Which restaurants are offering the safest outdoor dining right now?

Aug 05, 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.

Would love to hear recommendations for DC restaurants absolutely nailing the outdoor-dining-in-covid conundrum-- that is, plenty of space between tables / not right next to passers by, limiting table service, asking servers and diners to mask up while interacting, etc. You've said outdoor dining feels like a vacation and we're dying for one-- just want to feel like we don't need to have our heads on a swivel the whole time for unmasked folks too close. Thanks!

The most satisfying, safe-feeling outdoor experiences thus far have included Jacques' Brasserie in Great Falls (surrounded by lawn and a garden); Flamant in Annapolis (where the servers sport both fabric and plastic face masks); Ambar on the Hill (talk about multiple good protocols!); Bar Charley in Dupont Circle (where table cards remind diners to water masks when interacting with staff); Chez Billy Sud in Georgetown (such a pretty patio); and Centrolina in CityCenter (love that alley setting). There are other spots that look good, but I've only picked up food from them, not dined outside. 

 

Then there's this shout out, from a fellow chatter:

 

"A friend and I visited Farmers, Fishers, Bakers over the weekend and we found that their protocols were followed excellently. Every single server, table runner, host, etc that we came into contact with or even saw from our table was wearing a face mask properly. There were a number of stations for hand sanitizer at the entrance of the restaurant. And when a couple tried to enter without masks, the hostess promptly asked for them to put them on. The tables were quite far apart and the music was quieter than usual- I could hear my dining partner well. I've been worried that COVID was going to make service in restaurants too sterile but we found the service to be warm, friendly and attentive even if they weren't *touching* as many things on our table as usual."

 

Happy Wednesday, gang. What's on your mind today? I'm all ears (and eyes). 

Hi Tom, I have a billing dispute with the Dabney from our visit there this past Sunday. Guest checks are emailed after you finish your meal; we didn’t realize that so we had no opportunity at the time to question it. I called the Dabney but I get a recording and when trying to leave a message, the mailbox is full. I emailed them but I’m not optimistic I will receive a response. How do I proceed from here? I hate to simply dispute the charge on my credit card. Thank you!

Thanks to your early submission, I was able to reach out to chef-owner Jeremiah Langhorne, who told me the Dabney is closed Monday and Tuesday. Rest assured, you'll be hearing from a member of his staff today.

 

I think the restaurateur speaks for others in the industry when he says, "It's unbelievably stressful nowadays and we want our staff to rest on days off to be ready to tackle the days we are open."  

 

P.S. Everyone deserves a little more patience in a pandemic.

i read the transcript of last week's chat after it ended and want to add my two cents... ARACOSIA's (afghan) menu is entirely gluten free except for the turnovers and popovers. the person who answers the phone is extremely knowledgeable. they are in mclean and georgetown(ish). also BAR TACO (well, tacos and other stuff), in mosaic district is almost entirely gluten free. they note the few items on the menu that contain gluten vs the other way around. for extra safety, on their online order system there is a box to check for gluten free. PADAEK (laotian/thai) in falls church has loads of gluten free options and the people who work there and answer the phone are also very knowledgeable. and of course all of the GREAT AMERICAN RESTAURANTS are gluten free friendly. like your friend, i always call a new-to-me restaurant to make sure they have gluten free options and can tell me what they are. the ones i've mentioned are tried and true and delicious!

The poster is responding to last week's chat, in which someone was asking about best practices re: cooking for celiac sufferers. The recommended restaurants were BlackSaltChikoEspitaLittle Serow, Sfoglina and all of the Jose Andres spots in the District; plus Haandi and Takumi in Northern Virginia. 

I've been to many restaurants since Virginia's phase one on May 15th (yes, numerous restaurants have been serving meals at tables for three months now...) but I have noticed a trend. I don't recognize many of the staff. Help wanted signs are everywhere. Several restaurants, at least in Alexandria, have held job fairs -- trying to hire employees. What is your take? Are you hearing wait staff have moved to different industries? Decided unemployment checks were more than regular take home pay? Staying home and deciding against a paycheck? I am really curious about what I see as a massive turnover in the industry.

More than a few chefs told me they had a hard time retaining or hiring staff when unemployment checks were $600 a week. That may well change now. But another consideration is safety. For a variety of reasons, not every server, cook or manager is comfortable working in a public space. They may have pre-existing conditions, elderly dependents, etc. 

Looking for suggestion for soft shell crab entrees in northern Virginia. Aside from a few Americanized Asian restaurants where deep-frying and over-saucing is the norm, the dish is hard to find. Where is it hiding?

I'm happy to throw your question out to fellow chatters and see what comes back (hopefully) within the hour. The soft shell crabs I've enjoyed most (Pesce, Flamant) have been in the District or Maryland.

 

I know Tracy O'Grady at Green Pig Bistro in Arlington is offering the dish, featuring soft-shell crabs from Baxter in Easton, for $30 as a Friday night special. The meal (which I have yet to sample)  comes with a choice of fries and cole slaw or a summer bean and basil ragout with charred corn and tomato butter. 

 

Post-chat update, from a reader: "RT’s Restaurant on Mt. Vernon Ave. in Delray has delicious soft-shell crabs. I will readily admit some bias, because RT’s is my favorite restaurant in the area, but honestly I could happily eat just about anything on the menu, and I can’t think of another restaurant where I could say that. It’s been around for a long time (recently changed owners, but the menu is the same) so maybe taken for granted, but I am amazed it doesn’t get more love from the local food press. And I’ve spent a LOT of time in New Orleans, so I know what legit Cajun/Creole cuisine is supposed to taste like. Thanks for doing the chats, it’s a lifeline to simpler (pre-COVID) times."

When they open again (their website says 2 weeks, but it's not dated, so who knows?), the Proper Pie Company in Church Hill, Richmond VA is absolutely worth the drive. Whole pies, by the slice, hand helds, and personal sized for knife & fork. Meat pies, vegan pies, cream pies, fruit pies. Menu changes daily. Great folks and GREAT pies.

Sounds as if a road trip to Richmond is in order once the Proper Pie Company reopens. The selections online are tempting and I like the idea of a savory pie such as pork chile verde. 

Hi Tom! We are trying to plan a rehearsal dinner for our wedding next year. We are looking for a private room that holds about 50 people. Any recommendations? We have started looking at Le Diplomate and Rasika for reference.

What time next year? If it's early 2021, I'm not sure a restaurant could accommodate a group that size. Washington, as I'm sure you know, remains in Phase 2 of reopening.

 

 That said, the private spaces I've seen at Del Mar on the Wharf and Annabelle in Dupont Circle are impressive. 

I'm dog sitting for a friend for a week in College Park. Do you or the chatters have any take out/delivery recommendations for standout eateries? (Both I and the dog are flexible.)

Northwest Chinese Food, which my colleague Tim Carman likes, is open Tuesday through Sunday and serves everything from sour soup dumplings to Chinese-style sandwiches. 

Hi Tom, thank you for your always thoughtful responses. I was wondering if you've had a chance to try Glassey, the recently opened modern Indian cuisine on 1st St NW? Or perhaps your readers have the low-down? We live in the neighborhood and are planning to order from there soon, just curious if there are any clear winners on the menu.

India is my favorite journey. Glassey is on my radar, but I have yet to check out the new addition to Bloomingdale. Chatters? 

Several times recently I have noticed happy hour (where usually offered during dinner) has been suspended. Can I just say this is a terrible idea some restaurants have implemented. I understand the need to get more cash flow -- but happy hour prices often have the result of someone ordering two (or more!) drinks instead of one regular-priced drink. Big shout out to places, like Murphy's in Old Town (which has actually EXTENDED happy hour on beer until 9 p.m.!) who have used happy hour promotions well. Sadly, there are way too many restaurants raising prices and expecting customers to treat them like a charity instead of a business. They are missing the big picture. Customers will tip very generously (30-40% sometimes; I have even tipped 100% during happy hour) if the restaurant welcomes and makes dining there attractive. When restaurants turn into pseudo-charities I am afraid they are making poor decisions that will end in failure. There is money to be made in the industry right now, especially in this federal government-rich region, but customers need a much better reason to dine out than a guilt trip from restaurants.

Thanks for sharing the customer perspective. I'd love to hear from restaurant and bar owners on this topic. 

Went to the Restaurant at Potowmack Farm for a birthday dinner. Enjoyed everything about it. Thought it might be a little stuffy, but the staff was super friendly and casual other than making sure we wore our masks until seated and used the hand sanitizer. We had the Cuban-inspired menu which was amazing. We will be back for sure.

Music to chef Tarver King's ears, no doubt. Thanks for the field report. His bucolic restaurant is definitely worth the trek from just about anywhere. 

I realize it's a necessity these days. I also realize that supplies are scarce. But..restaurants, if you can help it, can you avoid purchasing floral scented hand sanitizer? I felt like I was eating potpourri every time I brought my fork to my mouth. Thanks.

Only grandma should smell like grandma, right? 

Hi Tom-- not long ago we ordered from Chloe and picked the food up ourselves. No one was answering the phone at the restaurant, so we used Caviar, which doesn't give you any space to add a tip if you're not getting delivery. Later I emailed the restaurant about how to tip their staff and no one responded, so I ate a really fantastic meal and no one received a tip for it. Are you aware of a virtual tip jar for Chloe?

From chef/owner Haidar Karoum

 

"First and foremost, thank you for being so thoughtful.  Thank you for being awesome ... you made my morning.  There is no excuse for our lack of response. I know how frustrating that can be. Like everyone else we are trying to keep up but somehow this fell through the covid cracks. My most sincere apologies."

 

There's no virtual tip jar at Chloe, but what you might do is put some cash in an envelope, write "thanks to the staff" on it and leave the gratuity with whoever is at the takeout stand/podium/table. 

Hi Tom, The three restaurants I've dined at since June are Sfoglina, Del Mar and Fiola Mare. All of Fabio's restaurants! They have the table distancing and safety protocols done well. I feel very safe dining either indoor and outdoors. They even have a bathroom attendant disinfecting the bathroom handles whenever someone exits. The only restaurant left is Fiola! I remember they were planing on renovating and making improvements to his flagship restaurant. Any update or news? Are they still planning on doing this? I really miss this place.

A spokeswoman for the restaurant group has this promising update:

 

"We are considering launching a pop-up at Fiola that would start after Labor Day and extend through early October. The pop-up would embrace the new identity of Fiola based on our collaboration with Chancellors Rock Farm, and the menu will be almost entirely based on the product of the farm. As an added enhancement to the experience of the dinner, we will feature the opportunity to have an aperitivo or after dinner drink on the newly renovated rooftop of 601 Pennsylvania Avenue."

 

(I sense fingers crossing all over Washington right now.)

With restaurants being at 50% capacity, no bar seating allowed, limited menus, etc. I just don't see how happy hour would be welcome. Providing safety and comfort should be the priority and I would expect to pay full prices for that.

Another sensible point of view.

What does "modern" French, Indian, Chinese food typically mean? Different spins on traditional dishes? Fusion? New ingredients?

It all depends on the chef and the restaurant. In some cases, "modern" translates to "lighter." In other cases, "modern" does something playful with tradition. A good example of the latter use of the term is Indian Accent in New Delhi, which I reviewed for Travel in the Before Times. 

I'm not in the industry, but the restaurants are aware they're not "getting back" to any kind of normal any time soon. In contrast to past times, they don't want people lingering. And when people drink more, they let down their guard, making it more likely they'll violate social distancing, try to walk around without a mask, etc.

All compelling reasons to rethink happy hour. 

Please keep an option where you can call or order online directly from a restaurant and pick the food up yourself even as we get to new pandemic phases. I like knowing that the restaurant is getting all of my money and not having some of it given to Uber/GrubHub/etc.

I applaud diners like you. If you can pick up a restaurant meal yourself, you're keeping money at the establishment. 

This is where voicemail (and email autoreply) really make a difference.

Yup! 

Last week (I believe) you suggested that folks should only use restaurant gift certificates if they are strapped for cash. Tom, Tom, Tom. How insensitive of you. I understand restaurants are hurting but most of us are hurting too. And we shouldn't be made to feel guilty if we use a gift. If the restaurant closes, the gift is worthless. Then what? You are too quick to take the side of restaurants over your readers. You owe your readers an apology for that "strapped" remark.

I am definitely *not* too quick to side with restaurants. Sift through some of my previous chats and you'll see that I'm a big advocate for diners. But! Diners aren't always in the right. Every situation is different.

 

I digress. Bottom line: If you can afford to wait to use a gift certificate -- especially to a small independent restaurant -- I'd encourage you to do so. And if you can't, or you fear a business might close, then by all means, use said certificate. 

I ordered takeout from a place in Reston Town Center. The website said curbside pickup, or come in to the dedicated pickup counter. They had neither. In fact, their location was such that you could not stop in front of the shop, either. So I had to go find a parking spot around the block. They could have arranged with one of the restaurants on a corner to share curbside. I told the cashier and wrote to them (with no response) I would not be back no matter how good the food, but instead, if I want it again, I will just let Grubhub or some other delivery service take their cut, which I never do.

Catch that, restaurants? Please make it easy for customers to do business with you. There are alternatives: outside food couriers.

I'm confused. The person asked about outdoor dining experiences but the article you linked discusses being INSIDE Ambar. I don't see how Ambar would be comfortable outside since its Capitol Hill location is on the always crowded Barracks Row.

You're right: the story I linked to references the interior of the Balkan restaurant. But the recently renovated Ambar has a rooftop space with fans that's roomy and seemingly safe. 

We’ve done carry out about once a week for a few months from a few different favorite places. I might do more if it was a bit clearer from restaurant website where we can place an order what we should expect the scene to be when we come to pick it up - should we call when we get there or go inside? Will we get a call or text when the food is ready? At a few places I ended up asking folks outside or dodging inside to find out- I want to do what the restaurant prefers but hard to tell in some cases! Don’t want to loiter near the door or inside if the food isn’t ready yet. Any thoughts other than calling ahead to ask each time?

Thanks for sharing your frustrations. Restaurants would be doing themselves and customers a big favor by clearly outlining the process for pickup: when, where, how, etc.

 

 Very few sites include all the necessary and helpful information. The role model is probably the seafood-themed Fiola Mare in Georgetown. The instructions offer numbers and times to call with any questions and reminders not to linger or come early (or late). Diners who want to remain in their cars and just pop the trunk for someone from the restaurant can do so. 

To those who oppose happy hour prices at restaurants, it is really important to note the profit margin on booze compared to food. Your $10 hamburger costs almost that much to prepare. Your $4 happy hour drink likely costs the restaurant about $1. The argument for happy hour is one that benefits both the customer (who will pay less per drink, thus making it attractive to dine out) and the restaurant (who will make a ton more profit on alcohol compared to food, especially if the customer buys two or three happy hour priced drinks instead of one full price one). Moreover, takeout makes almost no profit -- as most people do not order alcohol with their takeout meal.

Actually, I know lots of people who order booze with their takeout ..... 

Was enjoying a meal at Bistro Cacao's outdoor patio until someone who was clearly a regular strolled into the restaurant and onto the patio without a mask. Stood among the patrons while the servers asked what table he wanted and the person responded very loudly, possibly drunkenly. I understand the importance of regular patrons, but it really turned my group off from the whole dining experience, to the point we haven't been back since. Keep a regular, sure, but lose potential new ones.

Ouch.

Hi Tom, we postponed our wedding that was scheduled to occur in September to next September (obviously the right decision!) but we would still like to go out to a fancy dinner to celebrate. I saw that many of the "usual suspects" are still closed - do you have any suggestions?

I assume you want to dine inside? You don't mention cost or location, but there's always the Inn at Little Washington for an over-the-top, away-from-it-all adventure and Kinship and Rasika for top-notch contemporary American and modern Indian, respectively, in the District.

 

Leftovers are calling me -- from Happy Gyro! Time to run. Let's meet again next week, same time. Until then, be well. 

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.
Recent Chats
  • Next: