Ask Tom: What it's like to eat inside restaurants now

Jul 01, 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.

Are you kidding? No way! There's no reason to expose all those servers to my germs, just because I want things to be "normal". Things are not normal and they won't be for a long time. I'll stick with getting takeout and tipping 20% on it for the foreseeable future. Win-win for all concerned.

You must have read my story today, about what it feels like to dine out -- inside a restaurant -- now that the District, Maryland and Virginia are in or past Phase 2 of reopening. I anticipate a lot of questions on the matter.

 

My latest dispatch on takeout featured vegetarian options. Cliff Notes version: I ate exceedingly well at Amber Spice in Laurel, Shouk in DC and Aracosia in McLean. 

 

Happy Wednesday, everybody. I'll be away next Wednesday, so no chat July 8.  Send me your pressing restaurant questions yet today if you can. Let's get started. 

Hi Tom, I wanted to give a shout-out to a new restaurant I ate at recently, B. Franklin's American Tavern in Woodbridge. They opened Memorial Day and I only noticed them because they've set up a huge tent in their parking lot for outdoor seating that caught my attention. It didn't feel like I was eating in a parking lot, which was a surprising bonus. They're on a limited menu for now but it's full of homestyle American classics. I had the mac and cheese, such a comforting dish in these crazy times. Hope you can get down here to give B. Franklin's a try or recommend it when people ask for suggestions in the Woodbridge area. (It's near the Costco gas station at Potomac Mills mall, for a reference point.)

Thanks for the tip. The American restaurant, whose menu runs to rib-stickers including pork sausage, chicken pot pie and pot roast, follows the lead of other establishments that have made dining rooms out of their parking lots, including Clarity in Vienna and Franklins in Hyattsville. 

How do we sign up?? Have always wanted to have an experience with you!

Ha! Thanks for raising your hand. Let me get back to you ... next year, if not sooner?

 

For now, I'm sticking to eating out with a handful of friends and family -- people I shelter with or know well, at least well enough to know their comings and goings and who they're spending time with. The fewer people the better, right? 

I am so excited Happy Gyro reopened! I didn't try it before it went on hiatus because I was overwhelmed by the menu - I have no idea what to order! I'm a vegetarian so I'm used to only having a few options to choose between, but I also have no concept of what a black walnut taco tastes like or a celery root reuben. Any recommendations? I prefer things that aren't trying to taste like meat, think a black bean burger over an impossible burger any day. What should I order? Thanks!!

I scored a reservation for the pop-up, created and showcased at Komi restaurant last year, and all I can say is "wow." Johnny Monis and team do wonderful things with vegetables.

 

 Ground black walnuts seasoned with housemade taco seasoning do a great imitation of spicy ground beef.  The menu has evolved since I dined there; I'd probably spring for  the hortopita stuffed with spring greens, the celery root reuben and the strawberry-buttermilk ice cream right now. 

Hi Tom! (Sorry if you're getting this twice - the page reloaded as I was trying to submit.) What do you recommend for some fun July 4 takeout? We live in an apartment so we can't grill, and we're not yet comfortable eating even outside at a restaurant, but would still like to celebrate and support our local restaurants. Anywhere in NoVa or DC works. Thanks!

Feel like a splurge? I see Komi in Dupont Circle is offering Fourth of July meals (scroll way down) for two for carryout, one a Greek-themed, seven-course seafood dinner, the other smoked beef rib. They are $230 and $100, respectively, and can be picked up between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. Saturday. 

After reading all of your commentary about not leaving a negative online review, I am wondering what to do when you really do need to warn people about a restaurant. I live in a Twin Cities suburb of your native Minnesota. I used to regularly patronize a local Vietnamese restaurant, so once I started doing takeout again, I placed an online order there. The website didn't allow for online payment, so I assumed they would be extra-careful with customers who had to come inside. When I arrived, they had a plexiglass window between cashier and customer, but no one was wearing a mask or gloves. While paying, I even saw a chef lick his fingers to open a takeout bag and place a container inside. How do I warn folks about the lack of attention to safe practices when we can't post a negative online review?

The staff weren't wearing masks even? Ugh. Facial protection is first line of defense.

 

Restaurants appreciate hearing directly from customers, and at the time mistakes occur. Did you ask to speak with a manager? 

 

When I suggested negative reviews were a poor idea during a pandemic, I was thinking more about takeout orders than safety protocols, not all of which are visible to customers. But rules sometimes need to be broken, and the picture you paint sounds like a scenario that might require an online caution. 

