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

Dec 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.

Thanks for all you do for the DC food scene Tom! As a young professional who wants to try all the restaurants the city has to offer but also has a limited budget, I wanted your opinion on ordering an entree to share with my girlfriend when we eat out. Does it seem like we are cheap? (If we do this we usually get some drinks and an appetizer as well). Besides lowering the cost of our meal it also helps keeps calories down, but does it annoy the wait staff to wait on a table knowing a lesser bill (and this tip) is coming?

The more customers spend, the greater a server's tip tends to be. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't eat as you want to, for whatever reason. I know people who order two appetizers, partly because they are smaller in size but also because first courses tend to be more interesting.

 

Keep in mind, some restaurants charge a split fee for sharing dishes. Also, have you ever considered eating at the bar, where sharing an entree might be more welcome? Personally, I love bars and view a perch at a counter to be as desirable as any other spot in a restaurant.

 

Good morning, everyone. Unexpectedly, I have to be elsewhere at 11 a.m. today, but I didn't want to miss a chat, so I''ve pre-addressed a bunch of questions and plan to be "live" for just 30 minutes or so this morning. My apologies if I don't get to as many questions as usual.

 

Lots of you are wondering what became of the poster from last week who "thanked" me for exposing her husband dining out with someone other than his wife. In brief, a recent review of mine apparently included a photo of the guy and his squeeze.  I don't have many clues to go on, since the poster never named the restaurant and I don't see the incoming email addresses, just readers' rants and raves. Bottom line: Could the poster please identify herself and let me know if the post is even true? The world wants to know, it seems. Stories about the chat have appeared on Fox, CBS, two London newspapers, the Dutch press, the New York Post -- even in China!  (Whoever posted on the matter can reach out to me privately at tom.sietsema@washpost.com)

 

My Sunday review looks at the  House Members' Dining Room in the Capitol, which is newly open to the general public when Congress is in recess.  Spoiler alert: All I can stand behind is the bean soup.

 

The clock is ticking. Let's begin.

Tom and chatters, what are your thoughts on the situation described below? Contact a manager, anything else? Restaurant was fast casual type, think TGIF, Applebee’s, something like that. Friends were out to lunch, when they overheard an older man ask the hostess how she “got into those tight pants.” She nervously laughed and said, “I don’t even know.” They felt like they should have said something, but didn’t, and now feel yucky about it. In your opinion, how should one proceed in a situation like this?

The moment to act is when the offense occurs. Sounds as if the guy in this scenario is clueless, or taking advantage of a situation.

 

Either way, he needed to be be called out, preferably by someone in charge at the establishment:  "Sir, that's a good way to get in trouble in 2019. You owe her an apology."

 

That's my initial two cents. Readers?

Hey Tom, love your chats. Stopped by The Silver Diner on Wisconsin Ave today to grab a burger and my expectations weren’t high. Three in the afternoon and the bar was literally empty. Sat at a middle stool and was amazed at how dirty the bar was. Dried egg and food debris up and down the bar. Ordered and got food in a timely manner and it was fine, if a bit undercooked. Ordered an $8 piece of chocolate cake to take home to my girl, paid the check and tipped over 20%. I sought out the manager and pointed out how dirty the bar was, and commented how the bartender wasn’t really to blame as it seem clear nobody else noticed. When I stopped at a store two doors down I pulled the cake out to use the bag and saw the sliver of a slice, less than a half inch at its thickest, and just laughed. They sure showed me. Took the slice back and showed it to the same manager as before, and asked who was running the place. She was apologetic but seemed lost. How do these places stay in business? And short of throwing a fit, how do I express my amazement at the lack of customer service?

Posting in this forum, read widely by industry types here and around the country, is one way to start. A manager who seems "lost" or indifferent speaks to an inattentive owner, so I'm not sure even an email of complaint to the establishment would help. Sad, right? 

Is there a National Food Writers convention? If so do people register under their own names or under fake names? If there is such a convention do you go? I'm also wondering how often you get to meet writers from other cities unless maybe you dine with them while you travel.

One of the best and oldest such organizations is AFJ, which stands for the Association of Food Journalists. I've been a member for years, and always under my own name. The attendees are fellow journalists, for the most part, not chefs or people we typically cover. I haven't been to a conference in awhile, but I keep up with colleagues, many of whom I consider to be friends. 

....during the week when we'll be getting back to Baltimore for the first time in 15 years. Disappointing, but from reading your chat archives, and Baltimore Magazine, there appear to be plenty of other options. I did notice, however, that The Black Olive is no longer on the magazine's list of best restaurants. I can remember having some wonderful meals there, though admittedly they were...over 15 years ago. Have you or your contacts been recently, and can you offer an opinion?

The Black Olive: blast from the past! I haven't been in forever, or at least the mid 2000s. Maybe a fellow chatter has been in?  I used to love the spinach pie, rack of lamb and sea of fish there.

Greetings from one of your favorite food cities – Houston! I enjoy reading your chats each week and always learn something that’s useful and transferable to dining out here too. My daughter lives in DC and I’d like to get her a restaurant gift card as a present. She’s an adventurous eater and enjoys trying new things. I know one of her favorites is Maketto. A place in the West End/Dupont area is preferable but anywhere in greater DC is fine, and a place that takes reservations is a plus. Something where two can eat for about $100-$150. What would you suggest? Thank you in advance.

What a great idea. I think experiences as gifts are the way to go, if you know the recipient's taste (and you obviously do). 

 

If your daughter likes Maketto, chances are strong she'll also enjoy Queen's English for Hong Kong-inspired fare, Anju for very good Korean, Tiger Fork for the Asian night market atmosphere and Thamee for a taste of Myanmar. 

This question may be outside the scope of these chats (which I absolutely love reading, by the way), but I figured I'd give it a shot. Is there somewhere in DC (or a metro accessible suburb) that you'd recommend to shop for tinned seafood (caviar, sardines, etc.)? I'd like to get my dad a small assortment for Christmas, but I really have no idea what I'm doing. I'd appreciate it if you could direct me to somewhere where I could speak to someone knowledgeable. Thank you!

Tinned seafood is hot right now. The restaurant where I last experienced the trend -- Dyllan's Raw Bar Grill in Georgetown -- recently closed. You should check out area food shops, including A. Litteri near Union Market in NE, which offers at least some of what you want.

Based on your shout out, a friend and I had dinner at the Winding Stair on Saturday. You were (unsurprisingly) correct, it was wonderful! We told the waiter about your mention and he was charmingly surprised. He also introduced us to eating Irish butter on our cheese when we ordered the delightful cheese plate. This is something I can highly recommend, at least until all my clothes stop fitting! Thanks for the recommendation!

I'm thrilled the meal worked out. Thanks for letting me know. Butter on cheese? I can see that in Ireland.

Hi Tom! My dad and brother are coming into town shortly before Christmas and I'm hoping to make a reservation for dinner. I've waited a bit long for some of the places I really want to try (Rooster & Owl, Le Dip, Maydan) but was hoping you could guide me towards a DC restaurant that would be friendly for a classic steak/potatoes kind of person (dad) and someone with more crunchy/locally sourced preferences (brother). No specific genre of food necessary otherwise. I so enjoy your chats every week, thank you for everything you do!

My favorite place for contemporary meat and potatoes is St. Anselm near Union Market. Just be careful not to eat more than one biscuit before the main event shows up. For new and locally-sourced, I'm a fan of Nina May, where chef Colin McClimans, formerly of Equinox,  is serving up some hits, including clams with chorizo and squash.

Hi Tom, I fly to Budapest next week for several days. Any rec’s? There were some names tossed around but it’s from a few years ago. Single female diner, no restrictions.

I don't have my notes with me, but two places you definitely want to check out are Rozsnyai (for hand-made shoes) and Borkonyha, the scene of my most memorable dinner in Budapest (where, to be honest, I found the food a little heavy and repetitious). 

Hi Tom, My son will graduate from American University next week and we're looking for a brunch/lunch location near the school to celebrate (Tenlytown or Dupont). Have any suggestions for a great celebratory meal that will be popular for a younger crown?

Tenleytown is kind of a wash. Less than two miles away from AU is the very good Sfoglina for Italian. The service is tops, the pastas are rolled out daily and the room is properly festive. 

My husband and I are huge fans of your recs but your latest Fall dining guide made us sad because we have a baby and do not get out nearly as often as we used. What are you 3 favorite new restaurants that would be easiest to dine at with a young toddler? We'd go early - say around 5 - maybe on a Sunday or other off night - to try and avoid disturbing other guests, but what places do you recommend that would have a high chair, room for a stroller (happy to fold it up and store wherever), and would welcome our future foodie who loves eating but isn't always the neatest diner (i.e. no white tablecloths)?

Babies are supposedly pretty easy to take out. Noise even has a lulling effect, young parents tell me. It's too early for me to fact-check which places have high chairs and such, but from my spring and fall dining guides, I'd say Mama Chang in Fairfax is family-friendly, as are El Sapo Cuban Social Club in Silver Spring, I'm Eddie Cano on Connecticut Ave. and All-Purpose in Shaw.

That doesn't even begin to address the issue here. How about "Sir, that's an inappropriate comment to make to anyone, but even worse considering the power imbalance between a server and a restaurant patron. Shame on you."

Better!

Looking to get a gift cert for a 21 ye old who is a world traveler and open to all cuisines. Perhaps a restaurant with fun cocktails and creative food choices, lively vibe. He's at DePaul but open to any Chicago neighborhoods and price not a concern. Any suggestions? Thank you

Send your adventurous food warrior to Fat Rice for a rare taste of Macanese cooking; Parachute for French/Asian/American fusion of the best kind; or Topolobampo for some of the best Mexican food in the country.

Yuan Fu Vegetarian, a Chinese restaurant in Rockville, has vegetarian squid. Not certain whether it's vegan, but most of their menu is.

During last week's chat, someone was looking for vegetarian "squid" and I was stumped for an answer.

 

Whoever answered the phone at Yuan Fu told me the restaurant no longer carries the "squid," apparently made from Japanese yam.

Got a chance to see your Philly article from America's best food cities, plus your 2016 follow-up with 10 places to eat in Philly. Wondering if you've been back since then, and if there are any newer spots worth checking out? I have Zahav, Vernick Food & Drink, and Serpico on my list, but wasn't aware of any new places that come highly recommended.

I don't have anything else to add to those recommendations (and I trust you have made a reservation at Zahav, one of the toughest tickets in Philly). 

Hey, Tom - thanks for these chats and all your good work. I have some clients coming to town next week, and we want to have a brainstorming dinner somewhere downtown-ish. Price-wise, we probably don't want the highest end (e.g., Del Mar), but Le Diplomate level would be fine. Looking for good food, and relatively quiet surroundings (which leaves out Le Dip). No preference on cuisines, but probably want to avoid semi-monocultures (places that are primarily steak or seafood) to give everyone a lot of options. Thanks.

Oval Room near the White House isn't nearly as busy as the cooking warrants. Take advantage of the situation and book a corner table there. Another option is Pembroke, the chic dining room within the Dupont Circle hotel on New Hampshire Ave. NW

Hi Tom - Getting together with friends who we haven't seen in a few years to celebrate (among other things) one of our friends' survival of breast cancer. Unfortunately, to beat her very aggressive tumor, the chemo she required has made her hard-of-hearing. She gets very frustrated at most restaurants now because the background din means she can't really participate in the conversation. She's sad because prior to becoming sick, eating out was a delight to her. Can you recommend someplace that is relatively quieter in the District? Price range $20-35 per person? Cuisine unimportant except that she doesn't really like Vietnamese food. Thanks for your help!

For better or worse, quiet is the new luxury. Diners pay, sometimes dearly, for the ability to hear one another at a meal.

 

A few exceptions to the rule, and within your budget if you don't drink, include the neighborly Tortino on 11th St. NW  and La Betty in Mount Vernon Triangle. Best to dine on the early side, if possible.

Hi Tom, My birthday is next week and while I tried to get a reservation at Centrolina, unfortunately it’s booked. Any suggestions on another great Italian place either in DC or Old Town Alexandria? Thanks!

Try Modena, downtown, where chef John Melfi is making a splash with a clever antipasti cart and dishes including sausage-stuffed squid and lamb loin flavored with cumin, fennel and black garlic.

Some fast casual restaurants now offer some mini desserts, which are a good size for people who are watching their weight and/or sugar. Why don't more restaurants offer smaller portions of desserts? Also why no sugar-free, reduced sugar, or no sugar added desserts?

Miniature desserts, popularized by high-end restaurants, have been around for some time. (Food trends tend to trickle down.) I applaud the idea: a little indulgence for (hopefully) not a lot of bank.

 

One reason I think you don't see many sugar-free confections is due to the reality that a lot of people go to restaurants to splurge rather than restrain themselves.

 

One of the more refreshing desserts around is the star attraction at Kith/Kin, featured in a dessert round-up several years ago.

A cautionary note to all: earlier this year a popular Chinese restaurant in the West End announced it was closing. It was very close to my office, and many birthdays, retirements, etc. have been celebrated there over the years. I organized a group of co-workers for a final farewell lunch. We were *delighted* to see our picture accompanying a story in the WaPo online a week later--of course, none of us was where we shouldn't have been. We never saw the photographer.

Let's hear it for clean living! Or at least not having to hide at lunch or dinner away from home.

 

That's a wrap for today, folks. Again, sorry to have to cut the chat short, but I have to be elsewhere at 11 a.m. today. Please join me again next Wednesday, at the usual hour (11 a.m.) and we'll pick up from here. Ciao for now.

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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