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

Feb 19, 2014

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

I (female) was taking a friend (male) out to dinner and while we were waiting for the check, he needed to take a call so he said he'd meet me outside. Well, 5, 10, 15 minutes go by and no bill (and no waiter to flag), and finally I got up and went in search of. . . so to speak. I was told outright that they were waiting for my male friend to come back to give the bill to him - if I'd known that I would have kept sitting there taking up a table, just to see how long they were going to wait. I expressed my disgust to the manager & server (seriously it is 2014) and tipped according to the decade they thought they were living in (1950).

Something tells me that that server of yours is never going to wait until The Gentleman returns to drop off a check at a table that includes a female guest.


By tipping a la the 1950s, I'm wondering if you did yourself, and females in general, a disfavor; more than one server has shared, here and elsewhere, the notion that women are believed to tip less than men. True or not, what you left may reinforce the sentiment.


Question: Other than the bill incident, were you pleased with the service? 



Despite a costly kitchen fire earlier this month, the long-awaited Fiola Mare is scheduled to open to the public at 5:30 Friday night. The 7, 500 square foot Italian restaurant at 3050 K St. NW – “the biggest one I’ve ever done,” says chef-owner Fabio Trabocchi  -- comes with a sweeping view of the Potomac River and amenities including a seafood market counter where diners can select whole Dover sole, turbot and branzino from a bed of shaved ice.  The grilled fish will be filleted tableside.


Fiola Mare’s menu is expected to change daily. When asked which three dishes he was most excited about guests trying, Trabocchi listed his sea urchin panna cotta, Venetian-style risotto made with the lower part of a cod jaw, and a dessert of rum-soaked brioche with poached pears.  Assisting him in the kitchen: John Melfi, formerly with Blue Duck Tavern.


Built for close to $5 million, Fiola Mare is Trabocchi’s third restaurant, following Fiola in Penn Quarter and Casa Luca downtown. The waterfront destination includes two bars, one of which will be accessible to the restaurant’s multiple semi-private dining areas and outdoor patio.


The Feb. 1 fire, which occurred during the staff’s first rehearsal, caused extensive damage to both the kitchen wall, which was the source of the smoke and flames, and Fiola Mare’s European stove, says Trabocchi.  Fortunately, no employee was injured and the delay to launch was a mere 10 days.



Good morning, everyone. Lots to chew over today. My review of Iron Gate in Dupont Circle is online now, as is my first look at Roofers Union in Adams Morgan, where Ripple chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley is turning out some terrific small plates.  And if you're looking for something different for lunch, allow me to introduce you to the artful $28 deal at the Sofitel downtown.


In response to a chatter's complaint last week, I heard from the owner of the new Alba Osteria. Here's his missive:


Hello Tom,

As Alba Osteria’s owner, I am disappointed to learn about the upset guest's  experience last week on your chat. It is absolutely our number one priority to make sure every guest leaves satisfied from their visit to Alba. We understand that a diner's overall experience  is just as important as what is featured on the menu. Our team at Alba takes full responsibility for all the issues mentioned, and would welcome the opportunity to address the unhappy guest with a complimentary return visit to try us again. We are also taking immediate steps to focus on the service challenges and remedy them as soon as possible.


Our culinary team is focused on making sure every dish is quality checked before being presented to the table. The chefs and I take the comments on the seasoning of the soup, pigs feet and polenta dish very seriously. Please be assured that we are also taking every step to provide our guests with quality food. The kitchen humbly welcomes all feedback, both good and bad, as it is our desire to serve delicious fare.


At Alba, all our menu items are made-to-order and are sent out as soon as they are ready. Food does not normally sit out under the heat lamps since our kitchen is setup to serve each dish as soon as it is precisely cooked and plated. We are absolutely looking into how the polenta dish and the following replacement dish could have reached a guest in the manner described in your chat.


Owning additional restaurants in the Washington area, I am fully aware of the detrimental effect poor service  can have on a diner's experience. I fully acknowledge we are having problems on the floor, and am committed to both my staff and our customers to address these issues in the most thorough and efficient way possible. Our management team and I are launching an intense FOH staff refresher course on service. This will be ongoing until all our guests receive the proper customer service they deserve.


 Management and I always appreciate feedback. It is the only way we will be able to improve on every level. We have made a tremendous effort to trace our steps to find the unsatisfied guest but cannot be certain we have identified the correct person. It saddens us greatly when we make a mistake and fail to rectify the situation before a guest leaves the restaurant. If you could facility us reaching this guest to offer a return visit compliments of our team, we would be grateful. We would also welcome more feedback directly from this recent guest. Our two goals are to provide excellent service while presenting authentic, delicious Piemontese cuisine in DC.


Thank you for a having a forum where diners and restaurateurs can express their concerns and give feedback. This is one of the most important  venues to help the members of our industry reach their full potential. 


Thank you,

Hakan Ilhan


Ready, set, chat!

Tom, I have been a restaurant manager in he city for over 10 years and this discussion about the treatment of ladies has created some interesting talk among my colleagues. Most of us came to a few general agreements. Generally speaking men tend to make more requests for specific tables than women. Women tend to focus more on the point of the meal of the meal itself than men. Men tend to focus on perception of power etc. Furthermore women tend to be less fussy when it comes to the dining experience and just enjoy themselves whereas men again focus on power and perception. All of this being said this conversation has made me reevaluate how I do my job and how I train others to do there jobs. I have not chosen the hospitality field to be dismisive of anyone, but I am well aware of the power of perception.

Interesting!  This makes females look better than their male counterparts, because the former are focused more on what's truly important: the meaning behind the meal rather than the placement of furniture.


Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

A few weeks ago I wrote for advice, because my daughter had decided to celebrate her Sweet 16 by dressing up with some friends for a nice dinner out. You recommended 701 for a menu that would appeal to various tastes. My report: we made a mid-afternoon site visit the week before, so my daughter could eyeball the place and see where she might be seated. The head bartender obligingly showed us the semi-private alcoves and whipped up three mocktails for her to choose from. Between his demeanor, and the gracious, caring inquiries by the general manager later over the phone, I was confident that they wouldn’t just be another table of 8 (non-drinking at that) to quickly turn over. The evening was everything we, and our daughter, hoped for. As one girl said in the car later, “When we walked in and they asked if they could take our coats, I knew I had entered a whole ‘nother world!” A tray of the chosen mocktails awaited them in the alcove. While the effect was somewhat lost on their party, who all arrived together, the alcove is the perfect, out-of-the-way space for a relaxed greet and mingle session before a group settles in their seats to contemplate the menu. The girls, even the vegetarian, all loved their food, which seems designed to appeal to diners, not show off a chef’s latest tricks. They also appreciated the live music. My daughter’s sorbet sported a lit candle and a Happy Birthday chocolate, while the pianist played Happy Birthday, but so subtly that they didn’t recognize it at first. We arrived midway through their dessert to help ourselves to a drink at the bar, and the general manager came to report on the evening, clearly having overseen their experience to ensure its success. You are a HUGE hero in our house!

Your post just made my week. Thanks for taking the time to pen such a detailed field report. I'm thrilled your daughter's 16th birthday is one she'll remember fondly.


701, take a bow -- and brace yourself for prom season!

In this day and age of cheap computer printers, there is absolutely no excuse for the specials not to be available along with the menus. The waitstaff can tell you when the kitchen runs out of something.

Agreed! If there are more than three specials, restaurants should, as a courtesy to diners, present them on paper.

Hi Tom, I've been a waiter for 20 years and wanted to shed some light on the controversy of female patrons. Yes, unfortunately waiters do stereotype female diners. But the reason why is because of the excessive amount of time some groups of all females will take up a table. This is especially a problem on a busy night. We know you are there to socialize and catch up and we want you to have the greatest experience possible! But 3-4 hours at a table when the average table turn time is 90 minutes is extreme. It prevents hungry customers who are patiently waiting from being seated. It also makes a significant dent on the amount of money we can make that night and believe me, most waiters are very poor :) Just thought I would throw that out there. Thanks Tom!

