Ask Tom -- Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema discusses his 2011 Fall Dining Guide

Oct 17, 2011

Ask Tom -- Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema discusses his 2011 Fall Dining Guide. What did you think of his picks?

Tom, thanks for the hard work I'm sure you put into producing the Fall dining guide. I'd like to compliment you on the variety of restaurants you reviewed. You spread the reviews out among the entire region - something near just about everyone. I'm hoping you don't have too may "Why didn't you review any restaurants in my town" comments today. Thanks.

Thank you for the kind words. I started this baby back in late April (it takes time to get to all those restaurants) and am pleased you liked the results. What I discovered at the end was that I almost had more fun eating lower than higher on the food chain and that luxury restaurants have to be really, really good to warrant the cost (money, time) for me.


Thanks for showing up on a Monday, gang. Bring on your dining guide questions and comments and keep in mind, I'll be hosting my usual Wednesday chat this week, too.


Let's rock 'n' roll!

Between American, Modern American, & Southern? And why add Seafood & Barbecue as categories? Are they not American? I was disappointed in the people you chose to give their favorite restaurants. I would have liked to have had some television personalities and more athletes included. Maybe a senator. I know, for example, that Ryan Zimmerman & some of the Nationals go to the Liberty Tavern. I don't care where 5 of the 8 people on your list go. And no Great American Restaurants? Heresy!

Whoa! Lots to respond to in that one paragraph:


1) By "American," we are suggesting traditional cooking. "Modern American" reflects more contemporary cooking. I think we are being more specific -- helpful -- by flagging other restaurants as "Seafood" or "Barbecue" purveyors.  


2) Sorry you didn't care for our profiles. I thought they represented a nice cross-section of local personalities.


3) Maybe next year? I have a spring guide coming out May 20.


Tom, There's not one restaurant in Arlington where you'd like to be a regular? I know that there is a heavy frat boy influence in the Clarendon - Ballston area but surely there is one place that is putting out quality food in a good environment where you'd like to get to know the staff. I love Liberty Tavern / Lyon Hall / the bar at Eventide / Willow just to name a few.

That's not to say Arlington doesn't have good or interesting places to eat, just that, at this point in time, the restaurants that made my list are more to my taste. (Eventide has big portions going for it, but the current chef lacks the finesse of  his predeccessor. And yes, it was a contender.)

Hi Tom, I am outside the DC area in Richmond. We have a new (and first of it's kind) "nose to tail" restaurant that opened this Summer. What is your take on this concept? And would you ever venture this far South to review a restaurant?

I like anything that's done well, including nose-to-tail menus  (for which chefs use other than the usual parts of an animal, including the head, the feet, etc.) 


I travel pretty far for the Magazine, and around the world for my Postcard from Tom column in the Travel section. So something different in Richmond would certainly be of interest to me. The name, please?

Treating my guy to a 30th birthday dinner, I picked the Prime Rib as he loves his prime rib/steak/red meat and thought of going afterwards to Bourbon Steak so he can have a cigar and an after dinner drink. Is this a good selection for dinner? We went to the W for pre-dinner drinks and then J&G last year for his birthday and we're absolutely delighted with the drinks & dinner, I'd like to make this one just as satisfying. Thanks!

I recently returned to the Prime Rib -- the subject of my inaugural review as food critic in 2000 -- and found it merely OK. The Caesar salad lacked tang, the apple pie was dry and the supposedly aged New York strip sure didn't have that quality the night I was in. On the other hand, the kitchen makes a fine crab cake and the signature prime rib is just what you want the hunk of meat to be. 


A safer bet might be to go to Bourbon Steak and stay put (its bar is the source of some stellar cocktails) or start with drinks somewhere else (maybe Quill in the Jefferson Hotel) and move on to the posh steakhouse in the Four Season Hotel. Good luck!

I am suprised that Ardeo + Bardeo did not make your list. The food coming out of the kitchen is amazing especially the chicken soup in green chili broth and with hominey. Was Ardeo even in consideration for making the list?

I went to more than 80 restaurants to come up with my list of 40. Ardeo + Bardeo was one of the places I re-vistited. Unfortunately, I encountered a few dishes that did not represent what I think the kitchen can do.

Hi Tom. We went to Tabard Inn last night and had a very nice meal. I realized that I hadn't eaten there in well over a decade. It's great to see that it's had such a long run as a still good and fresh restaurant. What are some other restaurants that you think have kept it fresh to long periods of time? I know, in the past, you've said that places like Kinkead's and Georgia Brown's are now just shells of what they used to be. Thanks!

While I think Tabard is still a good place to eat, my last meal there, a lunch in September, was off. The appetizers and desserts were up to standards, but the main courses (dull chicken-fried styeak and dry sauteed skate) were disappointing.


There are a satifying number of restaurants that have held up over the years. They include several subjects in this year's guide -- the Inn at Little Washington leaps to mind -- but also La Chaumiere in Georgetown and L'Auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls.  (What long-lived restaurants would you include, readers?)

Thanks for showing a Baltimore restaurant! Were there any other potential Baltimore restaurants under consideration? What made you pick Woodberry?

While not every morsel at Woodberry Kitchen was perfect, I could have been served just a glass of water and been happy to be there. The restaurant reminded me that food is not everything. Service and scenery are important, too. I ventured to Charleston, too, but the service was so stiff, it ruined the dining experience.

Tom, I'm having a hard time finding any faults in your selection of places that you'd like to be a "regular." (Marcel's holds that distinction for my wife and me.) But what I would like to know is this: (1) What places did you seriously consider including but got dropped off of the list for space or other editorial considerations; and (2) are there any places you've visited lately that would have merited inclusion (or serious condideration), but were just too new to you?

Good questions.


I'm pretty happy with the mix that I have -- I worked hard to come up with the range of prices/cooking styles/locations -- but I have a few regrets. One of them is not including Cashion's Eat Place, which got a lot of ink and three stars in my spring dining guide. My most recent dinner there was only slightly less delicious than before. Another was leaving out the Source, which I've really loved in the past (and continue to like in parts).  I just didn't think the price of the dinner was worth the one or two lesser things I experienced there.


If I were to put out the guide today, I might have tried to make room for a French bistro, another charmer in Charm City, an established burger joint and a seafood  newcomer -- all of which I'm not naming today because they may be featured in the Magazine in the weeks to come.

Rather than complain that you didn't select any restaurants in Bethesda for the guide, I'd like to complain that there aren't any restaurants where being a regular is appealing! The only place I go to consistently is Raku, and I keep telling myself I want to be a regular at Redwood but I haven't quite been able to make it.

I like Raku and Redwood. But I enjoyed other places more than those two. I considered another Bethesda restaurant, Bistro Provence, but I think it has too many service issues weighing against it.

Thanks for including Woodberry Kitchen (yet, I am concerned that it will be even more crowded now!). If this was in my neighborhood, I'd be there at least twice a week, love the place and I hope they open one in the DC area! One thing you might want your readers to know is that this restaurant is NOT in downtown area, and you have to go through a rather sketchy part of town to get there, and there is only valet parking as an option - street parking is not allowed or does not feel very safe. I suggest anyone venturing out there has GPS to make sure you can get there and out, on one of my trips they had construction on one of the roads, and detour didn't put me where I thought it was so GPS was very helpful. Other than that, WK is always well worth the trip!

Useful advice (except I recall parking up the street from WK). I could almost write another guide based on such tips and other details that we didn't have space for this issue.

The name of the "nose to tail" concept in Richmond is called The Blue Goat

The peanut gallery thanks you.

Mr. S: The Inn is great, but you forgot to mention the joys of eating on the outdoor patio when the weather allows - plus the Inn's great chicken and waffles combo (no that's not a misprint).

Yep: The garden is a lovely place to dine when the weather permits (and I believe I've flagged it in previous reviews of the Ashby Inn). Chicken and waffles? I'm there!

I never quite understand all the comlaints - these guides are always fun to read. They are interesting and thoughtful. I would be astonished if I agreed with everything you write, but why would anyone expect that? I learn new things, have some views confirmed, and have other areas where I might think differently. I enjoyed this guide as I always do. My only complaint is that I would always like to see more restaurant material in the post. I know you are awamped, but i read everything from your colleagues as well. the more the merrier, in such a diverse food town.

Bless you! There is no such thing as a perfect guide. Not when one is writing for a general audience. I view these collections of reviews as I do cookbooks: If  a user comes away with a couple of good suggestions/recipes, the effort/purchase is worth it.

[MyFavoriteRestaurant] in [MyHometown] or try [MyFavoriteDish] at [TrendyPlace]?


I'm headed there next week, in part due to your review. Can you recommend any vegetarian-friendly options?

Chef Nicholas Steffaneli excels at pastas (his vegetarian risotti have all been memorable).

Thanks for including this on your Guide. My husband took me there for my birthday this weekend, and I am still thinking about our meal, especially the shrimp in tomato, feta, onion, pine nut and raisin sauce. And the roasted beets with goat cheese and mint. And the grilled kalamari stuffed with sheep's milk cheese. And the retsina ... wonderful night and a delicious food. Thank you!

I was thrilled to be able to include a recommendation from the much-maligned Tysons Corner and have it be  one that is stylish and delicious but also moderately priced.

My complaint about the "Their Take" feature was that most of the choices were so pedestrian and bland. Cafe Milano? Cheesecake Factory or the same meal every time at Capital Grille? Even the "foodies" in the group picked pretty common answers: Four Sisters/Vermillion for the VA crowd and Bar Pilar for the DC crowd? Other than the shout-outs to Room 11 and Al Crostino, I learned of nothing new about the hidden "gems" that the "famous" frequent.

The personalities weren't asked about hidden gems. They were asked about where they went on a regular basis.  What should we have done to improve their answers? We don't like to put words in people's mouths.

Hey, that neighborhood (my home turf) only looks sketchy! Hampden/Woodberry is really quite safe. (There are $500K homes in the Clipper Mill development where the Kitchen is located.) On the other hand, Baltimore's John Waters does refer to one of the dive bars you have to pass driving down Union Avenue to get there as "the bucket of blood."

"Bucket of Blood!"  Don't be a tease. Where is it?

Is there a really great, creative vegetarian restaurant - one on the order of the Laughing Seed in Asheville, if you ever happen to go to Asheville - preferably organic, preferably in the vicinity of Union Station or a short cab ride away?

These days, most top chefs are capable of whipping up interesting meatless menus (or at least two or three dishes). One of the few good vegetarian options right now is Elizabeth's Gone Raw, although it operates only a few nights a week.  (Has anyone besides me been there?)

Tom - this is directed more toward the Post's Tech Department than you, but I for one think it would be very helpful if every Post restaurant listing had links to all Q&A pairings in these chats that reference that restaurant. So if you answer a question about Marcel's, a link to the question and response would appear under Marcel's listing. Seems like an handy way to keep the Post's restaurant listings and reviews fresh.

Tom's producer here. Thanks for the suggestion. As you can imagine, our tech developers have a pretty hefty to-do list, but I really like this idea, so consider it added to the "to-be-looked-into" stack.

First of all, there is a parking lot in the back of the restaurant, near the glassblowing studio where there is parking. The Clipper Mill area is actually regentrifying and is incredibly safe. Furthermore, Hampden (the "sketchy" neighborhood I'm assuming you refer to), while is a traditionally working class neighborhood, is actually quite safe during the evening hours (I probably wouldn't walk alone at 2am but you wouldn't be doing that anyway).

Got that, chatters? You're safe getting in and out of Woodberry Kitchen.

I am not sure if I am happy that you did not choose Pasta Plus in Laurel as a place you would like to be a regular so that it is not as crowded or disappointed for the owners who certainly deserve the recognition. I did like your overall dining guide and plan to try out the Elkridge taco shop.

I wish R & R Taqueria were miles closer than it is! But those tacos were worth the drive. I haven't had any in DC that were consistently as good or as varied.

for ruining the "secret" that is Bibiana. While tourists and law-firm night-toilers are still going to places like Chef Geoffs, those in the know go to Bibiana. So a sarcastic "thank you" from me, and heartfelt one from the restaurant, I'm sure. Great list, Tom. It's nice to see Vidalia still rates and Citronelle is back on top. Just don't tell me my favorite place, 2941, didn't make it b/c of bad experiences....

I think Bertrand Chemel is one of the area's top chefs, but 2941 is in major need of a makeover and finer service.

I live behind Han Sung Oak and have wanted to try it for ages. However, I'm scared! I don't know anything about Korean food or how to order it. I hear the BBQ is good, but I don't know what to do. How can I get over my fear?

Just ... go. And order the dishes I describe in my mini-review. The servers don't speak much English, but they are very good at guiding you through a meal.

First, well done on the Fall guide. It was an enjoyable online read. Second, for those of us who are geographically (& Epicurean/epicuriously) challenged, is there an accessible pdf format of the Fall Dining Guide available? I've previously done the Atlanta WashPost home mail delivery but can't do the Michigan mail delivery. It's a real challenge to read on the "Going Out" pages. Many thanks from the DC/Nova exiles.

PDF pages of each edition of the Post are available for up to two weeks at the Today's Paper link off the homepage. You might want to wait a few minutes before you rush to grab the dining guide pages, though. There was a glitch with the Magazine section that our IT gurus are looking at now.

What a surprise! We love R&R up here. Lots of other great hidden restaurants up here in between Baltimore and DC-- hope you get up here more often in the future.

Tell me where else I need to go, please!

Hi Tom, I like the way you classify the restaurants, I think there is a big difference between American, modern American, Southern, and I especially like that you separate Seafood and BBQ - and thanks for telling what kind of BBQ, as we know there is a big difference between North Carolina, TX, St, Louis etc. Also, thanks for including taquerieas, those are on the top of my list for places to check out! (you wouldn't call taquerias "Mexican" so BBQ is appropriately not classfied as "American") The only disappointment I had was Jaleo. I love Jose Andres and I loved this place when it opened, but just like you mentioned for Eventide, I don't think it has the finesse and the care it had when it first opened, same with the service. I have been to both the one in Bethesda and Crytal City couple times in the last six months and both have been disappointing. Downtown doesn't interest me since it is tired and very touristy. And I get surprised that at all locations they try to explain to you what tapas are even when you tell them you've been there before. When it first opened OK, but come on, after all these years? I think you could have included many more before Jaleo. I really think they treat you differently there than other customers. And if you wanted to have a tapas place, Estadio does a much better and authentic job. Anyway, thanks for the guide and selecting places from all over the area!

Thanks for the feedback. Take away the service and what you get at the original Jaleo (notice we didn't recommend the off-shoots?) is exceptional food. I probably eat there more than at any other restaurant in town and I'm constantly surprised at the range and the consistency of the cooking.

Don't worry, Arlingtonians, you can always grab a cup of coffee at the Starbucks or the Starbucks or the Starbucks or the Starbucks or the Starbucks.....


Hi Tom, I enjoyed the theme of this year's fall dining guide, though could ever afford to be a regular at a few of the destinations. Ours is Firefly, even though we only go there a few times a year. We have five year old twins and the restaurant is a favorite for all of us. I struggled with calling myself a regular, but we don't get to go out that often and I feel comfortable there. One waiter always takes time to greets us, even if we're not on one of his tables, and I generally drop by a bit early and chat with the bartender before the rest of the family arrives. The food has rarely disappointed, particularly those stuffed dates.

Thanks for sharing. Firefly is a sweet place.

Hi Tom--Congratulations on your new dining guide! It looks like it took a lot of work. I know you do not take complaints on your favorite restaurants, so I do not expect to see this posted, but I think you get better service at Palena than most. The food is mostly fantastic, no doubt, but I have repeatedly had undercooked cheeseburgers (ordered medium and came barely medium rare) and in these cases the staff have handled the matter poorly (first, I had to get up from my seat to find waitstaff after trying to get their attention for 10 minutes or longer; second, waitstaff responded as though I did not know what medium was; third burger was cooked more and returned to me on the same blood-soaked bun--blood from the first undercooked version; and fourth, I am willing to take the food safety risk of a medium burger, not medium rare-rare). How do you think you can identify and then report on cases where you are getting different/better treatment than the average diner?

Because I typically go multiple times before reviewing a restaurant, during which I am not always recognized, AND I pay attention to reader feedback (including yours). 

Loved to see some new names and places this year! Thanks for what you do, Mr. Sietsema, we are so so lucky to have you in our town! What the restaurants/chefs that this time last year you would have been surprised to see not make the cut? Surprised to see Estadio edged out. I haven't been, but it's been the talk of the town for a while, right? 2 Amy's also not on the list.

Thank you!


This Sunday, I'll be writing about three restaurants that didn't make the cut. One of them is Estadio -- a place I visited three times before coming to the conclusion that I preferred Jaleo for Spanish small plates.


That's a wrap for today, chatters.  Hope to "see" you again on Wednesday, same time. Ciao for now.

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 and keeps tabs on the world at large in his Postcard From Tom. His 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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