Ask Tom: Dining during the pandemic

Oct 21, 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.

Thanks for suggesting a blanket to extend outdoor dining. Three times I've gone out for a meal and been able to enjoy my time because I'd brought a blanket with me. The only person who looked at me strangely was a person I dined with but I think that was because he wasn't cold :D I've now got a tote bag with a blanket and a shawl stashed in my car so I'm prepared at anytime for dining al-fresco. BTW, talking to the manager at my neighborhood place, he said since the temps dropped and the sun started setting noticeably earlier that business is down significantly. So everyone, take your blankies! (Oh and if you are a property manager and you won't let a restaurant put up a temporary roof on their patio area to protect from rain/snow and the business fails you are part of the problem)

Great idea for diners: always have a blanket or other wrap  stashed in a tote bag, ready to accompany you to a meal away from home in brisk weather. That's going to be my game plan going forward, along with gloves and caps.  Think LAYERS, folks, LAYERS. 

 

IN THE NEWS: What might a Biden Administration look like, food-wise? That's the question my colleague Emily Heil and I tried to answer in our recent feature story based on Joe and Jill Biden's food and restaurant preferences

 

WHAT'S FOR DINNER, TOM? If you're looking to add some new restaurants to your rotation, consider the recently-reviewed Jackie in Southeast or Reveler's Hour, from the owners of Tail Up Goat, in Adams Morgan.

 

Happy Hump Day, everyone. On to your questions and comments!

Tom I was surprised you didn't include Albi in your Fall Dining Guide? It has been a hit every time we've been, both Pre-pandemic, as takeout only and even patio dining. Some of the best flavors of any new restaurant in town, we think. The cafe Yellow adjacent is just as great for coffee and wonderful baked goods. We're thrilled to be close by!

I like Albi very much. But if you didn't notice, my fall dining guide was a smaller version of itself, for a bunch of reasons.

 

For 2020, I aimed for a mix of cuisines, locations and price points -- per usual -- but added to my check list whether or not a restaurant's food was both consistent and travelled well. Those factors disqualified some very popular establishments. So did competition (if there was a restaurant with a similar theme doing a better job). 

Hi Tom, going this weekend to visit my daughter at college near Virginia Beach. Been scouring the posts, reviews, blogs for a restaurant for dinner. Seafood preferred, which should be easy at the beach, but really only seeing touristy restaurants, or severely the other way, farm to table. Really looking for a good meal, doesn't need to be an ocean side restaurant, but not strip mall either. No budget - don't mind paying for something good (also really appreciate good service). Thanks Tom, my Dean's list student would appreciate your help.

Can anyone rescue a college parent? I'm unfamiliar with the dining scene there. 

Hey Tom, long-time reader, first-time questioner. I'm spending Election Night at home and looking for more decadent takeout options than my husband and I usually go for. Several places we've considered are closed Tuesdays (Maydan, Compass Rose, The Dabney). I'm pregnant and would like places that have enough variety or permit substitutions. We are trying to keep it under $150 for the two of us, tax and tip included. We also have a car and aren't limited to delivery only but would prefer to stay in DC. Thanks!

I think I have just the right spot for you: Corduroy near the convention center. I recently dined outside, on chef Tom Power's new "patio" behind the restaurant, and was very pleased with the menu: elegant lumpia, house-made crab fettuccine and duck confit staged like cassoulet (with beans). Everything was delicious and I'm eager to go back for more. The food reminded me what a talent Power is. 

We went to one of our (now erstwhile) favorites for lunch. This is a place we choose to go to before scheduling other meals in a set time frame. This time, more than one issue came up. First, a long dark hair on my companion's burgers. Second, too much spice on my chicken. Both brought to server's attention. Neither issue resolved. Companion decided to remove the parts of the meal actually touched by the hair and not to ask for a completely new meal. I left 3/4 of my chicken after burning my mouth on the hot spices. I have ordered the same meal every time for the past 10 years. This is the first time the spice has been so hot as to be inedible. All the server did was say that the kitchen would taste it (in Covid times??) and returned to say it was just the blackening spice. No apologies. No asking how to make it right. So, I asked for the manager. All he did was to reiterate what the server said. No attempt to calm things. I got more and more angry to the result that I said we would not return there and an offer of a discount for a future visit would be of zero use. We paid for the meal. We are still angry. Hair on a meal served to a customer and new, very hot spices added to a long time menu item are not ways to endear a restaurant to its long term customer base, which is now much reduced by their non Covid required activities.

When both server and manager fail you, it's time to find a new favorite hangout. Trust me, there are plenty of businesses that would welcome your frequent patronage. (Where is this place, by the way? If I knew, I could possibly steer you in more satisfying directions.)

Hello! My Husband and I will celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary mid November. I would love to do either outside dining or in room hotel dining. We are both adventurous eaters. I know you don't control the weather but would love to hear your recommendations.

I wish I was good with a crystal ball. All I can do is tell you about a few favorite places with outdoor seating and wish you luck. My picks include the acclaimed Inn at Little Washington, which recently tented part of its garden; Centrolina, for excellent Italian in a handsome shopping alley; Flamant, for a tasting menu experience in Annapolis; and the patio at St. Anselm near Union Market for a pleasant steak house experience. 

Why do restaurants sometimes serve appetizers with an odd number of items (e.g. three arancini, five oysters) when most diners come in groups of 2 or 4? Please, adjust your appetizer portions to match to the table size. You can adjust the base size and adjust the price, throw in a free one when you see my 4-top order a dish with 3 oysters, at least warn me when I order an app that won't match to my table size (maybe I'll order a second order or an additional app), or upsell me to pay $2 for that extra oyster -- I'll probably do it. Easy money for you. This seems like a small piece of friction in the dining experience that is easy to fix, and an easy opportunity to sell more.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! A server should *know *to tell a group that appears to be sharing dishes how many pieces are on a plate, to avoid this annoying problem. Maybe a member of the party is opting out of a shared item; perhaps someone else wants an extra piece. Announcing the portion size in advance removes any guesswork by the server.

My teenager’s birthday is coming up and she is not happy about being unable to have a party at our house. Is there a place (preferably in Arlington or a short drive away) that has outdoor dining and would be fun for a small group of teens to have lunch or dinner? No particular dietary restrictions, but this is in a couple of weeks, so some kind of heating might be a plus if we make it a dinner.

How about Mexican fare on a rooftop? TTT Clarendon offers just that: queso fundido, a salsa tasting, enchiladas, tacos -- even churros s'mores.  Owner Ivan Iricanin says he's installing heaters after a sprinkler system is complete, FYI. 

On a chilly evening, what are some “nice” restaurants do you recommend? Thanks

Friends have been singing the praises of the stylish Masseria near Union Market, to which I owe a visit, and I can personally vouch for the always-reliable Centrolina in CityCenter and Clarity in Vienna, featured prominently in my dining guide essay as one of the area's more creative restaurants throughout the pandemic. 

What are your thoughts on specials at restaurants? I've heard some people say do not order specials, they are just meals with a bunch of stuff that the restaurant needs to get rid of soon and are marked up price wise. Others say at better restaurants that change their menu frequently, specials can actually be great dishes that take advantage of maybe a small shipment of some ingredients that are hyper-seasonal or are in short supply. Thoughts?

It all depends on the restaurant, of course, but I'm inclined to order specials because they frequently 1) highlight something special or seasonal and 2) let the chef or his team show off a little. Specials allow cooks the chance to break from the routine of the standing menu. Who doesn't like a change of pace? 

My husband has requested that we do something special for his birthday. Due to COVID child care issues, this means that the only time we can go out is between 9am-12pm on a Friday morning in late November. I'm high risk, so indoor dining is out, and it likely is too cold for outdoor dining. This means our best bet is likely takeout, ideally in Arlington. Do you have recommendations about where I can get a fancy breakfast to go? Budget isn't an issue.

Breakfast to go in Arlington, anyone? I'm stumped. 

Any scuttlebutt on why Rake's Progress actually closed? Yes, they didn't have outdoor space, but the interior space was massive and spread out, so social distancing should have been easy after dine-in reopened. It was a beautiful and trendy space that I have to imagine would have attracted diners. Were there other factors at play, like personalities, hotel logistics, Spike Gjerde focusing on other projects, etc?

"Unfortunately, there’s not much to say; I think the hotel made a fairly straightforward decision based on the cost of continuing our operations during the pandemic," Spike Gjerde texted me. "I can’t say I blame them. It certainly wasn’t based on ‘other projects’ or anything like that. My heart was in a Rake’s and pre-covid, I think we were primed to have our best year yet."

 

Straight from the horse's mouth.

My birthday falls on Election Day this year. We are looking for upscale takeout to celebrate while we watch coverage of this very important election. At first blush, it looks like a lot of restaurants are open Wednesday through Saturday these days. And Election Day is - of course - a Tuesday. Happy to pickup in DC or MD. We are adventurous pescatarians, and appreciate interesting vegetarian fare. Under the circumstances, a decadent dessert offering would be a plus! Our only pandemic takeout was from Rose's Luxury, which was phenomenal!

I know what you  mean about a lot of better places being closed early in the week. There are delicious exceptions: Convivial is open on Tuesdays, as are Anju for modern Korean, Baan Siam for Thai, the youthful Rumi's Kitchen for Persian and Happy Gyro, from the owners of the four-star Komi in Dupont Circle. 