I know your post is going to open up a big ol' can of worms, but what you have to say is interesting.


Are your findings true of women in general, or a specific age group? And maybe more importantly, for you and your brethern, does their tip reflect the fact they were camping out for the night?

Hi Tom - Long time admirer of your work here. I've got a business dinner for two next week to plan, and I'm struggling to come up with an idea for a restaurant that has an interesting menu (my companion comes from an area w/very few restaurants), is in DC, and where we can have a conversation that is NOT 1) drowned out by general noise and 2) overheard by the two top that is placed 6 inches from ours. I eat out a lot more for my job these days, and the noise level and close quarters in some of the newer restaurants are really making it difficult to do business over a nice meal. Any suggestions are very much appreciated!

Glad to help out.


As I mentally scan the DC dining landscape, I think a booth at Bourbon Steak in Georgetown or an alcove at either Marcel's in the West End or Corduroy near the convention center might be among your best bets.  You might also consider Vidalia downtown or Bibiana. The latter has a table or two made discrete with a see-through chain curtain separating you from the main  dining room. 


Be sure to specify your needs when you call or email to book a reservation.

Can questions be submitted before the live chat and still be answered? If so, then are they kept on file for another week? I have submitted a couple in the past but have never seen a response (maybe they weren’t good questions!).

Yep, you can submit a question or comment as early as a week in advance.  In fact, I encourage people to send me well ahead of the live chat, because it gives me time to investigate rumors, get another side of a story or track down ideas for say, Paris or Philly or Berlin.


"Leftovers" from one week are often transferred to the next week's batch, which explains any old date stamps you see. 


Finally, I try to address as many posts as possible. If I don't have a ready answer, I might skip the question (or throw it out to audience members).

Getting a rare night away from my toddler for dinner at Kapnos. Anything we shouldn't miss - other than the cocktails ? Thanks Tom -- love the chats, even though I rarely get out anymore.

Gosh, what's *not* to like at Mike Isabella's latest (except for brunch, a weak spot in an otherwise fine Greek performance)? 


Your to-do list should include the roasted eggplant dip, baby goat, chicken with roast potatoes, the octopus, one of the savory phyllo pies ... that help?

I would think that "expressing disgust to the manager and server" would make it clear exactly why the tip was so low. Seriously, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy that waitstaff need to think about. "Women don't tip well so we'll give them lousy service." "See, they didn't tip well!"

Uh huh.

Hi Tom. We went to a well-reviewed fine dinning restaurant last week and had a generally excellent meal. Because of that, I won't publicly shame them here. The one downside was something I encounter all too often -- poorly made hot tea. I'm not a coffee drinker, but I love to finish a good meal with a nice dessert and a cup of hot tea. All too often, though, I get a pot of bitter, brown liquid. Even if I take the tea bag or loose leaf basket out as soon as it gets to the table, it's already too late. They put so much in and, maybe, waited so long to get it to me, that it's already bitter. Blah. Please, Mr and Mrs Restauranteur, show some love to those of us who want to follow up a meal with a caffeine drink that isn't coffee. Leave the tea bag or leaf basket out of the pot and let us put it in at the table. Thanks.

Restaurateurs, this is a complaint I get at least two or three times a month. Show some tea drinkers some love, OK?

When dining at a place that automatically charges a fixed gratuity based on the size of the party, is it possible to ask that the amount be reduced if the service/food is terrible? I've had several bad experiences recently while dining out with 5 other friends. We were charged 20% gratuity and weren't sure what our options were...

Absolutely you can dispute an automatic gratuity if the service isn't up to snuff.  If the *food* isn't to your liking, that's more of a gray area. Why would you penalize a great server (if that's the case) when it's the kitchen that's responsible for your unhappiness?  


Either way, it's always best to raise any issue with a manager, at the time the problem is unfolding.

I do have to say that when I go out with my husband I have noticed many servers carefully placing the bill between us. Don't know if it's because we both look young and unestablished, or if it's just where we're eating, but severs are getting the message that it's not the 50's anymore.

LOVE that approach. Because it's not assuming anything.

This is not a reason to treat all-female parties badly from the get-go (how do you know that any individual party is going to behave that way?). If you need the table back after a reasonable time, the manager should handle the request politely.

I agree. There are a couple ways to approach the situation. For example, a manager could say -- in advance, of course, so there aren't any surprises --  he needs the table back by a certain time *or* extend an invitation for the group to move to the bar.

My fiance and I went to Ruth's Chris in Chinatown for dinner on Monday since he got a gift card and we figured we might as well use it. Overall, the experience was okay, but there were a couple things that made me think of this chat. The first was that we were originally seated at a table right next to two mom's with their kids who had clearly just come from the Disney on Ice. I'm pro-kid in restaurants, if they behave, but the kids had clearly just ingested their weight in cotton candy, so that wasn't happening. We asked to be moved to a quieter area (discretely), and they were very polite about it. Well, lo and behold, by the end of our meal the kids were asleep, there were two MORE children next to us that were very well behaved, and we had trouble shouting over some loud ADULTS who were having a good time at the bar. The other thing I wanted to point out was that when we sat down my fiance (male) was handed the one wine menu. It wasn't busy, so I asked for another so we could both look. When we asked to be moved, they again only offered him the wine menu. I've been to plenty of places that are busy and only want to hand out one menu, but please, do not assume the female doesn't know her wine. The polite way to get around it is to just set it on the end of the table, between the two.

Lots of good lessons in your post. Thanks for sharing.

701 is usually not too loud or so busy that you couldn't ask to be seated away from other tables

Right. I just wanted to spread the love around this morning.  Keep in mind, 701 offers live music later in its week, so you don't want to sit near the lounge if you've got business on the agenda.

I don't think that a woman risks perpetuating the stereotype that women are bad tippers if she is explicit with the server and management that she is unhappy with the way she is being treated, and the tip reflects that unhappiness. If someone leaves a bad tip without explaining their displeasure to the server/management, I can see how doing so would perpetuate such a stereotype. (I think this also applies to other groups, typically younger people or racial minorities, which are perceived to be bad tippers.)

Fair point.

Again, in this day and age of cheap computer printers, there is no excuse for not having enough wine lists so that anyone who gets a menu gets a wine list. It wastes the waitstaff's time, especially during busy hours, to have to ask them to come back later because four people need time to examine the one drinks menu alloted per table. Why don't restaurateurs understand this?

Your post might help bring about change.

The commenter said that servers stereotype female diners "because of the excessive amount of time some groups of all females will take up a table." Boy I wonder what he thinks when a bunch of my male wine geek friends get together for dinner and spend hours at the restaurant. I wrote in last week about how younger diners are often treated. After reading the post from the stereotyper, I realize that if the server thinks that you will not tip as well, the service will suffer. As one who worked as a server to help pay for college (many, many years ago) I heard the same thing said about blacks, Latinos, women, young people, etc. I always found that there was no rhyme or reason to who tipped well or not. I got great tips from a group of black women and stiffed by a couple of business men in very expensive suits the same night. If you do your best to give service, you will normally get a decent tip. But if the only reason you provide good service is to get a good tip, please work in a restaurant that I don't patronize, I want you to take pride in doing a good job, I'll tip you well.

Well said! And Amen!

The big 4-0! Thinking something similar to Oval Room in terms of ambiance and price point,which we did for our last nice dinner out. We do not get out much because of the little ones, so we were thinking of something newish on the scene.

Newish and (mostly) delicious: La Piquette near National Cathedral for French in a bistro setting, Thally in Shaw for modern American, maybe 701 in Penn Quarter, which has a new chef and a fresh menu in its favor.




On the list:

Best New: Rose's Luxury


Rising Star Chef: Marjorie Meek-Bradley of Ripple


Outstanding Bar Program: Columbia Room and Rogue 24


Outstanding Pastry: Tiffany MacIsaac of Birch & Barley, etc.


Outstanding Restaurant: Jaleo and Vidalia


Outstanding Service: Marcel's


Outstanding Wine: CityZen


Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic


Scott Anderson, Elements, Princeton, NJ

Cathal Armstrong, Restaurant Eve, Alexandria, VA

Joey Baldino, Zeppoli, Collingswood, NJ

Pierre Calmels, Bibou, Philadelphia

Anthony Chittum, Iron Gate, Washington, D.C.

Joe Cicala, Le Virtù, Philadelphia

Spike Gjerde, Woodberry Kitchen, Baltimore

Lee Gregory, The Roosevelt, Richmond, VA

Haidar Karoum, Proof, Washington, D.C.

Tarver King, The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm, Lovettsville, VA

Rich Landau, Vedge, Philadelphia

Lucas Manteca, The Red Store, Cape May Point, NJ

Cedric Maupillier, Mintwood Place, Washington, D.C.

Justin Severino, Cure, Pittsburgh

Bryan Sikora, La Fia, Wilmington, DE

Brad Spence, Amis, Philadelphia

Lee Styer, Fond, Philadelphia

Vikram Sunderam, Rasika, Washington, D.C.

Angelo Vangelopoulos, The Ivy Inn Restaurant, Charlottesville, VA

Cindy Wolf, Charleston, Baltimore


And last, but not least, up for Outstanding Restaurateur is Ashok Bajaj.


Hearty congrats to all. Next step: the initial long lists of 20 names are winnowed down to five names per category by the JBF voters.



Tom, any firm date yet for the opening of Fiola Mare in Washington Harbor?

You must have missed my introduction, above.


Friday night is Day 1 for the new restaurant.

Just saying. Redoing and reprinting a wine list or menu can be expensive; at least for the type of restaurant I tend to patronize. Most tables don't need more than one wine list, and if they do, they tend to ask. If you have an extensive drink menu however, you might need more.

I want to throw this question out to chefs and restaurateurs: How much does it cost to print a list of specials or an updated wine menu? Be honest!

My sister in law used to be a waitress in Seattle. One day Bill Gates was seated at her two-top. For all his billions he apparently is a rather mediocre tipper.

Maybe he doesn't get out much?

About tipping at bars. I tend to try and leave a cash tip when at the bar, especially if there's a tip jar out. If I pay by credit card and tip in cash do they think they're getting stiffed? Do they notice dropping in the tip jar? Should I tip in the same way I pay?

In some cases, where it's convenient for me, I've started to tip servers in cash. That way, they don't have to wait to get their hard-earned money.


At a bar, I like to catch the server's eye and let him or her know that the bills I'm putting down are for that individual specifically.  Tip jars can be problematic.

Hi Tom! My boyfriend and I lately have noticed a lot of open tables when we are put at a waiting list at restaurants. IT IS SO ANNOYING!! Why is there 3 open tables when there is a 30-1 hour wait?

Because a VIP is coming in? Because someone is late for their reservation, and said empty table is actually claimed? There can be multiple reasons for what you see.

I'm sorry, this is ridiculous. A table that needs one food menu per person needs one drinks menu or wine list per person. If you add up the amount of time it takes four or six people to read and decide on their drinks -- cocktails, then wine, perhaps some of the table are having wine by the glass and will need the wine list more than once -- I think you'd find that the cost-benefit ratio of printing more wine lists would be pretty good.

Agreed. I've been dining out with lots of quartets recently, and it can take forever to get that one drink list passed around ... loosen up, restaurants!

Rich folks tend to tip poorly. How do you think they got rich?

Ha! I'm inclined to believe in your theory. I went to school with a condiment heiress whose uncle is now a very, very big deal in the Administration.  She never, ever seemed to have her purse or any cash on her when we went to the Tombs or out for pizza. She also happened to be easy on the eyes, but ... we always paid for her meals!

We are treated as second class! When you have coffee it's endless refills. If you order tea you're lucky to get a dinky little tin pot of hot water and a single tea bag. I miss England where tea comes in a nice ceramic pot that will pour out at least two cups.

Chalk one up for the Brits.

It seems strange to me that servers believe that women tip less then men. I know this is anecdotal, but the women I know who have themselves been servers or who have daughters who have tip very, very generously, and encourage their friends to do the same because they are sympathetic with the low wages servers make. Women I know are also much less likely to tip less because of poor service because they will make excuses for the server (it's the kitchen or she/he are just having a bad day).

Good points all.

Could you go over your issue with Jose Andres' MiniBar? Thanks to recent big birthdays, my partner and I have recently gone to MiniBar and Le Diplomate. We also attended Rogue 24 for New Year’s Eve. While the portions were large at Le Diplomate and we are fans of RJ Cooper, we would not place them close to MiniBar, which was one of the most exceptional dining experiences we ever had. Could you go over again why you have tended to place Rogue 24 and Le Diplomate above MiniBar in your recent chats?

I haven't said anything good or bad about Minibar since my initial review of the transplanted restaurant because I haven't been back.  Yes, I owe the place a visit.

On the other hand, I've seen wine lists larger than a Volkswagen at places with tables smaller than a hat box. It's heard enough to find a place to set one down, let alone four or more! We have a definitive First World problem here today, folks!

Indeed we do.


That said, is anyone else tired of getting like, three or more menus -- one for drinks, one for the standing menu, another for specials, the wine card -- when they sit down? And not having room on the table to view them all? Irksome.

"I went to school with a condiment heiress whose uncle is now a very, very big deal in the Administration." Tom, it's easier to just say you went to school with a Heinz. You're not terribly opaque here.

But it's more fun to be opaque!

I regularly go out with a few other women and, yes, we do sit for maybe two hours, but we also tip accordingly! Usually doubling the tip or even more depending on just how long we sit there. (we're in our 60s and 70s by the way)

You ladies rock.

I didn't do this in a vacuum, when I finally got the bill I expressed my opinion on his attitude. Not just un-apologetic, the server was actually even more condescending - made a comment about me wanting to 'wear the pants' - so I outright told him that if he wanted to live in 1950, I would tip accordingly.

He didn't say that -- did he?!! That's a pretty significant detail to leave out of the post. I'm definitely on your side.

Well, what are they supposed to do, withhold the menus until you have to ask for them? Sounds like the size of the table is the problem.

Yes, I'm complaining more about too-small tables than multiple menus.

Tom - I have plans to do a birthday dinner on Friday night at Del Campo. Good or bad choice?

As long as you like smoke, you're fine.

The Gates story is something the family likes to joke about. My sister in law was a starving college student at the time and we think she figured she'd hit pay dirt when he was seated in her area. He was apparently very nice, and bought a lot of food, but didn't tip like a rock star. I guess he saves his personal fortune for much bigger charity cases than a single starving college student.

Honestly, I think money spent on ridding the world of malaria is a nobler cause than paying a server 20 percent tip.

This Saturday I took my boyfriend out for Valentine's Day (I am female). We had an interesting discussion about how we were at a 4 top and the 2 top next to us had 2 parties in a row of both women while 4 tops sat empty all around. Then when our waiter brought the bill he set it directly in front of my boyfriend, which happens often and doesn't bother me all that much. What did bother me was after I put my card in the bill and handed it back to the waiter, when he brought it back he still gave it to my boyfriend to sign! Just put it in the middle of the table.

And so ends another 60 minutes of food (and tip) talk.


Thanks for participating, everyone. Let's do it again next week, same time. (Insert sound of lunch bell here.)

Producer's note: Tom will be out next week. His chat will return March 5.

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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