The Washington Post

Ask Tom: Dining during the pandemic

Jun 03, 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-- as I'm sure you and your readers have heard, black-owned small businesses have been hit particularly hard during coronavirus both in DC and elsewhere. For anyone who wants to help these restaurants stay afloat, there's a list here of black-owned restaurants (and also some other businesses) that are still open during the pandemic: https://www.feedthemalik.com/post/dc-black-owned-open-covid-19

Thank you for sharing the link.  The Washingtonian has a good interview with its creator, DC advocate Anela Malik, who identified more than 80 businesses that could use support. I appreciated Malik's suggestion for people to take good photos of the small operations and post them on social media, to get the word out, since a lot of black-owned businesses have historically lacked money for PR and medius strategies. 

 

What a wild and surreal last few days in Washington. I hope you, your friends and family are safe and healthy. I'm still trying to absorb the madness. Talk to me. 

What are your favorite black-owned restaurants in the DMV currently open for pick-up and delivery? As a Tacoma DC resident, my go-to spot for pandemic take-out is Mansa Kunda. I welcome any other suggestions you may have.

I'm a fan of Peter Prime's Caribbean-influenced fare, including pepperpot, at Cane, and the African salads and stews at Ethiopic, owned by Samuel Ergete and Meseret Bekele. Both restaurants are offering takeout on H St. NE. Port-au-Prince is a nice taste of Haiti in Silver Spring, but it's just offering takeout Thursday and Sunday and you have to pre-order it.  Tim Carman has a great review out this week of Open Crumb in Anacostia, a West African place I'm eager to try. There are others, of course. Those are off the top of my head at the moment.

Tom, one place my wife and I love to go every few years is the Inn at Little Washington. For Special birthdays, anniversaries, etc. For our 30th anniversary we had dinner there in December of 2018 and it was $228 per plate. Last year, it went up to $238 per plate. And honestly, even at that price point we felt that we were getting what we paid for. But I just went online and checked for reservations later this summer, and the price is now at $315 per plate. I know that the coronavirus shutdown has affected everyone, the Inn included, but this just seems to be something beyond even the reach of those that can plan and save for such a meal. I just wonder if this bump up is going to stay or if things will reset as the dining rooms can be filled again. Will this happen in other restaurants? Your thoughts?

The general manager at the Inn at Little Washington says the price hike, instituted when the destination restaurant reopened in the garden recently, was to "protect the staff." The new $315 price per person includes service, says Robert Fasce.  To avoid contact, diners are welcome to pre-pay online for the entire meal, wine pairings included. Bills presented at the table no longer have lines for gratuities. "They're neither accepted or expected."

 

Speaking of the four-star restaurant, which famously placed dressed mannequins in its dining room, Fasce tells me the property's IT maven found a way to combine background music with the sound of laughter, clinking glasses and other signs of life. "It's weird," he says, laughing at the scene when there are just likenesses of people. While the inn wants to uphold standards, it's had to drop a few niceties in the wake of the pandemic. In: telling diners exactly when they'll be eating. Out: napkin refolding when guests leave the table. 

Tom - curious about how you (we) are doing with the chat, up/down/same? You once said it was 2nd highest. I miss the on line post of the number of people listening, and how that changed over the hour.

While we don't share numbers outside the Post, I'm seeing pretty much the same traffic as before, with the exception of holiday weeks, like Memorial Day. I'd like to think this forum is a little reminder of the Before Times, or at least a break from the unrelenting bad news. Plus, the chat is a chance to share suggestions and get a sense of what we're all thinking about (like, you know, what's for dinner?)

I would love to know if you’ve ever experimented with the various meal kits that are delivered to the home, such as Blue Apron. I know this is contrary to your wonderful efforts to promote restaurants in these terrible times, but I am curious. I’ve been doing Blue Apron for years. The recipes, the food, the service, etc. is outstanding.

Good to know. I have yet to try a big-name meal kit. My only experience is with Washington-area restaurants, for a recent column highlighting takeout from Taco Bamba, Osteria Morini and Hatoba.

Hi Tom- do you happen to know of anyone serving these for take out right now? Tempted to order the Central Grocery classic online, but why spend over 100 bucks when I could get one faster and support a local business... please tell me you know of a good source for this ultimate comfort food!

Get thee to the Italian Store in Arlington, which builds a mighty sandwich from the usual suspects: a deli's worth of meat and cheese packed into a round of Sicilian bread. The (great) pleasure costs $9.50. 

Hi Tom - tomorrow is my birthday and I just moved to Bethesda. Can you recommend a good restaurant to order for delivery tomorrow. I really am not up to date on the Bethesda Dinning Scene at all. I love all food and open to any price range. Thanks

One of my last seated meals in a restaurant was at Q by Peter Chang in Bethesda. I loved everything about that dim sum-rich lunch save for its nearly empty dining room. 

Hi Tom: I know many of us are so excited that some local restaurants will begin serving outdoors (with appropriate restrictions) in DC starting today. But I’m wondering how I will be able to enjoy this very-much-missed treat as a single diner. Several restaurants I checked noted a 2-person minimum on their required reservation systems. I would normally sit at the bar, but that’s not available, so what are my options? I totally understand that with a limited number of tables, and after being closed for so long, restaurants will not want to leave open any empty seats if they can help it. But I live alone and so haven’t been quarantining with anyone who could join me at a 2-top. Will restaurants basically be closed to me for the foreseeable future? Or is there some way they could set a per table minimum that I could meet to make it worth their while? I would be happy to augment my meal with takeout or bottles of wine, pantry items etc. But I sincerely hope that those of us who have been truly isolated for the last 12 weeks won’t be locked out of the chance to rejoin our community and visit our beloved neighborhood restaurants again. Can you help?

I'll try to help by bringing this very good question to the attention of the restaurant industry. Single people want to dine out now, too!  Chatter, I love your willingness to buy extra (wine, etc.) to make it worthwhile for businesses, who really are counting on as many butts in seats as they're allowed. 

 

Does any restaurateur care to address the issue, before the hour is up? 

Hi Tom, just wanted to share our takeout experiences with Rooster and Owl and 7 Reasons. We got the fried chicken and vegetarian option (pasta) from Rooster and Owl last weekend - it couldn't have been easier - their confirmation included pick up instructions and they had a table set up in their entry way and they seemed really happy to be open for takeout. The food was delicious and it easily survived the 25 minute drive home. We tried 7 Reasons yesterday. Their set up was a little more confusing - it was pretty much hang outside until they see you - but the food was delicious (the vegan dinner for 2 plus some add ons) and it transported extremely well. I also liked that they provided garnishes and clear instructions for their cocktails. I would happily get takeout from both places again. Well done!

Thank you for the field report. I just got takeout from Rooster & Owl for this week's Dining column and totally agree with you. I especially liked the spring lamb stew and the accompanying farro salad. 

I’m a new mom. Between pregnancy, new parenthood, and quarantine, it’s been a long time since I’ve had a really good martini. Seems like most of the to-go cocktails near me are restaurants’ custom cocktails. Where can I get a really good martini to-go? I’m willing to go anywhere in Northern VA (or DC if we are being honest.)

I reached out to my Weekend colleague Fritz Hahn, who scanned his to-go drinks notes for "martini" and came up empty-handed. 

 

He did offer this, however:  "Columbia Room has a DIY kit for their house martini with full bottles of gin, vermouth and sherry, a bottle of bitters and a grapefruit, if the new mom is the experimental type. For ease, though, I'd probably recommend the bottled All Souls cocktails being sold at Right Proper in Shaw. They have 16oz pre-batched versions of the Perfect Manhattan, Negronis and their No. 16, a wonderful mix of Old Tom gin, rose vermouth (from D.C.'s own Capitoline) and bitters. It's a delightful twist on a martini, in a format that make it easy to go back for a second round."

 

Update: A reader says Landi Brothers in Alexandria does the drink you crave to go. 

Why are so few restaurants in the Rockville. Bethesda area reviewed in your column?

I've spent more time in the Maryland suburbs than you read about, but I prefer to write about only praise-worthy takeout at this time (See: Il Pizzico for Italian in Rockville, Kenaki Sushi Counter in Gaithersburg, Franklins in College Park, etc.) In other cases, I haven't found a restaurant to fit a given week's theme. But I'm totally open to suggestions from readers and I *know* there's great takeout beyond the District and Northern Virginia.

 

Share away, folks. 

Good morning, Tom - do you know where to get a good serving of Yorkshire pudding? I was watching something on TV where someone was eating it and it gave me a huge craving (its also something I have never successfully made on my own.) Any suggestions?

I did some poking around online this morning, but I came up empty-handed. Not sure how well popovers travel? Chatters, if you know of a takeout source, fill us in. 

Mr. S: My wife and I, both in our 70s, will be take out only for some time to come. Recently we've enjoyed Jacksons. Pick up is efficient, and food packing and preparation excellent. Slightly more afield - L au Berge Chez Francois in Great Falls has had some great take out specials, and I believe, has started outside dining.

You're correct about L'Auberge Chez Francoise, whose Facebook page shows its chef-owner out on an inviting terrace. A drive and dinner in the country sounds like just what the doctor ordered right now. 

Probably be a great idea for the industry if potential customers and employees who have been out the past week marching stay at home for a few days so as not to jeopardize the rest of us. A restaurant in my neighborhood has been closed since May 29th due to an "at risk" incident. Any illnesses have to reported to health departments which probably will lead to individual quarantines and closures for sanitation. Thank you Tom....

Thanks for the public service announcement. 

Are you ready for outside dining?

I am! With some distance. And protection. And .... some obvious concerns. I don't like the idea of putting anyone -- servers, fellow diners -- at risk. At the same time, I feel an obligation to support the industry I cover. 

Hi Tom - pre-pandemic, we were planning a trip to DC in September, but now we're really waffling on whether to come (basically, we come for the history, food, and culture in that order), and safety issues regarding traveling aside, do you anticipate restaurants being open in September? Or is it impossible to say? We don't want to be hasty, but it's pointless (and potentially dangerous) to come too early. Thoughts on what the next few months hold?

I don't have a crystal ball. I mean, who knew we'd have protesters and violence right now? Everything is fluid at present, and I'm newly concerned about a second wave of coronavirus following the demonstrations.

 

Short answer: wait until closer to your planned visit to go ahead or cancel your trip. 

Kudos to Inn at Little Washington for including the service charge in the price of the meal. We have reservations for July and can't wait! I hope to see more of that - it provides a more equitable wage structure for all employees. My goal as restaurants reopen is to seek out those with service charge included.

It was a big move for the Inn, which made the change after consulting with its starry counterparts around the country. And the new price gives diners a better sense of what they're actually going to spend.  

This is much more a rant than a question. I've been reading you, online and in print, for many years. It's fun and interesting. But my actual dining has mostly been limited to locations near work (high end lunch!) and dinner near home. I've decided to have the occasional high end dinner, for which I will drive anywhwhere in the city within reason, and parts of MD, and maybe even Arlington-ish VA. So what has happened to my mental notes on all the cool places I would go to "some day"? GONE! I might as well be a newborn for all the memory I have of all these restaurants. Especially given the high rate of new openings in recent years. So I'm at a loss as to how to choose. I may end up going with some old favorites (looking at you, Zaytinya) even though this is really the time to go try something new. There are just sooo many restaurants in this town. They all sound so good. Semi-rant over. I'll find a way to pick, and enjoy. Maybe I'll grab a random date from the last two years and pick the restaurant you reviewed that week. (I don't need 3.5 stars, 2 stars is fine. Heck I'm sure 1.5 stars is fine for me.)

I'm assuming you want an upscale seated dinner, now that some restrictions have been lifted and restaurants can serve food at exterior tables. In Washington, consider the second-floor garden patio at Seven Reasons, which opened over the weekend and offers the creative fare of chef-owner Enrique Limardo: one-bite arepas, shrimp-stuffed squid with a potato-chorizo cake, plus a little spritzer of lavender-scented hand sanitizer tucked into your napkin. In Northern Virginia, the owner of Clarity in Vienna has turned his parking lot into a dining room, where customers park in wide slips for an elaborate $90 tasting menu served at a table beneath a tent. 

Somebody complaining about why their area is totally ignored by you, Tom - WE'RE BACK!

You think? One can only hope. 

I really don't see it traveling well - on the good side, it is easy to make. Perhaps what's been the problem is that you have to have to pan with the fat piping hot before you put in the batter. Have in the oven for a number of minutes, pour in the batter and shove it right back into the oven. I always make one big one and never a problem if the pan is pre-heated. I like Delia's recipe and don't tend to bother having the pan over the direct heat. https://www.deliaonline.com/recipes/international/european/british/yorkshire-pudding-for-6

That's a start, thank you.

Might just hurt the servers since I typically start tipping at 30% of the bill for great service. As a former server I know who is at fault for certain things during a meal. And yeah I have been known to stiff a server when we discriminated against and she treated an older middle age couple far better. Always write "Stiff" in the top box and never 00.00 cause it can be aktered by the server

You're a former server and you've actually stiffed someone in the industry -- AND scribbled STIFF on top the check? I don't know what to say. 

During one of the newscasts' live reports a few nights ago, somebody said the Oval Room had been set on fire during the protests, but I didn't hear anything else about it. Do you know if that's true?

Sadly, owner Ashok Bajaj just confirmed the report. The Oval Room was set on fire not once, but twice. Ugh. 

I live near the spot where the Bethesda version is supposed to open up. Bethesda needs a cozy restaurant with solid food - I hope the pandemic doesn't put the kibosh on these plans. I would order takeout from there if it were open now!

Owner Michael Schlow confirms his intention open shop in  Bethesda. "Not sure when we will," he texts, "but we are planning on it!"

I just wanted to send out a quick thank you/shout out to the Alpine Chef in Fredericksburg. Last week was my parents' 60th wedding anniversary, and their plans for a family gathering have had to be put off indefinitely. My parents really enjoy traditional German food and my siblings and I decided to treat them to dinner to celebrate their big day. The staff at the Alpine Chef were extremely helpful. Their website is up to date (and had a number of options), they made it really easy to order, and the staff has a super-easy pickup procedure in place. They answered all the questions that I had (my Mom has a tree nut allergy, and they checked to make sure that everything was "safe") and even through in a few extras to celebrate the day. Well worth the trip to for me to pick it up and deliver it to my parents (they live about 45 minutes from Fredericksburg). The food was delicious and they had directions for how to warm things up. My parents wound up enjoying a few meals out of the one order. They helped make a special day even more special.

Vielen dank. You just made me hungry for schnitzel and a beer on an outdoor patio. If only Alpine Chef were closer! 

 

That's a wrap for today, folks. Please join me next week for another hour of restaurant talk. 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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