Ask Tom: Even during a pandemic, I aim for anonymity

Sep 02, 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 - just a curious fan wondering how it all works. Do you visit restaurants incognito, and then later send over a photographer and/or conduct interviews over the phone? I was always scratching my head how you could get professional photos of your meals but still remain anonymous. Do you ever need a disguise? Do you have to keep an eye on friends/family's social media photos in case you're pictured? Do you only pay with cash? No need to answer all of these if you don't want to give away your secrets! Thanks!

The photos that accompany my reviews are done by professionals, including the talented Deb LindseyLaura Chase de Formigny and Scott Suchman. Typically, they take shots of the interiors, chefs and the dishes I've praised after I've made multiple review visits.

 

While I've worn disguises in the past, to do that effectively takes time -- time I'd rather spent reporting, writing and, well, eating around. The pandemic has helped in that I'm not in many dining rooms these days, relying more on takeout and delivery and wearing a mask when I pick up my orders -- which, you should know, are never in my name. 

 

Old photos of me can be found in restaurants around the area; to prevent new ones from circulating, I'm the friend and family member who typically steps out of camera range at gatherings where I don't know (and trust) everyone. 

 

MY LATEST COLUMN: I've eaten exceedingly well, high and low, since March. But the place that's called me back the most is the long-lived Hitching Post in Petworth. I love the story behind the place, which has been around for 53 years, and the solid southern (and Indian) cooking. The original owners, Al and Adrienne Carter, still live about the shop. Gotta love it. 

 

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: Hardly a week goes by that one of you doesn't ask about restaurants in control of their own food deliveries. Your plea has been answered, thanks to the labor of Barred in DC. Its long list is broken down by neighborhood and includes minimum orders and delivery ranges. 

 

Happy Wednesday, all. I can't believe it's already September. Try to submit any burning questions yet today, as I'll be off the next two Wednesdays, Sept. 9 and Sept. 16. I'm staying in town, but racing to finish a couple big projects. 

 

Ready? Set? Fire away.

Tom, we need your help! We finally have a free night and a babysitter for our picky-eater toddler. Where should we eat? We love food, all types. As long as the restaurant has outside seating, and we prefer DC or VA.

You must have missed my recent round-up of three great date spots in the area. I think the place likely to appeal to you most from among the group is the French-themed Chez Billy Sud in Georgetown, which features tucked-away patio seating. (I love the Thai food from Elephant Jumps in Falls Church, but the outdoor tables overlook a parking lot, and the Wine Kitchen is in Frederick. Md.)

 

Other worthy outdoor options include Annabelle in Dupont Circle, Bammy's on the Anacostia River and the sidewalk seating at Jaleo in Penn Quarter. 

Since the Kentucky Derby is coming up, please advise restaurants which offer Derby Pie. It used to be somewhat common, but I haven't seen it in a while, although lately I try not to temp myself by not even looking at dessert menus.

Post-chat update: a reader suggests Livin' the Pie Life in Arlington, where one can pre-order or buy early on Saturday. 

Hi Tom! My husband and I are not visiting restaurants in person, but ordered yesterday from Rose's At Home for our wedding anniversary. The meals came with simple instructions on how to store, reheat, and plate everything, and clear labeling of each component. The texture, taste, and temperature of the dishes reminded me of being in the actual restaurant --- which has not been true for the vast majority of takeout we have sampled over these last 6 months (other exceptions include awesome meals from Baan Thai, Thip Khao, and Pappe). Last night we had the first night of the early September menu, and each dish was fun, balanced, and well-executed -- including food that you wouldn't imagine reheating well, like salmon fillets. I'm looking forward to our second night of food -- each dish includes smoked ingredients, even dessert. (You have to buy 2 or 3 nights worth, which does make this a splurge.) I promise I'm not working for them -- it was just really good, and an improvement over takeout we had from Rose's early in the pandemic.

I agree. The package with two meals for two that showed up on my doorstep from Rose's at Home was beautiful and delicious. Opening the feast felt like Christmas in summer. 

Hi Tom, I am planning a romantic weekend away in Middleburg, VA. We'll be spending the afternoon at some of the vineyards in the area and would like to end the night with a dinner reservation. Do you have any recommendations? We don't have any dietary restrictions and price isn't an issue. Thanks!

One of the loveliest dinners of my summer unfolded on the terrace at Girasole in The Plains, Va., which is 14 miles or so from Middleburg. The fruit trees, water element, stone walls and train whistles (!) punctuating the Italian meal made for a relaxing few hours away from Washington. 

Our child has a birthday coming up on Sept. 8 and has requested Korean, Japanese, or Thai. We made our first foray out for patio dining at a local restaurant week ago Friday and had a good experience. I would love to again go somewhere that offers outdoor seating, preferably in DC or Old Town. I'd just like to celebrate somewhere with some decent outdoor ambiance; and also because we're not ready to dine indoors. Thanks in advance for any suggestions.

I've got the ideal place for you: the sidewalk patio at the fledgling Baan Siam in Mount Vernon Triangle. The Thai food is terrific (be sure to include the coconut green curry with chicken) and you're shaded from the sun by outsized umbrellas over the tables. Our lovely server even dropped off bug spray when we sat down. Nice touch. 

Due to a weird combination of circumstances, I'm spending an extended time in D.C. by myself. Though I'm higher risk, I am willing to eat out of doors. I worry, though, that with limited seating, a single occupant isn't very welcome. When alone I always tip at least one and half times the standard, but restaurant staff don't know that on arrival. The usual solution of eating at the bar is not available. Are there any restaurants known to be welcoming to solo diners even now? I tend toward upscale and am willing to eat early but not late.

I haven't dined solo outside, so I can't vouch for a particular restaurant. Right now, I think most places would more than welcome your business, especially if you like to dine on the early side. And good for you for tipping generously! 

 

I'd love to hear from restaurants on the topic. 

To piggyback on all those who have requested updated online menus, I'll add: please post a photo of your outdoor seating setup? I want to support restaurants right now and am comfortable with really thoughtfully designed outdoor dining-- thinking Chez Billy Sud, All Purpose at Navy Yard, or roofdecks and repurposed parking lots-- but not so much a table squashed onto the sidewalk with a steady stream of pedestrians within literal arms length (*cough* Barracks Row*). Will stick to takeout from those spots!

Hear! Hear! Photos of beautiful interiors are just big teases for a lot of us right now. Most diners want to see how a restaurant's al fresco seating look. Thanks for bringing this up here. 

I enjoy food of all kinds. Where should I eat?

Uh ... where are you posting from, what do you typically gravitate to, what's your price range and .... in or out? 

Tom, I’m a dedicated reader in San Diego & I just want to thank you for your weekly chats. Not only do I love daydreaming about enjoying all the places in your area, I really appreciate all the discussion of tipping, fair pricing, takeout amenities, outdoor dining amenities etc, all of which are food for thought for our beloved restaurants out here as well. You are a haven.

A haven, huh? I'll take it. Thank you kindly, San Diego. 

I am so exited to see that Little Serow is doing their set-dinner for takeout. LS is one of my all time faves and I love to be able to support them. What's your take on doing this set option vs. ordering a bunch of plates and pulling together our own? Would we be missing out on superstar dishes by doing the set dinner? Is there anything worth adding on to the set-dinner and going a little crazy?

Decisions! Decisions! That $110, seven-course Thai feast for two at Little Serow sounds wonderful. But it doesn't include two of my favorite dishes, the shrimp curry and the dry catfish salad. One option: get nine courses and you'll have lunch the next day.  Up to you, your budget and your appetite!

Hey Tom - Love your chats; many thanks! We finally ventured to our favorite local restaurant to dine outside - literally the first time eating at a place other than my home since March.  The set-up was perfectly safe, masks everywhere, plenty of room, and we even went off-hours so there were no other patrons on the patio until we were ready to leave.  Why won't I return?  FLIES!!  Holy cow, it was so disturbing.  I realized in hindsight that I haven't dined outside in the DMV in the heat of August maybe ever, as I am a worshiper of central AC.  I can't say the restaurant was to blame - there were none when we sat, but by the time the check came, there were probably 6 dive-bombing our food.  One of us had to continually wave cutlery above the table while the other took a bite.  The server noted, "Man, these flies are brutal, huh?"  I think standing fans would help, but they'd have to have one per table, the way the patio was set up.  And wow, the cost of that!  How are others handling THIS aspect of trying to support restaurants in person??

I've had fly issues eating takeout in my backyard, not so much dining outside restaurants. At home, I now spray before sitting at a picnic table. Curious what others suggest? Or if anyone sees this as a major problem? 

There used to be in the 70’s and 80’s a Hitching Post just outside of Naval Station San Diego which was not known for its food.

Two very different operations. The restaurant by that name in DC has always been appreciated for its cooking. Under the Carters, and now Barry Dindyal, the restaurant has pretty much operated without a hitch, you could say. 

Hi, Tom. You posted my message a few weeks ago thanking you for continuing the chats and bringing some normalcy back to our lives. I asked about re-heating french fries from take-out. You suggested a 350 oven. I know this isn't a cooking chat, but I found a great way. Heat 2 tablespoons of canola in a non-stick skillet until it starts to shimmer. Add the fries, and toss continuously with tongs until golden brown. In just a few minutes, they're crispy, hot and delicious! Just wanted to pass this along to others who are getting take-out fries.

Thank you (again). Since the potatoes already have some oil on them, from when they were first fried, you can also reheat them in a nonstick pan sans oil, right? I think the key is medium-high heat and continuous tossing. 

Hi Tom, In the pre-Covid days (sigh), if a friend said "Let's meet for lunch," we would have gone somewhere and been seated at a two-top, maybe 24 inches square. I don't want to be that close to any non-family member right now (or eat indoors). Are restaurants willing to seat parties of two at larger tables where they can be more distanced if requested? Thanks.

Yes, in the case of the freshly-minted Rumi's Kitchen, a handsome Persian restaurant and an import from Atlanta.  The place offers four-tops for two people. The only other bodies at the tables are mannequins. 

I am not sure if you caught the joke from "Vague Questions." That wasn't a serious question, just a mild rebuke to chatters who ask vague questions. I am surprised you even entertain those questions. As a server, it always boiled my blood when people (almost always male) would sit down, NOT look at the menu, and ask "What's good here?" Referring to: cocktails, appetizers, entrees, and desserts." READ. THE. MENU. It honestly takes less time to read the menu than to ask the server to rattle off a list of favorites from each and every category.

I got punked! Thanks for clarifying. CLEARLY I have not had enough coffee this morning. 

If a patron sits outside, and a fly lands on the food or drink, does the restaurant have any responsibility? I would think that would be the risk one takes for dining outside. Perhaps the protocol is different for indoors dining. Would it be gauche for a server to say, "if you would like to sit outside, you might encounter an insect," as a warning?

I would like to think that anyone sitting outside knows restaurants have little control over what transpires there. A diner more or less takes the risk of a fly, the heat, the cold, some moisture, a dog, a protest, a .... 

I recently relocated back to the east coast and now live in Philly. The Italian food here is legendary, of course, and I can't wait to dig in! I am wondering if you have any top choices for that and other cuisines in the City of Brotherly Love? And am I correct in thinking this area should have superior seafood too, or do I need to travel south to Baltimore for that? I love your chats and have kept reading them for years since I left the DC area, just to stay in touch and read about delicious (and occasionally, disastrous) meals. Thank you so very much for the service you provide us all!

Here's my mash note to Philly, written as part of my Best American Food Cities series from five years ago. (It came in No. 6.) I subsequently ate there again ahead of the 2016 Democratic convention. Obviously, you'll want to verify which of my picks at the time are still open. 

Hi Tom, As several people have written to ask about restaurants that offer delivery using their own staff, may I recommend two? Both Takoma Beverage Company and KinDa in Takoma Park do deliver using their own staff. Both are great neighborhood restaurants, and we’ve been impressed with the precautions they are taking. Cheers!

Thanks for growing the list. 

Sometimes we'll look at a menu, and my husband in particular can't make up his mind between two items, so he'll ask the server if they prefer one over the other. Sometimes we'll get an enthusiastic answer and other times pretty much a shrug that everything is good. Would a server worry that expressing an opinion get them into trouble?

Possibly. Or possibly he or she doesn't know a diner's tastes and doesn't want to make the wrong call. Among the things I miss when I order takeout is the interaction with a server, a situation nicely summed up by this reader post:

 

What's good here?

I wanted to comment on the post above about people asking what's good here, and yes I am a male. :) Most of the time I will look at the menu, but if I am trying a new restaurant, I may ask the server. Maybe I'm having trouble picking between two dishes. Also, it's a great way to get an even better tip if you can give me a good recommendation. Anyway, I would think a server would want to lead a diner in the right direction.

Hi Tom: Hoping you or one of your chatters can help. We’re just moving into paw paw season. It’s such a fabulous yet little known and under-rated fruit. Over the past couple of years, Mid-Atlantic chefs have done a great job incorporating them into their dishes. Any idea if any outdoor dining or take-out restaurants have them on their menus? Thanks!

I figured if any chef would serve the fruit, it would be Jeremiah Langhorne of the Dabney. The chef just texted a response: "We haven’t seen any yet, but this is the time, so they should walk through our door any day now. I can put up a post to let folks know when we have them." 

Thanks for the heads' up about Rumi's Kitchen! My wife and I ate at the one in Atlanta years ago, and it was excellent. Her dad was Iranian so we're always on the lookout for great Persian food in the area.

There are many fine dishes on the menu. A particular draw is the ghorma sabzi, a rich beef stew made with dried lime and kidney beans. 

You've mentioned in previous chats that some restaurants have scaled back on specialty offerings like vegetarian options during the pandemic. We've definitely noticed this and have been disappointed to see our options dwindle a bit. Two shout-outs - the vegetarian tasting menu at Muchas Gracias was amazing! Also love the take-out available from Fancy Radish, which we are so glad is here now. Any other suggestions for great vegetarian options that still exist during these strange times?

Treat yourself to the delightful VEGZ on 18th St. NW. The storefront features meatless Indian cooking, including dosas and a terrific dish of broccoli showered with grated coconut. 

I’ll be staying in a hotel on King Street in September. Coming from a state with less Covid than Virginia, I really only want to eat outdoors. Any dinner recommendations for covered and hopefully reservations-taking restaurants in Old Town? Thanks.

Based on past experiences at both, Oak Steak and Hummingbird (on the waterfront) get my vote in the Old Town area. 

During the pandemic I've been making a point of ordering carryout weekly from local restaurants. I've had a frustratingly high frequency of missing items in my orders, which I never discover until I'm back home again and have unwrapped everything. I generally don't want to drive back to pick it up since by the time I do my dinner will be cold (and I often don't want to spend another 30 or 45 minutes in the car). What's the best way to handle it? I mostly just let it go, but it's frustrating to go out of my way to support a business, give a generous tip, and then end up hungry!

If you consistently have this problem, take a moment to inspect the contents of your bag before you leave the restaurant. A lot of places are working with smaller crews these days. One sign of reassurance for me is seeing a printed list of dishes with check marks beside them, taped to my bag. It tells me someone is paying attention. 

 

Be sure to let a business know when mistakes have occurred. Your feedback is important, and could save future customers from similar disappointment. 

Hi Tom, I hope you and your family are staying safe. During the pandemic I've been trying to order out once or twice a week to support all my favorite places during this difficult time (also been loving the produce deliveries). I've tried two new restaurants from my own home so far (Shibuya Eatery and Makan) but was wondering what else has opened since March that I might have missed that you would recommend? Equally if there is anything that opened Feb/ March that deserved hype and hasn't got it because of the pandemic I'd be curious if you have recommendations there too. I haven't been tracking nearly as closely!

The number of restaurant openings since March has surprised me enough that I've considered restarting my First Bite column, devoted to newcomers. In July, I addressed the development in a round-up that included the aforementioned Baan Siam and Bammy's in Washington and Cafe Colline in Arlington. 

 

Other fresh faces to consider are Hank & Mitzi's Italian Kitchen in Alexandria; Santouka, a ramen purveyor from Japan in Tysons Corner; Jont, a tasting menu from the chef behind Bresca on 14th St. NW; and Mercy Me, a South American spot in the West End from the team behind Timber Pizza Co. and Call Your Mother. There are plenty of others, but those come to mind at the moment. 

I have been happy to see that there has been so much support for restaurants during the pandemic in terms of buying gift cards that essentially act as a cash flow bridge until business picks back up. However, I'm trying to figure out when would be a time to start using those gift cards that wouldn't be putting those restaurants back in a tough spot (or at least looking like an insensitive jerk). I have been sitting on a holiday gift card that I figured was not appropriate to use during the worst of things, but do you have a sense of where the local restaurant industry is at this point? Have you heard anything from restaurateurs about this?

I've addressed this in previous online discussions and I feel that if you can hold on go the gift certificate for awhile yet, do so, and if you're strapped, use it. To me, it depends on the financial well-being of the business in question. I'd be more inclined to use a gift certificate to say, a big chain establishment than an independent mom & pop. That's the short answer. 

Your review of Chop Shop Taco inspired me to get my takeout there Saturday evening. I had been a few times when it first opened and once early in the pandemic but it had fallen off my radar. Upon your recommendation, I got the shrimp cocktail - Ah-ma-zing!. Also ordered the soft shell taco and the rib-eye taco. Everything was unique and delicious and covered a few meals for me. Perfect social distancing ordering and pickup. Evidently, a lot of people had read your review from the number of bags on the pickup table! Met and chatted with Chef Tommy, who said he's cooked for you for years, including at the Inn at Little Washington. He seemed rightly pleased with the review. Adding that back to my lineup - thanks for reviewing an ALX star.

Thanks for the feedback. Alexandria is lucky to have a neighbor like Chop Shop Taco, where even beans and rice are elevated from the usual by a paste of cilantro stirred into the oiled grains.

I have worked in restaurants for about 10 years. I think that solo diners really exaggerate how much restaurant staff dislike their presence. I have never heard a fellow server complain about solo diners. I would suggest arriving to the restaurant early. And I would think that most restaurants would appreciate any business.

Thanks for weighing in. I'm happy to put an unfortunate myth to bed. 

Hi Tom, I love reading the weekly chat, even though I live in a small city in Central New York. In general, and in my experience, service at restaurants around here is nothing like you or your readers describe. I took my 91 year old mother to dinner for her birthday last year. I called ahead of time to ensure access for her and mentioned both her birthday and my food allergies. None of that, repeated to our waitress, was honored. I ate out last week with my daughter and the service was just meh. I didn't care for the entree, which was fine, but the server didn't check with us after giving us our food and didn't comment on the uneaten food. I guess I'm just saying that it's a different world here. And I wish that all restaurants would get on board your words of wisdom. Thanks for everything.

I'm sorry you're having trouble finding good hospitality in central New York. Service can be a challenge in places where there's not a considerable pool of talent, a discerning audience or a business setting the bar. 

Had two wonderful meals last week at Annabelle and Anju. Sat outside at Annabelle at a terrific table for two set off by itself. The food was amazing. I've not been a fan of Ruta's last two restaurants. His cooking at Annabelle is as good as it was at Palena. The gnocchi . . . yum. Anju is always a treat and the fried chicken is mouthwatering good.

You are making me hungry ...

While dining at Makan a couple weeks ago, a bird decided to, to put it delicately, go number two all into my drink. I simply asked for a new one, and would have been fine paying for it (now I always cover my drink to make sure nothing flies into it, it was definitely my fault!) but the restaurant was gracious enough to give me the replacement for free. Will definitely be going back!

I would HOPE the restaurant replaced your drink for free. 

Reminds me of the old joke: "Waiter, what's this fly doing in my soup?" "Looks like the backstroke."

That joke, as my late father would say, is a thigh-slapper.

A fair number of folks located in other cities read this Chat and your columns. I live in the DC area and have never thought of following food critics in other cities; I read the occasional article that has broad appeal, but nothing consistent. As a regular reader of your Chat and columns (thank you!), are there food critics in other cities that you recommend I follow regularly?

Oh, definitely! I know I'm going to leave an important byline out, but if you want to get the scoop on where to eat in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston or Philadelphia, check out the words of Rick Nelson, Bill Addison, Soleil Ho, Alison Cook and Craig LaBan, respectively. 

 

Time's up, folks. Thank you for the lively back and forth today. Remember: no chats on Sept. 9 or Sept. 16. But you can send your questions and comments for Sept. 23 shortly after I wrap up this discussion. (Questions submitted in advance tend to get answered.) Be safe and eat 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: