Wine tipping, tasting menus, Christmas suppers, splitting the check and more -- Tom Sietsema discusses the DC dining scene

Dec 07, 2011

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Tom I frequently order a bottle of wine that equals or exceeds the cost of the food. What do servers expect by way of a tip? Do I really need to include a $20 tip on a $100 bottle (that retails for $40 anyway, but that's a different issue)? Thanks, love the chats. Matt, Arlington

Except on rare occasions, I tend not to buy wine over $50 ( sometimes $60) a bottle.  When I'm drinking in that range, I tip as I normally do, which is a little more than 20 percent on the pre-tax total.  


It gets trickier, as you note, the more you shell out for a bottle. On a $100 bottle of wine, I'd stay with a tip of 20 percent, given the thought and the extra service that typically accompanies such purchases. (Think cellaring, decanting, upgraded stemware, etc.)  But if I were to buy a second bottle at roughly the same price, I'm not sure I would continue to tip the same amount. I would certainly factor in a gratuity, but probably not as much a 20 percent. The tipping would depend, in part, on how much effort I think the staff is expending on my behalf (and whether I shared a taste of the wine in question).



Any thoughts from the wine enthusiastists or sommeliers who might be in the audience today? I welcome your input.


Happy rainy Wednesday, chatters. Thanks for joining me this morning.  Let's get started.

Our daughter has to work Christmas Day. Where can we take her at 8 p.m. Christmas night that won't make us feel like we're part of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks? Steve G., Baltimore

(Hey, I love that painting!)


How thoughtful of you to wait until your daughter can join you for dinner. I assume you're looking for ideas in the District? If so, I notice OpenTable still has spots available for Adour at the St. Regis, Cafe du Parc, Corduroy, J & G Steakhouse in the W Hotel and Sou'wester in the Mandarin Oriental. Good luck.

Last night I went to dinner, by myself, at a national chain restaurant. It was fairly early, and I was seated in a fairly empty area, in an alcove. There were only a couple of other tables around me that were filled, and it seemed like they were being helped by a different waitress. My waitress was prompt taking my order (just a soup and salad, and soda) and bringing my soup. Then came a gap of 15-20 minutes. She arrived with my salad, apologizing profusely and saying the meal was on the house to make up for forgetting me. The rest of the meal was fine, and she reiterated that the meal was free. I wound up leaving $5 anyway; it felt wrong to not leave anything at all. The meal, total, would've probably come to around $20. Did I leave too much? Too little? What would have done (or, what HAVE you done) in that situation?

The server made an error, apologized, corrected the problem and comped the meal, which you ate. (Right?)


  I think you did the gracious thing by leaving behind a five spot, although $4 would have sufficed. Despite the delay in one dish, it sounds as if you otherwise enjoyed the food and the restaurant.

Hi Tom! My work team is headed to Detroit next week, and as the low associate on the totem pole, I've been tasked with finding a few spots for dinner. We'll be based out of Warren north of the city, but I'm pretty sure I could get everyone to go somewhere delicious in the metro region. Any suggestions from you or the chatterati? Many thanks!

I've not done a restaurant survey of Detroit, but I continue to hear good things about the long-running Rattlesnake Club in River Place. Maybe a chatter can help us out?

It would be in the best interest of all guests to participate in a tasting menu if offered by the restaurant you have chosen to patron. They generally take longer, and in most cases the person/people sitting with their one (yes it happens) course while you enjoy 5+ ends up feeling a bit left out by the end. Also, if I say yes to you I must say yes to everyone else. Not an ideal situation. This is a commom request of most establishments, and please be assured that we make decisions based on trying to make the best experience possible for all guests involvolved. Just a tip from a local server me to help you :)

Don't most restaurants offering tasting menus require that everyone at the table sign on, for just the reasons you offer? 

Tom: Unique request here -- my grandmother turns 100 on Christmas Eve and I'm planning a celebration for her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. There will be eight of us total. I am in Clarendon, brother is in Manassas, so we'd prefer Northern Virginia or DC. With grandma being 100, accessibilty is key. We love Italian, American (obviously), open to other suggestions. I've been searching for the perfect place for this once-in-a-lifetime occasion but have yet to be inspired. Your wisdom would be most appreciated!

I hate to say it, but a lot of choice spots are already taken. If you don't mind a little drive, Bistro  L'Hermitage in Woodbridge is utterly charming, with an accessible French menu. In Washington, I see the family-friendly Carmine's can take a group your size.  On the oppposite end of the scale (the three-course menu is $90 per person for adults) is the beautiful Plume in the Jefferson Hotel on 16th St. 

But Tom, doesn't the price of the wine over retail already include the cellaring, decanting, upgraded stemware, etc? What does that have to do with the service? Tipping 20% on wine is one thing that I just hate doing. I can't see how the server behaves $10 differently between a $50 bottle and a $100 bottle. Not that I order either of those!

Hey, you're talking to a diner who has seen wine stored in a (warm) restroom before, so no, not every restaurant takes care of its inventory as well as it should. While there are exceptions, high-end wines tend to get special treatment: better glasses, early decanting, more effort from the sommelier and so on.

Hi Tom: Each year a co-worker and I give our boss a gift certificate for dinner downtown with his wife. In the past we've done Rasika, Central and BLT Steak. We typically give $150. Do you have any suggestions for which restaurant to give him this year? Oh, he unfortunately doesn't like Asian food. Thanks!

Lucky boss!


This season, you might consider presenting him with a gift certificate to someplace new: Pearl Dive Oyster Palace in Logan Circle for a spirited seafood experience or Elisir in Penn Quarter, a modern Italian dining room from chef Enzo Fargione.


Just FYI: I'll be reviewing the former in the Magazine Dec. 18 and previewing the latter in the Food section Dec. 14.

Hi Tom, Thanks for the chats, they really help guide me to great places! We have reservations for pre-Kennedy Center dinner at La Chaumiere. Should we keep them, or can you recommend a better option in the same(ish) price range? We've done Marcel's, which was fine, but we'd prefer to try something new this time. Thanks again! P.S. Baby No. 1 on the way, so we're trying to enjoy great meals out while we still can!

I adore La Chaumiere. Everything about it -- the old wood beams, the crackling fire in winter, the chance to try such old-fashioned treats as quenelles -- speaks to another time and place. If you've eaten at Marcel's, keep this reservation.

I am going to Fiola for lunch on my birthday. Is the $15 deal so good that I would be foolish to order lunch off the regular menu? Either way what are some of the best things on the menu and anything to avoid? Thanks so much for any advice.

Why would you veer from Fiola's Presto menu, which I highlighted in a round-up of budget-friendly indulgences last week, when the list contains six great choices (plus a cocktail)?  The only caveat is, you have to sit at the bar or in the lounge to eat it.  But I actually love sitting at the bar in restaurants.  More casual. More fun. Plus, you can banter with your bar tender or counter mates if you/they want.

Hi Tom, Can you provide any help in finding this classic Roman dish, found at seemingly every restaurant in Rome, somewhere in DC?

You'd think something as basic as cheese-and-pepper pasta would be easier to find, wouldn't you?


For those who are unfamiliar with the Roman treat, the dish is made by frying black pepper in olive oil, adding some pasta (cooking) water to the seasoning, then bringing it to a boil before adding spaghetti.  The peppery pasta is next tossed with grated cheese, to make it creamy.


Anyone know of a restaurant that serves the dish?

Tom, Every January, our office takes off early one Friday afternoon and goes out for a Staff Appreciation lunch to get the year started off on the right track. But finding a restaurant always seems to be difficult, even though we all love to eat! I was hoping that you might be able to give us a couple of recommendations for restaurants. The major considerations are: fabulous food including vegetarian options (but no restrictions on type of cuisine), either a private room or a private area with a round or square table to facilitate conversation, and for the restaurant to be located in DC. I expect there to be 10 of us this time. Last year we dined at Ris and before that Equinox, Poste, Nage and Zaytinya. If possible, it would be great if your suggestions are Metro accessible. I hope this gives you enough to go on. Thanks for your time and for all the good work you do!

Rasika, the four-star Indian restaurant headed by Vikram Sunderam, has everything you are looking for, as does Vidalia, the southern charmer downtown.  A January table at either should be easier to get than one for this month, as long as we're not talking Restaurant Week.

I don't mind when restaurants require everyone at the table partake in the tasting menu, but I do mind when there is only one option per course. I was at a dinner with 5 other people who were all happy to do the tasting menu, but 3 of the 5 courses were things I HATE. They wouldn't let me substitute anything, nor would they let me order 5 courses off the menu, so no one did the tasting and they lost money and goodwill. Not to mention 6 of the very same meal is rather boring!

You raise a good point. Catch that, chefs?


I can totally relate to the poster, by the way: As a food critic, I'd rather have more options (dine a la carte) than fewer.  On the other hand, not having to share my plate sounds like a nice change of pace from the routine, too!

I am not sure if you know much about my question, but I figured you might have some insight since you frequent many restaurants. I at the end of a meal with some friends of mine, we received one check for the three of us. I thought that I had enough cash to cover my part, but I forgot about something I bought earlier that day. I told my friends that I would need to pay for my part with a credit card after one of my friends already called dibs on using his card. My other friend stated that they were not comfortable with that since the waiter would hate us if we did this and do something to our food the next time he served us. This friend had never been a waiter or worked in a restaurant, so I did not know the basis of the comment. I ended up telling the waiter to put a specific amount on my credit card, my total plus tax, which I did add a tip to. With restaurants using computer-driven ordering and sales devices, is it a hassle for waiters to use two credit cards to process the payment? I know there might be some math involved with splitting the balance, but never got an impression from any waiters that using more than one credit card was an issue, let alone mark me as a bad customer. I can see it being a hassle if several cards are used, but the waiter did not given even a slight negative reaction to the payment request. Is my friend overreacting?

Yes, your friend is over-reacting -- and shame on her for impugning a whole industry.


Most restaurants are fine with splitting checks using multiple credit cards; however, some businesses put a limit on the number that can be processed (three seems to be the one I see a lot).

Hi Tom, Will the WaPo be offering a list of restaurants that serve Christmas dinner? Thanks very much.

Online, the Going Out Gurus expect to have some ideas for you and others beginning Monday, Dec. 12.

I was just in Detroit over Thanksgiving. We enjoyed a nice dinner at Michael Symon's restaurant Roast (downtown). Be sure to try the brussel sprouts!

That's a start. Thanks.

Have to give props to Acadiana - had dinner with the fam last week. On my reservation, I noted it was a special birthday, hoping for a candle in dessert. They so went above and beyond - the menus all said Happy BIrthday at the top, birthday person received a special rolled menu with ribbons, they wrote happy birthday in chocolate on the dessert plate, and treated us like gold. With a child,BTW, and they were not condescending in the least. And the food was divine! THank you so much for a wonderful evening!

Here's a shout-out to Acadiana (which reminds me, I haven't eaten there in a very long time ...)

Hi Tom -- Tomorrow night, my company is having its holiday party at Carmine's in Penn Quarter. I'd like to meet up for a casual drink with coworkers first. What's the best place to go that won't be crazy crowded? Thanks!

I can't predict what will be crowded, not in a holiday season. But I can recommend a few places to wet your whistle before eating food the size of your head. They include 701, Oyamel, Zaytinya and Sei.

Sheesh, the poster's friend needs to get a grip. My friends and I do this all the time where we split the check and put it on multiple credit cards. We usually split the check equally though - none of this put $27 on this card and $31 on this card nonsense. I bet the friend wanted to use his/her credit card and take everyone's cash to avoid a trip to the ATM!

You never know. A lot of people also like the points they get when they use plastic instead of cash.

Tom, You mentioned the "extra service" that comes with an expensive bottle of wine in justifying a tip, including decanting. I have NEVER had a sommelier decant a bottle of wine for the table, and I don't recall upgraded stemware, either, besides type-specific glasses. How often do you actually see these things?

Typically in three- and four-star restaurants you see that type of wine service, although I'm happy to see a lot of modest-but-ambitious places upgrading their glasses or training their staffs so the wine experience can be enjoyed by a wider audience.

I love call Willow in Ballston. It looks like there are at least tables for 4 that night. They also have underground parking and are metro accessible. Oh, and I always enjoy the food. Good luck!

Another restaurant I need to visit after too many years away from it.

Hi Tom ~ thanks for the chats. Will be in DC the week between Christmas and New Year's Eve and am planning 4 nights of dinners. Where would be your 4 favorite places to go? We (me, the hubby, 16 y.o. and 13 y.o. very well behaved and adventurous eaters) are interested in all cuisines except Indian (I know, but we've just never developed a taste for it), all price ranges, and would like to stick to inside the beltway. I'm looking for a nice variety and know I can count on your advice!

Frank Ruta is one of the city's most important chefs. His cooking -- clean, pure, polished -- at Palena in Cleveland Park   most reminds me of the style of cooking for which San Francisco is celebrated.


A window table on the second floor of Sushi Taro lets you look down on the bustle of Dupont Circle. Chances are, you'll be pretty focused on the fine sushi, panko-crusted chicken and marinated cod that help set this handsome Japanese outpost apart from the competition 


The food at the tony Oval Room  is full of luscious surprises -- chef Tony Conte is doing his best work yet -- and the restaurant has the advantage of being within strolling distance of the national Christmas tree.


If you have four meals in Washington, one of them has to be eaten with your hands, at an Ethiopian restaurant. My favorite of the lot is currently Ethiopic on H St. NE. Yes, it's removed from the tourist zone, but part of the thrill of travel is eating like the locals do, right?  I'm especially fond of the colorful vegetable sampler there.

Maybe this is wrong, but I alter my tip on wine depending on how good I think the service is. For example, I recently gave a full 20% tip at a high end restaurant in New York where the sommelier took my suggested price (low) and came up with something unusual and tasty without giving me an attitude. In other words, I tip for value-add on wine.

Right on.

My nephew is getting married in Detroit next summer and the bride (a native Detroiter) is recommending Slow's BBQ and Motor City Brewing Works.

More Detroit suggestions. Thanks.

I've waited tables and bartended and served as a host in many restaurants for many years. Fast casual,dive bars, fine dining, I've worked in them all. Guess what? I've NEVER seen anyone (chefs, waiters, dishwashers, foodrunners etc.) do ANYTHING to anyone's food. EVER. Let alone remember to do something the next time someone comes in. I also don't think I'm alone in this. So, let's just put this fear to bed once and for all. It's basically an urban myth at this point.

Maybe some of us watch too much "Workers Gone Wrong" on cable.

Hi, Tom - My husband and I usually gift each other a fancy dinner for Christmas Eve. In the past, we've enjoyed Vidalia and Corduroy. Any suggestions for our dinner this year? We want to stay in the city. Thanks!

There's still room at Bourbon Steak. And Bibiana. And Fiola. And The Source. And the Oval Room ...

do you use a wine aerator? Do they really increase/improve the flavor?

I do, for serious or older wines.  I find the device useful; the aromas and flavor are much more immediate, in my experience.

If 3 out of 5 courses were undesirable to you, it seems like the tasting menu would not be the most optimal choice. I understand preferences and allergies (of course), but if you start changing things out (over half of the offered menu) what about when the rest of the guests start wanting to swap out courses. Same rule applies to every situation ...if I say yes to you I must be able to say to everyone. Right? Tasting portions are smaller than a la carte, and what do you suggest the restaurant do with the remaining portion of food that has been sized specifically for you? Some items can be re-portioned where there isn't food going to waste, and some can't.

This sounds like a (wise) chef typing. Thanks for the feedback.

My SO and I will be having our traditional Christmas Eve dinner there. Always a very nice celebration!

Very nice. And how smart of you to have planned ahead.

None of these are high end, but my favorites are Traffic Jam (TJ's) in the Wayne State area, Sweet Lorraine's (12 & Greenfield), Jacoby's (German food, downtown), Pegasus in Greektown, Mexican Village in SW Detroit. Rattlesnake is okay but not my favorite. Opus One near downtown is good too.

And just before we wrap up today's chat. Thanks. (As I noted earlier, I've not been to Rattlesnake, only heard/read about the restaurant.)

Tom, I know I am preaching to the choir, and this topic has been done to death, but I can't help myself. The diner stats that her family is interested in all cuisines except Indian because they have never developed a taste for it. What the heck does that mean? What is "it"? India is a SUBCONTINENT with dozens of provinces and cuisines. There is no such thing as a monolithic Indian cuisine. You can develop a taste for caviar, or chili dogs, or devilled eggs. But let's not make that same sweeping claim about India. The cooking regional, and you can't make a sweeping claim that you've "never developed a taste for it." Thanks for letting me get that off my chest, Tom.

We've gone over (and over!) this topic many times before, but I like the way you state your case -- which is also mine.

To the Carmine's person, I suggest you cancel that reservation and just stay at 701 after you do drinks there!

Unless, of course, she likes to leave restaurants with a shopping bag full of food she couldn't finish.

I don't disagree with the chef about the difficulty of swapping out courses, and I don't begrudge them not doing. My suggestion is only to have 2 options for each course, or alternatively, let me purchase 5 full-sized courses and pay for each one (which would have been more expensive than the tasting menu). I hated penalizing the five diners at my table who would have chosen the tasting menu when it seemed like there was a reasonable solution. And honestly, I'm not terribly picky and have loved tasting menus at a variety of restaurants in DC and elsewhere. These 3 particular tasting menu items just happened to contain the 5 things I loathe!


How about Mrs K's Tollhouse in Silver Spring? I think a 100 year old lady would appreciate the ambiance.

I believe the group was looking for a place in Northern Virginia or DC. But just in case, here's my last take on Mrs. K's.

Go to CityZen. They don't require the whole table to order the tasting menu and are very adept at pacing the non-participants' 3-course dinners to sync up nicely with the tasting menu courses.

Thanks for reminding me of an exception to the rule.

Yes, most restaurants (if not all that I can think of) require tasting menus for everyone at the table, but you would be surprised of the amount of guests who get quite upset at this request. They insist we ask the chef and commonly say it is a "silly rule". I just wanted to inform people that this rule is enforced for a reason ensure everyone at the table is satified by the end of their meal, and not just one person.

Thanks for writing.

Tom, the storage and other costs are covered in the mark up. Usual in DC seems to be 200-300% over wholesale price. Tipping should be for the service, help selecting, presentation, and such. So I have to agree, Serving a 30$ bottle of wine is just as hard as serving $200 bottle. Prepping the wine, is the difference between a hamburger and a good steak.

And on that note, I bid you all a grand Wednesday afternoon. I'm nibbling on leftovers from my new favorite restaurant, but to flag it would be to scoop myself.


See you next week. Thanks for a lively chat.

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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