While we are all anxious to get back to indoor dining and certainly restaurants will do everything they can to create a safe environment for staff and guests, the reality is that the virus is still here. And it is gaining momentum again. As a result, NY now looks like it will delay reopening indoor dining and other jurisdictions are now imposing new restructions. The number of complaints about protocol violations in areas that have reopened -even for outdoor seating - is pretty significant. Do you think the DC area could be moving too quickly. Aren’t we all better iff to take it slow and get it right?

Slow - cautious -- is definitely better than reopening everything only to have to close again because of a spike in coronavirus. I've been in fewer than 10 dining rooms in recent weeks. None have been particularly busy. All but one made me feel safe to be inside again. The exception was a mom and pop in the suburbs where the owner (I assume) was working without a mask, at least until I brought up the subject. 

One of your favorite Seattle restaurants is now doing drive-in dining and movies in its parking lot! Canlis... Previously, only the valets could go to the parking lot, so that's a change for customers to finally get to see the parking lot.

Dinner and a movie! Gotta love it. In the old days, part of the fun of dining at Canlis was exiting the restaurant to find your car RIGHT OUT FRONT, ready and waiting, as if you were a VIP. This happened to everybody, not just regulars. 

Read your article on returning to restaurants and felt like this part really sums it up: "It’s the second day after the restaurant reopened for in-house dining, and owner Mehari Kebede seems thrilled whenever anyone comes through the door, even if it’s only a food courier. “Only three people yesterday, the whole day,” he says. “People aren’t free, yet, of fear.” " This isn't going to work. Restaurants need to continue heavily focusing on their takeout because that is gonna be the bulk of the business they see for a long time. Working together on building their own delivery options that don't bleed them to death is a great idea that is already underway. And we all need to pressure the government to actually support these small businesses more long term, otherwise we will lose them. Because reopening (either inside or outside) is not going to save them.

Every chef I've talked to since March says takeout is with us for the long-term, if not forever, and I love hearing that more places are retaining or rehiring staff to make deliveries. Most recent example: the very good Baan Siam in Mount Vernon Square, which I'm writing about for my next Dining column (online Friday, in print July 19). 

Can you recommend a Chinese restaurant open for carryout or dine-in, ideally in Takoma Park/Silver Spring, or else Cleveland Park? It's our China anniversary (20 years)!

Friends of mine in Takoma Park go to Mandarin on Georgia Ave. in Silver Spring when their kids crave pork dumplings, crispy beef and sesame noodles. "Decent" is how the Mrs. sums it up. South of Cleveland Park, City Lights of China is satisfying enough. 

 

Maybe a chatter can weigh in with some better ideas? Truly good Chinese food is not all that easy to find. 

Thanks for continuing these chats, Tom. Like so many, I have been ordering take-out and reheating at home. I've been largely successful, with one exception. Have you ordered "to-go" meals that include french fries? If so, how do you re-heat them, as they are usually cold and limp by the time I get home. Any suggestions??

I sometimes pop fries in a 350-degree oven for several minutes. That helps some. At least it warms them up!

Tom, I’ve reluctantly concluded that we’re going backwards rather than forward with our response to the virus. A recent trip to Mosaic to pick up dinner from Alta Strada had me walking (masked) through crowds of mostly unmasked people (not just restaurant patrons). Yesterday, while picking up a mobile order from Five Guys (masked), two maskless fellows walked in to place an order. When the counter person told them that the sign on the door required patrons to wear masks to enter, one just shrugged and placed his order. The two unmasked guys then stood in front of the drink machines while waiting for their order to be completed. I don’t see us getting past this soon with these behaviors. Do you?

If only all the many "Karens" out there were more civic-minded.  

 

People can be so selfish. I don't get it. 

It is delicious, refreshing, but weird. Delicious, insofar as the food is prepared moments before eating it -- with no reheating, plastic cups and other takeout/delivery issues. Refreshing, as in it is great to -- in a safe manner, socially distanced -- transition somewhat toward normality (guys, we just can't live the rest of our lives in fear, especially when the DC region has so few covid hospitalizations now). It is refreshing to see restaurant staff back to work. It is refreshing to see businesses on a path toward the black again, after four months of economic disaster. Weird, though, as it does not look or feel normal. And perhaps it shouldn't yet. We should stay a few feet away from breathing on someone else. At the end of the day, though, I am happy to be dining out again. And restaurant staff are definitely happy to be getting a paycheck again. Nothing is perfect in this world -- but we do need to get back to work and get back to normal. We are not living in Midtown Manhattan in April. Our region has very little risk right now of coronavirus hospitalization/fatality if people give a little space between strangers. Eat. Drink. Be merry. But use common sense.

Lots of commence sense (and some welcome optimism) in your post. Thanks for chiming in. 

Hi Tom - do you know of any restaurants that are doing 4th I’d July picnic baskets - preferably food that doesn’t need to be reheated? Thanks!

Check out the picnic basket from Neighborhood Provisions, the meal, pantry and booze provider created by the Neighborhood Restaurant Group: $85 buys you a charcuterie board, cheese selection, a pint of strawberries and a loaf of challah. Wine pairings are optional. 

Tom -- It seems that the smaller restaurants will have a much more difficult time reopening with social distancing. Do you think it's better to eat inside in larger restaurants and continue to support the smaller establishments with take out? I'm worried that with people wanting to dine out just to escape the house that they may end up supporting Cheesecake Factory or other large chains rather than the smaller, independent places.

Support your favorite restaurants however you feel most comfortable doing. But, just do something.  Takeout is helpful. Gift certificates are good. And over-tip as much as you can afford. Restaurants, as a lot of us feel, are so much more than places to refuel. 

As the mom of 3 under 5, I loved that during the pandemic so many restaurants offered takeout family meals. My kids are adventurous eaters, but don't have the patience to eat at fancy restaurants. They have been exposed to so much wonderful food now that takeout is more common and we all love it. As we reopen, I encourage restaurants to keep doing family meals. There is definitely a market for them!

Three kids under five years! No wonder mom embraces cocktails to go along with family meals. As I said earlier, takeout is here to stay. Fingers crossed, the selections will continue to include heaping helpings and drinks. 

Tom, Despite reopening, we'll still be getting take out for the foreseeable future. One thing I've noticed is that of the several dozen restaurants I've order from in the past few.montha, many have included plastic utensils and plastic straws. When possible, I've called restaurants to tell them I don't need them before I pick up my food, but it would be so much easier if they stopped including them or included a space online where I could note that I don't need them. Before the pandemic, I stopped doing take out altogether because of the environmental impact of the plastic containers, but didn't want to abandon our favorite places in their time of need. But there must be a way to reduce the environmental impact, even a little, by lessening the trash included in the bag.

When ordering online, I always decline the option of utensils and napkins. As you pointed out, it means less waste and it's better for the environment. 

 

P.S. I spotted my first plastic straw (in a long time) in a restaurant recently. I guess the pandemic trumps a healthy planet for the time being. 

in view of the scarcity of kosher dinning options in the Washington area, I was excited to read that the Shouk is a kosher establishment. Unfortunately that information is not correct While the menu seems to have only potentially kosher items, the store is open in the Jewish Sabbath and has no kosher supervision making it hard to be considered kosher.

I reached out to co-owner Ran Nussbacher for a reply this morning. Here's his reassuring email: 

 

"Your reader is incorrect in claiming that we have no supervision. We are certified Kosher under the supervision of DCKosher (https://www.dckosher.org/ [dckosher.org]), which is an Orthodox Kashrut organization. DCKosher has upwards of 20 organizations today under its supervision across the region and it is the fastest growing certification around. 
During the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, our business operates under the ownership of a non-Jew, which resolves the conflict alluded to by the reader."

Given the resurgence of the coronavirus in states and localities where indoor dining has resumed, do you think its responsible to go to restaurants and, particularly, bars?

I wouldn't go to an obvious hot zone. But if you enter a dining room with a mask on, wash your hands before and after you eat and stay six or so feet apart from strangers, I'd call that being responsible. (Bars are tricker.)

My son and I recently had an outside dinner at Et Voila! The precautions were extraordinary. There were screens between each table, the bread came in a bag, masks were worn by everyone and surfaces were routinely wiped down. Did I mention the food was just as extraordinary? My son had a dessert and paired it with the wine selection. Perfection, he said. Thank you, Et Voila!

I'm so happy to hear that about one of my favorite restaurants in the city. "Comfort" no longer applies just to the food on one's plate or a restaurant's design. True well-being extends to how safe a customer feels. 

Hi, this is a week late, but if anyone is looking for outdoor dining, we had a really excellent father's day brunch at All-purpose at the riverfront! The tables are really spread out, there are great views of the water, they have really minimized all contact, and most important the food was amazing- loved the whipped ricotta spread, the brunch pizza, and the frozen cocktails.

