for $69 on Christmas Eve. I'm not sure if the kitchen is offering meatless options then, but it wouldn't hurt to call and check; the standing menu includes some interesting salads and pastas.

What do you think of Restaurant/service review sites like Yelp? Do you ever use them to inform your dining decisions or do you find they detract from the experience?

I check them out now and then, to get a sense of what consumers are saying about a place (or sometimes simply to see if a place is open). But there's a lot of dross and too few diamonds in the prose, I must say. Plus, I don't know who these amateur reviewers are, and what else they like or don't like, to put their comments into context.

Do you ever eat at Fast food restaurants, and not like, mid-quality fast food like Quiznos or Chipotle, I mean like Burger King or Taco Bell? If so what "restaurant" is your favorite and what do you order?

Why, just the other night, I order spicy fried chicken from the drive-through of my local Popeyes. Only did I get home did I discover the chain forgot my beloved coleslaw. Whaaaaaa! The biscuits, alas, weren't as tender as I expected them to be, but the rice and beans were fine.

The reason servers ask is probably because they have had too many people ask for "coke" and then complain, asking "is this diet? I wanted diet!!" Please do not be so oversensitive. Same to the first poster who was so offended by a restaurant explaining what a starter is -- if you are so quick to assume someone thinks you are a rube, you probably are.

Let's all take a deep breath and think good thoughts!

Not a question, but a congrats to you on being named one of the best critics in the country by top chefs. Talk about turning the tables!,0

That was a nice surprise. Thanks.

In parts of the country, Coke is a generic term to mean a soda of any sort... and yes, its not helpful to say "coke" if what you really want is Sprite, or a Pepsi or whatever, but they do, they do...

In Minnesota, my peeps ask for "pop."

I had a wonderful meal with my brother and his partner at Sea Change at the Guthrie. It was a treat to try chawanmushi (a light custard based on dashi stock). The Craftsman, recommended by you several years ago, is still going strong. Sadly, they were out of the pickled ramps for their Gibson (which was on the online menu).

Thanks for the additional ideas.

Upstairs good for 2 old friends (over 50) to chat and try some place new tonight?

I actually prefer the second floor to the ground level at Fuego Cocina. Aim for a booth, or a table near the fire if you like it on the toasty side.

I once heard that if a group ordered a combination of diet and regular sodas, that the waiters would serve everyone diet so as not to mix up the orders. Once I heard this, I never ordered soda again (I fit in the weight range of today's discussion, but I'm very sensitive to artificial sweeteners in a very bad reaction way). The interesting thing is, that if I order unsweetened iced tea, it often gets mixed up with very sweet tea being served.

I would like to think most servers pour what diners have asked for, but ...

What temp do you order your steak at? Does it depend on the restaurant?

I love raw beef. With steak, however, I almost always get it medium-rare. I never order meat well-done.

Out of Fairfax proper is The Italian Cafe (in Falls Church) Our (large) family goes there often for New Years, Good Variety, and very good food.

Thanks for the prompt.

How about the chatter just orders thusly: "I'd like a regular Coke, please."

DOH. There you have it!

I went to Fuego with a few friends about a month ago. We were so enticed by the appetizer list that we just ordered about 7 of them. We enjoyed the food but it did seem a bit overpriced for what you get. I would also have to agree that both our server and the bartender seemed unhappy to be there and not interested in making us feel welcome.

Sorry to hear that about the staff. If there's one detail Passion Food Hospitalty nails, it's service.

Note that the link to the video tour says it's "private." Perhaps joining the Vimeo service makes it no longer "private" (strange definition of "private"), but some of us aren't willing to give up our information just for the privilege of seeing someone's photos or videos.

You don't need to join the service. Refresh your page and it should be available.

Tom, I'm housebound so follow your chat just for the fun of it. But your readers throw around lots of French phrases and should know the difference between a gourmet and a gourmand. (Oink!)

Gourmet = someone with discerning taste


Gourmand = someone who devours the acts of eating and drinking

Hi, Tom -- You wrote, re: Range, "There's nothing Voltaggio hasn't thought of in the 14,000 square feet of space." Except, apparently, about vegetarians. Any comment on whether this really flies in today's culture?

Um, um, paging Bryan Voltaggio!

I cannot order a glass of zinfandel without the server saying, "You know that's a red wine, right?" Sigh.

Are you thumbing your nose at white zin drinkers?

The Saturday after Thanksgiving, I dined with a family member at XXX  (please leave out the restaurant's name if you think you should). I had the Dover sole and he had the steak. Later that night, I experienced a bad case of food poisoning, which lasted several days; my companion did not, which is why I think the sole was at fault. I have no contacted the restaurant, but I'm wondering if you think it's worth the time to do so and what I should expect in respond to my call. Thanks.

It's a little late to be contacting the restaurant now. Is there anything else you ate that day that couldn't have explained your illness? Because it's not always the last meal that's the cause.

I was there for drinks a few weekends ago, and while I found the drinks to be great, I'd agree that the service was somewhat lacking. We had to wait a long time to get menus, I couldn't flag someone down to ask for water, and when we needed a minute to figure out our next round of drinks, it was 10-15 min before they came back. And the bar wasn't crowded...


Many restaurants to include some of the best steakhouses in the country save the steaks, chops, filets etc that dont look that great for the folks who like their meat well done. Why waste a really nice looking NY strip bone in prime dry aged steak on someone who wont appreciate it. Give them the cut that doesnt look as great. It will be well burnt etc when served and the diner wont know the difference. I have convinced my girlfriend to order medium well rather than well done and we are working on medium.

I'm afraid you're right about restaurants not respecting diners who like thoroughly cooked meat.  I'd welcome responses from readers who prefer such. Do you like the taste? Are you worried about illness? Have you tried rare meat?

What are you supposed to do when a restaurant is not interested in its' clients feedback?

Are you saying that because they've TOLD you that or they're simply not answering your communication?


There are plenty of good restaurants out there. You can always vote with your feet and dine elsewhere, right?

It doesn't usually last multiple days, and there has been a stomach flu going around. If you really want to know what made you sick, you need to go to the doctor or health department for analysis.

I second that.

In fact it is most often NOT the last meal that caused the issue. Typically it takes 24-72 hours for food-borne bugs to show up. In classes it was discussed that the "last meal" perception makes it much harder to track cases because everyone is SURE it's what they just had.

Thanks for following up.

Yes. ;-) Seriously, though, we spent three years out of the country in the 1980s and returned to find everyone insisting that zinfandel was a sweet blush wine. We thought we were in the Twilight zone, having drunk zin with pizza all through college.

Love me some red stuff.

50 is not old! (I know that's not what you meant by old, but why did you have to mention the age?) 50 is the new 40.

Hear, hear!

a handy chart from the Mayo clinic. SOme things cause the poisoning faster than others (hours vs. weeks):

Brilliant. And just as we wrap up today's session.

If you could put together a tasting menu with the best dishes you had over the last year what would it look like?

Fun question!


Off the top of my head, I'd find room for the fiery khao tod at Little Serow, the autumnal Manhattan at Westend Bistro, the fried chicken I devoured at Family Meal and the chicken liver I ate just last night at ...


Lunch time! Gotta run, gang. See you back here next week, I hope. Until then, dine superbly.

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.
Recent Chats
  • Next: