Ask Tom: Is it ever appropriate to ask diners to move tables?

Sep 30, 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! Have you - or any of your chatters - experienced DC's Skip the Line delivery concept? I live in NoVA, just outside the beltway. I'm not comfortable getting on the Metro, and i-66 is such a mess, it's actually dangerous and I'm not driving into the city until the construction is further along. I know that Skip the Line's radius includes my area and I'd love to get some delivery diversity...but reserving a spot, and then doing the order, etc. - just seems complex. I'd love to hear any experiences. Thank you!

I've used the system three times now. Initially, it seems like a bother, securing a spot on Skip the Line's site, then ordering from the restaurant, then filling out a form (basically who/what/where) for Skip the Line. But it actually works like a charm and the response team is amazing. I highly recommend the service. 

 

Happy Wednesday -- right? I'm trying to recover from last night's "debate."  A pot of coffee and leftovers from Tabla are fortifying me.  Let's get cracking. 

I know it's not a restaurant, but...SIGH! Was kind of hoping that comfort food places would probably do a little bit better in a pandemic, but I guess it's toll can be felt across the board and sparing no cuisines (even dessert)!

Sad news, right? The company's shops in Logan Circle, City Center, Wharf, Dupont Circle, and Bethesda are all poised to go dark in October. 

Tom – Because of the pandemic we had to cancel our wedding. Faced with the continued uncertain times, we’ve decided on a small ceremony on 1/1/21. Afterwards, we’d like to celebrate with a nice dinner in NoVA or DC, but not seeing that many are accepting reservations. Not sure if that is because of the pandemic or the date. Any insights or recommendations? One of us doesn't eat seafood - but pretty open otherwise.

It might be too early, especially in light of the pandemic. But one restaurant you should put at the top of your list is the French-themed Marcel's in the West End, which opens tomorrow for dinner service inside. "Nice" is an understatement.  Another option is Fiola off Pennsylvania Ave. NW for top-notch Italian. 

This will sound like a "fool me once" situation, but I got takeout from two different restaurants (lobster roll and fried oyster po'boy) in the last month, and the sandwiches were so over-sauced that they were soggy messes by the time I got them home. Next time I will remember to ask for sauces/condiments on the side, but I also think it would behoove chefs to remember that takeout means the diner will not be eating the food for multiple minutes, and to assemble the dish accordingly.

A number of chefs have told me they take their own takeout home to test how well it travels. Such a smart thing to do. Not all dishes travel well. 

Hi Tom! My husband and I experienced a situation recently I'd like your take on. We recently dined outside at a fairly well-known restaurant. The experience was lovely, except for one thing - we ordered two glasses of sparkling wine and the pours were TINY. I'm talking maybe 4oz, but probably closer to 3.5. The waiter poured the wine, and pulled the bottle back as the fizz decreased, and honestly, I thought he was going to pour more but he didn't. My husband and I were pretty shocked, but didn't say anything - I know these places are struggling. I guess the question is - would you have said something, and how would you have phrased it? I honestly can't think of what to say without sounding like a total jerk - and again, totally get that these places are trying to survive so I'm trying to be lenient in letting things go more often. I'd love to hear your perspective! Thanks!

Generally, a wine pour is five or six ounces, an amount that can appear small in large stemware. Next time this happens, you can ask ,nicely, "I'm just curious, what's the typical pour here?" 

Hi Tom - We're planning to order in a celebratory dinner tonight and open a special bottle of wine. Do you know of any restaurants with a solid takeout steak option? I'm worried it may not travel well, but it's what we want! For other COVID date nights, my spouse and I have enjoyed Masseria, Rooster and Owl and Red Hen.

I think St. Anselm does a good job with grilled beef, as well as fish (monster prawns) and sides (smashed potatoes with ranch dressing). Go for the $30 butcher's steak with garlic butter and be sure to fit in some biscuits. 

