How you can help restaurants

Mar 25, 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.

Tom, I suspect that this week's chat is going to be talking about how your community of food enthusiasts (my preferred substitute for the execrable term "foodies") is coping with the new abnormal. So I wanted to shout out a couple of our favorites that we've patronized with touchless carry-out over the last week. Jon Krinn at Vienna's Clarity is serving up quality three-course dinners (e.g., lamb bolognese pasta, sea scallops over vegetables, and tiramisu) for $35, brioche cinnamon rolls baked by his father, and some quality wholesale provisions like Amish chickens, D'Artagnan pork tenderloins, and Maryland lump crab. (And he's serving our front-line responders, like doctors and nurses, for nothing.) Chefs Scott Drewno and Danny Lee at ChiKo are still killing it, with their full menu and a barcode along the sidewalk that patrons can scan to place their order using their smartphones. (I understand that their Anju is doing the same thing.) Lastly, I want to exhort our dining community -- don't leave that tip line blank! Many of our restaurants are using that money to keep their servers paid something during this unprecedented time of crisis. Stay safe.

Thanks for the promising field reports. Funny, both Clarity and Chiko are on my to do lists as well. And yes, yes, YES: tip as generously as you can right now. 

 

I was so eager to see this Sunday's Dining review subject, Everest Kitchen in Ashburn, get some love from readers before it went dark, like its peers in the region. Carry-out, alas, wasn't enough to sustain the small Nepalese restaurant, a reader tip, but the owner hopes to reopen when the health crisis passes. I wish the staff at Everest Kitchen well.

 

Is it only Week 2 since many of us were ordered to work from home? Tell me how you're surviving, even thriving, during these dark times. Let's begin.

Hi Tom, A family member was supposed to have a wedding that has since been canceled. The couple is still getting married in a small ceremony, so I wanted to send a gift. They live in Baltimore, so I thought they might (eventually) enjoy a fancy night out. Any suggestions? I don’t know if any food restrictions, any type of cuisine. I’d love dinner for two and maybe a glass or two of wine in the $150 ish range?

Thoughtful gesture on multiple counts, because the purchase of a gift card now is one way to support shuttered restaurants.

 

The hardest reservation in Baltimore before coronavirus hit was the intimate Le Comptoir du Vin not far from the train station. I see they are selling a few dishes and lots of wine for a couple hours a day Tuesday through Saturday. You can secure a gift card anytime online.

I’m curious what your favorite pandemic takeout/delivery meal has been.

For the past week or so, I've been ordering from different delivery services and getting a range of cuisines dropped off. I'll be sharing the round-up soon, likely before actual print publication in the Magazine next month. But let me offer a sneak peak and say Ethiopian food travels well, pizzas not as much and some of the best deliveries have featured soups, which might need just a quick rewarming before enjoying. 

No, if I were with the police, I'd have to tell you.

I'm following orders and staying home for the most part. Anyway, I unaware of any restaurant speakeasies in the area. 

 

Up until last week, I *did* have a friend over for dinner, but no more. It's just too risky to break bread with anyone outside the home right now. 

Looking to support our local small businesses. I walked by Lapis yesterday and noticed they're doing carryout orders. Having never had Afghani food before, what do you suggest my husband and I try? No allergies, non-vegetarians, enjoy spicy foods.

You're in luck! I happen to have tapped a few notes into my phone during my last meal at the Afghan outpost in Adams Morgan. Steamed dumplings with ground beef, sabzi spinach and tomato-sauced eggplant all get a thumbs up. 

I have learned I do not thrive with FT telework but still very grateful to have it. With no commute and college kids at home, there is a lot more cooking going on. Today they're out of the house and I'm walking over to the local ethiopian place for take out lunch. You are totally right that it travels well.

Thanks for chiming in. Those of us who have jobs that allow for tele-commuting are lucky indeed. But I'm a social creature. I miss a busy dining room (among other things, of course).

Most DC restaurants packed customers in like sardines. Do you envision fewer tables in dining rooms after the worst of the virus is over? Perhaps fewer tables and higher prices?

I think a LOT of details are going to change -- including, sadly, the number of good places to eat, everywhere. This pandemic has hit the restaurant and hospitality industries incredibly hard.

Hi Tom: One of the restaurant reviewers in the LA Times wrote a piece entitled "What does a restaurant critic do when there are no restaurants." Made me wonder how you have diverted your focus. Reviewing take out options? Cooking at home and recreating memorable dishes of the past? Comfort food? Other food/restaurant related stories? There is certainly plenty to write about!

Everyone has had to pivot, for sure. Most recently, I wrote about the effect the closing of the Inn at Little Washington had on its tiny town -- and the chef's invitation for anyone to come visit the bucolic grounds.

 

Last week, desperate to find something positive in the ongoing crisis, I flagged the good work being done at Miriam's Kitchen for the homeless population. And for the past few weeks, I've been mostly checking out restaurant delivery and rethinking my spring dining guide (oy!) 

 

My partner made spaghetti and meatballs on Sunday. That was cool. Then he doled out extra containers to friends. Gotta share/help out where we can!

unfortunately there is a risk associated with this

The risk being the establishment might not reopen, I'm guessing?

Hi Tom - just read your review of Everest Kitchen and absolutely loved it. I've always appreciated your excellent writing, but this review felt particularly wistful and nostalgic in light of the incredible circumstances in which we find ourselves. Thanks for continuing to post your reviews and host this chat. How are you holding up?

Aw, thanks for asking. So sweet. I'm fine, although like everyone else, I miss my routine and all the stuff I took for granted just weeks ago. 

 

What saddens me about the Everest Kitchen review is, the owner JUST THIS WEEK pulled the plug on carryout and delivery. So, no great Nepalese food from his small storefront for the moment. Fingers crossed, the restaurant reopens, with the same general manager and chef. 

You mentioned Little Serow’s take out last week - I wanted to flag that Komi has revived Happy Gyro in take-out format as well, and it includes to-go access to some of the excellent wines in their cellar. I Hadn’t gotten to try the pop up before so this was one silver lining for us!

Just seeing the pop up's name makes me happy.  And I love that the owners are opening their cellar during the pandemic. Wines with the vegetarian meal are 40 percent off! 

Kinship started their "In the spirit of Kinship" to go meals a few days before the shut down of indoor dining. We can't say enough about the quality, cost, packing, and portions in those Spirit of Kinship meals. Even though we live in Forest Hills, we take the ride down - highly recommend it among the options that help restaurants survive.

Thanks for the idea. The light traffic is another incentive, right? 

No question, just a "thank you" for your great write up of Miriam's Kitchen last week. I'm one of their many volunteers who've been told to stay home due to the virus. The small staff is doing their best to leave take-out meals for the 150+ guests that come in for dinner every day, but it's much more costly. Any donations (miriamskitchen.org) would go a long way in helping some of our most vulnerable.

Of all the reviews I've written in recent years, that one made me happiest. There is so much good energy -- and good work being done -- at Miriam's Kitchen. The donation tab at the top of its website makes contributing easy. 

Many restaurants are doing a great job, especially on Instagram, of communicating hours, menus, etc. for carryout and delivery, but some could do a better job indicating if they want you to call or order online, or how to order the to-go alcohol that is temporarily allowed. Most online ordering menus don't have alcohol listed, but some restaurants say that's how they want you to order.

Catch that restaurants? People want to support you. Make it easy for them and post obvious/important information. and put someone in charge of updating the site. Things can change, swiftly, as we've all learned during this crisis.

We live in Northwest DC (Cleveland Park) and I have been brainstorming how to access some of my favorite restaurants that are doing pick-up only, as we don't have a car to drive there. Any reader suggestions on how to get food from places that aren't on the delivery apps or right down the corner?

Can a reader help out?

Hi Tom, I understand that your partner makes one heck of a very tasty "sauce" or "gravy" and meatballs. That is very kind of you both to think about your friends during this time of isolation. How do I get on that take out list? Keep up the great work. We need that positive stimulus.

We are down to two quarts of sauce and I was just informed "they're for us."  (Yes, sir! ) I'll encourage him too make a vat of it next time. 

Hi Tom, would appreciate your view of this. A local restaurateur who helms multiple acclaimed restaurants (some fine-dining, some not) has sent an email to people on his restaurant’s mailing list, asking for donations to an employee relief fund for his restaurants’ employees. This bothers me. He/his investors appear to have deep pockets, their restaurants are lavish, and I don’t understand why they are not looking after their own employees!

You'd be surprised at the razor-thin margins many businesses run on, seemingly deep-pocketed restaurants included. I think most owners are desperately trying to take care of their staff. I appreciate the restaurateurs who are reducing or forgoing their  salaries altogether to help out. 

Is there a way for consumers to identify restaurants most at risk for not surviving this pandemic? I know *all* restaurants survive by the slimmest of margins, but if I can prioritize spending money at places that are the most threatened by the shut-downs, I'd love that.

Hard to say, without being privy to checkbooks, etc. I'm most concerned for the many moms and pops out there, who are barely getting by and who don't have investors. Everyone is pretty scared right now. 

Maybe he will kindly share his recipe with your readers, Tom? Please?

I watched him put it together and it involves lots of cans of tomatoes, chopped onions, a bit of that and a couple pinches of that .... let me see if he can sit down and put on paper what;'s in his head. Unless he's baking something, he cooks by instinct.

Of all fining dining establishments in this area will probably go under and will never be seen again. Restaurants operate on very thin margins and Carry out and delivery will not tide them over. Expect big dislocations in the hospitality industry in general. Chains may survive but stores just getting by will perish.

In a story Tim Carman wrote, he quoted New York's Tom Colicchio as estimating 75 percent of US restaurants won't survive. (big gulp). 

How is your Mom? And others in MN?

Thanks for asking. I called her yesterday to check in.

"I'm bored," she said. "At least the handyman came by for me to sit with his dog for awhile." She baked some banana bread, put on her makeup and sang some hymns. Made her happy. Kept her occupied. 

Ah yes, you need to follow him around with paper and pencil and take detailed notes. I did that with my grandmother's famous egg noodles but found I had to measure everything she added, since my hands are different from hers.

Good point! I did that with my mom a couple years ago, too. 

Technically a gift card is an interest-free loan to the restaurant, but the ones I've bought, I've just dropped into the shredder (or deleted the email). No guarantee my favorite restaurants won't go under anyway, but if they do re-open, I'll be happy to pay as I go then. (Not to get restaurateurs' hopes up - I think I'm in the minority on this.)

Bless you, and what a divine example you set.

Hi, Tom. Now that I figured out how this chat works, no need to reply to my transcript question. Thanks so very much for all you're doing at this terrible time. We've done our best to support our local restaurants here in North Bethesda and Bethesda, and gift cards in DC (e.g., Cafe Berlin) knowing they may not survive, but at least we tried. Good luck with everything, and stay your usual positive self.

Trust me, I'm the lucky one, getting the opportunity to chat with you all here every Wednesday. It's the highlight of my work week (well, give a three-star meal or two)!

The economists I have spoken too said that the restaurants most likely to succeed are the ones that have relied heavily on carryout/delivery and not very much on alcohol sales. They suggested that I order from the same places I would normally get takeout-- for me, that is a Thai restaurant, a taco shop, and pizza. The sit down restaurants are likely going to go under, but the carry out shops may survive.

Interesting. Makes sense. Because they don't have to change the way they do business as much. 

My senior residence is delivering tasty"heat and eat" meals to the doors of it's 2400 residents! Room Service!!

Sweet. Brag on them. Where do you reside?

Please consider supporting the service community in the DMV via the Virtual Tip Jar. There is also a fun randomizer that selects someone at random to tip. Throw a few bucks to a service industry worker even though you are cooking and eating at home. http://thevirtualtipjar.com/

I like the way you (and others) think. 

I’d like to encourage restaurants to consider the reheatability of the selections they choose to offer for carry out and delivery. If I can easily reheat my food without a loss of quality I’m more likely to order from a restaurant for a couple of reasons. First, I don’t have to worry about leftovers or items that have cooled down during transportation. Even more important, though, is that being able to reheat items I just received allows me to reduce the risk of infection and avoid having to trust that each person coming into contact with my food wasn’t even unknowingly contagious.

I was talking yesterday to Michael Schlow, the Boston-based chef with multiple restaurants in DC, and he shared a good way to reheat pastas to preserve their quality: add a tablespoon or two of water to the noodles before gently warming them on the stove. 

When my oldest sister got married (a long time ago), she asked Mom for her recipes. Mom had never cooked with a recipe. So, she made things (biscuits, e.g.) her usual way, and then scooped the ingredients into measuring cups to come up with the approximate amount, and then wrote it down. Reverse engineering!

Smart mom! 

Re senior meals, the facility is Riderwood in Silver Spring

Yay, Riderwood!

Tom - we are thinking of all our favorite places and their people. Remembered hearing from a server at 2Amys that when they were shut down for the water problem, the owner gave them the option of going on unemployment, or getting a payment from the restaurant. Very classy, and makes one appreciate a place even more that shows such love to their staff.

I'm all about supporting restaurants whose owners prioritize the well-being of the people who work for them. Thanks for weighing in. 

 

Thanks everyone, for participating today. I've got a column to finish and restaurant take-out to review (share your best ideas: tom.sietsema@washpost.com)

 

Be safe, eat well, and let's meet again next Wednesday, same time. I'm grateful for you all. 

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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