Tom - coming back to town for a day this week from NY state. Understand many places that are usual dc breakfast spots are closed or not serving breakfast right now. Any recommendations for downtown? Used to love old ebbit or Hay Adams.

If you're looking for something traditional, there's Ted's Bulletin on 14th St., whose all-day breakfast starts at 7 a.m. and features lots of popular eye-openers: pancakes, chicken and biscuits, crab Benedict, even a breakfast burrito. Not far away, at the Line hotel, Cafe Spoken offers a Japanese-inflected morning menu that runs from a scallion pancake with egg and oatmeal-mushroom congee. In the West End, the Blue Duck Tavern is open from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. for buttermilk pancakes, short rib hash and house-made muesli. 

Dining suggestions for the Wharf in Dc

You don't specify a budget or cuisine preference, but some of my favorite places to eat there include Kaliwa for pan-Asian, Del Mar for upscale Spanish, including first-rate paella, and Mi Vida for Mexican-with-a-view from many tables. 

Hi Tom. Over the years I've chimed in to talk about well I've been treated as a single diner and that people shouldn't feel discouraged. I was disappointed to try to eat at a restaurant that relegated single diners to the bar, which did not feel particularly safe during COVID times. I am sympathetic to restaurants' need to be profitable, and I both spend freely and tip heavily, but there are enough restaurants that value their diners equally that I don't need to spend my money where the message is that I'm Tier 2.

You were actually steered to the bar of a restaurant? Almost all the bars I've seen have been closed or taped off or some such.

 

At any rate, a solo diner shouldn't feel like a second-class citizen. I'd take your business elsewhere, frankly, but not before letting a manager or owner know why you're headed to the competition. Too many choices, and they'd love your patronage. 

Do you know if Annabelle has heaters on the Patio?

The modern American restaurant has heaters, yes. Owner Ashok Bajaj tells me that next week, he's installing a heated tent as well. 

I'm with a group of seniorish women who meet regularly for walks and talks. We so miss our Sunday brunches and are looking for a place we can gather. Any suggestions on metro accessible, outdoor spots for a 10 am Sunday brunch fror 6-8 of us?

I've got the ideal spot for your group: Unconventional Diner, which opens for brunch at 9 a.m. on Sunday and offers something for everyone (blueberry pancakes, chicken and waffles, Lebanese fried rice) AND extensive al fresco seating. 

I just wanted to recommend Lena's Pizza (local family owned near the Braddock Road metro) for those looking for fun outdoor dining. They turned their parking deck into a really interesting Oasis (their word). Pizza is really good and the butternut squash ricotta gnocchi is amazing. Not associated they have just been really supportive of the local community so wanted to give a shout-out.

Happy to spread the shout-out.

My 60th birthday is coming up in December and I am not sure what to do. We had planned a trip but that is not likely to happen now. If there was no pandemic we would probably do something like Pineapple and Pearls (I can't quite justify the leap to Minibars +$800 dinner for two) but alas it is closed. I am also concerned that things will be worse not better by the time December rolls around. Can you recommend a couple of places within a few hours drive of DC that would be worth going to and reliably careful if restaurants are seating people and a couple of suggestions for birthday celebration takeout if dining out seems too risky. We would consider a night in a hotel/inn if restaurant eating was safe. Thanks for your advice

I adore Three Blacksmiths in Sperryville, which was offering social-distancing in its handsome dining room long before the pandemic and does a fab job with its safety protocols. I last ate there in August, and it was one of the few indoor experiences since March where I felt I could really relax because the hosts were doing such great jobs. 

I've been in the area a couple years now, though I was only going to be here a few months. Due to circumstances beyond my control, my dining out was limited but I read your chat and daydream every week. Now, I'm going back home and would like to experience one "Tom" experience. I am in the Annapolis area, but willing to travel, possibly, into DC. Are there any moderate-priced ($50/pp or less) restaurants you would recommend as a last taste of DC? I will still be reading every week (I am a digital subscriber ~ best gift I gave myself!), but want a really nice meal before I go. Thanks!

My fall dining guide is full of "Tom" experiences. I'm not sure where you're relocating, but consider a cuisine that might not be available in your next market. Bammy's is great for Caribbean, and there's a water view to boot. I adore the laidback Hitching Post for southern fare -- fried chicken, fried whiting, lemon cake -- and Jaleo, from the world-famous Jose Andres, is terrific for Spanish tapas. Thank you for being a subscriber and safe travels!

Our family has been a fan of simple seafood and pasta at Tautog's on 23rd Street if you're close to the Beach. They have an enclosed patio but we haven't been since Summer.

Reader to the rescue!

Probably a bit too early for this question, but do you know of any restaurants who are planning a scaled-down Thanksgiving take out menu? It's just going to be two of this year, but most menus I see are for 6-8 people or more. I have no objection to leftovers, but that's still a lot of food for two people. I can cook my own meal, but I'm sick of cooking and would like a break for that one day.

I see the aforementioned Unconventional Diner is offering Thanksgiving to go for as few as two diners for $60. The menu includes sides of chestnut veloute, mushroom-sage stuffing and cranberry relish and must be ordered by Nov. 23 -- plenty of time!

Hi Tom! We have been trying to eat out often to support our local restaurateurs but it's getting colder and we don't really want to eat inside. I know Iron Gate has heaters on its patio - are there other patios where we can eat well and not freeze???? Please help us out so we can keep eating out! PS -- SO happy to see the Fall guide and so happy to see the shout out to Flamant, which we love.

Thanks for the dining guide love. It was an especially interesting project to put together this year. 

 

You'll find heaters in a lot of places: Annabelle, Salt Line, Espita, Annabelle, Clarity, Centrolina ...

Hi Tom, I love love love your chats! In Virginia Beach we have had great meals every time we have gone to Watermans. Bonus points because they have a patio alongside the boardwalk. They are very popular with tourists, but since I am one when I am there, I don't mind...

Yet another promising reader recommendation for Virginia Beach. Thank you kindly. 

That seems to me to be way more trouble for the kitchen (and accountants). Just list the number of items in the dish in the menu description. I also take issue with two assumptions: “most diners are groups or 2 or 4” Not So! Single people are grinding their teeth over this one. Also, “everyone at the table should get an oyster” or whatever is silly, too. One person might want none, another all three, etc. diners are not so regimented a group as this poster seems to think.

If the serving size isn't listed on the menu, it's up to the waiter to spell it out if a diner doesn't ask. But you make a fair point.

The regional newspaper is the Daily Press. The parent might want to check their website out to see if they can track down some recommendations.

Thank you. Another reader is advocating for a place called Nick's. 

On Open Table, you couldn't even make a reservation for a table if you were a single diner. I made the mistake of reserving for 2, and when I changed it to one, it said no availability, bar only. This was mid-week. I canceled and went elsewhere.

Ugh. Good for you. (Catch that, Open Table?)

Hi Tom, My family and I had our first official restaurant dining experience in 7 months last week, and eating out at great restaurants was a weekly event for us pre-pandemic. I waited so long because of mostly anxiety and panic, but had a wonderful time and wonderful meal, because the food was excellent, the servers attentive and cautious, AND the outside terrace we ate on had LOTS of space between tables. The nearest couple to us was more than 20 feet from us. I know that may be hard to replicate, but any great DC or Northern VA spots with that kind of space and great food? We do plan on going to Clarity, but any others? (By the way, we ate at Eden in Rehoboth Beach... huge shout out to them for an amazing dinner!) Of course we were in DE which is on the quarantine list, so we will need to wait a few weeks to go to a DC restaurant I guess...

Scroll up to find some answers to your questions. 

 

As I'm reading your post, which echos others -- "I want LOTS of space and GOOD food and proper HEATERS and safe waiters and ..." I have to remind everyone to expect higher food prices. Someone has to pay for all that  real estate and equipment. Just saying!

Open Table defaults to 2+ on size. Not all restaurants realize that. Often you can get a table for a single by calling. And let them know about the issue with Open Table! Also, in DC, bar seating is not yet allowed. So that sounds like a mistake, or very poor programming.

Thanks for following up. Re: tables for 1 on Open Table. I've *sometimes* reserved as two, but then called ahead of my arrival to let the restaurant know I'd be dining solo. 

Hi Tom, I've only eaten at one restaurant since March (Nina May - well done!). Given the list of things readers have been sharing for what would make them comfortable, might I humbly suggest that restaurants not only list whether they have heaters etc., but actually provided photos of their updated spaces? It's one thing to say "our tables are spaced eight feet apart" and it's another to see what that actually looks like. I know it would make me more likely to make a reservation if I knew exactly what to expect in terms of set up. Thanks for all you do!

GREAT IDEA. Add it to your to do list, chefs and owners. Customers want to see seating possibilities as never before now.

Would highly recommend The Blue Door kitchen & inn for a romantic birthday getaway. They have heaters on their patio and dividers between each table indoor. Very safe and diligent about sanitizing and spacing. Excellent food and service.

I've had nice dinners at  the restaurant in Flint Hill, too. Its chef, Andrea Pace, used to own the much-missed Villa Mozart in Fairfax. 

 

That's a wrap for today, gang. Enjoy the remainder of the week and let's do this again next Wednesday, same time. 

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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