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

Sep 04, 2019

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at washingtonpost.com/tomsietsema.

Hopefully I am not submitting too early but this question just came to me. When the Post sends a photographer to get pictures of food for a review, does the Post pay for all that food? Does the photographer take all that food home with them once they're done? Or does the restaurant just let the photographer take pictures as the food is made for customers? Or maybe does the photographer just shows up at say 10AM and everything is made especially for those pictures?

I reached out to one of our principal freelance photographers, Deb Lindsey, for a response. Here's what she texted:

 

"The food is prepared especially for me to photograph. I almost always photograph the food before the restaurant is open (or in-between lunch and dinner) so it’s not disruptive to diners. It is not food that is served to customers. The restaurant provides the food to be photographed, the Post doesn't pay for the dishes. "

 

"As to what happens after the food is photographed, it varies depending on the restaurant. Sometimes it’s offered for me to eat there while I’m waiting around to capture the scene and sometimes they offer to package it to go. Sometimes the food is taken back to the kitchen where presumably it’s given to the staff. "

 

Good morning, everyone, and thanks for joining me for another 60 minutes of dining talk.  I've got a major dining guide deadline looming, so I'll be away from the chat the next two Wednesdays, returning Sept. 25.  So be sure to file your pressing restaurant questions today if you can.

 

FOR THE FALL TRAVEL issue of the magazine, I hit the road and ate around Richmond. I found a lot to like in the 50 hours or so I was there and I wrote about two standouts, Alewife and Longoven. The reviews are online now, in print this Sunday.  And in today's First Bite, I preview the latest from Great American RestaurantsRandy's Prime Seafood & Steaks in Vienna. 

 

FOOD FLASH from Sperryville and the owners of the lovely, 20-seat dining destination Three Blacksmiths: 

 

 "Starting on October 23rd we'll be open for dinner on Wednesdays. We'll start taking reservation on October 2nd for that first Wednesday and all the subsequent Wednesdays up to April 22nd (203 days out)."  There's more, write chef John and Diane MacPherson "We're auctioning off all our tables for a celebratory New Years Eve dinner with all the proceeds going to Wakefield Country Day School here in Rappahannock County. You can check out the Ebay Charity site here: https://www.ebay.com/rpp/three-blacksmiths [ebay.com].


 

Lots to chat about today. Let's begin.

Hi Tom! Is it every acceptable to bring your own food into a restaurant? It is very hard for me to eat out because I am on a very low sodium diet - I generally need to keep an entire meal around 600 mg of sodium. It's a difficult dietary issue and some restaurants can help and many can not. Generally when invited to eat with a group, I order a drink and whatever I can, which is usually small enough it doesn't approach a full meal. I have some extended family who think it's perfectly fine for me to bring my own meal or parts of a meal in to supplement so I can eat right there with the group. I feel terribly uncomfortable doing this but have let myself be bullied into it before in order to ease large group meals. But am I wrong to feel badly? Do restaurants understand if you really can't eat their food and you are dining with many other paying diners? I would love to know an answer to this so I can either hold my ground or feel comfortable brining food with me. Thank you!

I'd love to hear from restaurants on the subject, but my sense is, more places than you think can accommodate special requests, PARTICULARLY when you give them advance notice. That's key. Give a chef a heads up, and he or she can help make you feel less alone. At the very least, servers should be able to point you in the direction of low-salt dishes. 

Hi Tom! Regular reader who enjoys your chats. My husband and I will be in Ireland next month and will be spending several days in Dublin. Do you or your chatters have any restaurant recommendations, or suggestions for trusted sources to look for recommendations? Thanks.

Dublin, anyone? I'm going for the first time in October, but have yet to do much homework. 

Hi Tom My husband and I went to applebee's on Saturday night in Fairfax for a quick (I hoped) meal. It wasn't our first choice of chain restaurants but we were in that area and a salad sounded good. Service was slow which I wasn't concerned about but the problem was their choice of music. When we arrived no music was on (no big deal) but right before our dinner came out someone started playing a song that was VERY explicit in nature, complete with swear words. If the words would have been bleeped out there would have been no song it was that bad. There was easily 40 people there and you could see everyone's jaw start to drop. Several people mentioned it to their server but nothing was done. The table next to us had little kids that started repeating words from the song which was embarrassing to the parents. The song played in it's entirety and then another rap song came on. Last I checked we weren't in a bar or a club and even then I don't think a bar/club would play THAT type of music. Normally I don't care but literally every other word was a curse word or derogatory. There was NO manager around to complain to but what would you have done in this situation? The server tried to apologize but he was new and didn't know what to do. A table behind us who finished eating threw down some cash, got up and left before the actual bill even got there. I reached out to their corporate office but I'm not expecting to even hear anything.

I find it hard to believe a big chain restaurant wouldn't have someone in a supervisory role on a Saturday night, but you did the right thing by 1) first complaining to your server and 2) later  reaching out to corporate.  

 

Was there anyone at the host stand? You might have gone there and complained, and let whoever was there know you and others wanted the music turned off if it continued to be vulgar. No one should have to sit through that. 

What dining experiences in DC have you missed out on, but wish you hadn't? For example, I wish I had gone to Palena before it closed.

I never ate at Jean-Louis at the Watergate when it was around (1979-1996).  The revered French restaurant was out of the realm of possibilities when I was a poor college student, and I left the area for a food editing job in Milwaukee in 1988. While I returned to DC for visits, I never splurged on JL, which my colleague Tim Carman recently wrote about in a piece on the late chef. 

 

Chatters, where do you wish you would have eaten before a beloved restaurant turned out the light?

Dear Tom, I'd like to get your take on something that happened last weekend. Two friends were at dinner at a DC restaurant and I joined them after they arrived and ordered dinner (it was nearly 9:30PM and I was just ordering a drink). They were seated at a table for two. When I checked in with the hostess, I asked very kindly if it would be ok to get a chair and push it by their table to join them. I told her I did not want to be an inconvenience and, even though there were a bunch of empty tables, asked if I should take a chair from one of those or if she had a different preference. She thoughtfully helped me get a chair and I thanked her. I should note the area had a decent amount of space, so we weren't crowding anyone. After I sat down and we thanked her again, she suddenly became very snarky and retorted, "I'm going to get yelled at for this, so you better have fun." We were all taken aback and didn't know what to say or do. What do you suggest? Thanks for your thoughts, Tom.

Weird. Why bother to "help" a customer and then complain about it? Also, if there were, as you say, "a bunch of empty tables," why couldn't the three of you simply move to one of them?

Hi Tom, My grandparents are coming to DC for a weekend and I honestly don't know where to bring them. My grandpa is a real meat and potatoes kind of guy, and he struggles with a lot of the amazing cuisines DC has to offer. Sadly, steakhouses are also complicated due yo my sisters vegetarianism. Any help?

Both your grandfather and your sister should be happy with the whimsical Unconventional Diner, whose menu features meatloaf and steak and eggs for him and kale nachos and chickpea stew for her. Fun food from a serious chef: David Deshaies, who worked under the late Michel Richard.

Tom, Thanks for taking my question. My friend is celebrating a milestone birthday. I would like to take her to dinner. Proof used to be my "go to" place. What would you recommend? Restaurant must have good wine list, take reservations, and accessible via metro.

I haven't returned to Pembroke in Dupont Circle since Harper McClure came aboard as executive chef, but he has a good track record: his last jobs included Le Diplomate, Brothers and Sisters and Vidalia. The hotel restaurant is near the Dupont Circle metro and pours some nice wines -- just what you want, I think.

So, the Post accepts the food for free sometimes? Isn't that an ethical issue? Shouldn't the Post pay for the food it is requesting to be photographed? You don't accept free meals to stay above the ethical line. How is a reader to know if the photo/review is better if the food is free?

Let me be clear: The Post pays for all my review meals. I'm not sure where any ethical issue arises? I know of only one major publication that pays for food that's being photographed: The Philadelphia Inquirer, where Craig LaBan is the long-time (and very good) critic. 

In January, we hope to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary. But where? We're hesitant to book something out of town, like the Inn at Little Washington (where we have celebrated past annivs), because we can't predict the weather. Do not want to drive anywhere in snow/sleet/ice. So, we'll stay in DC. Suggestions for a place worthy of such a milestone? Nothing too adventurous, but open to most cuisines. Thanks!

I vote for Marcel's in the West End, one of the most civilized restaurants in the city. The ambience is swell, the service is tops and the French-inspired menu is as good as ever. Plus, you can hear one another: my sound meter recorded 64 decibels recently, making for was conversation. 

You to manager 'I"m concerned because the hostess very kindly helped me sit with my friends and enjoy a drink with them but she said she was going to get yelled at for doing that. I hope it's not the case. Simply take it at face value and report in a concerned fashion.

Possibly. But that might only exacerbate her problem. I can imagine a manager asking, "Why did you tell them I was going to yell at you?"

In response to recent discussions about Montreal, two budding food tourist vegetarians here, just returned from Montreal and Quebec City. Montreal's Le Petit Mousso (not vegetarian but veggie-friendly) knocked our socks off. Small, very focused dishes, formal on the plate but with a relaxed neighborhood vibe like a Tail Up Goat or Rooster & Owl. Also, local ingredients and off-the-grid wine varietals that we had never even heard of. To top it off, the kitchen and wait staff put together a shortlist of other restaurants in Montreal and Quebec City that then kept us busy -- and happy -- for days. (Among them, monastery-based Candide in Montreal and worth-the-extra-flight Buvette Scott in Quebec City, both great.) For veggies and non-veggies, a panoply of impressive restaurants in both cities.

You are making me hungry to go to Montreal. Merci!

Tom: Lots of folks write to the chat asking what to do in various situations when they've received poor service at a restaurant. My question is different. My wife and I recently dined at Sfoglina with another couple for whom it was their 30 year anniversary. Despite great reviews, I admit I was a bit skeptical (fancy pasta...in Van Ness?). But Sfoglina blew away my expectations. For one, the servers made it a very special occasion. Second, each course (apps, pasta, mains, dessert) was consistently delicious--and filling. So, my question is, apart from tipping and expressing thanks to servers at the end of the meal, what does one do when a restaurant exceeds your expectations? (I'm hoping that by just running this "question" publicly, you will help to answer it!)

Thousands of people read this chat every week. I think you just thanked the restaurant, which has another branch downtown, sufficiently. 

Hi Tom, After reading a number of your recommendations for Buck's Fishing & Camping, I tried it out with a friend this weekend and it was wonderful! I haven't had a steak that flavorful and beautifully prepared in quite some time. My friend had the pork chop and was speechless it was so good. We shared the broccoli slaw and the spaghetti squash, which were also the best versions of those foods I've recently had. The meal was capped off by a delightful fresh peach galette. On top of it all, the service was excellent. Thanks for continually reminding us all of these gems around the city!

Happy to oblige. Buck's is a treasure

I left DC in 2007, and though I've been back many times since, I regret that I never made it to Ray's the Steaks. Back in the day, I recall there were often long lines and they didn't take reservations (so far as I can remember).

I appreciated that RTS included side dishes in the price of the steak, unlike just about every steak house I know. 

Caveat for the grandpa suggestion: Unconvential Diner is really loud--almost as bad as Le Diplomate (which is in a class by itself). I love both places, but FYI, if the grandpa has any hearing problems, you may want to look elsewhere.

Fair point. Best to go on the early side, when the dining room isn't as busy (or noisy)

Back in my bartending/serving days, I remember the bar staff would change the Dish/Muzak station to an explicit rap station after the guests left to help with the cleanup after large events on weekends. Unfortunately that also served as the "on hold" music for the main line, so it led to some outraged guests looking for last minute brunch reservations the following morning

Uh oh. 

Oh for heaven's sake, it was made quite clear that the photographer was sometimes offered the food to eat, not that Tom was. "The Post" is not one single person.

You've got that right!

 

I meant to add earlier that different fields have different practices. Theater critics, for instance, routinely receive free tickets to performances. But the reviewers are still accountable to both their employers and their readership to be fair, accurate, etc.

It stinks, and I'm sorry, but it's never okay to bring your own food into a restaurant, whether the kitchen can accommodate your dietary restrictions or not. Even McDonalds would eject you if you did that. (Some places allow you to bring in a cake for a special occasion for a "cake-age" fee, but even that's uncommon, due to health code requirements.)

Friends of hers told me that Julia Child used to bring home-made chicken sandwiches to McDonald's, where she loved the French fries.  

And then the hostess will get defensive, and the manager can say, "I'm just pointing out to you that you made our guests feel uncomfortable. Please don't joke like that again."

This is turning into a longer thread than I thought it would.

Jeez - what is so hard?????

Once again, for anyone who didn't tune in last week: It's SEET-suh-ma. 

Hi Tom-- I just saw Supra's new business lunch deal and am drooling, but sadly Supra is too far from my office to be able to swing it in the middle of the day. Are you aware of any similar deals in the Dupont/Adams Morgan area?

One of the best midday deals going is not far from Dupont Circle, at the Oval Room near the White House. I wrote about it (three courses for $35) for last week's First Bite column. Even more of a bargain is the restaurant's "dish" and dessert for $20, served in the lounge. Thoughtfully, there are four options per course. 

I'm giving the OP the benefit of the doubt, but I'd just like to point out that rap is not a synonym for explicit or inappropriate music.

I meant to point that out earlier, too. Thanks for weighing in. 

Hi Tom, A couple of weeks ago my friend and I decided to check out Hanumanh, but alas they were closed for "maintenance" on a Wednesday. So we walked a few blocks in search of another option, and found ourselves seated at the bar at Tiger Fork. I hadn't been there yet and honestly forgot it even existed, but I am so glad we wandered in. The garlic scapes (very seasonal) were absolutely delicious, as was the market fish with its wow presentation. Rounding out our meal were the humble wontons and the beef chow fun. We had leftovers for lunch the next day - and there's nothing I wouldn't order again. I'll be back there soon. Tomorrow, I'm trying Seven Reasons and I hope it's worth all the excitement. Keep doing what you do!

Great to get feedback on Tiger Fork. I owe it a visit. Thanks for the feedback and the opportunity to mention that Hanumanh, which has some maintenance issueshas temporarily relocated to Destination Wedding (below Doi Moi) at 1800 14th St. NW.

Where in Rosslyn could one find a tasty, moderately priced dinner on a Sunday evening? Love to find a place that permits reasonable conversation and wine list. Coming from church in Georgetown on the way home, Rosslyn is convenient. Diners are open to most cuisines as long as it is well-prepared.

That's a tough question. There aren't a lot of good choices in Rosslyn, and on a Sunday night at that. If it were me, I'd probably go to Nando's Peri-Peri for flame-grilled chicken. 

Along with other horrible words and phrases such as, "Sure, honey," I'd like to ask wait staff to NOT say, "Oh, just one?" To which I am always tempted to reply, "What do you mean, JUST ONE?!?!? I am not a JUST anything! Do you say, "Oh, JUST two? Just three? No, you do not. So stop demeaning the fact that I am by myself."

Feel better now?

I have a work schedule where I am frequently able to take a longer lunch on Mondays. The problem is, many (if not most) of the more exciting restaurants in town are either closed for lunch, closed Mondays or both. Can you think of anything new/hip/different with more accommodating hours? Anywhere in DC proper or NoVa is fine. Unconventional Diner is a favorite btw.

I've got just the spot for you: Piccolina da Centrolina, the cute little Italian source with the big wood-burning fire in CityCenter.

 

Does chef Amy Brandwein ever take a day off? I've seen her there every time I drop by the all-day, seven-days-a-week retreat. I'm especially smitten with the sandwich that packs porchetta, mustard greens and provolone between singed panuozzo, a bread found in the Campania region of Italy. 

Hi Tom, In two weeks, I will be going to NYC for less than a week to fill myself with good theatre. This is my first trip as a widow, and that really changes the complexion of dining out, a frequent and favorite pastime of our married lives. But in the small but growing southern city where I now live, I dine at lunch when I don’t receive as many narrow gimlet eyes when I ask for a table (I tend to slip right off barstools because my legs are too short to secure purchase on the foot-rung.) And even then, I hide behind my iPad because solo is still too painful and new. But, I won’t be carrying my iPad to the plays and musicals, so I am looking for some good to great places that will welcome me for a pre-theatre or post show dinner and I won’t look pathetic. I am veggie/pescatarian and would indulge in great seafood every night! But, I am also adventurous, except for chili heat which burns the inside of my mouth to blistering! Is there a comfortable one or two places for my circumstances? I am staying in a small hotel .2 mi from Broadway, .3 mi from Central Pk and, at night, the Flat Iron area is a taxi or Lyft ride. Know this is too long, but we began following you in the PNW and were delighted, twenty years later, to find you again when transferred from Europe to the DMV! You’ve led us to a great many excellent dinners — the first, The Bombay Club in 1998. It was the bomb!

First, I'm sorry for your loss. Second, good for you for treating yourself to good meals. Food, as you know, can be a balm. Third, we go way back, don't we? 

 

I just texted my pal Kate Krader, the ace food scribbler for Bloomberg. She suggests Bond 45 on West 46th ("total crowd-pleasing brasserie, redesigned by David Korins, who did Hamilton set design"); Esca for very good fish and pasta; and Butter Midtown, although you might want to check the menu of the last, which can be meat-forward. 

Hi Tom, I heard a rumor that Agora may be closing. I really hope it isn't true because I love this place for delicious Turkish food and incredible brunch. Have you heard anything? Please say it ain't so!

I just got off the phone with the co-owner of Agora, Ismail Uslu. "We're not closing," he told me. Indeed, the restaurateur hopes to expand his Mediterranean brand beyond the Agora Tysons that just opened in July. 

Our family faces a similar challenge. We have a small child with a rare allergy. She is not able to eat the food from restaurants (except for "safe" things such as an unpeeled banana or a sealed juicebox). We like to go out occasionally. When she was a baby/toddler it was no big deal to not order a meal for her. Now that she is bit bigger, at what point do we have to stop taking her to restaurants as the restaurant does not want someone in the party not eating? I've offered to pay for a child's meal that is not brought to the table; no restaurant has taken me up on it. I am afraid I put them on the spot. When we do go out, I tip as if all have ordered. Thanks for any guidelines.

The best thing to do is call ahead of visiting the restaurant, ask to (briefly) speak to a manager, explain the situation and announce yourself as the caller when you arrive.

 

I can't imagine  a restaurant turning a group away simply because one member of the party can't eat normally. Sadly, I can also imagine one person spoiling it for everybody else and taking advantage of a restaurant's hospitality with a trivial issue. It happens. 

Hi Tom, Have you tried Cut DC yet? If so, what did you think?

I've been three times this far. Expect a review in the hear future. 

I know you've written many good things about Houston dining in the past. But my searching for the articles have come up short. Can you share a link and any new insights you or the chatters may have? Thanks so much!!

Did you Google "Houston" and "Sietsema?" Because this story, part of my survey of America's best food cities, would have popped up. 

I generally cringe at the idea of bringing one's own meal to a restaurant, but several years ago I was acquainted with a woman who was in recovery for an eating disorder. She had very specific planned meals and was quite apologetic about bringing her own meal to a group lunch. It's a difficult thing to explain to the staff, especially in front of a group of people. If you're bringing in a Subway meatball footlong to a fancy restaurant, that's one thing. But people on a strict diet (be it for nutritional or other reasons) like to enjoy a meal out with friends, even if they can't partake in the food offered.

I'm sympathetic to both the person who can't eat off the  menu (easily) and the restaurant, part of an industry in which profit margins are low. 

Reading the previous poster's question about CUT, I went onto their website to check out the menu. Either my synapses are sketchy today, or the menus aren't actually posted. What type of food is served there?

It's a grill restaurant from chef Wolfgang Puck in the Rosewood Hotel in Georgetown, heavy on steaks but with plentiful seafood and vegetable selections. 

Oooh, you're taking after Hank, with the snark! Love it! Did you Google "Houston" and "Sietsema?" Because this story, part of my survey of America's best food cities, would have popped up.

The TV critic and I had lunch recently. I don't mind a bit if the wit rubbed off on me. Hank Stuever is a rock star. 

Hi Tom, I almost always eat out alone - wish restaurants would offer a smaller size - not a childrens menu but just smaller portions. I hate to waste food but often on travel and cant/dont want to take left overs. ideas?

I'm a fan of ordering two appetizers. Chefs seem to spend more time thinking about the first course, and fewer bites per plate mean there's no getting bored. 

Perhaps the other people can get their restaurant food as take-out, then join the person(s) on a restricted diet at a picnic table or park bench to eat together?

That's an option when the weather is fair, but what about the winter months?

Tom, for the earlier poster, I once dined solo at Esca and the staff was incredibly friendly. They did not treat me as a nuisance at all. I received top-notch service and a great meal (incredibly tasty gnocchi and grilled skate).

Same! 

So am I! In my case, it's sometimes because, as a vegetarian, I find those dishes to be the best meal options (along with dessert!).

Cool beans.

Deb from Smitten Kitchen just went to Ireland and wrote up her trip/recommendations here: https://smittenkitchen.com/travel/ten-days-in-ireland/

Reader to the rescue! 

 

I also received the following from others this morning:

 

Dublin restaurants

Regarding the poster's questions about restaurants in Dublin, I'd suggest steering clear of the tourist areas. A local recommended Camden Kitchen to us, and it was one of the more memorable meals from our trip.

Dublin Option

Ireland doesn't have the best dining options, but something they have perfected is fish & chips. Darkey Kelley's has the best in Dublin. I would never go and not end up there. Puts to shame anything I've gotten in the States. They have live music too that's very Irish which makes the atmosphere a lot of fun.

Dublin advice

It's been a few years, but I just double checked and these places are still open. For tea and outstanding pies/desserts, Queen of Tarts (near-ish City Hall and Christ Church). It's tiny and cozy and so good. The Brazen Head is good (it's not 5 star dining, but it's fun and historic and the food is better than average). Had amazing Italian food at Toscana (also City Centre). For whiskey, go to the Temple Bar Whiskey Tasting Room (entrance next to the Temple Bar, connected but not the actual bar). Be prepared to buy too many bottles of whiskey to bring home. I wanted to love The Winding Stair (which got great reviews in my research) but did not. Food and service just weren't great. One of my favorite meals was getting takeaway fish and chips from Leo Burdock and sitting outside Christ Church people watching.

Dublin dining

We were just in Ireland and spent a few days in Dublin. Our group is primarily vegan and we didn't do much formal dining but we did have a nice meal at The Church. It has live Irish music and dancing some nights and is a very unique space as it is in a converted church.

Dublin Recommendation

Went to Rosa Madre based on recommendation from eater.com during a long layover in July. Italian in Ireland really worked well, as my Tornino born girlfriend would attest.

While it doesn't help the chatter now looking for Sunday options in Rosslyn, Sfoglina's website says "coming soon" and other locations are open on Sunday

Fabio Trabocchi recently shared that the third branch of his successful pasta house concept is expected to open early in October. 

 

Hey, thanks for a lively chat today. Remember, I won't be here the next two Wednesdays. Let's regroup on September 25, OK? 

In This Chat
Tom Sietsema
Tom Sietsema has been the Washington Post food critic since 2000. In leaner years, he worked for the Microsoft Corporation, where he launched sidewalk.com; the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; the San Francisco Chronicle; and the Milwaukee Journal. A graduate of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, he has also written for Food & Wine, Gourmet, GQ, Travel & Leisure and other national publications. In 2016, he received an award from the James Beard Foundation for his series identifying and rating the "10 Best Food Cities in America" the previous year.
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