Ask Tom: Readers ask about recycling plastic containers & cheer restaurants doing right by takeout and delivery

Apr 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

I’m not sure these are really chat questions or the topic for a separate column...or even if you would want ti share these details, but I am sure readers would be very interested in how you do your job... How do you pick which restaurants to review? How do you decide when (what days of the week/lunch vs dinner) to go and how often? How do you decide the number and make up of your guests? How do you decide what to order? Aside from the food, what are the major factors that enter into a starred review? How much do service, ambience, the physical premises matter? While the final assessment is clearly yours, how to you weigh the views of your dining companions? Are there some things that you find absolutely unacceptable in a restaurant? Do you take notes as you eat? If nit, how do you keep track of all the dishes, their preparation, info about the restaurant/staff etc? How long does it take you to write a review? What is the process you use to fact check details? Do you ever consult with other Food Section writers while writing a review? What are the major challenges you encounter when writing it? Does anyone - aside from the editor - see your review prior to publication? Aside from the review itself, do you give feedback to the restaurant? If so, when would you usually do this? What are the most important things a reader should look for in your reviews? For how long should a review be considered relevant? I know you have touched on a number of these questions in past chats, but I do think it would be interesting and informative to capture it all in one place. Inquiring minds want to know!

Whoa! You ask some interesting questions, but if I answered them all, it would take me until the end of the chat. And some of the questions aren't relevant during the pandemic. So, allow me to pick and choose from the lot. 


Companions' opinions: I might quote someone to make a point, but the Post pays me for my opinions, not those of the people helping me to eat my way through a menu.


How I decide what to order: The first visit, I tend to get things that represent different cooking techniques: frying, grilling, baking, etc.  Dishes such as salads tell me more about how well a chef shops. I'll also order the quirky dish on a menu, say, the unexpected Korean plate on a French menu, which sometimes leads to a bigger story. On later visits -- I almost always go to a restaurant three times, sometimes more -- I tend to reorder dishes to test consistency.


How long it takes me to write:  Every column is different. If I'm super-passionate about a place -- I really love it or loathe it -- the writing is speedier. If I'm on the fence about a restaurant, the writing is more of a challenge. Start to finish, I spend two or three days on a typical starred restaurant review.


Fact-checking:  I almost always interview a chef and/or the owner of a restaurant before I file a column. At that time, I typically go over spelling and related questions I might have. And in the editing process, people check things, too. 


Who sees my review before it gets published: At a minimum, four other people see/read/edit my copy for the Magazine.


Freshness dates:  I used to say, reviews should be good for a year or so. I definitely keep that thought in mind when I'm writing the fall dining guide. But in reality, stuff happens. Chefs come and go, menus change with the seasons, key players leave, interiors might be redone -- coronavirus comes along.


Bottom line: be skeptical of a review older than a year.


Happy Wednesday, everyone. It's a beautiful day outside and my SO just brought home an early lunch from Bread Furst.  Off to a good start, in other words.


What's on your mind this morning?

I'm really of two minds re the new PBS series "Dishing With Julia Child" where famous chefs critique classic "French Chef" episodes. Sara Moulton brings real insights, having actually worked with Julia, while TV veteran Martha Stewart seems savvy about camera-craft. Yet I feel that the duo of José Andrés (whom I otherwise admire for his World Central Kitchen) and Eric Ripert add very little, and at times seem almost to be mocking Child, which leaves a sour taste in my mouth, figuratively speaking. Your thoughts?

I haven't seen the show myself. I'm occupied with "Schitt's Creek" right now, which I love. But chatters who have watched "Dishing" should feel free to weigh in.

my husband and i have been ordering take out from some of our (safe) local restaurants. it gives us a cooking break and will hopefully help keep some of them in business during this crazy time. but what do we do with the plastic containers? we live in fairfax county and they don't accept plastic take out containers for recycling. is there a nearby county that does? or does anyone know of a recycling center that accepts them? i'm happy to save them up and take them wherever once a week or month. i just feel terrible piling them all in the trash.

I just Googled "recycling in Fairfax County" and came up with multiple possible receivers for your takeout containers. Here's a link. Keep in mind, schedules are subject to change because of the pandemic.


I recycle glass and plastic at home here in the District. It's amazing how much I'm gathering now that most of my meals are takeout or delivery. Scary. Two of us fill a big blue bin and a half every week.

Hi Tom - For the last few weeks, we've been trying to split our dining dollars between supporting local restaurants that we hope make it through the crisis (Takoma Beverage Company, Kin Da, Roscoes, Cielo Rojo), and trying places that we would have a hard time getting reservations for in normal times (Little Serow and Seven Reasons have been the best so far). As everyone is struggling to adjust their business models so far, I thought I would pass along a few best practices we've noticed: 1) Label sauces/ accompaniments so diners know to which dish they belong (Brothers and Sisters did this very well); 2) Provide reheating instructions if the food isn't expected to be eaten right away (Cork did this for Easter brunch); 3) Provide "no contact" pickup with labelled bags placed on a table outside/ in the doorway at the scheduled time of pickup (Kin Da, Roscoes, and Cielo Rojo all do this). Many thanks to all who continue to work, at risk to themselves, so that our confinement is just a bit more interesting!

Yes! To all the above practices. Customers should keep in mind, a lot of restaurants are still adjusting to the new normal by offering only takeout and delivery. I expect them to nail the business in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, Laura Hayes of the Washington City Paper recently wrote a helpful column on best practices for diners.

Tom, in poking around a bit I happened to notice you started at the Post in 2000. When is your 20th anniversary! Congrats (in advance? in arrears?)!

I've actually had two tours of duty at the Post. The first was right out of college, when I was an assistant to the legendary Phyllis C. Richman, at the time both the food editor and the restaurant critic for the paper. I returned in 1998 to be a food reporter. It was during the summer of 2000 that Phyllis retired and I replaced her as food critic after her nearly 24-year-long run. I celebrated two decades with my recent 20th annual fall dining guide in October.

What are your thoughts on giving restaurants negative reviews during this crucial time?

While honest feedback is important -- not all takeout or delivery is worth your time and attention -- I'm focusing on what's good at the moment. I'm also (mostly) selecting as subjects places I think will be around after the pandemic. But for anyone to go on social media and whine right now? No, please.

Tom, What changes do you anticipate we will see in dining out when the world reopens?

It's too soon to say for sure, but I'm expecting tables (and reservations!) spaced further apart, more hand sanitizer than flowers on display and shorter menus. For starters.

This is on Il Pizzico's website: "Il Pizzico greatly values your support and business. We are doing everything in our capacity to ensure the health and safety of our guests and staff. At this time, WE HAVE MADE THE DECISION TO SUSPEND OUR CARRY OUT AND DELIVERY SERVICES AS WE ARE CURRENTLY OVERWHELMED. WE WANT TO ENSURE EACH GUEST RECEIVES THE HIGHEST QUALITY OF SERVICE WHEN DINING AT OUR RESTAURANT AND WE WILL REOPEN OUR DOORS ONCE WE ARE CONFIDENT WE CAN DELIVER JUST THAT." My daughter and I had the same reaction-??!!! Why not just stop delivery service? That will cut down on your business. And what does this mean for your employees? One of the waiters there still remembers us bringing our daughter there to celebrate her getting her driver's license- 14 years ago. And her first glass of wine in a restaurant. And I'm sure that everyone who has been going there since it opened will forgive Enzio if the food is cold by the time we get home with it! I'm sure there are many restaurants out there that would be glad for the business from what I've read. Unfortunately Gaithersburg isn't exactly a fine dining mecca and I read your column about all the restaurants doing carryout in DC with envy.

Good --GREAT -- news for Marylanders living in or near Rockville: chef-owner Enzo Livia told me he reopened Il Pizzico yesterday.


The Italian restaurant, which turns 30 in June, closed briefly, in part because Easter and Passover were traditionally slow times for Livia's business and the staff needed time to rethink what they were doing. The chef says he has yet to change the verbiage online, but he's doing takeout and delivery (within a 7-mile radius of the restaurant) Tuesday through Saturday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.


Nice touches: It's not listed on the takeout menu, but Livia says he'll make risotto if someone asks. And his former waiters are doing the deliveries, so gratuities go directly to people connected to the restaurant.

the kind with a black bottom and transparent top, will go through the dishwasher endlessly so I keep them for freezing leftovers, portions, etc. When we have too many, I give them to people who cook for, say, elderly parents, for portions. The polystyrene ones, though, I hate -- the clamshell type. Not recyclable.

Three cheers for re-purposing containers!

How has our current situation affected your thinking about the Spring and Fall Dining Guides. Do you still plan a fall guide? If so, what adjustments are you thinking of making?

My spring dining guide has morphed into a 3,000-word essay that I filed last week. As for a fall dining guide, who knows? It could become a first-ever winter collection.

Hope you are doing well Tom. I realize this is a dining/take out column and not a cooking column, but times are strange. What do you make for dinner more than anything other, and what are the basic ingredients. Thanks for everything. I tuned in today just for some normalcy.

Stay tuned! The Food section has a story coming out that addresses your question. This week, I'm repurposing a lot of restaurant leftovers. Stir-fries are big at Chez Tom's! But the ingredients I always have on hand include lemons, anchovies, eggs and Parmesan.

Big Shout Out to the 29 Diner in Fairfax (Rte 29 and Rte 123). they have always been generous to the community. But they are really going all out now. They have a mini food bank to distribute food and supplies (including TP!). Lets help - please donate food or money if you are able. Thanks!!

Good to know. Here's the restaurant's link.

Hi Tom, Due to COVID 19, I am a laid off hospitality worker. I am limiting the number of times I am allowing myself to get take out. Cooking at home is just better for the budget right now! That said, I do want to splurge a few nights, and also support local restaurants and their employees. Do you know of any restaurants or groups that are truly going above and beyond for their staff at this time? I would love to spend my dollars there! No restrictions on food, but prefer to stay in DC proper. Thanks so much.

I love your approach: support the restaurant that's going above and beyond to support its troops. A lot of businesses have started GoFundMe campaigns, but that seems to be a traditional strategy. I'm happy to take submissions from readers or insiders who can share the names of places that are going the extra mile for staff.

Well, Tom, for "cocktails" I'm down to grape kool-aid with vodka. (Actually not bad--reminds me of something I would've actually sought out in college.) If you were imbibing with me, what appetizer and main course would you suggest?

Ha! Off the top of my head, how about Chex mix followed by fried Spam with pineapple rings?

Salt-packed? Canned in oil? Tube of paste?

SOMEONE ate the fancy tin I bought at Centrolina market. (They went to a worthy cause: Timber pizza.) Right now, I'm looking at a jar of Bellino brand salted anchovies in olive oil.

I have a bottle of Sauternes that is finally ready to enjoy after a decade in my wine fridge. Do you have a recommendation of somewhere I should get take out from to pair with this special treat? Thank you

The sweet, fulled-bodied white wine is ideally paired with dessert, a cheese such as Roquefort or foie gras (but  good luck finding the latter right now). How about either the warm goat cheese salad with pears from Et Voila!, or the Belgian restaurant's toss of endive and blue cheese?

Crown roast of hot dogs with a filling of boxed stuffing. Topped, of course, with crushed potato chips.

So many possibilities, right? Cheetos and Hamburger Helper, etc.

I missed this last week. But the first place I'm going to when the restrictions lift is Waffle House and someplace with burgers. It's probably too low-brow for some of the chatters and foodies here, but that's where I'm heading. Takeout just isn't the same. (I'm in Woodbridge, though I wish I were closer to DC for all the restaurants. I hate cooking that much.)

There's nothing lowbrow about a good burger or waffles, not in my book!  And plenty of restaurants are peddling the former, I've noticed. I'm more inclined to order things I wouldn't make at home, like Ethiopian kitfo or Korean kimchi.

Any idea what happened with Elle carryout? They posted being sold out several times so I assume the business was good. Speaking of which, if a restaurant has posted that they are basically selling out each night, please be sure to post if that's no longer the case! I've been putting off ordering from Frankly Pizza for that reason.

I just reached out to chef Brad Deboy, who texted that full-time takeout was not financially sustainable and required more staff than what was probably safe. "The neighborhood was asking us for bread ...constantly so we decided to offer that in a safe way, along with some condiments and pastries" Friday through Sunday.


My two cents: A little Elle is better than none

Lots of local places are offering gift cards to use once this mess is over, and that is great. Please consider making a donation to CORE, which supports the kids of restaurant workers. World Central Kitchen and Capital Area Food Bank are also great causes. And if you work for a big company, see if you can get matching funds.

Yes to all.

Hi Tom, Thanks for continuing to share your knowledge! It is so helpful AND hopeful! I wanted to give a shout out to Fiola Mare who did a wonderful Easter take out dinner- truly awesome! And the staff brought the items to the car for no contact pick up and put right in your trunk or back seat. However, while waiting our turn in our car, I noticed several other patrons getting out of their cars to get the food or to direct the staff member, often coming within inches of the staff member. I felt so bad for the staff! They are already putting themselves at risk to keep serving us, please give them at least 6 feet distance so that they can stay healthy!

Grazie for the oh so important reminder to stand apart. If not for yourself, for the sake of others.

Hi! A warning about recyclables: I learned to my surprise that local (I'm in Michigan) curbside recycling is on hold during the crisis. The trash truck is taking everything -- trash plus recycling -- to the landfill for now. I plan to let my recyclables pile up in the garage rather than send them to the landfill, but I understand others may not have room to do that. So please check that your locality is still actually recycling. Maybe other areas have also put it on hold. I found out by accident after two bins' worth went to the landfill, which makes me a bit sick.

Ugh. Thank you for chiming in.

The excellent Roots Market in Clarksville MD has TP too and is limiting per-customer purchase.


Wedding anniversary next week - where can we get fancier take-out/delivery than usual? We're on Capitol Hill.

Check out the menus from Kinship and Rose's Luxury, among others.


That's a wrap for today gang. Enjoy the rest of the week, the best you can, and let's regroup next Wednesday, same time. Be safe and be nice to each other!

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; 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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