Ask Tom: Dining during the pandemic

Apr 29, 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.

Hi Tom--these chats help maintain my sanity as they were a regular part of my routine in the "before times." So thank you for continuing them. I am having a bit of a moral dilemma. My partner and I decided to patronize our local restaurants at least twice a week. We always order a bit extra (leftovers) and tip more than normal (around 30%) and usually purchase cocktails even though we don't need them. And we noticed (unsurprisingly) that dinner for two runs quite a bit higher than normal. So it got us to thinking: which is better? Over ordering/tipping twice a week from two restaurants, or spreading it out a bit and adding in a third restaurant, albeit maintaining our same weekly budget for carry-out? I would be interested in your and your readers thoughts as to which would be more helpful. We are leaning towards paring down our orders to allow for another restaurant to get a little bit of business from us.

I admire your game plan and thoughtfulness. I'm a guy who tends (or tries) to spread the love around as much as possible, so I'd be inclined to spend my food budget on more rather than fewer restaurants. Every bit helps, right?

 

Readers, what do you think? And how are you deciding where to spend your dining budget? 

 

Good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining me for another hour of dining talk. This week, I was scheduled to roll out my spring dining guide. But life intervened and I ended up writing a cover story on what restaurants means to us. The online version is up. The print version publishes this weekend. I welcome your thoughts.

 

Let's get crackin'

Hi Tom. I'm a big fan of the talented independent restaurant scene here in the DMV and have been getting increasingly worried about how re-opening the area may prove the death-knell, not the salvation for them. It seems likely that reopening will involve keeping the restaurants at most at 50% capacity (which, my understanding from you of how tight the margins in restaurants are) would already not be enough to sustain the restaurant. And there is a fair likelihood that customers will still be very wary, making actual capacity even lower. So my question to you is this: A lot of these restaurants pivoted during this time to delivery and take out options. When re-opening happens, do you think that they will continue? Would that save them by allowing them to serve more while maintaining social distancing and catering to people who'd want to patronize them but are wary of eating in? Or would the strain of running both a full service kitchen and full service takeout be too much? Is the intensified expectation of providing take-out a blessing or a curse? I'd be interested to hear both your thoughts and the thoughts of chefs you speak to in the trenches. Also, what else can we do to help support? Particularly once reopening happens and others assume "Hey everything's fine now" when in fact they may not be. I've already bought so many gift cards, that if I bought more, I'd be unable to spend them all. If takeout continues past the re-opening, I thought I'd spend my money on takeout (thus continuing to infuse the businesses with money rather than call in the "debt" of the cards) and hold on to the gift cards until things were more stable and we felt able to dine in. But as I asked above, is asking restaurants to continue takeout once they reopen hurting not helping?

So many interesting questions here. There's a lot to unpack, and I'd love to hear from industry insiders about how they picture recovery and the future of dining out.

 

The pandemic has forced all of us to rethink our priorities, and figure out what matters. Once restaurants begin to reopen here, I figure masks will be part of servers' uniforms, guest temperatures may be taken at the host stand, reservations will be carefully spaced out and menus will be shorter. Takeout is a given. People will have become used to it, and wary diners will continue to experience restaurants from the distance takeout allows. 

 

Restaurant folks, please chime in.

Tom, hope you and your partner — and your Mom — are all staying absolutely safe and relatively sane on this, which for us is the 50th, day of pandemic isolation. I’m writing to try to swirl up some new ideas — we’re regularly patronizing Clarity, Chiko, Alta Strada, Taco Bamba, Mama Chang, the Great American Restaurants, and a local ramen place for takeout and delivery. I’d like to throw in another worthy restaurant or two into the mix. Also, I’m becoming a little stir crazy and am beginning to do some more home cooking. I recently ordered some home provisions to roast a duck and make some authentic Cassoulet. Surely you must be feeling the same pull to the hearth. What are you cooking?

I'm mostly repurposing restaurant leftovers, to be honest. But I got to cook a bit for today's Food section cover story, in which colleagues and I invited some of our favorite chefs to tell us what to make using just the contents of our fridges and pantries. (We swapped videos to get the job done. Fun.) Stephanie Izard, the chef at Girl and the Goat in Chicago, tasked me with making ground pork and green bean empanadas.

 

As for great places for takeout, you might add to your list Estadio for first-class seafood paella and Anju for Korean, notably the meaty ssam board.  

 

Good for you, challenging yourself in the kitchen! I'm curious what others might be cooking at home these days. 

Hi, Tom- Thanks for doing these chats, especially in these strange times. I went to Capo Italian Deli yesterday for takeout, mostly to get some of those Fauci Pouchy cocktails (brilliant gimmick). I had a fairly large order with a lot of little items- several sandwiches, lasagna, some sides, some bread, and dessert. Unfortunately, I was already out the door and down the block when I realized part of the order was missing. I returned, and waited while they made the rest of the order, trying to keep in mind they were likely slammed with takeout/delivery orders and we’re all doing the best we can. It was only a few extra minutes of waiting, but when they handed me the rest of the order, they also gave me a piece of cheesecake free for the wait. It was such a kind gesture, and made me want to keep coming back. Also, the vodka mint lemonade Fauci Pouchy was as delicious as it was clever! Can't wait to go back and try the other flavors.

Those little gestures mean a lot right now, I agree. As I was unpacking my meal from Rasika West End last night -- tandoor-cooked salmon, cumin-laced spinach and kichadi, a chickpea dish said to stimulate the immune system -- I noticed a small container of saffron-perfumed rice pudding. "Thank you, and stay safe!" its sticker read. Cooler still: the cup was made from plants. 

Is there really a meat shortage if folks aren't going out to eat? Don't most of the commercial meat get sent to grocery stores now? Thanks, Meatless Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday!

According to reports I've seen, the shortage is caused by reduced production at many packing plants, some of which have closed for deep cleaning and/or due to laborers who have fallen ill. 

Hello Tom! Spouse and I are looking to celebrate our 5th anniversary next week. We've (obviously) cancelled our weekend trip sans toddler, so I'm looking for something special to do to celebrate. We're in Falls Church, so I was considering Clarity or J. Gilbert's but could travel into DC to pick up food provided that it reheated well. No sushi (pregnant) but otherwise we're open to all cuisines and can do a splurge provided it will still feel special enough to justify the price tag. Any suggestions?

No need to come into the city if you don't care to, although traffic is lighter during the pandemic and the District has plenty of appealing options.  

 

One of my favorite restaurants in Northern Virginia is Thompson Italian in Falls Church. Its takeout menu highlights spring pea ravioli and chocolate budino, among other toast-worthy choices. Additional ideas in your neck of the woods include Nostos for very good Greek -- and 50 percent off the cost of some wines -- and Randy's Prime Steak & Seafood for dishes including lobster-crab cakes, BLT chopped salad and prime ribeye.

Any early recommendations? Fiola Mare looks like the bomb.

The Italian seafood restaurant in Georgetown is offering a $145 meal for two that features pea soup, crab pasta and chateubriand on its five-course takeout menu. I haven't seen any other Mother's Day notions. But I did write my latest column, on comfort food, with moms in mind. Each of the featured restaurants is offering a complete dinner -- entree and sides -- to carry away. 

We are quarantining with my parents and they have a big anniversary coming up. We would love to surprise them with a delicious cake but some of our favorite bakeries are closed. We are in Arlington, VA but will travel to pick up cake, of course! They love the carrot cake at Best Buns in Shirlington, but we just enjoyed that one for Easter. Any ideas?

Probably the most convenient option for you is the still-operating Heidelberg Pastry Shoppe in Arlington. But it doesn't hurt to poke around and search out restaurants that do sweets well, including Rare Steakhouse and Tavern in the District. The pastry chef remains on staff there, and she's offering the likes of an "everyday" birthday cake and coconut cake with passionfruit butter cream. You said you had carrot cake for Easter. If you want to repeat the dessert, I know the aforementioned Randy's in Vienna offers it by the slice. 

Hi Tom - just a quick note to second your praise of Unconventional Diner, and their meatloaf meal. We did the meatloaf meal and everything was warm, cozy, and delicious. The owner was there when we arrived and everyone was friendly and appropriately distanced. We tossed the meatloaf back in the oven for a few minutes to get it piping hot and it was a true treat. Plus, it is a generous portion - we like to eat, and it still fed us again for lunch the next day (she says as she spoons another mouthful). Also, a writer last week asked about sushi - we had a good experience with Nama a few weeks ago and would recommend.

Thanks for the feedback -- the meatloaf from Unconventional Diner was among the comfort food suggestions in my most recent Dining survey -- and for the sushi suggestion. I've yet to order raw fish from any restaurant. Sushi Taro, one of my hall of fame choices, serves the dish, too. 

Hello Tom: I greatly enjoy your chats even though I live in Southeastern PA. I was wondering about the economics & logistics of offering take out. My community has at least four classic diners. All of them have been closed since the shutdown began which surprised me since they all do at least a portion of their business, pre-virus , as take -out orders. I just noticed yesterday that another diner in an adjoining town, is planning to re-open for take out and delivery on May 1st. I realize that this switch over requires adjustments (supplies, personnel, a shortened menu) but wouldn't some revenue stream be preferable to just staying shut down? I'm sure the demand would be there as take out options in the 'burbs tend to be limited to fast food and a few chain restaurants. A sandwich or burger from a diner would be a nice change.

I think the math doesn't add up for some restaurateurs. Opening to make *some* money might not be worth the trouble. Then there's the labor issue. In some parts of the country, furloughed workers are making more staying at home than they would on the job. Sad but true.

Hi Tom: Love your chats and really appreciate that you’re still at it during the pandemic. Thank you! My question is this: am I crazy for thinking that police should cut motorists a little slack for double parking when picking up curbside at restaurants, especially now when restaurants desperately need the business and traffic is non-existent? I had an unpleasant encounter with a DC police officer at 6pm Sunday in Friendship Heights. Short version: I placed an order online, phoned the restaurant when I was out front so they could bring out my order, and was hassled by an officer for double parking (the curbside pickup space was full). He barked at me over his loudspeaker that I was breaking the law by blocking traffic and that I needed to move my car immediately or he’d give me a ticket. He wouldn’t listen as I attempted to call out that I was doing curbside pickup and would be leaving momentarily. My order was put in my car within 30 seconds. (The restaurant employee who brought it out asked, “Why is he giving you such a hard time?”) When I drove away and stopped at a red light, the officer pulled up next to me and lectured me about DC traffic laws and advised that although he could rightfully mail a ticket to my house, he wouldn’t do so. I attempted to respond but he talked over me, said “have a safe evening” and drove away. You’d think that he would have considered a more charitable approach (“Yes, this person is double parked but she’s picking up an order, it’s not rush hour, and there’s hardly any traffic because of the pandemic so I’ll cut her some slack”). To my thinking, his approach was needlessly confrontational. (Yes, I filed a complaint with the police department.)

You have my sympathy. We all need to be a little more patient and understanding of one another. BUT! The cop didn't stick you with a ticket when he could have. So there's that nice little outcome. 

I agree with the importance of supporting local restaurants when we can, but I am not quite as sanguine as you are about the care employees take to protect the food they are preparing. I recently walked by three restaurants on a major DC avenue where I could see food workers from the street and where they were not wearing masks. I don’t know about gloves. In one of the three, the fellow at the grill had on a mask, but it was around his neck, not his face. In most restaurants, the kitchen is out of sight, so we must take it on faith that employees are wearing gloves and masks.

Thanks for reminding restaurants to be vigilant. Personally, I haven't seen much sloppiness on the food front. It's a concern some places, for sure. 

 

Yet another reason for you, the customer, to wear a mask and be vigilant about washing your hands after you unpack restaurant food and before you eat. 

Are you aware of any especially beloved local restaurants at risk of closing soon due to Covid-19? I recognize the real answer is just about all of them, but I'd love it if my to go orders not only help my family enjoy some degree of normalcy, but also support restaurants that need the money most. For what it's worth, I know of one very good local restaurant chain that is in real trouble of going out of business because it expanded significantly just before the pandemic hit. I'd love to name it here, but that would betray some confidences unfortunately.

To the best of my knowledge, the only restaurant whose owner has publicly stated it "probably" won't reopen is tiny Pom Pom in Petworth. 

Tom - thanks for providing something to look forward to each Wednesday. I have an idea for anyone with the time (and resources), who might be looking for a food related activity during the quarantine. With so many restaurants doing take-out (who in our previous life did not have that option), it is fun to do a taste test. We have always questioned which wonderful DC burger do we truly love the most? It's been an ongoing debate, and we circle back to it often. Last week, we finally did it: we picked up burgers from Lucky Buns, Le Diplomate, Duke's Grocery, Shack Shake, and ordered delivery from Five Guys. It was delightful and delicious way to support our neighborhood, and gave us a chance to do something different for dinner. In an ideal world, we would have also included Red Apron and Bourbon Steak (and any other restaurants people think we missed out on). We are discussing doing fried chicken sandwiches next. What places should we include on our list? Also, what other taste tests would you suggest?

What a fun idea! Inquiring minds want to know, though: WHO WON THE BURGER CONTEST? 

 

Any fried chicken sandwich taste-off would have to include models from Little Pearl and Mason Dixie, which comes, as you'd expect, on a biscuit. As for future contests, you might consider gazpacho when the weather warms up and meatloaf right now.

 

I think the answer is pretty simple. If you have $100 to spend and are wondering whether to spend it on three take-outs with smaller tips or two take-outs with bigger tips, the latter means the restaurants as a group incur more costs for the same $100. So, if you want to support the industry financially, the better choice is to provide the same money but impose fewer costs. Of course, that means receiving two meals instead of three, and having to drop one of the restaurants down to zero support from you. It's a moral dilemma, but from a pure economics point of view, free money is better for a restaurant than money in exchange for food. (There is a reason they call economics the dismal science. :) )

Thank you. There's a reason I took economics as a summer course rather than during the academic year at college. 

Pastries by Randolph in Lee Heights Arlington announced on their Instagram that they are reopening for takeaway on May 5. We love Heidelberg but these folks make some strong cakes too. It is nice to have options.

Let's add it to the list!

Mac and cheese, if you please

DOH. Of course. 

Hi Tom! I'm missing my favorite restaurants here in Charm City and know of at least one that won't reopen. While I'm still working and trying to support local businesses, there are lot of options and it's a little overwhelming. So, I've decided to focus on supporting restaurants that I was already patronizing pre-lockdown, hoping they make it through these rough times.

I'm focusing on restaurants I think have the best chance of surviving the crisis. But also a few places I simply happen to love and hope, hope, hope they endure.

To the person in Silver Spring asking about where to get sushi - we've been very happy with the sushi from Kusshi at Pike & Rose in Rockville - have done both delivery and carry-out. The fish was fresh and yummy.

Thank you for the recommendation. 

I used to work for a food service company so I have a little insight here. There is not a meat shortage yet but it could happen if a number of things continue on. First, meat packing plants are tough places to work. Employees are packed close together doing dangerous work (meat packing jobs used to be among the highest for injuries the U.S. and probably still are). A lot of employees are getting the virus and can't work and others won't work out of fear. Second, the retail distribution network (think grocery stores) is very different from the commercial distribution network (think restaurants, hotels, cafeterias, etc.) in terms of types of meat sold, cuts, quantity, etc. You can't just change one to the other easily. Also the actual shipping of the product is very different in terms of who does it. A food service company can't just start delivering the product they usually buy (but don't need now since restaurants aren't buying as much) to grocery stores. Much of that product is going to waste - look at the stories of milk being dumped. Food service companies can shift a little but it is hard. Many are donating product to food banks before it spoils. I hope this helps a little and that folks are doing well.

This is so helpful. Much obliged. What a smart audience. 

I'm sorry but...I'm with the DC Police on this one. Options for the OP include: 1) go around the block and perhaps the curbside pick-up spot would be open; 2) go around the block and find a legal parking spot and walk to the restaurant to collect; 3) recognize that New Zealand has JUST permitted fast-food takeaway so be thankful for what's available here (McDonald's was mobbed, see: https://www.smh.com.au/world/oceania/with-coronavirus-restrictions-eased-kiwis-flock-to-maccas-20200428-p54nrp.html ).

Fair enough.

I've actually been sourcing high quality restaurant grade supplies (salmon and goods from Del Frisco, 28 day wet aged beef from mastros) and cooking those. I could not pass up $17 per 8oz filet. Access to the "good stuff" is where I go. thanks again for all your fine work!

You're a smart cookie, as my mom would say. Almost every steak house I know is selling its meat now and wholesale businesses have begun selling to the general public. See: ProFish, which peddles such delicacies as live lobsters and stone crab claws. 

I know you are still working full time, but not going out to restaurants every lunch and dinner must give you a bit more time in the day for your to pursue other projects...the perfect time for you to write that book, memoir, novel you’ve must certainly have been thinking of. Now what should it be titled? Suggestions, chatters?

Funny you should write that. I have a book idea, but it has nothing to do with my life and little to do with my trade. And the intended audience might surprise you. But enough! On with your food questions!

I don't want to use your forum as a political platform, but I agree with "I just want my food" poster. I think the DC police should stick to the bigger problems, like preventing packages from being stolen from your porches. My recommendation to ease the parking / waiting problem is that the restaurant owner should go down to DCRA and get a permit to block off a few parking spots, in front of the business, and use it for pickup only.

Fair enough 2.

Don't forget Baked and Wired. They have a great Lemon Cake. They are open and deliver.

I loved Baked and Wired! Thanks for the prompt.

Lucky Buns' Bogan Burger was definitely #1. All of the different components complement each other perfectly and that bacon xo jam adds this insane umami aspect. The meat quality is fantastic. Duke's grocery came in a VERRRRYYYY close second place!

Good to know. And now, I'm verrrrrrrry interested in firing up my grill outside. Last night's Indian may have to wait. 

I just recently got a promotion at work despite all that is happening in the world and want to celebrate this weekend with the best takeout possible. What are some of the finer dining places offering takeout? I have done takeout from Masseria already which was fantastic.

Congrats to you. The cooking I've had from Annabelle in Dupont Circle makes me anxious to return there for a sit-down dinner. 

 

Let's end on that happy note. See you all next week -- May already! -- and be safe out there. 

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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