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

Jul 30, 2014

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Hi Tom: My dad is coming in from the Midwest and we have morning meetings and than some formal tours of DC government landmarks. I really want to Wow him also with a suit/tie power lunch somewhere downtown. My thoughts are BLT, Central or even Charlie Palmer if we want to travel over near the Capitol. Thoughts?

All of the above are good choices, but I'll make your decision more difficult by throwing in the very good Joe's Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab in a handsome former bank building on 15th St. NW and 701, a pioneer in Penn Quarter that always finds a famous face (or 10) in its supper clubby dining room across from the National Archives.


WELCOME BACK: Following a million dollar make-over, the 20 year-old Oval Room is expected to reopen Aug. 4, says owner Ashok Bajaj, who paints a picture for us with white Carrera marble floors, mahogany accents, plush fabrics and a painting by the American artist Jennifer Bartlett.


The interior changes will be accompanied by some fresh ideas from executive chef Tony Conte: raw bar choices (think fluke with coconut and lime); a $20 lunch special at the bar, featuring a beverage, entrée and sorbet for $20; and a four-course tasting menu for $60.


THIS JUST IN: Master sommelier Andy Myers just texted me the news that he’s leaving the four-star CityZen the end of September to become wine director for ThinkFoodGroup, the company behind Minibar, Jaleo, Zaytinya and on. “All is amicable,” he says of the move from the Mandarin-Oriental hotel.


Ready? Let’s begin.


Posting early in search of good restaurants for dinner and brunch in C'ville for 4 women on a wine-tasting weekend. Yelp and Urbanspoon reviews are all over the place.

The places that keep coming up in conversations with my reliable sources there include The Ivy Inn, Pippin Hill Farm (for lunch) and The Alley Light for French. I had a nice solo lunch recently at the convivial southern small plates purveyor, Pasture, which is an offshoot of the original in Richmond.  One of the more novel dishes there: smoky rice grits with tomato and black-eyed peas.

Hi Tom, My Dad is turning 60 this year, and his request for dinner out was a good steak - specifically prime rib. Where can we get a good steak that won't break the bank for a dinner with 6 people? Also, they out west past Dulles, so ideally this would not be downtown, but Arlington or further west. Thank you! I've not written in before, but always appreciate your honest your advice and have tried some great restaurants from reading these chats!

I don't see prime rib on its menu, but otherwise, Ray's the Steaks in Arlington is where you want to toast your dad.  All the beef is high-quality, and, unlike so many steak houses, this one offers sides of mashed potatoes and creamed spinach in the price of  the entree.

Hi Tom I didn't get a chance to respond during the last chat but it seems that in today's economy everyone is expecting something free for a bad service. A check takes longer than expected and you miss an appointment - common sense might tell you not to make your lunch so close to an appointment time. If you fall in a restaurant over nothing on the floor (sounds like her own feet) she expects service to be better - funny how the ambulance part was left out - the restaurant doesn't owe her anything. I'm sure this going to get a lot of hate (if you even post this) but if all people are going to do is complain about service than stay home. If you share a dessert why are you entitled to separate plates - if your lunch/dinner mate has kooties maybe you get your own dessert. Yes, I've had bad service at a restaurant but I don't expect something out of it. It's like those people who EXPECT to be able to use expired coupons because they forgot to use it before it expired. Some people need to come to planet Earth and come back to reality. (and for what it's worth - I'm not in the food business)

I was irritated with the original poster  in last week's chat when it was revealed -- by the restaurant in question -- that a manager offered to call an ambulance after she slipped on the floor.  That, to me, is certainly a thoughtful gesture.

Last week one poster asked whether you should expect the server to refill the wine glass. I generally tell them that I'll refill because part of the experience of a good wine is how the taste changes in the glass. If you keep refilling it before it is empty it ruins that experience. Also one law that I love is that (at least in D.C.) you don't have to finish the bottle - you can take leftover wine with you in a sealed bag. I feel like I can order a bottle of wine (generally better deal, better selection, and better wine than by the glass) for two and not feel like we have drink it all.

To each his own. The problem could be resolved, of course, by a diner stating his preference up front, after the bottle of wine is introduced. ("I prefer to pour my own wine for the rest of the meal, thanks.")


I *love* that the District, Virginia and Maryland all let diners bring home wine in sealed bags now. The practice encourages both exploration and moderation.

What’s the deal with the vegetarian only rule on Tuesdays at Domku? A friend and I were craving Eastern European fare and decided to check out the restaurant after reading your review and hearing good opinions from friends. We were utterly confused when the waitress came to take our order (Schnitzel) and she informed us that we couldn’t order off the regular menu (though it was on our table and the vegetarian menu was printed on paper and placed on top of the menu like a specials list). We asked if the restaurant could make an exception seeing as how there was a total of four people in the restaurant, but she informed us that was impossible. We consequently ended up leaving to grab Schnitzel at the tried and true Old Europe. Overall a disappointing experience due to the cab-fare involved in making it to the remote location and then to Old Europe. What I don’t understand is the business logic behind the vegetarian only menu on Tuesdays – they effectively turned away guests on a night when we represented half of the clientele.

I, too, was irritated the Tuesday night I dropped in for something meaty at Domku and discovered only vegetarian options.  If you go online, you see a Tuesday vegetarian list, but it's not made clear that meatless is the only way to eat that day of the week. 

But you know what? I stayed that Tuesday, several months ago, and enjoyed some terrific not-so-Swedish lentil "meatballs" and potato-cottage cheese pancakes served with a mushroom cream sauce.

is the deck stacked straight or spread out in a fan?

Ha! Straight, so it has some height.


(The poster is responding to a query from last week about some of my tips for mindful eating. )

Four of us went to dinner at Harriman's using a groupon - dinner for 4 for $115. Our waitress promptly greeted us and asked if we preferred still or sparkling water. We opted for still water. At the end of the meal we were quite surprised to see $16 added to our bill for two bottles of water. There was never a mention of cost for the water nor was there a note printed on the menu. If we had known about the charge in advance we would have passed on the water and ordered additional wine. Is this common practice to charge for water without advising of the cost?

It's up to the restaurant to tell diners whether "Still or sparkling?" is gratis or not. A lot of places are offering both for free these days, so I can understand your assumption.  Did you say anything to the waiter, or bring the issue to the attention of a manager? I would have.

Hi Tom, thanks for holding the forum. My wife and I often visit restaurants during the mid-afternoon off hours. We usually just sit at the bar and casually dish, enjoying the casual and quiet atmosphere. When we go for traditional seating during these off hours we often run into one of my biggest restaurant pet-peeves. Let's just say there is one other couple seated in the otherwise empty restaurant...Pretty much without fail, we get seated at the closest possible table to the other couple, leaving the rest of the restaurant empty. Why do host staffs do this? Is it that much easier to serve? Just saying, the experience is terrible.

I've wondered the same thing when a party is seated right next to me in an otherwise open dining room. I'm thinking it might be for the server's convenience, but let's throw out the question to any industry types who might be online this morning.

Hi Tom! We live in Baltimore, but my fiancé and I will be house-sitting for some friends in DC during our anniversary weekend. For our last nice meal out, we went to Woodberry Kitchen, but we aren't really that familiar with the DC dining scene. We love the food and feel of Woodberry, and I'm not sure if there's anything similar around here? Neither of us are picky eaters, but we would want somewhere quiet-ish. Thanks!

Good and ... quiet? That's a tall order there!  I love the food at Woodberry Kitchen, but surely you found the restaurant noisy, too. 


For a similar vibe, consider Red Hen in Bloomingdale for rustic Italian or Buck's Fishing & Camping for traditional American. The latter is near my favorite bookstore in town, Politics & Prose.


If you want a little peace with your meal, the best strategy is to sup on the early side.


Obviously in hindsight for the customer the correct answer is "tap water". If that wasn't baiting the customer, I don't know what is.

