Ask Tom: A reader wants to know more about the little robots that ferry food around town. "Do they have names?"

Jul 22, 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.

Tom, I need more information about these robots that deliver your food from I'm Eddie Cano. I've seen them while driving on Conn Ave. They seem to be slow and confused, yet I'm intrigued. Where did they get them? How far do they go? Don't they get stolen? Do they have names, like pets? So many questions...

Massimo Papetti, co-owner of the charming I'm Eddie Canosent me the following about Starship Robots after I reached out to him following your advance (hint, hint) submission.  

 

The squat little robots, he writes, "were originally on college campuses and that market, like many, shut down in the pandemic and they pivoted.


"We first heard about them from a friend who was filming a news segment for the German TV station she produces. She was featuring the robots from Broad Branch Market (same robots).

 

We reached out and set up our account with them.
In fact, we are about to launch a ghost restaurant called Nantucket Clam Shack (this week) and will use the robots to deliver New England Style Summer fare (lobster rolls, chowder, etc). 


To answer the other questions: the robots only go 2-4 miles an hour. As they learn their route, they are more cautious. As they get more comfortable, they hit their warp speed of about 4 miles an hour. They are like turtles when they sense danger (often in the form of circling dogs or kids) and they do stop in their tracks and hunker down. No names that we're aware of yet, but they are programmed to talk. We've put in a request to have them part with a well accented "Grazie e arrivaderci!"

 

As for the aforementioned clam shack, Papetti writes, "we are doing a  soft opening Thursday, sending food to friends and supporters in the neighborhood." The official launch is Monday, July 27.  NCS is a ghost kitchen out of I’m Eddie Cano with no seating.  ("We don’t want to bastardize our I’m Eddie Cano experience, which we worked so hard to create," explains the restaurateur).” Delivery will be available through DoorDash and Starship, and orders can be placed for curbside pickup at the restaurant at 5014 Connecticut Avenue NW) through its POS portal link online. 

 

Good Wednesday morning, everyone. Is anyone else troubled by all the plastic takeout cartons you're tossing out? I want to hear from you: tom.sietsema@washpost.com. 

 

Let's rock and roll.

 

So Tom, now that the dining world we live in requires servers and restaurant goers to wear masks, are you going to include that information in your reviews? I'm seeing servers not wearing masks properly, and patrons not following the once you sit down you can take your mask off rule.

The restaurant workers I've seen in the past few weeks have all been pretty vigilant. I appreciated the reminder I received along with the menus at Bar Charley earlier this week. "Please wear your mask when you: interact with staff/are not seated," it read in part. "Please maintain social distance," it continued. 

 

If I saw something egregious, I might call out a restaurant or customer, but I don't see myself incorporating such safety information at the end of a review at the moment, partly because every visit is different and I'm not necessarily going to restaurants multiple times, as I did before March.

 

I don't necessarily want to become a cop. But I'm open to suggestions. This is new territory for everyone. 

Tom! Another happy Wednesday to you, and thanks for helping me remember what day of the week it is by holding your chat regularly on this day. On Monday, prompted by an email from the Great American Restaurants group, we tried takeout from “Taqueria Loca,” which appears to be a pop-up concept being offered at Fairfax Corner (at Ozzie’s), Tysons Corner (at Patsy’s/Randy’s), and Sterling (at Sweetwater). I believe these folks may have another winner on their hands — from 8-layer dip to wood-grilled fajitas still redolent of hickory smoke, to Ozzie Roll “churros,” everything was fantastic and reflected a hand familiar with Tex-Mex. Do you know if this is in the running as a permanent, new GAR when all of this is behind us?

Jon Norton, CEO of the family-owned Great American Restaurants, confirms that the company's goal is for the three locations to be permanent. 

 

"In Sterling, we are the landlord, and the previous restaurant turned in their keys back when the pandemic started," Norton texted me. "We have a very talented chef named Ascary Rivera that has always wanted to do a taco concept. We knew the building was going to be empty and decided it was an opportunity to test it out and create more jobs for our employees."  


The name? "It was crazy at the time, so we decided to call it Taqueria Loca," writes Norton. "It’s been so popular in Sterling that we have expanded it as ghost kitchens to Ozzies in Fairfax Corner and Best Buns in Vienna/Tysons." Norton says GAR is in conversations about opening a fourth fast-casual location, adding "We are hopeful it will be a popular concept for many years to come."

Hey, I wanted to give a shout out to Muchas Gracias for going above and beyond. We had a snafu where Door Dash brought the wrong dinner. It’s not even clear it was the restaurant’s fault. But Christian, the chef, texted with a gift certificate covering our next dinner. Totally unnecessary and very appreciated. We’ve ordered from MG a few times and they are the best delivery we’ve found in Bethesda during these strange times. Just wanted to spread the word, the customer service matches the amazing food. Highly recommended!

Take a bow, Muchas Gracias. Given that every restaurant I know is counting its pennies, and trying to save wherever possible, the gift of a gratis meal is awfully generous. 

First, I would just like to point out that I support what they do and am a big fan of their cooking and treatment of staff. I just find it outrageous they've decided to add 30% to all take out orders, come on, it's take out and your not being served, not getting the ambiance and experience and are just getting a bag full of plastic containers. You don't even get a choice? I live around the corner and that is just a bitter pill to swallow, a lot of us in a variety of fields have been hit hard by the pandemic from a professional and financial standpoint. Kudos to them for standing up and highlighting inequalities but that just seems extremely excessive. Would love to hear your thoughts on the matter and keep up the good work!

I'm actually supportive of the initiative, which I mentioned in my recent story on the big changes at Thamee. I asked co-owner Simone Jacobson to respond to your post, and here's what she has to say on the matter:

 

Hello, Tom (and diners):
We are grateful for the opportunity to shed some light on why we've implemented a "Flat30" surcharge to all guest checks, and we invite diners to read our full Flat30 Manifesto here [thamee.com]. The Flat30 surcharge was implemented on July 17, 2020 and allows us to ensure our employees have access to a livable wage [livingwage.mit.edu], quality healthcare, career-advancing opportunities, employee profit-sharing after one year, and greater flexibility to sustain our team's wellbeing amidst an incredibly uncertain future for our industry, our nation, and our society.
The truth is we have all been complicit in underpaying for the privilege of dining out. Having our meals prepared by others in a restaurant, bar, or other space already operating with razor thin margins [eater.com] relies on ever rising costs while sales for most restaurants in America are at 50% or less due to the public health crisis. As a society, we've accepted paying restaurant workers a minimum wage rather than a livable wage, as housing and other costs of living skyrocket [vox.com].
We have all made ourselves comfortable with the idea that restaurant and bar workers do not deserve equal access to the same type of quality healthcare and benefits our peers in other industries enjoy. As a result, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities have been negatively and disproportionately affected by this unsustainable economic model. For reference, take a look at this Business Insider article [businessinsider.com] that gives an idea of how much products would actually cost if they were made in the United States.
We said NO to tips and YES to equity and solidarity because we believe the hospitality industry and the people in service to us year-round deserve better. Many of our diners agree. For those who do not, we regret we can no longer serve you if we want to uphold our radical vision for a better future. At Thamee, Burmese food and hospitality are served with a side of inventive beverages thanks to a majority-BIPOC staff. Their quality of life is directly impacted by us calling on diners to consider a perception shift and investment in this vision. 
We believe the alternative is no longer acceptable, and we invite our beloved D.C. dining community to reimagine the future of dining out with us, so we don't continue to see more permanent restaurant closures coupled with the departure of our city's best hospitality professionals from the industry forever.
Ultimately, we are inspired by one important guiding principle: We got us. Our "pivot" has been documented at thamee.com/covidupdates [thamee.com] and has unfolded over more than four months of providing 4,000+ free meals to those in need, extended support for other BIPOC food start-ups and strategic partnerships with Black-led, Black serving organizations like Dreaming Out Loud. It has been a process of navigating uncharted territory without a playbook. 
We know and are grateful that the diners who crave Burmese food cooked by Chef Jocelyn Law-Yone and supported by a majority BIPOC staff will always find their way home to Thamee. Thank you for helping us bring integrity to our daily work. It is our honor and pleasure to be in service to and with you.
With gratitude,

Team Thamee (Chef Jocelyn, Simone, and Eric) 

Tom: I’ve been ordering from restaurants 1-2 times a week since March. I’m loving exploring old favorites and finding new places. I have a few modest suggestions for the restaurateurs which I'm hoping you’ll pass along. Ordering: please let me know if you prefer orders to be done over the phone or online. A quick note on your website will suffice. Don’t give me the impression that I can call in my order only to be told to do it online. And please keep your websites up to date (hours, menu, etc.). Want me to order online? Happy to do so. But please add a place where I can leave a message with my order. How else can I ask you to omit the potato salad that comes with my order? Or ask you to tone down the spiciness of a dish? Packaging: does that dish come with condiments that are packaged separately? Please label it accordingly–nothing elaborate maybe matching letters or color coded dots. I may not be familiar with your restaurant, the cuisine or the particular dish. I once got 4 different dishes and 4 different containers of sauce and no indication of how to pair them. I'm happy to experiment but it would have nice to know the chef’s concept of the dish. Pickup: I really appreciate/love the option to set a pickup time in advance (as opposed to your order will be ready in x minutes.) So thanks to all the restaurants that offer this. But please limit the number of pickups at a certain time to what your restaurant can reasonably handle. Don’t make me wait for 30 minutes past my pickup time because you had more orders than you could handle. This is especially true if there is no parking and I have to double park. Your kitchen doesn’t need the stress and neither do I. Thanks Tom for continuing to host these chats.

Thanks for the detailed and well-written post. Let's hope guilty parties see your gentle pleas and act on them.

 

My pet peeve of late is an order with a bunch of unmarked containers, especially containers accompanied by multiple unlabeled sauces, garnishes or condiments. 

 

Customers buy takeout in part for convenience; restaurants shouldn't keep diners guessing what pairs with what.

Lots of talk of restaurants “pivoting” as a result of COVID-19. But is anyone out there using this as an opportunity to try out bold new ideas, like a total change of cuisine (I’m thinking on the order of turning Little Serow into “Happy Gyro”), or a “you call the protein, the chef creates a dish around it,” or something that is really daring? I’m looking for some hope for the future amid the chaos of the present.

I count merely *surviving* right now as pretty impressive for the beleaguered industry. But among the trail-blazers on the dining landscape, I'd have to list Clarity in Vienna, which has turned its parking lot in a dining room and has expanded its fine-dining menu to embrace barbecue; the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which has combined the talents of its chefs and other staff  to offer not just restaurant favorites (Red Apron sandwiches, Buzz Bakeshop's pies, cookies and biscuits), but also prepared meals, pantry staples, cocktails and beer as well as select products (greeting cards, baby clothes, soaps) made in DC; and the aforementioned Thamee on H St. NE.  

 

Readers, what restaurant pivots have impressed you? 

I wanted to share a wonderful delivery experience. It required a bit of planning ahead and the menu is fixed, but the delivery that I received from Rose's Luxury had all the attention to details that I have come to expect from that restaurant. The minimum order was for 2 people for 2 meals, but everything came individually wrapped, so I was able to split the delivery with my best friend (who is quarantining separately but nearby). Each course was an explosion of flavors and the entree had more than enough for another meal. So great to have a real chef make me dinner again!

I've been hearing good things about the delivery from Rose's Luxury, called Rose's at HomeAnd leftovers are always a plus. 

Hi Tom - there doesn't appear to be a good way to search for and find date-quality delivery for a spouse's birthday. Do you have any suggestions? We live in Falls Church City.

One of my favorite places to eat in the Before Times was Thompson Italian. The food (fried artichokes, watermelon panzanella, ricotta ravioli, arctic char with summer succotash) is currently being delivered via GrubHub, Door Dash and Uber Eats. Be sure to fit in one of the pastry chef's great desserts. 

Tom, I’m a little late to this party, but I’m finally getting around to making the Kinship chocolate chip cookies. But I’ve realized the video they posted doesn’t include an over temp for baking. I tried contacting Kinship but no luck so far. Any chance you know this or can ask on a grateful public’s behalf?

Kinship's pastry chef, Anne Specker, recommends baking her triple chocolate chip cookies in a 350-degree oven (and rotating them for even baking). 

Where are the best places for outdoor drinks or dining (or other appropriate first date activities) in Arlington that avoid the crowds of clarendon?

The first come, first served situation outside Green Pig Bistro looked inviting when I dropped by the American restaurant for takeout earlier in the pandemic. 

No. You're getting great food, prepared by hard-working people who have traditionally been horribly underpaid and lacked basic benefits. 30% is a great step toward no-tip decent-wage food. If you've been that hard hit by the pandemic that you can't afford it, you can do without carryout. Yes, that's harsh, but so is the reality of these restaurants and their employees.

One thing that's certain to come out of the pandemic: higher restaurant prices. Americans have been spoiled with cheap food for a very long time. 

I used to LOVE Fish, Wings & Tings in Adams Morgan and was so sad it closed. Does Bammy's have a nonalcoholic drink on their menu, as they did at FWT, that's I think a ginger lemonade? That was so refreshing and delicious. Can't remember the name of it. Mindy Saslaw

I remember that refresher at much-missed Fish, Wings & Tings in Adams Morgan. I believe it was pineapple juice sharpened with fresh ginger. The youthful Bammy's has lots of delicious things on its list, but that Jamaican beverage from a long-gone restaurant isn't among them. 

Tom, be honest, what has been your go-to guilty pleasure during the pandemic? Mine is Domino's. Pretty sure I've eaten more Domino's in the last 4 months than I have in the last 10 years.

If I'm not reviewing takeout, delivery or an outdoor dining spot, the default dinner Chez Tom is Timber Pizza Company in Petworth, because my other half could pretty much eat a pie from there every day. As for junk food, I'm a chips guy. A bag of whatever never lasts long at my house.

So I've been getting take out about bi-weekly from my favorite local dive bar/grill during the pandemic. Love the owner, I tip 30%+, doing my part to help keep them open, yay. The past 3-4 times the food has...not been good. Burgers too red inside, not enough salad dressing, barely any fries. So a mix of quantity and quality issues. Do I keep ordering basically as charity? Mention to the owner (that usually takes the phone order and/or hands it off) I've been disappointed? It's sad because it's usually our one 'treat' and I know she's gotta be struggling. I've considered just buying a monthly gift card as support but wonder about the long term investment if they did go under :(

By all means, address your concerns with the owner. Trust me, good restaurateurs want your honest feedback. Far better for you to speak up and possibly turn the situation around for yourself and others, than for other customers to blast the business on social media. 

Our wedding anniversary is this Sunday and we're looking for suggestions for delivery or take out. We've been going to Le Diplomate for the past several years, but part of the experience is the buzz of the place so it won't be the same eating it at home. We're in upper NW so we need a location that won't be a pain to pick up and bring back to the house. We prefer delivery. Any recommendations? Thanks in advance!

My picks would include Sfoglina for Italian, Et Viola! for Belgian-French and BlackSalt for fish (including an awesome Thai coconut-seafood stew that you can read about online Friday, in my next Dining column, featuring seafood spots.

Thamee has it right. Restaurant dining has hidden the truth for years. Most restaurant employess - particularly kitchen staff - are woefully underpaid, lack job security, seldom of health or related benefits, and no retirement options. It should come as no surprise that many if not most of these workers are people of color. In keeping prices artificially low, restaurants not only perpetuate this...they themselves keep themselves in precarious financial situations, operating on profit margins unsustainable in almost any other industry. I know that diners - myself included - benefit from this in the short terms (but are always quick to lament the closing of another dining spot). But that doesn’t make it right. And while I don’t want ascribe mindset to the original poster, I will add that this is often compounded in the case of a restaurant like Thamee inasmuch as far too many diners seem to equate what used to be termed ‘ethnic’ food with cheap food. I’ve eaten at Thamee (though have no connection to it) and believe me meal thre is worth far more than an extra 30percent

Co-owner Simone Jacobson eloquently addressed the unfortunate  "cheap food" label in this essay for Eater. 

Hi Tom, With the dining world thrown upside down, I wanted to share a little about an experience my family and I had this past weekend. The 12 Ridges Winery on the Blue Ridge Parkway hosted a Wine Pairing Dinner with Chef David Dunlap. It was a wonderful meal with the dishes perfectly paired to the wines, all with beautiful 360 degree mountaintop vineyard views. We very much enjoyed our meal, and the chef was gracious enough to chat with us for a while after. Increasingly it seems like chefs/restaurant staff are having to go outside of the traditional restaurant setting in order to continue making a living. I wanted to give a shout-out to David and the 12 Ridges team, but also wanted to ask if you could begin to explore fine dining opportunities outside of the traditional restaurant. In a time when many diners have justifiable hesitations to returning to indoor dining, these events and pop-ups can serve as a great way to eat well and enjoy the company of friends/family in a new setting!

Happy to share news of a relative newcomer to the region (the winery opened in Vesuvius 2019) and what sounds like a beautiful escape from the city.  The name of (private chef) David Dunlap might ring a bell. Previously, the Washington state native worked at the Quirk Hotel in Richmond, the Ashby Inn in Paris, Va., and the esteemed Inn at Little Washington.

 

Not a week goes by that I don't hear from readers searching for somewhere festive to wine and dine. I endeavor to track down more adventures for them.

I'm so glad to hear the reader had a positive experience. I had a disappointing one shortly after they started doing delivery, and it seemed like they needed to work out some kinks for how to translate their delightful food to home preparation--now that they have, I'll be back!

The early days of takeout were a real challenge for most restaurants. I'd definitely give Rose's  -- well, just about every dining venue -- a second chance. 

I agree with a living wage for servers, but I can't figure out why restaurants insist on keeping the "price plus tip" format. Just charge more for each item. Insist on "no tips" rather than the coy "of course, if you want to thank your server for excellent service, you could (read "really should if you don't want to be considered a stingy SOB") put in a little extra." No tips should really be no tips. The "as much or more than you would normally tip" service charge, with the "your server will hate you if you don't put in even more" space on the bill, leaves even the most generous customer feeling resentful. If restaurants simply charged $39 for an entree rather than $30 plus 30%, we'd never know the difference.

You're onto something there. But you'd be surprised at how many people ask/try to leave extra money behind, even after leaving a generous tip. (Restaurants tell me this. And I see it when I'm out and about.)

Not affiliated with the restaurant, but I'm definitely posting in my own self-interest -- Officina is doing a pop-up in the Via Umbria space in Georgetown and I want them to get enough business to stick around! Butcher shop, salumi, cheese, pasta and sauces, desserts, plus a selection of dry goods and wine, everything delicious. I believe they also do ready-to-eat meals for dinner and a small handful of sandwiches at lunch, but I've only been there as a shopper. And like I said, I want them to stick around! They enforce a maximum number of shoppers and the place is small so I feel a lot more comfortable going there vs. the bigger grocery stores.

Smart idea, especially for those fans who might love the Italian bounty but not the trek to the wharf, which Officina calls home. 

I would be so happy to never have to tip again. Would be sorry not to be able to reward excellent service, but increase your prices, pay a fair wage, and I will support you!

Hear! Hear! says a fellow former server. 

Kudos to Thamee for an thoughtfully written response that also demonstrates they're standing firm. It makes me wonder though, are they partnering to create their own delivery system too? That seems the next logical step in trying to get fair pay for labor.

From Simone of Thamee: "Delivery is something we have had to carefully consider because it’s not just the crippling fees, which my colleagues like Ashish Alfred have publicly denounced as unsustainable for restaurants under current conditions, it also means we give up some control of the guest experience. We had an unfortunate scenario when we were delivering free meals where a driver used violent, racist speech. We immediately ceased delivery services and for two months thereafter did all the deliveries ourselves. I personally went on numerous occasions. So, I guess I’ll say maybe? We’re working on it. As a small team, we are managing what we can, little by little, and to be quite honest we just haven’t solved the delivery puzzle just yet."

And please answer the phone. So many places have made the remarkable turnabout to on line exclusively. We understand it is time consuming to answer the phone, but how about an email address that is managed?

Yes! I can't tell you how many times I've emailed a business and I never hear a peep back. I'm sympathetic -- most restaurants are working with skeleton crews these days -- but SOMEONE needs to be responsible for communications. 

Ambar had lots of outside and tented seating in Clarendon and on the Pike Rebellion and Celtic House are both great for first dates. Lots of outside seating with masked servers who are super friendly. Parking is easy.

Thank you kindly for growing the list.

What happened -- window shades down, nothing posted in the sidewalk glass display case? Open City (on ground floor) is open.

I just got off the phone with co-owner Umbi Singh, who says New Heights is closed for July and August because of the downturn in business. And then? "We're still formulating how to reopen," he says. "After 34 years" in business, "it's not easy." 

I'm all out. Off to the store for potato chips. And Doritos. And any other junk that looks good right now!

Fritos! Don't forget Fritos!

I get excellent service at Nordstroms, at my local dry cleaner, at my one remaining bookstore, and from my plumber...none of whom do I tip. I reward them by expressing my thanks to them personally, sending notes to their employers, posting positive reviews online, recommending them to others, and being a loyal customer. Why should waitstaff (but not kitchen staff) be any different?????

Because historically they've not been paid well to start? (And do you know how well plumbers are compensated?)

 

This subject is worth more time than we have -- it's past noon already -- but feel free to raise it again next week. 

With the pandemic I have seen serving sizes become more in line with a single serving. I am all for it.

Yes! With some notable exceptions, like Convivial in Shaw. I think I feasted for at least two more meals after my delivery. 

It's my partner's birthday next week and I'm looking for a nice place to take him for dinner. He's sort of an adventurous eater, but nothing too out of reality. He loves Mexican food, meat and potatoes, the occasional foray into Asian cuisine. Any suggestions in Leesburg or surrounding? We're looking for a nice drive, as well. Less than $250 if possible.

I feel like a broken record recommending it practically every week, but The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm, with a menu by the talented Tarver King, is where you want to toast such a special occasion. Bonus: the prime seating is on a terrace and comes with a great view.

 

That's a wrap for today, gang. Please join me again next Wednesday for another back and forth about all things dining. Thanks for the good questions, and for keeping me company.

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: