Ask Tom: Been to a hot spot? Restaurants can deny you entry

Oct 14, 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, First, thank you for the review of Jackie. With Chef Grant, we are now lucky to have so many great places to eat in the neighborhood, with Salt Line and All Purpose right next door. I was curious though, why you didn't mention that Dacha has been cited by the city several times during the pandemic, for not having socially distanced tables and for having patrons not wearing masks. That is something I would want to know before I decided where to dine.

I didn't mention the issues at the beer garden because I wasn't reviewing Dacha. While Jackie is a sibling restaurant, as far as I could tell based on multiple visits, its staff enforced safe practices. 

 

So. The fall dining guide, which I worried wouldn't appear this year, rolled out last week. Feel free to share your thoughts with me. The package involves an essay featuring creative approaches by Washington area chefs, a collection of 27 reviews and a sidebar on what I don't miss in the new normal. 

 

SIGNS OF THE TIMES: Prolific restaurateur Ashok Bajaj informs me he's closed Olivia in Penn Quarter, a neighborhood hit especially hard by the pandemic, and has put the Oval Room near the White House on hiatus. He expects to reopen the latter business sometime next spring, and possibly under a new name. If Bajaj resurrects Olivia, something he hopes to do, it will be in a different part of town and in fewer square feet, says the veteran restaurateur.

 

 

What's on your mind today? Talk to me. 

Over the weekend, my husband and I celebrated our anniversary at the Charleston in Baltimore (incredible - 110% recommend!!) We had to fill out a health questionnaire, which I'm assuming is for things like contact tracing. But it also asked if we had been to certain states in the past two weeks. Since we haven't been anywhere *sigh* I didn't think too much about it at the time, but I wonder, would people be denied entrance if they have been to a "hot spot"? It seems like that should be communicated in advance if that's the case. I'm all for restaurants doing whatever they deem appropriate, but I would have been heartbroken if we had to cancel dinner!

Thanks to your early submission, I was able to reach out to Charleston's chef-owner Cindy Wolf ahead of the chat. She texted the following reply:

 

"We reserve the right to refuse service to any guest for any reason - especially that we think may be endangering other guests or our team. Both high temp refusals and travel zone refusals have been exceptionally infrequent. We prioritize rebooking tables for guests that we are unable to serve."

 

I asked if anyone had been turned away. "Two since we reopened six months ago and (co-owner) Tony (Foreman) said they completely understood. We prefer to err in the side of caution.  Also, if any of our staff travel they must get a covid test and/or quarantine prior to returning to work. I had a covid test before returning to work recently after my Jackson Hole trip."

Just a suggestion to restaurant owners/managers: make sure the person who answers the phone and calls to confirm reservations can properly pronounce the French/Spanish/other name of your restaurant. There are so many native speakers and multilingual people in DC who will notice when they get it wrong, and it's like fingernails on a chalkboard to hear it mangled.

I can understand a customer mangling the pronunciation of a restaurant name -- but an employee? Hard to imagine. But I agree with you: it's all about the details. 

For last week's chatter, Chef Geoff''s is offering Thanksgiving dinner for 2 or 4, delivered or picked up from Chef Geoff's, Chef Geoff's West End, Lia's or Tortilla Coast. 

Since last week's list, a number of you have reached out with additional sources of smaller Thanksgiving packages.  They include Joe's Stone Crab downtown, which is offering a feast for four to be picked up Wednesday before the holiday. 

 

One of the more ambitious providers is Neighborhood Provisions, which is offering everything you could possible want on T-Day, from sweet potato biscuits and quarts of gravy to charcuterie boards and slice & bake cookies. Order before Oct. 22 and you get 10 percent off your purchase. 

Hi Tom! I’m one of many brides out there who has had to rethink our wedding because of the ongoing health crisis. We have changed our big wedding into an elopement ceremony, followed by dinner with immediate family. Can you recommend a restaurant with some private dining space near(ish) to Dupont Circle? This would be for 20 guests, some of them children, and in February, so outside is not an option. No budget!

As I mentally tour Dupont Circle, I see several possible sites for your clan, including the very good Annabelle, Boqueria and Iron Gate (whose heated patio I love in cold weather). 

Hi Tom, my fiancé and I are going to Salt Lake City in a few weeks for engagement photos on the Salt flats. I was wondering if you or any of the readers had suggestions for restaurants in the Salt Lake area.

Sorry, I haven't been to Utah in forever. Chatters? 

Tom - We have joined forces with a couple of good friends to support Pizzeria Orso (Falls Church) during the pandemic. The four of us try to eat there every week. Orso has done a great job with customer safety. They have an outside patio, and have removed so many tables inside that the critical distances are much greater than recommended. All staff are masked at all times. The menu hasn't changed much, but now all wine is $20 per bottle, $5 per glass. The Chianti and Sauvignon Blanc are our favorites, and you can take home whatever you haven't consumed. Seems to us that when you a Naples-certified wood oven pizza place in a neighborhood, it's in everyone's interest to help them survive and succeed.

Take a bow, Pizzeria Orso! And good for the restaurant to promote wine deals, with the promise leftovers can be taken home. 

My boyfriend's birthday is coming up and he LOVES chicken fried steak. Any suggestions on where I could get a good chicken fried steak in DC? Delivery would be preferred but could pick up if needed. Thanks!

Fried chicken is everywhere in town; fried chicken steak is more elusive. I found a source, however: Farmers & Distillers on Mass Ave. The entree goes for $19 and comes with green beans, mashed potatoes and (surprise!) a glazed donut. 

I plan to share your comment on zucchini with my wife. She thinks I'm crazy but I often start my rating of a restaurant with the veg of the day. If it's zucchini or squash, I have an immediate bad impression. There are so many great vegetables out there but nothing is as cheap and easy as zucchini for a restaurant to serve. Lame, lame, lame! Any veggie is a step up. Boil a carrot and slap some butter on it and that's five stars over zucchini! The only way zucchini is acceptable is if it is grilled and seasoned well. That's it! And no restaurant is going to make that kind of effort for such a lame veggie. Rant over - carry on!

Feel better now? 

 

During last week's discussion, someone asked me if there were things I didn't like to eat. I responded that I wasn't a big fan of zucchini and strong licorice flavors.

So, let’s not let good intentions bankrupt good restaurants. Getting a COVID test after traveling tells you the virus was not in your system that very moment, almost irrelevant to the present moment. Personally I got a COVID test this weekend, which, thankfully, came back negative. But that meant I didn’t have COVID last weekend. Please stop with the testing requirements and instead focus on smart social distancing when indoors with strangers.

Face masks and proper social distancing make me feel the most comfortable right now, for sure. 

Hard to excuse an employee mispronouncing a restaurant's name. I wonder if the chatter can name the restaurants in question. I also think that restaurants should choose names which are easy to pronounce and remember. Like it or lump it, if people have trouble pronouncing or remembering the name of your restaurant, they are less likely to go. I am thinking of Sfoglina, which has multiple locations in the area. San Francisco has an Italian restaurant which specializes in chicken called Il Pollaio. Their signage is also incredibly difficult to read, which doesn't help at all. I tried to recommend that place to people, but I had no idea what their name was. On the other hand Sfoglina has multiple locations, and Il Pollaio is fairly iconic, so a difficult name is not a death sentence.

I wasn't keen on the name of Sfoglina when the restaurant opened, but I've grown to like it. And once you say it a couple times, it's no challenge to remember. Plus, it reinforces the restaurant's theme. So win-win.

I've noticed restaurants claiming that seating is spaced six feet apart on roofs and patios, but once you arrive, you notice that 6' looks more like 4' or less. Examples: Ok-U in NoMa and Ambar in Capitol Hill. Is there a polite course of action to ask that this be addressed or should we just leave?

You are far from alone in wondering if some restaurants are placing tables too close together. 

 

It doesn't hurt to ask of a possible offender: "Do you have a yard stick or tape measure to verify the tables are properly spaced?  These look like they're less than six feet. Thank you so much."

Last month, Anafre said it was doing some renovating and would be closed that week. It still appeared to be closed the other day. We loved Little Havana and were sad, like you, when Chef Solis shut it down — but we were happy that he transitioned to another concept. Do you have any insight on whether Chef Solis will continue on in this spot (which for some reason struggles in ways that Mezcalero doesn't)?

I reached out to owner Alfredo Solis for a response:

 

"We are renovating and it is taking longer than expected. Anafre will go on, but a seafood concept has been challenging in this climate. So when we reopen, we’ll still have Anafre’s signature dishes but we’ll also serve pizza, Mexican style. Many guisados will be turned into fired pizzas. My thought is to offer something more family- and takeout- friendly. The restaurant will likely reopen end of this month or early November."

Hi Tom, thanks for your column. I've noticed several requests for Chinese food recommendations in Silver Spring. My family patronized Oriental East in downtown Silver Spring (phenomenal dim sum) for 30+ years until its closure when the owner retired. My current go-to for Chinese food is now Gourmet Inspirations, on University Boulevard West between Viers Mill and Grandview. It has great food -- including extending dim sum availabity until 8:30 pm -- and its staff and owner are accommodating, responsive, and as warm and friendly as the staff at Oriental East. It's our new Chinese food home.

Thanks for sharing your finds with the forum. I've heard good things about Gourmet Inspirations. All-day dim sum? Wheaton, here I come. 

My dad's birthday is coming up, and after spending a few years in Europe, he misses the wild game menus you can frequently find in restaurants in the fall in Germany or France. Do you have any suggestions for restaurants in the area that are offering game meats on their menus where we could pick up a takeout meal? (He's based in Silver Spring, but we will drive anywhere.) Thanks!

Are we talking goose, venison and such? I haven't seen much game on menus since March, likely because restaurant menus have been abbreviated and a lot of chefs are focusing on dishes with the broadest appeal.

 

Chatters? Any leads for a fellow food lover? 

What makes you think that? It's true that chain restaurants especially just slice and saute with other veg, but any French restaurant, especially, will do delicious zucchini. Don't you even read the menu to see how the zucchini is treated before writing it off?

Of course I do! But in general, zucchini is one of the last vegetables I'd order off a menu.

 

I make an exception at I'm Eddy Cano for my favorite appetizer there: zucchini sliced into strings, soaked in buttermilk, dredged in flour and fried to a crisp, with lemon for spritzing. #heaven

 

See? I can be open-minded. 

I was happy to see your fall dining list- something sort of normal is always welcome. And, it did just what it was supposed to do. Had a special event on Saturday, unsure of what to do. On reading your list, we ordered takeout from a restaurant that we had never tried, Convivial - and the food was fantastic! And plentiful (got another dinner and a lunch out of it). It actually cheered us up. So thanks for the Guide and thanks to Convivial.

Chef-owner Cedric Maupillier told me he designs his dishes with extras in mind. Clever, clever man.

Hi Tom, big birthday coming on the 25th (there's a 6 involved) and wondering what you'd recommend for an outdoor meal (not comfortable dining in yet). I like everything food-wise, someplace uncrowded and "special" would be great. Hoping for clear weather that weekend!

"Special" certainly describes the freshly minted Rumi's Kitchen, home to some great Persian cooking; Jaleo, the convivial Spanish restaurant from Jose Andres; Compass Rose, which has a single table out front; and Bammy's, for wonderful Caribbean fare and a sweeping park-and-water view. 

Also, it isn’t April, when it was thought surfaces were a huge COVID thing. Turns out they are largely not an issue. So, restaurants, please stop with the plastic wrapped utensils and disposable cups. Tom, you are spot-on that social distancing (that is, not getting up in a stranger’s face) should be the sole focus for COVID safety inside restaurants.

Single-use utensils are a big turn-off. One, food tastes better when eaten with silverware. Two, I hate to think of the waste, as regular readers of mine know well. 

Old Europe does a game menu over the winter - I forget exactly when. They would be worth a phone call.

Great minds think alike. I glanced at the menu before posting my response and didn't find any game on Old Europe's list. 

Hi, Tom. In Alexandria you have recently sent people to Oak Steakhouse (delicious and beautiful) and Hummingbird. Good choices. But right now the big thing in Old Town is the closure of the entire 100 block of King Street, so restaurants can expand outdoor seating, including with heat lamps. I am guessing this will be a trend over the winter. To that end, in Old Town, is there a restaurant or two on King Street itself (so, in the heart of the action) that you have heard good things about recently?

I honestly haven't eaten on King St. for several months. (I planned to recently, but the reader feedback regarding one newcomer was so mixed, I opted for another destination, off the main drag.) Perhaps a chatter can provide some helpful feedback. 

For me it's asparagus. I love the super thin baby asparagus. Yet those usual fat asparagus spears are just awful to me no matter how they're cooked!

It's a question of size for you, then.  In fat asparagus's defense, however, I've had some amazing big spears. 

Since COVID began, I haven't been able to visit my family in the UK...and I'm missing the fish & chips and my uncle's shepherd's pie. Any tips on the best place in the area to get a taste of home?

At Central Michel Richard across from the Trump Hotel not long ago, I saw fish & chips on the menu. I didn't order them, but the quality of the rest of my dinner suggested you will like what you find. 

Good morning, Tom - loved the dining guide (I really liked the eclectic mix of restaurant cuisines.) I wanted to give a shout-out to St. Anslem. We finally decided to dine in person and went there - it was the last place we were at before the pandemic began. They could not have made us feel more safe and secure on their side patio. Proper distancing, temperature checks, and the servers were spot on - at one point telling one table they needed to keep their masks on when ordering. And, this pork dish they had was to die for. It was a great way to eke into dining again.

Take a bow, St. Anselm. I hate that servers have to play safety patrol these days, but better they enforce the rules than not. Everyone wins in the end. 

Hi Tom, I'm planing a special at-home birthday dinner for my seafood-loving spouse. Have you tried ordering fish from Profish or another seafood delivery service? I don't think I can coordinate a trip to the seafood market at the Wharf and grocery stores don't consistently have what I need. Thanks!

I've talked to a lot of food friends who have used ProFish since the seafood wholesaler started selling to the masses. Everyone gives the company the thumbs up. 

We live in Frederick and thought this might be a good time to try a few restaurants in the District for take out. (Our kid is enjoying her new driver’s license so the trip down and back is actually a plus.) Given the likely hour or more to return home, though, we need to find out what travels best for an extended time. Any suggestions?

In my experience, with a few exceptions, Chinese, Ethiopian and Indian food stand the best chance of surviving a road trip. In and around the District, I suggest you try Baan Siam for excellent Thai; Unconventional Diner for delicious riffs on traditionional comfort foods; (meatloaf with sriracha!) Jaleo for Spanish (including wonderful paella) and Kinship near the convention center for fancier American cuisine, including roast chicken on crispy potatoes that you won't want to see go as fast as it does. 

I've met other folks who don't like zucchini and I'm always astounded. It's so versatile! And honestly, I can't remember the last time I saw zucchini on a restaurant menu. Take that back, I can't remember the last time I was in a restaurant. Cut the poor squash some slack. :(

OK, no more zucchini hate -- today. 

Hi Tom-- I'd like to try one of the high-end Indian restaurants I've never been to (for takeout) but am not sure which to start with. If you had to pick between Punjab Grill, Bombay Club, and Rasika, which would you choose? (And if the latter, which one?)

I haven't been to Punjab Grill since the pandemic, but I can vouch for the other restaurants. You know what's fun? A club thali from Bombay Club. The platter shows off little tastes of a lot of dishes (meat/seafood/vegetables) and is also prettily packaged, in what looks like a TV dinner tray, only fancier. 

It has been a couple of years, but Pago never disappointed on multiple visits. to Salt Lake City.

And just before we say goodbye! Thank you. 

For what it is worth, a party of 20 in a private room of a restaurant wouldn't be compliant right now in DC. And, god knows how long this is going to go on. LINK

Good point! I meant to add a qualifier there. My apologies. Maybe the wedding party could spread out, though? 

I know this is an old topic at this point, but I wanted to shout of Cielo Rojo in Takoma Park for their container game. Every item in every order has come in a container that is either compostable, recyclable, or re-usable. They've been knocking it out of the park since the pandemic started with the easiest online ordering and only truly contactless pick up I've seen so far.

My kind of restaurant: as concerned about the earth as it is about customers. 

Hello Mr. Sietsema. We own a couple of family run businesses in the metro area and we wanted to take a moment to thank all the diners and yourself for paving the way for our restaurants to make it through these tough times. These chats helped us stay in business. It gave us clear direction on what we need to do. I think all restaurant owners and staff should make a priority to tune in on Wednesday’s to grab all of the valuable knowledge that’s needed to sustain or thrive in the dc dining scene. Just after lunch and before the dinner shift on Wednesday’s we pull up the transcript and have our family meal and discuss the topics in your chat. Not only is it a roadmap to success but it’s so fun too. I think all restaurant owners and staff should tune in. We are so grateful to all the diners and yourself for making these chats possible. May this message find yourself and your readers in excellent health.

What a lovely note. Thanks for the well wishes. 

 

There is no "i" in team. I, too, am grateful for this weekly dining discussion. I feel like I always learn something from what people have to share in this forum. 

 

This feels like the right place to wrap up today's discussion. Thank you for a lively hour. Let's meet again next week, same time, same place. 

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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