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

Nov 20, 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.

Hi Tom, I recently dined at Emilie's, and the food was very good. However.... I was aware that 4% would be added to the check to for their healthcare fee for their employees. What I was NOT aware of, and was appalled by, was the fact that this amount was also TAXED at the 10% DC restaurant bill rate. So, not only was I charged, for example, 8 dollars on a 200 dollar bill, but that 8 dollars was also taxed at the 10% rate when added to the final charge. This seems...incorrect? Is there any explanation for this?

I reached out to Emilie's general manager, Elizabeth Schnettler, for a response. She responded with the following: 

 

 

Chef Kevin Tien and I have spoken a lot about the wage disparity in our industry and the lack of professionalism. I never want us to do something because that is “how it always has been done,” and I think that our choices in operation are one of the ways we can speak out about these issues. 

 

Providing paid healthcare that is not just a low level, basic plan is something that Kevin wanted to take on as a business expense. We provide a silver level plan through UnitedHealthcare or pay the equivalent premium towards another plan of the employee’s choosing. There are people who build their careers in our industry, and healthcare and other benefits are an expense that business owners in other fields build into their pricing. We wanted to do something similar. 

 

The 4% we put towards wellness is not a gratuity, but a part of our pricing. We could have just set our prices higher to cover this expense, and no one would ever have noticed, but we decided to keep the 4% separate to start conversations and build awareness of this issue. We would love for other operators in our industry to be encouraged by their staff and guests to treat their employees similarly. 

 

Even if the 4% was intended to be a service charge, we would still have to tax it at the 10% rate because of the way the tax law is written. Per tax law in DC, any service charges that are not a voluntary amount established by the guest are taxable at the same 10% rate. This is explained in Section 9-467 of the DC Municipal Regulations. Here’s a link in case that is helpful:

http://dcrules.elaws.us/dcmr/9-467 [dcrules.elaws.us] 

 

I hope that answer helps. I know this is a different and new thing to the DC market, but Kevin was really inspired by Fat Rice (woo! Chicago!) and other markets like LA where this is more common. 

 

 

GOOD MORNING, EVERYONE. For another luxury issue of the Magazine, out this Sunday, I trekked to Dublin for a taste of modern Irish cooking at the lovely Chapter One. I have Cathal Armstrong to thank for the terrific recommendation -- a relative bargain featuring four courses and awesome service for $90.  Closer to home, I previewed the new Nina May in Logan Circle for the Food section this week.

 

 

FOOD FLASH: Nick Wiseman, the co-owner of Whaley’s on the Southeast waterfront, says he’s closing the nearly four year-old seafood restaurant sometime before next month. “It’s bittersweet,” he says. “Business was good.  But it gives us a chance to focus on Little Sesame,” the hummus-themed eatery on L St. NW, not to mention make way for a new concept: Whaley’s turns out to be where former Maydan chefs Gerald Addison and Chris Morgan plan to launch their forthcoming restaurant.

 

“We get the keys Jan. 1,” says Addison, who is aiming for a spring 2020 roll-out. He and Morgan are still finessing their branding. Until then, the chefs plan to stay mum about the name and the theme.

 
What's on your mind today? I'm only around for 30 minutes or so this morning. (Deadlines!) So send me your rants and raves asap. 

Tom, A friend and I decided to try the new Brasserie Liberte in Georgetown for brunch this weekend to celebrate her birthday. We thought it would be fun to go for the opening weekend, and were willing to forgive some kinks as they work through their opening weekend service. Upon arriving, I was seated at a table alone. It wasn’t until several minutes later that I realized they’d already sat my friend, under the same reservation (full name), also alone. We proceeded to order food that came out cold, but, again, opening weekend kinks. Our waiter then disappeared, though he could be seen around the dining room helping other tables. Once we had been waiting for our check for over an hour, I finally asked someone else to assist. A few minutes later, our original waiter reemerged with our check and didn't say anything. I placed my card in the book almost immediately, but the server never returned. We even put our coats on to indicate we were ready to leave, but the server did not stop by our table. All this while we could see him helping other, bigger tables the whole time. We felt completely ignored. Finally, we brought the bill to the host stand and I calmly explained that we had been waiting for over an hour to pay our bill and could not get our server's attention. The host apologized and said she would run our bill. That being said, I told the host of our experience and gave her the chance to make it right. All she did was bring back our check, muttered another "sorry," and did not take anything off my check. I didn't come there hoping to get something for free, but I did feel like this experience warranted more than a simple "sorry." How could I have handled this better? Is there anything the restaurant should have done about this?

Sounds as if the city's latest French restaurant stumbled out of the gate, seating you and your companion at separate tables and serving cold food, which you really should have sent back.

 

I've heard of customers waiting a long time for the check, but ....you seriously endured a full 60 minutes? I find that hard to believe. Even in a busy restaurant, *someone* -- a bus boy, manager or additional server -- must have passed your table.

 

For future reference, the best time to complain is as the problem occurs. If you're not having luck with your attendant, bring the issue to the attention of a manager. A host is less likely to be empowered to make changes on a bill.

Hi Tom, A friend and I are in town for Thanksgiving, with no desire to cook, or go to a traditional Thanksgiving at a restaurant. We'd love to eat a regular meal, but on Thanksgiving day. He seems to think all restaurants will be open. I don't believe they will be open unless they are serving a special Thanksgiving meal. Do you know of any restaurants open on Thanksgiving day that are NOT doing a turkey dinner?

Among the District restaurants offering both their regular dishes and Thanksgiving fare Nov. 28 are the French-themed DBGB in CityCenter, the Italian-accented Sfoglina on Van Ness, the Mexican-flavored Mi Vida on the southwest waterfront and Rare Steakhouse downtown. I'm happy to add other examples to the list as readers make me aware of them today. 

Tom, long time reader, first time questioner. Were does a late-30s couple go to feel cool and enjoy a romantic meal (French maybe?) to tell my wife how much I appreciate her? She does so much and I want her to feel loved. Marcel's too quiet? Le Diplomat too loud? Thank you for guiding me and husbands everywhere.

You rock. And it's not even close to Valentine's Day. 

 

Marcel's remains an oasis of luxury and you're right about Le Diplomate. It's an aural assault. If you're looking for other options, think about Chez Billy Sud in Georgetown. I realize I mention the bistro a lot in this forum, but having dined there recently, I'm smitten with the coziness of the room and the deliciousness of the menu. A caveat: the seating is snug. You are likely to overhear conversation at the next table. But to me, the place feels very Parisian. So if that's the effect you want, book away!

 

YET ANOTHER COMPLAINT ABOUT LE DIP:

 

I agree with last week's chatter, we received pretty bad service a few months ago at Le Diplomat and we included the manager who "tried" to help, but still let us waiting for dessert for 45 minutes and the check another 30 minutes. Almost left without paying. I too emailed the restaurant and NOTHING! It was embarrassing as it was a celebration for my out out of town guests.

 

The chef's choice experience at Nina May sounds adventurous and interesting. But I don't know how these things work. Is it $40/person or $40 for the table (so if two people is it $40 or $80)? Thanks!

The price per head is $39 -- a bargain, considering the amount of food you get. 

Hi Tom--regular reader here! A rant submitted last week made me wonder if it was actually submitted by someone affiliated with the restaurant trying to bolster their reputation here. Have you ever had suspicions about this? How would you know if it's bogus or not? I know you usually give your two cents about the restaurant either way, which I suppose is all you can do. Thanks!

I don't see the email addresses of the posters, just the rants and raves, so I can never be certain. But yes, I suspect some submissions here come from people with vested interests in seeing a restaurant get favorable or unfavorable coverage. I sometimes acknowledge that in my responses.  

Hi Tom. Recently we had a late lunch (3:00pm-ish) on a Sunday at a 14th St. restaurant. The meal was good and the service fine, but while we were eating, some staff, who were apparently on their breaks, went to an adjoining seating area, laid down on the benches, and took naps. One was about 5 feet away from our table. I contacted the restaurant who apologized and offered for us to come back for a meal on them. My question: is it ever OK for staff to be taking "breaks" while they are in full view of patrons? It was so distracting that we ended our meal short.

I have zero problems with staff taking breaks. But I think rest is best taken out of sight of customers -- particularly where napping is concerned. (Seriously?) Time out for meals is fine; time out for sleeping looks bad. 

After catching up with today's chat and seeing the comment about clams filled with grit, why is it a constant problem in veggies? It isn't that difficult to wash zucchini (that would be you, True Food) or kale (sadly, Bombay Club). While not a vegetarian, I order a lot of meals focused on vegetables and the grit is truly a turn-off. Can the prep folks be a bit more conscientious?

If you were in front of me now, I'd high-five you. But you aren't, so I'll simply respond to your plea with an "amen."

In a world where more and more dishes are spicy-hot, can you suggest how I should tell servers that I cannot tolerate much heat, without sounding wimpy? I like interesting flavor, but not if it burns. I've tried asking for a heat rating of 1 to 10, but sometimes a server's 4 is an 8 to me.

I'm not sure what advice to give you, since *you* know your tolerance level better than any server. Also,  I've found menu spice levels of say, 1 to 4 to be all over the heat map. I think you need to give servers a benchmark: "Popeye's spicy is too hot for me" or something similar. 

Enjoy both your chats and reviews but I was puzzled by your swipe at Whole Foods. I admit that they are pricey on some items but I find both their meats and seafood to be above approach. My guess is that the people who read your writings and follow your advice for dinning would have no trouble paying Whole Food prices, given the prices most of your favorite places charge.

Hey, I was just having a little fun there. And in my defense, many of my favorite places to eat are moderately priced. Examples include the recently reviewed Bar Charley, Nina May, Piccolina, Hitching Post, Annie's, La Betty and more. 

Tom, now that we’re retired, are challenged by nighttime excursions to the likes of Inn at Little Washington, but can enjoy nice long lunches and daytime drives in the country, what do you suggest for a special occasion lunch? Something like L’Auberge Chez Francois, but a little less tired?

What about Maryland, specifically Easton? I'm hearing good things about Bas Rouge, which is open for lunch on Thursday and Friday and whose menu features roasted chestnut soup, white truffle risotto and Wiener schnitzel, among other cold-weather comforts. Bas Rouge is about 70 miles from Washington, by the way.

Hi Tom! I had dinner at Fancy Radish last night and a little thing at the very beginning put me off. Two members of our party of four arrived at the same time (5 minutes early for the reservation), and when we checked in we were told we could not sit until the rest of our party arrived. I really would have preferred to sit at the table and start ordering drinks. Isn't it in the best interest of the restaurant to allow people to sit down and start ordering, thus making money? Our table was ready and empty by the way. This drives me crazy! Food was delicious btw, but it doesn't seem very welcoming to force people to stand around instead of sitting if the table is ready.

I hate waiting for a table, too. But I can also sympathize with restaurant staff, too many of whom tell me stories about seating one or two people promptly, only to have stragglers come in 20 or 30 minutes late, which messes up reservations.

 

I'm afraid a few bad apples have spoiled it for the rest of us. 

Hi Tom! I have a big birthday coming up and my favorite food - please don't judge - by far is traditional breakfast/brunch foods (runny eggs, french toast, eggs florentine, some sort of potato, etc.). I'm looking for a place to get a fancy brunch with mimosas inside DC proper on a Friday. Preferably with a pretty and very comfy dining room where we can marinate for a bit. Any ideas?

The closest thing to what you want is the weekday brunch at Unconventional Diner, which is "pretty" in an arty way. Mimosas? Check. French toast? Ditto. Some sort of potato? Spring for the French fries with "sexy sauce."

Yeah, this isn't "opening hiccups." It's lousy service from beginning to end, and I'm crossing the restaurant off my list.

Well, I wouldn't be *too* hard on the restaurant. I had a very good meal there recently (dinner). 

Hey Tom, My wife and I had a strange experience at Via Sophia. The food was mostly excellent, but not entirely - appetizers were great. I had a crudo and she had a great salad. The duck entree was great. The flounder was a bit fishy in a bad way. Anyway, there was a host with his shirt almost entirely unbuttoned. He was not wearing an undershirt. There was lots of chest hair to be seen. It was off-putting! I saw other patrons looking as he poured water. Yes - chest hair exposure guy was also pouring water. Who does that!?! 

Sounds as if someone didn't look in the mirror before going to work. Was there a gold chain in the mix, too? Just asking. (Just joking.) Sorry you and your wife had to see that. 

Hi Tom, I'm off to Portland in January and was wondering you have any recommendations on where to eat, or a good resource that I can use to plan dinners. No particular food preferences and nothing that I need to avoid, and the budget is upwardly flexible for the right place. Thanks!

Portland emerged as my No. 1 pick for best overall food city when I surveyed the country four years ago. Some of my happiest memories involved meals at Ox (featuring food cooked on an Argentine-style grill); Pok Pok (for terrific Thai fare);  Screen Door (for a bodacious breakfast) and Nodoguro (for a Japanese tasting menu inside a grocery store). Also, DO NOT MISS the PSU Portland Farmers Market on the lush grounds of Portland State University, where you should stock up on hazelnuts from Freddy Guys. 

My husband and I recently dined at IALW. We went in large part due to your raving reviews and, truly, it was incredible. The only head scratcher was at the end, when we got our bill...along with the expected items of the $248 tasting menu x2, corkage, and tax, there was also a "popcorn" charge for $12 each. This popcorn had just been set on the table as part of the amuse bouche course, so we assumed it was part of the menu. Unlike the dessert cheese tasting, which was clearly stated in the menu and on the website as an $18 up-charge (which we declined), there was no such warning about the popcorn. Since the evening was so wonderful and we didn't want to seem cheap/nitpicky, we said nothing to management. Of course, in the scheme of a $700+ dinner, $24 isn't the end of the world, but our curiosity lingers on why this charge was tacked on. Is this normal for Michelin-rated establishments (this was a once-in-a-lifetime treat for us, we're not regular Michelin diners) and it's expected people just roll with the [final billing] flow? Thanks for any insight!

A spokeswoman for the Inn sent this to me earlier today:

 

Thank you for sharing this feedback with us. We apologize for any confusion or misunderstanding. The truffle popcorn is an off-menu item with a supplemental charge. Our typical approach with guests is to let them know the popcorn is not a part of the menu, but that they can order it as a supplement. We offer this complimentary to our guests eating in the kitchen and those staying with us at The Inn. We are happy to refund the amount to these guests. Would you mind having them share their contact information with us?  

Hi Tom, It's my wife's birthday tomorrow and we have last minute babysitters parachuting in to give us a night out. Any recommendations for places to go in Northern Virginia? We have been to Mama Chang, and are hoping for some nice comfort food. We live in the Cameron Station area of Alexandria.

Close to home, in Del Ray, there's the cozy

Evening Star Cafe, where chef Jonathan Till whips up dishes including shaved cabbage salad, pork chop with squash gratin and smoked chicken with green beans. 

I wish you could get through one chat without blaming diners for not managing the restaurant staff properly.

Look, I've been doing this long enough to know there are often two, three or more sides to a lot of these scenarios. The customer is not always right.

 

If you're referring to the French restaurant post, I just can't imagine eating cold food and waiting an hour for a bill and not raising concerns until it's time to leave. Unless I'm missing something?

With all due respect to Ms. Schnettler and the team at Emilie's, I don't go to a restaurant to start a conversation about their business issues. My experience at a restaurant is about me, not them, selfish as that may sound.

Fair enough. But some of us also like to patronize establishments that support good business practices or other worthy goals.

I believe you mean Nick Wiseman, not Nick Freshman.

Of course I do! I know better. Fixed. And my sincere apologies to Mr. Wiseman. #needmorecoffee

The last time I went to Le Diplomate, I also received poor service. But more importantly, like last week's chatter, could see that the staff were often congregated at a station talking among themselves. Not great optics.

Nope. Especially if you want another drink or the bill.

Hi Tom, Just wanted to let you know that you nailed it again. I was in Annapolis with my husband for the weekend and we went to Flamont's on Friday night. It was awesome. In fact, it was so good that we ditched our plans on Saturday so we could go back for round 2. We had completely different dishes both nights and they were all superb. It would be hard to name a cozier restaurant on the Eastern seaboard. Good recommendation, thanks!

I'm thrilled to hear your experience mirrored mine. Thanks for the feedback. 

A reader follow-on to last week's First Bite on Nina May: I dined there last night: the food was delicious and the service flawless. Our waiter easily accommodated a dining companion by recommending which cocktails were best reproduced in mocktail form. We opted for the chef's choice after checking that dairy-free could be accommodated; our waiter also went above and beyond by asking about dietary preferences, in addition to allergies and sensitivities. Our chef's choice included from the menu: the magenta lettuce salad; the marrow fat shelling beans; the clams and chorizo that you raved about; an (off-menu?) roasted vegetable medley of brussels sprouts, cauliflower and chard; and the stuffed trout with a side dish of wheatberries, squash, and crispy onions. If we'd been hungrier, it would have been great to hang on for one more dish, but we wanted to save room for dessert. The dessert delivered (a perfectly not-sweet collection of flourless chocolate cakes) and your thumbs-down on the beignets must have been noticed, since they didn't appear on the menu. Overall, I can't wait to go back and bring any/ all visitors to town, but my guess is it will shortly become difficult to get a seat.

For sure, Nina May is a great addition to the 'hood. The owners deserve to play to a packed dining room. Thanks for weighing in.

My husband is not a foodie, but he is a picky patron. The thing that makes or breaks a meal for him is the service at the restaurant. He doesn't want to be hovered over, but he wants to be attended to. He likes when the staff is friendly and can answer all his questions, especially about dietary substitutions. For example, he thought the experience at Rose's Luxury was much better than at Pineapple and Pearls because he thought the latter was "too much." Any recommendations on restaurants in DC with top notch service that won't leave him feeling smothered?

Few restaurants do service better than the ones owned by Fabio and Maria Trabocchi, who I identified as important taste makers in my recent fall dining guide. Their realm includes Sfoglina, Del Mar, Fiola and Fiola Mare

I’m a regular reader, having lived in DC but now find myself in Cleveland. I spent this past weekend in Seattle with my boyfriend and want to thank you for your previous dining recommendations mentioned in this chat. During our brief 48-hour visit we went to Canlis and Matt’s in the Market. Both were fantastic but I must say that going to Canlis has been the best dining experience that I’ve ever had. Neither restaurant would have been on my radar without your mention, and I wanted to say thank you for your positive contribution to our vacation.

Your post made my day. Thank you for taking the time to write. I love it when I can steer readers in delicious directions.

Hi Tom, I'm eschewing a long trip home for Thanksgiving and instead enjoying a solo spa staycation in Alexandria, VA. Any suggestions for good places for a single to dine out? I'll eat anything (used to be a food writer!) and, seeing as how I'm already treating myself that weekend, I would consider higher priced options if it wasn't too awkward for me to take a table by myself. I haven't really spent much time in that area and am unfamiliar with what's available.

You're very close to DC, which has more options, but if you choose to stay in Alexandria, I suggest checking out the intimate Nasime in Old Town for its Japanese tasting menu. Personally, I'd be inclined to sit at the bar rather than a table. More fun!

Surely that is an exaggeration? Why on earth would someone wait an HOUR for the bill? After 10 minutes or so, you get up and go find somebody!

Uh huh

Yes, but as the TQM people say, your good experience does not invalidate a 100% failure for the OP. Not gonna chance it.

Okay. But the beef bourguignon is pretty awesome!

serves the regular menu plus thanksgiving on thanksgiving.

You know I'm a fan, right? (Seriously, I gave Cracker Barrrel an A when I was reviewing top chains a few years back.)

Hi Tom--I recently got as a gift a reservation for dinner at Blue Hill at Stone Barn in Westchester County NY. Have you ever been? I've heard it's somewhat comparable to the Inn at Little Washington, would you agree? Thanks in advance for any insights you might have.

Lucky you to receive such a generous gift. And yes, Blue Hill at Stone Barn, which I reviewed earlier this year, is as special as you've heard it is.

 

Plan to use your fingers for the first few dishes, then get up from your table between courses to explore another aspect of the property. (Last visit, I was introduced to the restaurant's bakery.) This is fine-dining as it's most entertaining. 

Ok Tom... I need your professional help! I'm hosting two friends the first week of D.C. while they interview at residency programs and I need advice on where to take them if I want to show them a good time and convince them to live in D.C. Looking for great food, cocktails, and atmosphere but also nothing to break a budget... they are med school students after all! Thanks in advance!!

I'm a big fan of Thamee, the colorful mother-daughter-run restaurant specializing in the cooking of Myanmar on H St. NE. (Think tea leaf salad and pork belly with pickled mango.) Another great place to take visitors is All-Purpose for terrific deck-oven-cooked pizzas. The original is in Shaw; the spinoff sits on the Capitol Riverfront in SE.

My wife and I were lucky enough to receive a nice Knightsbridge restaurant group gift certificate for our anniversary. Where should we use it? In the past we have enjoyed both Rasika and Rasika West End, but haven't visited any of the other outposts.

If you've done the Indian thing twice, branch out to another flavor in the company. I'm keen on Sababa for modern Middle Eastern in Cleveland Park and the newish Modena for Italian downtown.

I would also recommend one of the Jose Andres restaurants (i.e. Jaleo, Oyamel, China Chilcano, or Zaytinya) for affordable food, awesome cocktails, and great vibes

Yes times four.

Look, Tom, I'm not yelling at you, but the nanosecond I see "luxury issue of the Sunday Magazine" I put it straight into the recycling bin. This is a WashPost development that I seriously deplore.

We wouldn't do them if advertisers and readers didn't support them. Plus, this coming issue is packed with lots of good pieces and lush photography. Read it for Robin Givhan on the ethics of fashion and M. Carrie Allen on Chartreuse if nothing else.

 

That's a wrap for today. Let's meet again next Wednesday. Thanks for keeping me company.

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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