Hi tom! What are your thoughts on patrons brining blankets to eat outdoors as the temperatures start to drop? We have outdoor reservations at a Michelin-starred spot this weekend, and I feel a little tacky bringing a fuzzy blanket to fancy dinner... but these are strange and unusual times right?!

Indeed they are! I say, bring your blanket. Among other things, it will save the restaurant the cleaning cost. And you'll have the security of knowing no one but you have touched it. 

As the season begins to change, evening temperatures are beginning to drop...but outdoor dining is still my -- and I assume others' - preferred restaurant experience in these Covid19-laden times. Can you share some of the restaurants whose outdoor seating areas are heated? And it would certainly be helpful to have that information available on a restaurant's website. Thank you. Stay safe. Stay healthy. Stay warm!

Thanks for the well wishes. This topic came up last week and I heard from several restaurants that are offering what you want. They include Espita in Shaw and Salt Line in Navy Yard. (The latter has a heater or fire pit for each of its 38 outdoor tables!)

 

I'm happy to grow the list as I hear of, or from, other sources. 

Hi Tom, I wanted to give a shout out to some of my favorite pandemic take out spots in town. These have all consistently been delicious over the last several months, and with great service: Convivial; Rooster & Owl; Rose's Luxury and sister restaurant Little Pearl; and Tail Up Goat and sister restaurant Reveler's Hour. All-Purpose and Timber have been great for pizza, as always, plus the former's sister restaurant, Red Hen. I'm also very much looking forward to frequenting Stable as we enter the fall/winter months - goulash is on the menu this week and this little restaurant has long been a favorite of mine. DCanter has been fabulous for wine pick up (they also deliver). (ps. Rasika! I love this place but they never set up a user-friendly online ordering system....so I've only ordered from them once b/c they don't have the ease of online ordering/scheduling pick up times that other spots have adopted). Anyway - just a shout out to the restaurants that have given me something to look forward to throughout the pandemic. Thank you to the wonderful D.C. restaurant community; I hope everyone is here on the other side of this, and I'm trying to do my small part to support these favorites of mine.

Thanks for the feedback. I concur with most of your conclusions and I, too, look forward to dinner from Stable as the weather turns colder. Starting tomorrow, the Swiss restaurant is featuring fondue and hot cocktails, heat lamps and blankets, on an outdoor patio, Thursday through Saturday nights until Oct. 22 at least.  Reservations for a perch, at 1354 H St. NE, can be made through Resy.

 

From another reader, more raves:

 

Great take out

Hi Tom! Thank you for these chats, they are my favorite part of Wednesday! Thank you for the tip on Baan Siam - my partner and I ended up getting take out from there twice in one week, it was so great! I wanted to shout out a few other local restaurants that have been really consistently great for take out during this crazy time: Bite of Asia in Bethesda, Maki Bar in Bethesda, Bangkok Gardens (also Bethesda), Oki Bowl, Heritage India by the Cathedral, Unconventional Diner (loved their family style meals!). We've found DogHaus to be reliable when we just want a tasty burger, and &Pizza has been consistently tasty. I'm really thankful for these businesses following good Covid practices and still making good food, so thought I should shout them out!

Hi Tom! Do you have any suggestions for an upscale lunch location for six people in DC on a Saturday? There are a lot of vegetarians in the group and we're only comfortable dining outdoors.

"Upscale," "lunch" and "Saturday" are hard to find together, especially during the pandemic. Your best bet is probably Zaytinya, the Middle Eastern/Mediterranean restaurant with a spacious patio in Penn Quarter. The menu has been scaled back since March, so I'd call in advance to ask about a vegetable-focused array of small plates. 

This is a pre-covid situation but I'm still wondering what your (or chatters) thoughts are. I was at a restaurant (yes I'd made a reservation) and was enjoying my first course. The hostess came up to me, with a couple behind her, and very politely asked if I'd mind moving tables. I just as politely said that yes I would mind as I was already settled and eating my meal. No mention was made of the reason for the request, such as the couple having sentimental reasons for wanting that particular table and nothing more was said. Was I right in declining to move? In case people are wondering, there was also no incentive (such as a free drink) offered if I'd move.

Am I getting the whole story here? I can't imagine a host, with diners in tow, approaching a table and asking its occupants to relocate without any explanation. And frankly, I find it hard to believe this situation continues to bother you given all that's transpired since March. But I digress. 

You forgot so soon after a nice plug for BlackSalt? They will shuck oysters to go, put on ice, and place in your car contact free. Cheers.

The chatter is referencing a post from last week, during which someone asked where to get shucked oysters to go. (Unlike cooked oysters, raw ones are not easy to find.)  But yes, I should have remembered to include BlackSalt in the Palisades. 

 

As I mentioned last week, the Salt Line in the Navy Yard offers *unshucked* oysters for carryout, but also a video on its website explaining how to free bivalve from shell. 

Hi Tom, love your chat and reviews! My question: for restaurants that didn't offer carryout until COVID, will they continue to do so post COVID?

Every chef I've spoken with, here and elsewhere, plans to continue takeout in the future. 

Hi Tom, I'm hoping you or a lovely chatter will have a recommendation for a bakery in the District or Maryland that can make a small (6" range) decorated wedding cake and a chocolate groom's cake. (Sympathy gift for some friends whose wedding was canceled due to COVID.) Half of the couple is very allergic to dairy, so I thought vegan would be the safest option, but non-vegan dairy-free suggestions would also be very welcome! Thanks!

Take your request to Sticky Fingers in the District. The vegan cakes, which start at $60 for a 6-incher,  look beautiful.

 

From a reader: Try Rise Bakery in Adams Morgan. It's 100% gluten-free & has vegan options. They do custom cakes, too.

Outback and Texas Roadhouse do takeout for steak the bestbetter than St Anselm Or why not get a couple realy good steaks, a cast iron pan and do it yourself.

Are you saying the chains are better based on actual personal experience with St. Anselm? Also, people asking for restaurant advice do not want to be told they should cook at home. They're asking me for a reason. 

In making a reservation with Tail Up Goat today, they tell me they should have outdoor heaters up and running by this weekend!

Yay!

Dear Tom, I returned to DC last week after spending four months in rural Michigan where the closest thing I got to a restaurant was reading your column and chats. Over the past few days my proximity has improved slightly as I’ve walked several neighborhoods admiring the streeteries and how restaurants have created their outdoor spaces. My favorite is the artwork painted on the cement barriers on 18th Street in Adams Morgan. Not only are they attractive, they appear safer than some of the other temporary barriers. Eventually, when we have a vaccine and it is safe to eat wherever, I hope that neighborhoods and zoning boards realize that more outdoor seating contributes vibrancy and the loss of parking is outweighed by an improved experience. I wonder if the way to getting calmer streets is for Vision Zero folks to more explicitly team up with restaurants? Would several restaurants be willing to share a loading area if that meant more outdoor dining space for them set along narrower, calmer roads, and more space for pedestrians? Thanks for these chats and creating community.

Thanks for your feedback and suggestion! And welcome home.

Hi Tom. Planning to go to Baltimore to check out SACRÉ SUCRÉ for their amazing looking pastries. Any lunch spots that you can recommend. In D.C. I would go to either Cranes, Yellow cafe, shilling canning, Piccolina or Rumi. I appreciate your help.

Try Petit Louis Bistro on Roland Ave. for French fare — foie gras terrine, duck confit, rainbow trout and quiche — or Johnny’s for seafood, including crab cakes, fried oysters and fish and chips. 

 

Hi Tom! You've given me some great birthday dinner suggestions but unfortunately with the pandemic, they won't be possible. We're doing a staycation to celebrate but I'd love to take some friends out to a fancy lunch / tea party. This might be specific so the only real requirements are that it's outside, has a decent champagne menu, and would allow us to get snack, drinks and tea (and not a full blown lunch). Do you have any DC suggestions?

I'm stumped. Chatters? 

Still delighted with Jaleo for the time they offered us another round of drinks if we would move to a different table. We had finished eating and were really just killing time till we left for an early evening engagement. The restaurant wasn’t full, but they needed to combine some tables for a big group. Sadly, we didn’t have time for another round.

What a nice gesture. Now you know why I have the Spanish restaurant in my hall of fame. 

I have a special occasion coming up. I am only interested in outdoor dining. not willing to risk indoors yet. I have always wanted to go to Fiola Mare and am willing to put down the cash to do it. But should I wait until we return to normal, whenever that is, or do you know if the experience will still be equivalently amazing as pre-pandemic?

I've never eaten *outside* the acclaimed Italian seafood restaurant, but I can certainly vouch for the cooking, based on past experiences indoors and a recent takeout dinner. The "colors of the garden" salad lived up the promise, the simply grilled branzino was lovely, and the side dishes (corn fired up with chiles, etc.) were interesting. 

I have to wonder whether this is another example of single diners not being treated as well as couples -- would a couple have been asked to move?

Fair point. I hope the original poster can get back to us before the hour is up. 

Is there really any "good reason" to be asked to change tables after being served? You might say that the restaurant now wants to reconfigure the seating chart to accomodate a large party. Sure, but how is that the seated patrons' problem? I don't like being difficult, but once you're seated, you are seated. If the restaurant feels compelled to move people, they should offer a free drink. When I would bartend I wouldn't mind if other patrons would ask someone or a couple to move down a stool if they are just drinking. But if bar patrons were eating it always seemed so rude for other customers to ask them to move down.

Stuff happens -- or at least it *used* to happen. Restaurants overbooked, diners camped out after passing their bill: I can think of reasons a host might ask someone to release a seat. 

I don't know how common this situation is, but last year I was asked to move tables mid-meal at La Piquette because a regular had shown up and I was apparently at their favorite table. They gave a free drink for the trouble, but it definitely makes you feel like a second class citizen.

I guess the regular waltzed in without a reservation, too? Sounds like that was the case. Ugh. (But nice of the French restaurant to sweeten the deal with a gratis drink.)

Say what you will about Utah's liquor laws, but when dining out in SLC and ordering wine, a 6 oz pour is a 6 oz pour (with lines on the wine glasses); while this precludes us from getting a generous pour, we're not getting stiffed, either.

True. I've noticed etchings, marking measurements, on more wine glasses of late. Anyone else? 

Today, and every chat really, people are commenting on weird service situations: small wine pour, being asked to change tables. DC has long suffered a shortage of front-of-house labor. The labor force has not kept up with the surge in restaurant openings. And unlike New York or LA, DC does not have an army of aspiring entertainers who are willing to wait tables until they get their big break. So restaurants are often forced to hire whoever they can find. This is especially true during the pandemic as many restaurant veterans don't want to return to work, so a lot of inexperienced people are now working in restaurants.

Interesting. And seemingly valid, based on a number of in-person restaurant visits in recent weeks. 

Being a regular might be a good reason to give one special attention, but it definitely does not entitle a regular to make another diner move.

No one likes to feel like a second-class customer. I once overheard a Big Deal chef tell a well-known supplier he couldn't spend much time with him at the table because an investor was in the house. 

I don't know, as a regular I would never want to put the restuarant/staff in a position to ask a seated, paying customer already being served to moved for me.

I LIKE YOU. 

I think being "asked" to move is weird in general. Just like asking someone if they "mind" moving, are you really asking me? Or are you making it sound like it's my choice so you don't sound as rude? The one time this happened to me at Kingbird, our lovely waiter said, "Unfortunately, we need your table to prepare for a private party starting at 9. I'm happy to take your drinks to a river view table on the roof." It didn't put us in the awkward situation of having to say "actually, we do mind" and then for him to say "actually, it's not an option."

Touche!

Hi Tom - thanks for answering my question RE: the small wine pour. FWIW, it was sparkling wine into a sparkling wine flute, not a large wine glass. It was barely half full, which is why I was suspecting it was more like 4oz max.

Thanks for following up. Four ounces is too few bubbles!

They might trying inquiring with the Mandarin Oriental and Georgetown Four Seasons hotels. In the before times, both had champagne afternoon teas, and it looks like the normal indoor spaces are adjacent to outdoor areas with seating. It's not clear from their websites if afternoon tea is still on offer, but it might be worth a try.

I just spoke with representatives of both hotels, neither of which offers its afternoon tea service in the new normal. 

I have found over the years that many lack the skills to just be good at thier job much less excel. They dont ahve the gift of gab and cant think on their feet. Disappointing but I guess the Playstation 5 doesnt teach that skill set.

Hey, now! That's a very broad brush there. 

Not a question - I just wanted to say that I recently had an amazing experience at Rooster & Owl. They were so careful but the service was still very charming and the food was incredibly. What really made the night was the birthday card (we were celebrating my boyfriend's birthday) that the entire staff signed. It was the sweetest gesture that made an already wonderful night even more special.

See? It's all in the details. Take a bow, Rooster & Owl. 

Oh please. The kids have been going to hell in a handbasket since Hesiod in 800 B.C.E. If you have a problem with the waitstaff, talk to a manager, and blame the right source: lack of training.

You sound like my history prof at Georgetown! Thanks for the LOL. 

This is going to be hard. I know it's something you want to go out and enjoy but perhaps your best bet is to make it? Perhaps that could even be part of the fun? The Post's food section did a whole article on hosting an afternoon tea. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/the-no-frills-very-british-way-to-host-an-afternoon-tea/2017/04/10/28402f62-13e6-11e7-9e4f-09aa75d3ec57_story.html

Thank you for thinking to reach into our delicious archives. 

I moved to Sacramento from DC years ago, but I still enjoy your chats and hearing about the DC dining scene. One of our nicer restaurants here does a wonderful takeout, and anything saucy or that requires special handling comes separately boxed with a little instruction sheet on how to assemble the dish. It doesn't require that much effort at home, and I really appreciate their attempt to try to replicate the in-person dining experience. They have a few multi-course options on the takeout menu, and they come with (very basic) heating/warming instructions to make sure that each course comes out on time and at the right temperature for home. I've been really impressed at their thoughtfulness in designing an at-home menu, and I wish more places would do it.

Hello, Sacramento! Yep, the best places here do just as yours do: try to bring the restaurant experience as close to diners as possible with their packaging and instructions. 

"Q: Millennials as servers and bartenders I have found over the years that many lack the skills to just be good at thier job much less excel. They dont ahve the gift of gab and cant think on their feet. Disappointing but I guess the Playstation 5 doesnt teach that skill set." Honestly, why would you even post this?

Variety. So you can see some of the questions and comments that come my way. Have you  noticed I post things that aren't always flattering to me, too? 

Firstly, LOVE the Kingbird solution - adroitly and elegantly handled by the the waiter. I think many of us (OK, just me) want to be Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, where the staff will usher us to be right in front of the band and bringing out a table and chairs - but that's not putting anyone out. While the privilege is inherent in that scenario (we're being made a big deal over) we're not making someone lose their seat either. Point being, don't be a jerk - and don't put your favorite restaurant in the position of having to move somebody because you are "a regular". 5 will get you 10 those people are friends of the owner and don't tip, BTW.

Interesting observation (and note to self: Watch "Goodfellas" again). 

 

That's a wrap for today, kids. Duty calls. Which means it's time for lunch takeout. Let's meet again next week, same time. Ciao for now. 

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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