Or "Chateau Potomac," as some servers call it.

I don't understand why Tavira isn't packed every day. The food is excellent and accurately reflects Portuguese cuisine. They do right by seafood, and the device is attentive but not overwhelming. The place is pretty in a slightly old-fashioned way. Ok, so it is in the basement of a nondescript office building far from the culinary centers and hot spots. That shouldn't stop you unless you're more interested in scene than food.

It's been awhile since I feasted at one of the area's rare sources of  Portuguese cooking, but I have pleasant memories of the cod fritters, spicy roast chicken and caldo verde at Tavira


As you point out, its odd location can't be helpful. This spring, the owner announced he was selling the business, as he was moving out of state.

The poster made some valid points, such as the one about scheduling your lunch early so as not to miss an appointment. But I can't see what the big deal is about separate plates for people sharing a dessert, although when we eat en famille we just pass the dessert around and everyone has his own fork or spoon. I do think that we CHOOSE to patronize a restaurant and, if they want us to return, they should be willing to show their appreciation. I see nothing wrong with offering a free dessert for a birthday or anniversary, for example. It builds good will and encourages the patron to return.

I don't have a problem with a restaurant offering something gratis, either, but it shouldn't be expected.

Hi Tom, my teenage stepson has begun studying French and has gotten really interested in it plus in learning about French culture. He has little to no experience with French food but is eager to try anything. Can you recommend a place for me to take him out to lunch where he will get the "Frenchiest" experience? Anywhere in DC, MD, or VA is fine. Thanks!

Try La Piquette near the National Cathedral. Its chef, Francis Layrle, cooked for years at the French embassy here. His duck soup, steak frites, whole fish and apple tart all taste of true bistro fare.

This makes me sad.

This makes my ears bleed.

Hi, I recently went for dinner at Thally (Saturday 26th) and while my starter and drinks were great my main course the tagliatelle was inedible. The pasta itself had so much vingar on it my eyes watered and my friend warned me not to eat it as he felt there was something wrong with the dish. I asked my server about this and he just said he was sure the dish was as it was meant to be without speaking to anyone. I have emailed the resteraunt to complain and have received no response.

Hmmmm. Was that the vegetarian pasta with fried mushrooms, broccoli rabe and sun-dried tomato that I raved about?


For future reference, if you don't get an appropriate response from a server, you can always bring an issue to the attention of a manager.


Also -- this is not an excuse for Thally, just a possible explanation -- restaurants are busy places and don't necessarily routinely monitor online communication. I'd give a business at least a week to get back to you.

For carpaccio, certainly!

I was thinking that when I hit "publish."

I'm being taken to Lauriol Plaza for work next week. Any recent thoughts on the restaurant? Things to make sure to try or not to try?

Poor you. Here's my most recent take on the crazy-popular but totally underwhelming restaurant in Dupont Circle.

If you arrive towards the end of lunch service, chances are only the closing server is still taking tables and on the clock, so any late diners get seated in their section. The other service staff have probably already detailed their stations for dinner service and have either checked out or are in the process of doing so.

Okay, but do the two different parties still have to sit right next to each other? I mean, leave a table or two as a buffer for the sake of comfort and privacy.

For the chatter looking for non-break-the-bank Prime Rib for Dad's 60th birthday: Artie's in Fairfax City has a wonderful, blackened Prime Rib on Fridays and Saturdays, and its sister restaurant, Sweetwater Tavern, regularly offers Prime Rib (blackened or not) on its menu. I find the Artie's version superior to even the Prime Rib served at the DC institution called "The Prime Rib."

Reader to the rescue!

How would you handle a situation where of three dishes, two are so vinegary that we only felt we could complain about one? My dining companion and I had ordered the brussels sprouts w/ a ponzu sauce that was so watery and overpowering that the sprouts themselves were soggy (and I know I ordered them out of season, but even being less sweet than they could be in the fall, it was hard to handle them being so sour). We thought maybe this was a fluke until we tried the Korean steak, which admittedly was on a bed of kimchi, but which also had an extremely intense sauce on top that overwhelmed even that. We told our waiter that we found everything very sour, and he immediately brushed it off as our not liking the kimchi. The kimchi was fine, actually, but we didn't want to make a fuss and just went ahead and agreed. When things are so out of place that the waiter can't explain the kitchen's taste, how do you respond?

I know I sound like a broken record, or the 2014 equivalent of that, but I would have asked for a manager.

So I'm not inclined to go back. Service was that bad, and management apparently doesn't care.

Wow. Someone ought to tell owner Jamie Leeds.

hello - prior poster here, who expressed frustration with managers who (seemingly) dismiss all issues with "have them talk to me." That's not always possible. You asked for alternatives: manager name & (direct) contact info on receipt and/or biz card at reception desk? For after-action convo?

Great idea for those times when you can't raise a food or service problem without souring the meal.

You always mention speaking to a manager. Fortunately I've never had an experience that I felt warranted it- or always had someone a bit more proactive or louder than me as a dining companion- but is there a protocol? Is there an easy way to find a manager on your own, or do you just ask your server to bring the manager over? I guess I'd love a discreet way to get my feelings across without risking a scene.

If you want to be discrete, you can always go to the host stand and ask to speak privately with a supervisor.

A friend and I met for dinner at Kapnos last Thursday and it was so loud in there we practically had to put our heads together and shout to have a conversation. The food, wine and service were terrific (as were the happy hour prices!) but I have to say I'll think twice before going back if I have any interest in my company.



I mean, YEP.

Hi Tom, my wife and I went about a week ago to Le Chat Noir in Friendship Heights for our anniversary dinner. Just wanted to write it to say we loved our entrees (she: steak frites, I: tenderloin au poivre), enjoyed very good wines by the glass, and attentive service. All in all, a great meal.

Good to hear. I went several years ago and was underwhelmed. That part of town could use more, and better, places to eat.

Tom, we live near Green Pig Bistro in Arlington and have encountered somewhat uneven service there over our many visits (particularly at the host stand.) But at our most recent visit, our server (I believe his name was JP) was top notch - friendly, efficient, and attentive to one of our family members who has a difficult food allergy. The manager was also attentive in making sure everything was okay. Their food is always good - but it's nice to know that the service that goes along with it can be great as well!

I understand asking for the manager is the service is off. But how helpful is the manager going to be if the kitchen is just not skilled? Like, you wouldn't necessarily call a manager over at Lauriol Plaza to critique the dishes, would you?

A manager is a link to the kitchen, so why not?

Tom, I really appreciate the hard work you put into this chat and your reviews. I enjoy reading the commentaries, your responses, and the suggestions. Even though I might not be able to afford to eat at most of the places mentioned, it's nice to feel connected to the food scene here vicariously.

Your post just made my day.


I love doing these chats, mostly because they are a great way to interact with, and learn from, WP readers.


Guilty as charged!

My thought is that if you are given a choice, automatically assume both cost money. A previous poster was correct in saying: tap water.

Tap water it is!

I'm hearing a shorter menu, no specials and indifferent food. This has always been one of my recommended restaurants. Are Richard's financial woes affecting Central?

Michel Richard is having a tough time of it lately, isn't he? His efforts in Vegas, Atlantic City and New York are all failing.  The guy is a huge talent. But I think he needs to surround himself with better advisers and focus on a single restaurant.

I have been "given the night off" by my husband and two small children. Where in the Rockville/Gaithersburg area should a solo diner go for something exciting? Any nearby tasting menus or non-kid friendly spots that may be outside of my normal radar?

Nice tribe you have there!


That area doesn't claim a lot of fancy dining venues, but for good food in comfortable surroundings, I'd opt for La Limena (Peruvian and Cuban), Mykonos Grill (Greek) or Spice Xing (Indian) in Rockville or Burma Road (Chinese and Burmese) in Gaithersburg.

How else will the restaurant know whether it's a he-said/she-said situation? This seems to me to be exactly like handling complaints at any place of business. First you try to work it out with the person involved, then you go to the supervisor. It may make you uncomfortable but it's the right way to handle it.

I'm a big believer in protocol -- in this case, raising the problem first with the server and only going over his head if an issue isn't addressed.

I just laughed out loud at the "reader response" to your review of Lauriol Plaza. The place, just like La Tomate and Rosemary's Thyme, have only ONE thing going for them - location!

Uh huh.

I always specifiy TAP WATER when the waiter asks. Sometimes I also say WATER FROM THE FAUCET to make myself clear. I've never had a water charge on my bill after I started this method.

"Water from the faucet" certainly takes care of any assumptions!

Isn't this typical of celebrity chefs who over-extend? Can you think of anyone who's succeeded at this?

Jose Andres is a prime example of a chef (and yes, he does and can cook) who has expanded all over the country with great success. I love his restaurants in Los Angeles and Vegas, for instance. 

Tom, can we have a moratorium on bad service questions? I think your advice to talk to a manager is solid and should be at the top of every chat, and then we can hear more about new restaurants, great menu items and places to avoid.

Okay, let's let this be the last word on bad service for at least the next 20 minutes. Deal?

Good morning, Tom. I know in the past you've talked about guilty pleasures. Popeyes comes to mind. But is there anything you might criticize a restaurant for that's OK in your own kitchen? For me, it's a day-old green salad. The lettuce is saturated and limp; it's totally overdressed, but I like it. Is there anything you wouldn't want to be served but you'd serve to yourself?

For sure, cold pizza would be high on such a list.


Any chatters care to weigh in?

Hi Tom! I was wondering what your thoughts are on not seating incomplete parties - I can see both sides of the argument - but it varies so much from place to place here in the capital! Should it matter if I have a reservation, am a walk-in, or what about places like Rose's Luxury who both don't take reservations and refuse (nicely, but still refuse) to seat incomplete parties ? Just curious about your thoughts. Thanks!

1) If a restaurant isn't busy, if there are plenty of open tables and if the incomplete party is within 15 or 20 minutes of coming together, I think a restaurant should seat that group.


2) Folks with reservations should get priority over walk-ins.


3) Rose's Luxury can pretty much do what it wants and continue to be packed. At least the hosts are nice about not seating incomplete groups!

Hi Tom, Which Indian restaurants do you consider to be among the best in the area? Thanks in advance!

I'm a big fan of the Bombay Club near the White House, the just-opened Masala Art in SW DC, Curry Leaf in Laurel (especially for its buffet) and Malgudi in Glover Park for its southern Indian flavors.

Petit Plats in Woodley Park! One of my favorites...

It has its good days. But La Piquette is younger and more consistent.

Tom - I have to thank you in advance. A couple of friends and I are going to India for a 10 day whirlwind trip in August. When I travel, I regularly check to see if you've done a Postcard from the area. I had heard about Indian Accent from another website and pitched it to my friends who promptly shot it down saying they wanted "authentic Indian" as opposed to fusion. After that I did a quick search to see what you recommended in India and came across this article from 2012: I forwarded it onto my friends and this changed their minds! We now have reservations there in a couple of weeks. Can't wait! Thanks again for helping me make my case.

Awesome. Please report back to me when you return. Fingers crossed that the Indian Accent I experienced is the one you plan to taste.

As I often see this chat filled with tales of service the patrons found lacking, I thought I would share an experience we had last week at Crane & Turtle. After our opening dishes, the server came by to apologize for the wait, that she (or the kitchen) had made an error on our entrees and they would be out shortly. In the mean time, she brought us two glasses of her favorite sake on the house. To be honest we didn't even notice that the entrees were over due, and told her it was unnecessary, but she insisted. We left with great memories of the meal and our server (who even ran outside to return my sunglasses I had left behind!)

Bless those servers who run after us with our glasses, umbrellas and briefcases, right?

I was at at restaurant recently with my girlfirend and overheard the 4 top next to us talking about how they were in competition with thier firends to see how much thye could get comped by complaining. Now werent at Outback but were at a restautn that traditionally makes the areas top 10 list and inner for four would be close to $500 with taxes, drinks apps and tip. They were plotting their dastardly deeds oblivious to to fact thye were talking loud enough to be overheard. My girlfirenda dn I were taken back we are both and would enver think about doing this. from the chatter they were in competition with at least 3 other groups of their friends. One was bragging she had a cockraoch in her purse and another had a piece of glass. I excused myself and went to the bathroom and went to talk to the manager. It was hysterical to watch them try to pull of thier stunts and the general manager who dunned an apron to be their server was having none of it. Best part is when they were all asked to step outside by the cops. GM offered to comp us after dinner drinks and dessert but we said the show was worth the price of the food.

If this is a sincere post, you have to share the name of the restaurant where this took place. That foursome sounds awful. For someone to walk around with a bug or a shard of glass in the hopes of getting a meal comped is *insane.*

DC's finest tap, please.

Heard that once -- or 300 times -- too.

Would love to give a dining experience as a wedding gift to a couple in Arlington, VA. Can you please provide me the name of the shwankiest joint in town (budget not of concern). Thank you!

You mean, in DC proper? I'd love it if someone gave me the gift of dinner at Komi or Iron Gate in Dupont Circle, Rasika West End (if only because I've been to Rasika more of late) or the soon-to-reopen Oval Room, given the chef's track record.

Any idea how long I'd be waiting for a table (for 2) if I showed up around 6 p.m. on a weeknight?

Gosh, it all depends on the night and the weather and  ... lots of things, including food lovers being on vacation.

Husband & I are in our early 70's and often eat with our kids & their families, who come separately. We do NOT want to stand when our table is available, and I think there should be some respect for our age. We also do not want to be seated in the bar, as we don't drink.

I understand. But hopefully you're all arriving at about the same time?

Good Kung Pao chicken and large chocolate Frosty from Wendy's


So much too say! Kwality in Delhi for the choley batura is a must-not-miss. Also, poya (also called poha or many other similar names) from a street vendor for breakfast. Eat everything you see!

Well, I wouldn't advise eating lettuce or raw tomatoes or water that doesn't come in a bottle that makes a snap! when it's opened.

As a rule, I expect to share the dessert off of the single plate, if I'm going to share. I do remember one restaurant in Portland several years ago, when I ordered a $10 piece of cake to be split onto 2 plates (or to bring me a separate plate) for two 2-year-olds to share, the waitress told me that it was impossible. We were a party of 10, all ordering desserts and drinks, in the middle of the afternoon. After a brief argument, I won, but no matter how good the place was, I haven't returned.

Service fail on the West Coast! Service fail on the West Coast!

I really enjoy Founding Farmers and Farmers, Fishers, and Bakers for a delicious but casual meal, but I've noticed that Founding Farmers has a (relatively) new menu that excludes the descriptions under the name of many of the dishes (Farmers & Fishers, I believe, has always done this for its seafood dishes). Why? Is it to facilitate interaction between the waiter and the guests? I am not a picky eater, but I would like to be able to make the right decision for my taste without having to bombard the waiter with questions. Obviously, it isn't necessary when the name is self-explanatory , but it would be nice to know what is in the "fisherman's pot" without having to ask.

Fisherman's pot! Legal at last!

It happened at Fiola..

Fabio, do tell!

Tom, I know at one point during your chat(s), you would invite local chefs online to the chat to answer reader/chat followers' questions. Any chance you'd consider doing that again? It really is kind of fun to learn a lot about how chefs view food, cooking and running a business.... (not that we don't love just talking to you though!)

I'd welcome another voice on this chat. One of the concerns I had with my original attempts was that guests either refrained from tackling anything controversial or gave sanitized responses to questions or comments.


I hear a lunch bell somewhere. Thanks for sharing the hour with me. See you next Wednesday!

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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