Ask Tom: Why mentioning a waiter’s flub isn’t snark

Jan 15, 2020

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.

DC is a wonderful restaurant city, and it’s only getting better. And you’re a big reason why the city has been pushed to greater culinary heights over the past several years. But I have a confession: I’m getting bored. I need to find something new (to me, anyway). Interesting. Outside the mainstream. Maybe Russian? African? I’m not sure. What have you got for someone suffering from restaurant ennui?

You're bored with the food scene? Seriously? I'm happy to report I can't keep up with all the restaurant openings, many of them exciting additions to the city. 

 

You don't mention what you've checked off your list. But I encourage you to explore some of the more casual options out there. Immigrant Food near the White House, for instance. Or Thamee on H St. NE for the food of Myanmar or Port-au-Prince in Silver Spring for an uncommon taste of Haiti.  Pricier but intriguing: Kith/Kin on the Wharf for a delicious weave of West African and Caribbean flavors.  I could write a book in response to your question, but that should give you some inspiration for the moment. 

 

Happy Wednesday, everyone. Fans of Tail Up Goat are cheering the debut of Reveler's Hour, a wine- and pasta-focused offshoot that's the subject of my First Bite column in Food. Coming up this Sunday in the Magazine is my starred review of Brasserie Liberte in Georgetown, from the prolific Hakan Ilhan

 

Lots of questions and comments today. I may have to cut out a little early. Today is a big deadline day for me. But I'll try to answer  at least 25 questions or so before I sign off. Let's get crackin'.

I love this place! Italian food I grew up on, and about the same quantities! I know some may be off-put by the portion sizes, but for a small group...or a couple of big eaters, this gets my vote. Stuffed artichokes are divine, as is paper thin, brick-sized eggplant parm. I am wondering if you have been to Carmine's of late, and what do think?

I last ate at the 450-seat (!) branch in New York when I did a survey of the country's most popular restaurants two years ago.

 

I can totally understand why people appreciate the brand. Servers slicing the colossal lasagna look like they are carving a turkey, and “Happy birthday” is sung as often as Trump tweets. Dessert options include a “Titanic” that’s basically a sundae on steroids, built with six scoops of ice cream, caramelized fruit, a chocolate torte and rolled wafers posing as smoke stacks. 

 

Carmine's is generous, fun and frequently delicious. Plus, you get tomorrow's lunch with tonight's dinner. Did I mention the portions are gigantic?

Hey Tom, In your last two reviews of hotel restaurants you make two references to servers using incorrect language. I think we can all admit to having a slip of the tongue, but I'm constantly surprised that you would choose to so publicly mock a servers ignorance of words and their meanings. Admittedly, your job is to review the establishments you visit, and your critique must be of the entire enterprise. But haven't we all lost control of our faces at a high pressure time only to say something completely incoherent or outright ignorant? The servers you choose to mock likely know they're serving the Washington Post food reviewer, and they've likely got a manager just around the corner chewing on fingernails and fretting over every little mistake that could be made. Adding your literary salt to the hopefully forgotten wound weeks later does nothing more than highlight an embarrassing mistake at best, and ignorance at worst. I've seen the effect of the words you print on a servers morale after a similar flub, and watched as they struggle trying to overcome the stigma of being uneducated or stupid. I know that isn't your intent, and I'd ask you to use your considerable position to highlight the food and service, and allow the obvious mistakes of a new and clearly nervous staff pass without notation.

Part of reviewing a restaurant includes evaluating the service, and I think it's important to support any claims with examples of what makes it good, bad or indifferent, quotes included. I wasn't trying to be snarky when I wrote about the waiter at Amity & Commerce describing "the plat du jour of the day" or the server so rushed at Estuary that his greeting, which included a deposit of bread sticks, came out Breadsticksandpimento­cheesebonappetit!"   I was simply trying to paint an accurate picture of both establishments, and have a little fun along the way. Mocking servers is not my thing.

Help! My work has me in Phoenix on a regular basis for the foreseeable future. Do you or your dear readers have any recommendations for where to eat out here? Thanks, Tom, for all you do for the readership.

Phoenix, anyone? I've only been once, for a wedding. 

Hi Tom, I'd love to hear your recommendations for a special occasion restaurant for a party of 9. Looking at spending up to $300 per person including food/beverages/tax/tip. Where would you suggest? Thanks so much for your help!

You want to consider a restaurant you think might enjoy a long run, a place where you and your partner might be able to return for future anniversaries. I'd place such bets on the newly remodeled Centrolina (Italian) in CityCenter; one of the water-facing private dining rooms at Del Mar (Spanish) at the Wharf; the glassed-wrapped space at Little Pearl (modern American) on the Hill; or the forthcoming Annabelle, with food by former White House Frank Ruta in what used to be Restaurant Nora. Good luck. 

Hello. I'm having trouble think of a place on Monday for a group of women friends. We have mostly met in Arlington in the past, so we've done a lot of the usual places. Cuisine is open, dishes up to ~$15, not too meat heavy or loud. Caveat is I'm temporarily using a walker, so not too difficult in/out/parking. Am I asking for too much?

Yes, you have a lot of qualifiers there, but I think I've found the right spot for you: SER, the sibling to the delightful, Spanish-themed Joselito in Washington.

 

The Ballston restaurant is open on Monday for lunch, can handle groups and includes on its day-time menu a $14 sandwich with soup or salad option and a three-course meal you can build yourself for $26. Do it!

Tom - Enjoy the magazine article each week & these chats - thanks! And thank you for putting Afghan Bistro on our radar. We live about 60 miles south of DC so when we get to the area, we really enjoy trying different restaurants, especially the various ethnic venues we don't have where we live. Recently while in Alexandria, we decided to visit Afghan Bistro for dinner. What a treat. We can't wait to get back !

Thanks for the feedback.

 

Good news: The owners of the Springfield and Washington Afghan establishments are opening a third source, Aracosia in McLean, tonight.

Hi Tom, Took my wife to the Inn at Little Washington for her 40th, now it's time for her 50th. Feel I need to take it up a notch, or at least a fun unique experience, impossible probably, but any ideas? Need to keep it in the DMV. Thanks.

You're probably too late for the exquisite-but-small Three Blacksmiths, which I see is accepting reservations now for (gulp) August. I'd opt for a seat in the dining room at either Metier, the hushed lair of Eric Ziebold, or Pineapple and Pearls on the Hill, home to the equally talented Aaron Silverman

Hi Tom! I love these chats, so thank you to you and all the readers for keeping them so lively! The topic of waiting to clear dishes until everyone at the table has finished seems to come up here frequently, and I wanted to include my experience as a former fine dining server. For context I was a very good server, and took a lot of pride in the work. I was brought up to understand and still do agree that waiting until the meal is finished before clearing dishes is the appropriate course, but I urge your readers to put themselves in the server's shoes. They deal with a lot of different types of people! I vividly remember being absolutely berated by a woman with a party of six, because I wasn't clearing plates individually as they were finished. She told me that it was "disgusting" for other guests to be forced to continue enjoying their meal while "dirty, used plates" sat alongside them at the table. And because of the unequal power dynamic that exists between server and patron, I was in no position to defend myself or explain why I was waiting for everyone to finish before clearing. I was deeply embarrassed and the entire party continued to speak down to me like I was an imbecile for the rest of the night. I got a nice final insult from them when they left and I saw what they left me for gratuity (virtually nothing). My point is that staff at restaurants are not mind readers, and they're dealing with wildly varying expectations from one customer to the next. Someone's deeply held notion of proper etiquette is not necessarily shared by the next table over! Folks should give their servers the benefit of the doubt, or even politely state their preference at some point in the meal. Good servers are already actively searching for any subtle cues the guests might be sending to ensure they're enjoying their meal. Any server worth their salt would be happy to oblige.

There's a special place in -- pergatory, maybe? -- for diners like the woman you mention. No one should reprimend staff in front of a group, a scene made worse by the fact the host was in the wrong: Dishes are typically cleared only after everyone is finished with a course. Rules can be bent, of course, but the host should have stated her preference before you set out to simply do your job, as you were trained. Thanks for taking the time to relive your unpleasantness. And shame on the party for all sorts of reasons: treating you poorly for the duration of the meal, tipping poorly thereafter, etc. 

I'm sure you've answered this before but how long after a review do you revisit a restaurant to make sure its still worth the stars you gave it? Is it an annual visit or more of a word of mouth kind of thing when you've heard good/bad stories from people?

I make a regular habit of returning to previously reviewed restaurants, sometimes for my spring or fall dining guides or my monthly round-up of favorites, but also in response to reader feedback (good or bad.)  I don't have a set wait period, though.

I am thinking of a restaurant in Palisades, McArthur Blvd, where the old Listrani's used to be. I ate there once, it was a revelation. Are they still there? Have you visited recently? I cannot come up with the name.

You're thinking of the very good Bistro Aracosia, mentioned above.

Hi Tom, this is more of a comment than a question. But I wanted to highlight an incredibly special evening my father and I had at Fiola. Over the past 12 months, he has been in and out of the hospital with severe stomach issues/pain and they can't figure it out. As a real food connoisseur, it is devastating to him. He came down for the Holidays from Boston and I called to ask Fiola if they could accommodate a litany of dietary restrictions. They were able to do so, and the two of us had one of the best dining experiences ever thanks to the chef and general manager. My father told me it was the first time in 9 months that he did not have pain after eating, and he started to cry out of happiness. I just wanted to let you and the DC community know how much this meant to me, and I am forever indebted to Chef Fabio and his incredible, amazing staff. Grazie!

What a lovely story. Thanks for sharing. Fiola has a top-drawer staff, for sure. 

I don't see how Tom can "highlight the food and service" without mentioning "the obvious mistakes." His job is to tell us about the entire experience, and would-be customers can decide for themselves whether to risk the "obvious mistakes" that might detract from their evening out.

What he/she said. (Thank you.)

Tom, I saw you drop a bit of shade toward the NYC Sushi Nakazawa on Twitter yesterday. Are you still as big a fan of the DC Nakazawa as you were?

I included the serene DC branch in my fall dining guide because it's one of the best raw fish experiences in the city. I've not heard otherwise from readers.

Will be heading to Richmond for a few days. I know you are very high on the Richmond food scene. Any restaurants in particular you have recently taken a shine to?

A Google search will point you to the fish-forward Alewife and the chic Longoven, which I visited last September.  And Temple on West Broad St. is a fine little Laotian expression. Safe travels. 

Finally! The real life scenario! As a bartender, we generally try to clear as plates are cleaned because the aesthetics to strangers sitting nearby can be disgusting. I personally, while sitting at a table or bar don't want to look at anyone's remaing crumbs/slop....

I hear you, I hear you. Maybe I've just witnessed too many plate-grabbers lately and I think everyone needs to slooooow dowwwwn a little. But the etiquette rule -- wait to clear until everyone's done eating -- exists for a reason. No one wants to feel rushed, or reminded they're eating at a different pace than their tablemates.

Thank you for taking my question. I sent an email to a restaurant about a complain on food (too salty, left most of my meal on the plate). Our waitress passed on the complaint to the manager, which we asked her to do. We never heard from the manager while dining. Paid for the meal and left. I proceeded to the email the restaurant and explain my concern. I received a very nice response back that the manager would be in touch and that they appreciated the comment. It has been 2 weeks and the manager has not emailed us. Should i follow up? At this point it is starting to look like a management problem...

Talk about a missed opportunity! If in fact your complaint got forwarded, the manager should have at least acknowleged your concern before you left the restaurant. On top of it, you went the extra mile by sending an email and you have yet to hear back from a supervisor -- two weeks after the fact. Hey, everyone's busy. But a complaint needs to be addressed asap, at least within a week of receiving it. 

Hi Tom -- A co-worker and I will be in DC from out of town next week and would love a recommendation. We're looking for a place for dinner that's relatively quiet where we can catch up. We'll be staying at the Grand Hyatt on H Street, so something in that neighborhood would be nice. We're open to any type of food, but need to keep the budget under $70/person. Also, it will be on Monday (MLK Day), so need a place that will be open on the holiday. Thank you!

You're within walking distance of the exceptional Centrolina, which happens to be open on Monday and seems to have plenty of tables free as of this morning. The house-made pastas are priced in the mid-$20s. A stool at the counter is just as inviting as a seat in the recently renovated dining room, you should know. 

I haven't encountered a server yet who has told me that he/she will bring out dishes "as they're ready", but I think that my response would be to reply along the lines of "That's fine. We'll order as we're ready. Right now we'd like X and Y to start; when you bring those out we'll be ready to order our next course. Thank you." If a restaurant and server are incapable of staging courses correctly, they shouldn't be encouraged.

Can I borrow that line from you? I know I'm going to need it yet this week. ;)

I am of the "please take my dish when I'm done" ilk. I recently leaned back so that the waiter could take my dish and told him I was finished. He said that it was policy to only take away plates when everyone was done. I said "Not even if the customer asks?" He said in that case he would and did. Good meet in the middle, I thought.

I realize not everyone wants to look at a plate of bones or crumbs. I know, too, some servers are under orders to follow certain protocols. Here's to more good meets in the middle!

Hi Tom, do restaurateurs invite you to Friends and Family openings of their new restaurants? If so, do you go? Thanks xoxo

Yes, I get invited. No, I never attend. I prefer to experience restaurants after they're officially open for business, as most readers would, and not for the dress rehearsals. 

I always do that for dessert, because until I've finished eating the entrée I won't know whether I'm too full for dessert or not.

Agreed! Unless the dessert is one that involves precise timing (like a souffle).

I actually really enjoy Rus-Uz in Ballston for Russian food.

Thank you for adding to the list for the original poster!

After my trip to Portland was tragically cut short due to weather-related cancellations (side-note: the trip was heavily inspired by your article written for the series on America's best food cities, and I had the most wonderful time eating and drinking my way around, so thank you immensely for that!), I find myself back in DC without work for just a week before I move away to start a new job. I figure I can still have a few days of vacation here in DC, which I've still yet to explore too much of. So, where would you direct someone who wants to experience the highs of DC's food & beverage scene before the chance is gone, and has a nice refund from cancelled travel arrangements to spend?

Sorry to hear you had to cut back on your time in what I ranked as my No. 1 food destination in the country five years ago.  Perhaps you can find consolation here at home in one of the many admirable new dining destinations: Imperial in Adams Morgan, Anju in Dupont Circle, Anafre for Mexican on 14th St. NW, or the aforementioned Reveler's Hour.

Hi Tom - Happy New Year! I hope it's not too late to discuss New Year's Resolutions, but I am hoping for your advice on what resolutions I should have about specific dishes I need to try, as I absolutely love reading your column. On my list so far are the roast chicken at Kinship and the brunch dishes at A&J. Are there any other specific dishes I should add to my list? My dietary restrictions are that I don't eat pork or shellfish, but other than that, everything is fair game! I look forward to your advice!

Off the top of my head, let me suggest the fondue at Stable (at least when it's cold again), the harissa-spiked falafel at Taim in Georgetown, the fried chicken at Emilie's on the Hill, the lemony chicken over greens at Piccolina in CityCenter and the aged kimchi at Anju. For starters.

After "still or sparkling," perhaps servers should ask, "Individual or group dish clearing?" at the beginning of the meal. (Joking, joking - mostly.)

Thanks for the good laugh. But you know what? You're onto something!

I was very surprised that Osayi Endolyn's essay on her experience in the hospitality world went unmentioned last week. It certainly resonated with me as a Black woman who dines out frequently, often finding myself on the receiving end of shade. The absence of food writers of color leaves a void in reviewing the experiences of people who are not members of the dominant culture. Do your parties frequently include non-white people and do you consult industry peers (or friends and acquaintances) of color on their experiences? I'd be willing to join you sometime or be a test consumer if you need assistance.

Here's the essay from last week.

 

I've gone on record as saying I realize I'm a white guy, and I make a serious attempt to dine out, on a regular basis, with people who aren't my age, my sex, my race and so on. Everyone brings something different to the table, and I appreciate that. We all learn from each other. I also rely on readers to share their experiences with me, both in this forum and elsewhere.

I agree! But I think the bartender should have pointed out that the situation at the bar is completely different from that at individual tables.

True. Bars tend to find people sitting closer together, for one thing.

Just wanted to add a comment - the last suggestion was for Anju's kimchi, but the asker mentions not eating shellfish. Most kimchi contains shrimp, and I believe Anju's does as well having read your review of the restaurant recently! (I have an allergy, so I'm always looking out for the hidden shellfish!)

My bad! Apologies.

Best pizza I have ever had!

Lots of Phoenix suggestions coming in:

 

Durant's. It's an old-school steakhouse and worth the $$.

 

Binkley's! It's a Chef's meal only - he decides. Reserve and Pay in advance. Incredibly inventive and delicious! Multi time James Beard nominee.

 

 

In your 20+ years as a critic, has anyone ever tried to bribe you for a more positive review? I'm not talking about a free drink or appetizer, but stuff that would make any of us pause and consider. Maybe a to-go bag with a four-figure bottle of wine? A hot, young staff member with an insatiable crush on you? Or some serious cash? I'm certain you would never succumb to any of that - but details please, if you've ever received such a proposal. ;)

Earlier in my career, I'd get gift certificates (sometimes checks) mostly from small non-American establishments that probably didn't know that's not how most critics or a publication like the Post operate. I can't recall an outright bribe, however. Restaurants are more apt to try to guilt me into writing about them: "We're going to close if you don't visit us soon" was a common letter or call back in the day. Such pitches never made sense to me. What if I didn't like the restaurants? 

 

That's a wrap for today, gang. Thanks for the good questions, as usual. Let's do it again next week, same time. Enjoy the long weekend!

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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