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

Aug 06, 2014

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

What's the etiquette for tipping for to-go coffee? My husband I stop at the same local cafe every morning. Our drinks are always the same and always basic -- two medium dark roasts. But the woman knows I like almond milk in my drink and she always get it out from behind the counter without me having to ask. We almost never order anything more, and it's always to-go, so my husband feels it's unnecessary to tip. I feel like, since we're regulars and they clearly know our preferences without even having to ask, that level of service deserves something extra, even if it's just a dollar per visit. What's the etiquette on this?

I've asked myself the same question over the caffeine-fueled years.


If I get to know a place and its staff, and they regularly remember my order, I'm inclined to add a buck to the tip jar on a regular basis. Sometimes, I hand a more generous tip directly to the worker who gives me the best and most consistent service. My feeling is, these folks aren't making a ton of money and they definitely add a kick to my day.


In brief, I'm with you on the matter.


THIS JUST IN: Fans of Frank Ruta will be thrilled to hear that the former Palena chef plans to return to the stove next month  at  (insert drum roll, please) Bread Furst, the newish bakery from Mark Furstenberg.


The bread maven is billing Ruta's nightly family-style dinners Bread Feast; would-be patrons will be able to  peruse the daily-changing menus, and reserve and pay in advance, on the bakery's online site beginning mid-September. Assisting Ruta will be his former pastry chef, the talented Aggie Chin. 


Can't wait!




Top of the morning, everyone. Lots to chat about this morning. Let's get started.



For a good festive dinner which would you choose?

I've had good experiences at both, but readers have complained (already) about the food and the service at the new Rural Society in the Loews Madison hotel. Based on that, then, and a recent ace dinner at Del Campo, I vote for the home team on 7th and I streets.

Hi Tom! Just wanted to share an odd occurrence. I hit Ted's Bulletin on Barracks Row with my partner for burgers and shakes. After I'd finished first (I'm a bit of a food inhaler, from a long line of food inhalers; dinners when I grew up averaged 15 minutes), our server came over and set another plate in front of me. I had a moment of puzzlement since everything had already arrived, before I realized it was someone else's dirty plate sitting before me. He invited me to put my plate on top, then progressed to encourage me to put the silverware, ketchup container, etc. on top. I found this odd. Typing it out, I'm thinking "well, duh," but what are your thoughts?

I appreciate multi-taskers, but ... gross!

Hi Tom, I'm getting a group of about a dozen people together for a celebratory brunch this weekend in Arlington. I'm choosing between seating the group at the communal table at Green Pig, or the lounge space off the bar at Liberty Tavern, and I'm having some serious decision-making issues. Which would you pick?

I'd go with the group table at Green Pig Bistro. The setting has more dash and the food I've had there this year -- spice-rubbed pork ribs, kung pao sweetbreads, snails and mushrooms on toast -- shows serious flair.

Apologies if you've addressed this before, but what's your take on the new menu at Cashions? My wife and I eat their annually and we noticed it's mainly "small plates" now. We still enjoyed the offerings.

Yep, Cashion's Eat Place has hopped on the small plates bandwagon with nine different menu categories, most of them tapas-size ("veg," "fowl"), one of them "enough for two." 


The format makes a diner feel as if he's paying more for dinner, but I don't find that to the reality.  Some of the additions rock. Go for the cobia ceviche and zesty lamb meatballs.

Expanding on OP's post about to-go coffee, what's the etiquette for to-go tipping in general? If I order take out food and go pick it up, there's always a tip line on the receipt. I never know what to put. They did make the food, but I picked it up and brought it home.

We've addressed this a lot in this forum. In short, I tip a buck or two (depending on the bill) because someone went to the effort of putting your meal together with utensils and such. But I know I'm going to get blow-back on this.

Best place to grab a quick dinner before a show in Adams Morgan? Not looking for a Mintwood type dinner.

Check out the good work produced by Russell Jones at Jack Rose Dining Saloon on 18th St. NW. I'm a big fan of the Restaurant Eve vet's clam dip, glossy wings and hamburger dressed with pimento cheese.

Tom, I've noticed that a lot of restaurants these days have made their one steak choice a hangar steak. Why is that? I find it a tough cut in comparison to something like a ribeye (my favorite, which you don't see so much these days). Of course, I know I could find lots of options at steakhouses, but I find them otherwise boring and overpriced and prefer restaurants that have varied menus.

Hanger steak -- onglet in French -- is a cheap but generally flavorful cut of beef. It requires more chewing, but isn't that part of the pleasure of eating a steak?

Tom, I'm noticing a rather annoying trend lately amongst some waiters that I'm perplexed by. Often when I sit down at a restaurant, I’ll order a cocktail to start (sometimes I ask for a few minutes to examine the cocktail menu if they have one). Upon taking my drink order, the waiter will then frequently remove the wine list from the table as well. I have to specifically ask that they leave the wine list behind and when I do so I frequently get a look as if I must be some sort of big boozer. Is ordering a cocktail and a bottle of wine unusual today? I don't understand this behavior since alcohol is such a moneymaker for restaurants. Am I missing something?

I often start dinner with a cocktail and segue into wine. Nothing unusual about that at all. If you want to retain the wine list, all you have to do is put your hand on it, or tell the server you want to keep it.


Where exactly are you getting disapproving looks?

Tom thanks for all the great recommendations over the years, I just wanted to add a good tip of my own. Last week someone asked for a recommendation of a place to buy a gift certificate as a present. While your choices were all good I really think the best gift is an OpenTable gift certificate. People can use it at any place they want - having done it I can say it is super easy to get on-line and while it doesn't cover every great restaurant in the city it has many standouts including Rasika (both locations), Fiola Mare, Fiola, Zatinya, Joe's Crab Shack, 1789, Blue Duck Tavern and Cityzen. You don't have to worry about picking a place they don't like and they can even use it if they are traveling out of town. I used OpenTable in big cities and small town across the country and they have lots of place in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs. I don't work for them, I have just been a very happy OpenTable member for years.

Great idea. Thanks for passing it along. Presenting a general gift certificate relieves the pressure of guessing someone's taste preferences.

Tom, I was sad to see that J&G Steakhouse closed. I was particularly fond of their express lunch, where you could get an appetizer & entrée or entrée and dessert for $17. What other good restaurants offer similar deals?

In Penn Quarter, 701, the subject of a future update in the Magazine, offers a three-course Bipartisan lunch for $25. Downtown, Ici Urban Bistro in the Sofitel features a lovely "30 Minute" lunch consisting of four small dishes served on a single square plate for $28.

I frequently order a cocktail when we first arrive, but will want a glass of wine with dinner. Servers are more than happy to bring the wine list back if you ask for it, which I think is a good alternative to holding onto it when others might need it.

True. And given the small size of so many tables these days, I'm happy to relinquish the wine list until it's needed.

Five to ten percent. As you say, the servers don't make a lot. Also, it's usually someone who has other duties who puts together the order, so they ought to be compensated for their time and effort.

I concur.

My boss wants to take my team to lunch, there are about 6 of us. We work downtown near the Verizon Center. Where should we go?

There are an embarrassment of riches nearby: Graffiato, Oyamel, Zaytinya, Proof, Daikaya ... that help?

Group of 5 made restaurant week reservations over a month ago (not my choice, but was willing to go along). I don't eat beef, so for the past month have been asking for the RW menu in order to ensure there would be something for me to eat on the menu. They finally provided it yesterday, and there are no choices- it's a "tasting menu" and of course the entree is a ribeye. Reservation canceled.

In 2014, a restaurant has to offer at least one meatless main course option (and make it interesting, please).

Vidalia offers a prix-fixe 3 course lunch for $19.90, with some supplements. The menu changes and is posted weekly on their site and on Facebook. I think it gives the chefs a chance to stretch their wings and try out new things. Their food is always excellent and it's a great value.

Indeed. It's always Restaurant Week at lunch at Vidalia!

My husband and I are celebrating our 39th anniversary and have been trying new restaurants in and around DC. We would like to go somewhere a little upscale but not to far out in terms of food. The only issue we have is husband has a shellfish allergy. We live in the Maryland suburbs but enjoy the DC scene. Any thoughts?

On the newer side, I like Thally in Shaw for modern American, Soi 38 downtown for interesting Thai and the just-opened Boss Shepherd's next to the Warner Theatre for its amazing fried chicken, among other dishes.

Back when I learned etiquette in grade school (I'm under 30, I swear), they taught us that placing your menu face down on the table meant you were ready to order. Does this still hold true? Servers these days are usually so attentive, that you don't need to flag one down to order, but sometimes I don't get to the menu for a few minutes because I'm catching up with an old friend and we end up being interrupted.

(Where did you go to school?)


A closed menu is generally a signal to the waiter that orders can be taken. If you need a few minutes to catch up, simply leave the list open.

When I worked at a coffee shop, regulars would often put a larger tip in the jar once a week (large being $1-$5). Some would also give to each barista personally at Christmas ($10-$20).

Love that behavior. I bet you did, too.

Glad to hear Mr. Ruta is coming to Bread Furst, but was really hoping he would open a place in Alexandria. There is a vacant spot right on King St with a lovely patio (used to be a French restaurant, then briefly Notting Hill) - please cross the river, Mr. Ruta.

Here's hoping he sees your plea. But selfishly, this District resident is happy he's returning to Connecticut Ave.

Hi Tom, I think it should be raves, rants & ruminations to concentrate on the positive!

Love the alliteration!

Tom, last Wednesday we had perhaps the worst service we've ever encountered. It's a new, locally owned restaurant, they're just getting up on their feet, so I don't want to name and shame. The young waiter was clueless, patronizing, and used every cliche that I had just read about in your chat.. As i found myself getting annoyed, I made the conscious decision to play Tom's Rants and Raves BINGO. Every time he said/did a clunker, I took a swig of my beer. It got to the point where we hoped for a faux pas so we could finish our beer and order another. Three Harps later we had a great, funny evening. We realized it's all about attitude. We could have choose to be annoyed, complain, and cost this hapless college student his summer job, or we could roll with it.

From the sounds of it, you must have been hammered by evening's end!

Of course, there is no vegetarian entree option...


At Fiola we offer our Presto! Menu for lunch at the bar (entree and beverage for $18) as well as our Maria Light Menu (3 beautiful courses for $28!)

But of course. Thanks for chiming in, whoever you are.

For a very special occasion with a beloved partner who appreciates excellent food and wine, and not considering cost, would you choose the Inn at Little Washington (with an overnight stay), Komi, Minibar or Volt?

The Inn, because you threw in the lodging.

Hi -- I'm a single mom with two boys. I always make my reservation for three and repeatedly as I'm being seated, either the hostess or server will ask "is someone else joining you?" It's so common it's painful. Most recently, it happened at Black's in Bethesda, but it happens on vacations, and around town. What can I do?

At the host stand, you can remind whomever that your party of three is complete. When the server approaches, you can point to the extra setting and say the three of you are all set.

I wonder why some places pretend to participate in Restaurant Week and then insult you by showing a menu with only two options in each course. I'd made reservations at a famous chef's local flagship in Friendship Heights and when I saw the menu I promptly cancelled. I know of several first-rate places that offer extensive RW options that keep me and others going back. It strikes me that such a limited option is like snubbing the guest.

My feeling is, if a business wants to participate in the promotion, it should offer at least three choices per course and have them be signature dishes. Otherwise, why bother?  Restaurant Week is, in part, a chance for an establishment to introduce itself to some new customers.

I know you are a Woodberry fan so just wondering if you've checked out the new venture yet?

Yes I have. Count me a fan of most of Parts & Labor, the meaty new restaurant from Baltimore chef Spike Gjerde.

OMG--feeling a Mad Men moment here...

Are you, doll?

Since someone from Fiola is clearly reading the chat today, can they tell us more about the incident where guests tried to scam them into a free meal with a purse full of roaches and broken glasses, etc?!

Yes, please share!

I like your suggestions! What do you think of Mintwood?

I'm a big fan of Cedric Maupillier's French-kissed American cooking.

I'm a single woman who often dines alone, but I keep running into maitre ds who want to seat me at the bar, despite having made a reservation. Other than voting with my feet and contacting the restaurant management later, what do you suggest?

If you've booked a seat, you've reserved a table, not a counter top. Just let them know that.


Sorry for the late start today, folks. As always, I appreciate hearing what's on your minds. Let's do it again next Wednesday, same time.

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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