Good food, good views, safety first -- sounds like a plan! Thanks for the prompt. I'm a big fan of the brand. 

Hi Tom -- Just wanted to say that my husband and I dined inside Annabelle last Thursday evening and it was fabulous! We felt super-safe and were thrilled to be there. It all felt very natural, except that the noise level was pleasant. And of course, there were some patrons in shorts, but I understand why restaurants are not going to quibble over that just now. Many thanks to the team there for a wonderful evening!

Good to hear! And yes, shorts in "nice" restaurants are the least of our concerns right now. 

"P.S. I spotted my first plastic straw (in a long time) in a restaurant recently. I guess the pandemic trumps a healthy planet for the time being. " That is an understatement! Four months of takeout has produced about 10X the amount of trash our house usually bags. Most everything used for packaging a takeout or delivery is not recycled -- even if one thinks it is and puts it in the blue bin.

(Sad trombone.)

I think there's more common sense in waiting for some data. We don't really know data on opening up to inside dining - it's been just over a week in DC. Loudon County had I think 100 positive cases from some people who visited Myrtle Beach. I too am seeing people being more cavalier with masks. While I appreciate what restaurants are doing and their dire need, this because it's a mortality and morbidity public health issue. lets not immediately throw caution to the wind without data to back up inside dining.

I'm on your side (too).

I want to let your readers know what a great job Kafe Leopold is doing with outdoor dining. We went for brunch this weekend and the food was delicious and the service was excellent. The check in is easy where they take information for contact tracing and take your temperature. Silverware is individually wrapped. Paper menus are single use. They provide sanitizing wipes when you sit down and a sanitizing station near the restrooms. I would recommend To anyone who is ready to dine out but wants a restaurant that take precautions seriously.

Another good tip for anyone heading to Georgetown. 

Do you have other examples? I want to continue supporting restaurants through delivery, as I rarely am able to pickup takeout, and would rather the restaurant not have to pay a delivery service.

Mintwood Place is offering its own delivery, too. The restaurant, featuring a talented new chef, is in Adams Morgan. 

Hey Tom - I just don't feel comfortable eating inside or outside a restaurant or even getting takeout. The idea of an asymptomatic - or worse a sick one - handling my food or the packaging scares me (sorry for the "you can't live in fear crowd" - I am). I've bought a bunch of gift cards to my favorite local places but I won't be eating at a restaurant until there's a vaccine. And I feel badly about this...

You are not a bad person. You are smart for identifying your risk tolerance and thoughtful for having spent money on gift cards. I just hope you or the recipients get to use them sooner rather than later. 

To the poster urging folks to wait for more data, take a look at Virginia -- which has been about a month to six weeks ahead of DC in many respects. If Virginia's hospitalizations and fatalities have not gone up (they haven't) after weeks and weeks of indoor and outdoor dining, that is good enough for this Alexandria resident. Otherwise, we will be waiting for perfection before setting foot outside our homes. That is not reasonable.

Here are some other thoughts from today's audience:

It's not fear...

It's caution and respect for others. There is really no turning back the clock if this becomes fully blown out due to normal and callous exposures to others...

Dining Inside Now

Tom -- Not a question, just a comment: My plan is to dine inside DC's finest now and as frequently as possible before they return to pre-pandemic crowds, wait times, noise levels and regular annoyances! This is a lovely time to enjoy their offerings.

Eating indoors.

The one restaurant I ate indoors at was Rocco's in McLean. I went early (before 5PM) and was the only one there. Everyone who worked there wore a mask. A couple more tables in opposite corners were occupied by the time I left. The other places I've eaten in the past couple of weeks have been outdoors. I feel much more comfortable outdoors (in the shade, if there's a breeze). But if we can't get test/trace/isolate working well by October any restaurants north of Richmond are going to be doomed once October gets here.

What percentage of restaurants are using QR codes to create menus that customers don't have to touch as it pops up on their phones? Do, you as a customer, think this is effective in helping safety? Does it feel safer not to touch a menu or not to have to talk to the restaurant as much?

I've been to just two restaurants that have featured a QR code. Yes, the option feels safe.

 

Paper menus do not bother me. They're used once and tossed. Plastic lists, which have *always* felt like petri dishes to me, are more of a concern. 

 

And on that cheery note, I bid you all a safe and delicious long holiday weekend. Join me again July 15 for another hour of dining discussion. Be 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.
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