Should a critic be reviewing more than the food?

Aug 26, 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.

The James Beard Foundation has canceled this year’s awards not only because of the pandemic but in light of growing questions about kitchen/restaurant culture and chefs’ behavior as well as the lack of diversity among the winners. Do factors such as this affect where you dine or how you go about writing a review? In your opinion, should a restaurant critic be engaged in such issues or should the food and service speak for themselves? Thank you.

The easiest way to deal with restaurants with problematic owners or chefs is not to write about them, or if I do, include mention of their shortcomings in any review. I've never tried to cover up or gloss over toxic kitchens, bad behavior, etc. But critics aren't typically privy to what's happening outside a dining room. 

 

Food, service and atmosphere are details readers expect from a restaurant critique. Increasingly, and in light of #metoo accusations and Black Lives Matter protests, I think the public is also interested in spending their money at places that aren't just offering good food, but are being proactive about social injustices, treatment of workers, etc. 

 

Just to be clear: You can be sure colleagues and I would look into any allegations of wrong-doing or injustice in the industry we cover. We already have, in fact. See: Tim Carman's piece on restaurant workers facing unsafe conditions and Emily Heil's story on the moldy jam sold at the once-popular Sqirl in Los Angeles. 

 

Speaking of the James Beard Foundation, my counterpart at the NYT has a story on how the decision to cancel the chef and restaurant awards came to be. It's not pretty. 

 

Ready? Let's begin. 

Hi Tom- I hope you're doing well. I'm hoping you might have a solid steak dinner recommendation for a 70th birthday in these uncertain covid times. Preferably somewhere (in DC) where we can book a table for 4 (about 3 weeks from now) and sit outside as weather permits. Preferably somewhere that takes both food and safety of staff/guests seriously. If not steak, something in the authentic northern Italian pizza/pasta tradition would be dope. Thanks!

For steak, I propose the patio at St. Anselm near Union Market and don't even think of skipping the biscuits. 

 

For Italian, I adore the alley setting outside Centrolina in CityCenter, with superior pastas and wood-grilled fish and meat from chef Amy Brandwein. 

I made a reservation for a restaurant with outdoor and indoor dining; this restaurant did not have a specific option to just reserve outdoors. We are not comfortable eating indoors yet, and I made a note of this in my reservation. However, the restaurant has a cancellation charge 48 hours ahead of the reservation. So 5 days ahead, I emailed them asking if it was possible to assure that we can sit outdoors, and if not, if we could retain the option to cancel at no charge. We also said we were happy to wait an hour or so after our reservation time for a spot to open up, and that we didn't want to be difficult but just wanted to make it work out for all parties involved. We've had some back and forth, everyone has been perfectly polite, and I'm still waiting on a final answer, but I want to know if I am being unreasonable? If they are unable to guarantee us outdoor seating, then we'll of course cancel ahead of the deadline to be respectful. I know it's a very hard time for restaurants right now, and this requires patience and flexibility from everyone, but would love to hear your thoughts.

It sounds as if you are being reasonable and responsible. If you ask for an outside table, you should be offered al fresco seating, with the obvious caveat that it might not be possible in foul weather.

 

I understand that restaurants need to protect themselves financially, but they, too, need to be mindful of the fact a lot of diners aren't comfortable eating inside yet. Options (inside and out) should be offered. And restaurants shouldn't keep a deposit for an inside table you've let them know you don't want. 

 

Confidential to the chatter who reached out to me regarding a problematic Sunday night reservation at a big deal restaurant: Yes, I looked into the matter and yay, it sounds as if you're happy with the restaurant's response. 

Tom, I've searched through the chat transcripts from the last few weeks, but haven't seen this question. Are there good options for patio dining for weekday lunch that you're aware of in DC/Nova? So far I've seen Fiola Mare at the Georgetown Waterfront and SER in Ballston, but most of the exciting options that offer patio dining right now seem to be dinner only or weekend brunch (while understanding that things seem to be changing for different spots week to week as conditions evolve). Hoping to block off the calendar for a little while and escape from the house during the workday!

You're right: good al fresco choices for weekday lunch are hard to find. The delicious exceptions include Jaleo for Spanish in Penn Quarter, Mi Vida for Mexican at the Wharf, Ambar for Balkan flavors on Capitol Hill and Patsy's American in Vienna. Readers, feel free to add to the list. 

No questions here but I thought I'd share a story where I screwed up the tip: I was having a business lunch in Houston a few years ago. I can't even remember the restaurant but it was very nice and lunch was about $20 (we went dutch). I paid with a credit card and wrote $2 in the tip line. Not sure what I was thinking but I guess I thought 2 was 20% of 20. After lunch, I'm back in my hotel room and looking at my receipt. When I see that I left a pathetic 10% tip, I called the restaurant. I explained that I made a mistake and asked if they could change my charge to reflect a 20% tip. They told me they couldn't do that but would pass along my apologies to my server. It was only $2 but I still feel bad! But I think the restaurant (and hopefully the server) appreciated that I tried to correct my mistake!

Good for you for calling the restaurant and trying to correct your mistake. If that happened to me, now, I would have attempted to tip the server through Venmo or some such. 

Between Covid stress, moving stress and etc I am ready for a good cocktail. Also because of the same pressure cooker I am not really particularly free to go out, even to somewhere open with suitable distancing. Any place doing good work with carry out cocktails? Vienna/Reston preferred. Good food is always a bonus, but really, I can cook well, but I don’t have a well stocked bar these days.

Heads up: I don't know of any restaurant that offers drinks to go without the purchase of at least some food. My Weekend colleague Fritz Hahn looked into the matter and shares this from the Virigina ABC:  "Mixed beverage restaurants and limited mixed beverage restaurants are limited to four cocktails for each delivery or take out sale. Each order for delivery or takeout of cocktails must include a meal for every two cocktails purchased."

 

In Vienna, Fritz suggests the margaritas at El Sol. And in Reston, In Reston, he says, "Barcelona has some fun cocktails -- there's the sparkling sangria-esque Guns N Roses, with Lillet and peach nectar, and the Manhattan-esque Bourbon Spice Rack, which subs in Cardamaro for the vermouth, and adds cardamom and maple syrup."

I don't think there's a bright line. Should you avoid certain restaurants because of rumors? I would say no - it's too easy to sow those rumors and harm a rival's business. On the other hand, things reached a point with Mike Isabella that it was (in my opinion) appropriate to stop featuring his restaurants. Ultimately, anyone who reads your work is relying on your opinion and your judgment.

One-time star chef Mike Isabella is a great example. I stopped recommending his restaurants when he was accused of sexual harassment by a manager.  For one thing, I didn't want to be seen glossing over bad behavior. For another, there were/are plenty of good competitors to focus on. 

Clarity has a fantastic patio lunch!

DOH. Thank you for the memory jog. 

I just want to say this has been a great idea. I don't want to eat inside, but the Streetery has made it much easier to eat out. Also, I had a lovely lunch at PassionFish the other day. These outings are such a nice change from the misery of the pandemic.

Not to mention a welcome break from one's own four walls. (Do I need to repaint? Wall paper? How about a new carpet?) 

My boyfriend and I are doing an overnight in Annapolis to celebrate our anniversary. We got a hotel room with a balcony, so we're guaranteed a nice water view for dinner. Suggestions for where to get takeout from? We're both still a bit wary of even outdoor dining, and want to take advantage of our private balcony. Would love somewhere that's not all seafood, as I'm not a huge fish fan (though I love crab soup).

My favorite place to eat in Annapolis is Flamant, whose tasting menu I recently enjoyed on the patio there. Chef-owner Frederick De Pue says you can email him directly (flamantmd@gmail.com) for delivery to your hotel. "Fun thing is," he texted, "we are making crab bisque this week." 

 

Another option is the well-regarded Preserve, which just reopened. The menu is a diverse one. Picture steak frites, chicken pot pie and kimchi gnocchi, among other draws. 

Tom, how do you handle Restaurant Week. Do you take part in it or do you take a break from it all? Curious to know.

I've checked participants out here and there over the years, but August is one of my busiest months, given the fall dining guide that comes out in October. My focus now is eating from restaurants' regular menus. (They exist, and I'm grateful!) 

Just a quick shout out-one RW, one not. Restaurant week, carry out from Bindaas. Food was beautiful, and enjoyed by all the vegetarians, pescatarians, and meat eaters in the house. The food was ready on time, traveled well and was super tasty. I highly recommend it for the rest of RW. Non RW shout out-I bought a gift certificate for Sfoglina back in April to support the folks who work there. The restaurant sent an additional gift certificate as a thank you for buying the first one. We were able to use both of them at the Van Ness location on Friday night. The tables were spaced beautifully, the staff was exceptional as always, and for the first time out to meal since March 13, it was a wonderful experience. So happy to support these places.

That's extremely generous of Sfoglina -- and not unlike sending a thank you note for a thank you note. 

I've twice been remiss. Once at a quirky little restaurant in Anchorage. I sent a check to cover and got a nice cap with the restaurant's logo. The second, at another quirky restaurant - this time in Seattle. I sent a check and got the nicest letter back, saying to introduce myself if I came in again. I did, and got a free glass of wine.

See? Bling and wine come to those who write. 

Thanks! It makes sense to require food purchase as well, which is fine; food is just not the priority for this round. Thanks for looking into it, we’ll be looking into El Sol promptly.

I know it's not yet noon, but I could really use a margarita (mezcal, please, up and no salt). 

Tom - loved your review of Flamant in Annapolis. We had carry-out from them recently, and everything was delicious ( especially the mussels and the tomato bisque). Everything was packaged and labeled clearly, and there were good instructions on reheating. ( I can’t comment on delivery, since we live near the restaurant and I picked it up myself - but it was ready exactly when they said it would be). I’m looking forward to ordering again soon.

I think you just made Frederik De Pue's day there. 

What do you think of the James Beard canceling their Awards presentation this year?

I can argue it both ways: now is no time for the struggling industry to celebrate OR now, more than ever, the industry needs to shine a light on role models. Cancelling the awards for lack of diversity, on the other hand? And chefs who may or may not have played nice? Whoo boy. Can o' worms there. 

Have restaurants started thinking about how they will handle/expand outdoor dining this winter? I feel comfortable eating outdoors at a restaurant but won't eat inside so am I looking at 4 months of takeout food?

I predict a run on heat lamps and tarps and wool blankets. 

Hello Tom, Thanks for hosting these talks and being our "guinea pig" for dining out. Your information is so helpful. During the last two weeks, I have ordered pizza, cheesesteaks, and chinese food from local restaurants that deliver themselves. The dollar amounts have been in the average of $30.00-$40.00 per delivery. What do you consider a generous tip in dollars? Also, do you ever give extra money to the delivery person to share with the house, or do you expect it will all stay with the driver? Sometimes it seems like the preparation worker deserves more of a tip than the driver, but I don't know how to get it to them.

For deliveries made by restaurant staff, using their own cars and gas, be as generous as you can. I'd say $8 to $10 would be good starting points. These days, I try to leave 25 percent. 

 

Every restaurant works a bit differently. You'd have to inquire whether your tip goes to an individual or gets pooled. 

Dear Tom - To get a delicious, close, and convenient mezcal margarita to go, take yourself over to Mezcalero on 14th Street.

After 5 p.m., yes!

I will totally do this to support restaurants. Could actually be fun.

I agree. Then again, I'm from Minnesota. We know how to bundle up and we're comfortable with temperatures that dip into negative numbers. 

Post your menus! We've carried out from a few places already, and have had some great dining experiences that we probably wouldn't do otherwise. But there are a couple of places near me that said on the RW site that they were doing take out, but STILL haven't posted a menu, either there or on their own website. I'm not dining in or outside any time soon. If I can't see the menu, I can't order from it. I'm not going to call the restaurant and have them read it to me over the phone. Sorry. (I'm probably missing a good meal, too, bummer.)

Catch that, restaurants? You have to post (menus) to win (business). 

I read the NYT piece. I can see putting the awards on delay if it means they take the time to do it right next year or 2022, whenever they resume. Given their intention to not only reward but to guide the industry in some way, they can create and publicize some guidelines for what they think is worthy of an award, and how that has changed from the previous. One warning, though. In some sense they are nominating themselves to be moral arbiters, or fairness arbiters, or "change" arbiters, and it isn't at all clear to me, and won't be to many others, that they are any more worthy of that position than anyone else.

Having served seemingly forever on the restaurant awards committee, I know how hard its judges work to be fair and inclusive. Not just in selecting chefs and restaurants for nomination, but in making sure the judges are a diverse and discerning group.

 

But I hear your concern: I mean, is DWI going to disqualify someone? Where does an inquiry start or finish? How far back does it go? And who is JBF to sort this all out?  The leaders have some house-cleaning to do themselves, me thinks.

Just be careful dining outdoors during a protest!

That's kind of my nightmare: getting photographed getting hounded by protesters

Tom, in all the PR you get from restaurants, have you seen any that tout that they have safe and dedicated prep surfaces gluten free? I've been glutened after having been assured the dis contained no wheat, breadcrumbs, soy or whatever. Thanks!

I don't recall any such announcement. Unfortunately, the pandemic has made it difficult for kitchens to fulfill special requests and smaller menus typically translate to fewer options for say, vegetarians. 

Kudos to Bistro Bis for a great restaurant week menu. 3-course menu offered lots of tasty options--we got the duck confit & scallops entree. Everything was well packaged and offered easy reheating instructions and we enjoyed it all!

Scallops and duck, huh? That's great. Sounds as if the French restaurant on the Hill is promoting dishes it typically serves on its regular menu. 

Got a cocktail for two with my takeout order from a neighborhood restaurant in NoVa, but when I got it home, I discovered that it was a "kit" that required me to provide the club soda. I don't necessarily mind if it requires some assembly, but there was no indication on the menu that I needed to provide any ingredients, and I was out of seltzer. Another case of disappointment due to an incomplete/inadequate online menu.

Ouch. Did you still imbibe?

While the James Beard Foundation has canceled their awards, it appears as if Michelin is going forward with its dining guides and stars...despite the fact that virtually no restaurant has been fully open since mid-March, the dining experience is now completely different, many of these restaurants are changed formats or are forever gone, and the uncertainty of dining in the coming year means continued great change remains inevitable. How can Michelin possibly award stars..or even publish a dining guide in this environment?

Yet another reason I'm not a fan of the guide produced by the French tire manufacturer. For starters, of what possible use will one of its guides be?  

Excellent article and I've been meaning to mention sandwich boards. Please look at where you're putting them / what else is out there and make sure they're not getting in the way of wheelchairs. I've been seeing a lot of obstacle courses, with wheelchairs have having to navigate around several sandwich boards over the course of a block. This has always been an issue - I complained three times about a restaurant sandwich board placed at the top of the corner sidewalk wheelchair ramp, right across the street from a busy metro stop as well. I ended up getting the manager involved. It's even more important now. It makes such a difference if you pause to see how what you're putting out affects wheelchair users.

Thank you for bringing this to our attention. 

So, I'm waiting for a Minnesota restaurant to open a fine dining location in an ice fishing shack.

Love it! 

G’day Tom - we are still even squeamish about wait service. Can you suggest nice restaurants in DC that allow you to order, pick up then have a spacious outdoor place to enjoy the food? Too picky? Thanks much!

The restaurant that pops into my head as I prepare to sign off is the very good Bammy's: Caribbean food near an expanse of grass and park in the Navy Yard.

Tom, trying to get in just under the wire. I've noticed that most restaurants we've ordered takeout from these last three months have stopped providing plastic silverware, even when I check the box on various apps specifically requesting it. I've run out of my personal stores. I get this may be a cost saving measure, but we order takeout in part so we don't have to do dishes. Is this a new norm?

You mean you can't bear the thought of washing a fork and a knife and a spoon of your own?! #thinkoftheenvironment

What's the future hold? Do you foresee some of the restaurants that have been successful in a takeout format shifting that direction in the long-term? Either making that a more significant part of their presence, and scaling back in-person dining, or maybe becoming take-out only?

The future is takeout. It won't even be an option for restaurants. 

Heard back, the restaurant (Fiola Mare) kindly noted that while they couldn't guarantee us an outdoor seat, they wouldn't charge us if we cancelled in the event a table was available. To me this is very fair!

Crisis averted! And thanks for following up. I like happy endings. 

 

Folks, it's time to return to the salt mine. Let's do this again next week, same time. Thanks for the lively hour. 

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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