Ask Tom: Rants, raves and questions on the DC dining scene

Mar 19, 2014

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema entertains your dining questions, rants and raves.

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Can you suggest a restaurant that has a beautiful garden dining area that could be used for a private lunch or brunch on a weekend in June? It would need to hold 30-40 people.

(A guy can dream, can't he, about gardens and grass rather than snow and cold?) 


Does it have to be a proper garden? I love dining al fresco at Old Angler's Inn in Potomac, the patio at Blue Duck Tavern in the West End, near the Navy Memorial fountain at 701 in Penn Quarter and overlooking the C & O canal at the recently reviewed Grill Room in Georgetown.  Readers, care to add to the list?


No shortage of topics to chew over this morning. Both the James Beard Foundation and the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington released their long-awaited lists of finalists for chef, restaurant and other awards yesterday.


Let's get crackin'!

Tom - Thanks for the review of Joe's Stone Crab. As a DC resident who loves their take out window for stone crabs and coleslaw when I'm in Miami it was great to hear your take on their local installation. I couldn't help but wonder when reading about your experience mentioning pie flavors and having them magically appear gratis, though...surely this is another case of blown cover, rather than amazingly generous service? Are you implying that all your readers should expect the same treatment?

We ordered a lot at my table the one night that happened at Joe's, and the server overheard us debating which pies to get. The one we questioned getting, but didn't, was the slice that was brought out with the other desserts. I don't think the surprise addition was anything other than attentive service, to be honest.

Tom--what are your thoughts on Ethiopic? I had considered it the best Ethiopian in DC but a recent disappointing visit has me looking elsewhere. My last visit featured a series of service snafus (mixed up drink orders, no water refills, absentee server) but the main complaint is that their vegetarian platter was served in little cups (as opposed to be on an injera-lined plate as is the norm at Ethiopic) and the injera that they offered was gluten-free and had a bitter taste and unpleasant texture. It was only after we inquired about the unusual set-up and taste that they admitted that they were out of normal injera. Normally a bread item is of little concern but it's a major part of Ethiopian dining and the gluten-free version that they offered was drastically different. So, who has the best Ethiopian in town these days?

My last meals at Ethiopic, once my favorite for Ethiopian, were less than favorable, which is why I didn't include it in my 2013 fall dining guide.  These days, I prefer the cooking at Meaza in Falls Church, which bakes its own injera and even gets some of its bread flown in from Ethiopia.

I'm off to spring training. Any tips for the Naples/Fort Myers area?


I'm a huge fan of Thai food. Do you have any recommendations for best Thai restaurant in the area? Preferably around Chinatown or downtown, and if it does delivery or takeout, even better. Thanks!

My two favorites are probably Thai X-ing, in part for its funky charm and BYOB policy, and Little Serow, which features the (spicy-hot-sour)  flavors of northern Thailand.  Neither is especially easy to access, but both are worth the effort.

Tom, Can you remind us when the Spring Dining Guide comes out again? Thanks!

May 18 (and yes, I'm already eating around, checking out contenders).

I love reading your reviews but must admit that most of the restaurants tend to be fairly expensive, especially the ones in DC. I like to eat out but just can’t do it all that often when it costs so much. Have you ever considered doing more reviews of less expensive options?

I aim for a mix -- geographic, cuisine-wise -- in my Magazine reviews, but a lot of the newer places have been on the pricier side.  For sure, I'll keep your request in mind as I make my rounds. 


Have you checked out Roofers Union in Adams Morgan or Catch 15 on K St, two recently previewed restaurants in First Bite? Both are reasonably priced.

So, the winning lottery ticket was sold at my old stomping grounds in Charles County. I'm in Montgomery County, and NOT a winner! Where in Montgomery County should my husband take me tonight to drown our sorrows? Drinks have to be interesing and on the fru-fru side. You know if we'd won, we'd totally be taking you out to dinner!

You know what's fun and new? Urban Butcher in Silver Spring. It's got potent drinks and meats cured in-house and a quirky vibe that grew on me after a few visits. I'm reviewing the place, from chef Raynold Mendizabal, this Sunday in print.

I went to Lupo Verde last Saturday night and had a very interesting experience that made me think about this chat. The first was that when we first went in, my partner and I were waiting behind a group of five people to put our name on the list. All five of these people were crowded around the small hostess stand, leaning into her computer, her space and generally looking rude. Apparently Lupo Verde had lost their reservations and made them wait for (gasp) 20 minutes on a busy Saturday night. They group then told the hostess "So you are going to cover our drinks at the bar then, right? One for each of us." I get their view, and I've been agitated before when a restaurant lost my reservation, but this behavior just seemed so awful. The poor hostess was extremely overwhelmed, and for the record, nothing but polite and nice. On the flip side, once we got seated, we asked the waiter about some of the menu items (I don't speak Italian, sorry), and were somewhat brushed off, and told that he just didn't know the different cheeses or meats. It also took a long time to get water and the wine we ordered, even though two tables next to us who clearly knew the owners were getting fantastic service by multiple waiters. The food, in the end, hit the spot and was paired well with the wine (after the waiter went away for 10 minutes to ask the chef), but I felt like I'd been on a rollercoaster.

After reading your tale, I feel a little dizzy, too! Good for you for being patient.


Keep in mind, Lupo Verde is new. But let this be a lesson to restaurant owners out there:  you have to train your servers before they hit the floor and if you play favorites, people will notice.

When I made reservations at Ray's, the hostess asked if we were celebrating anything special, and I mentioned my husband's new promotion. When we arrived at the restaurant, the host congratulated my husband. Our waiter brought us complementary glasses of cider (in champagne flutes - a nice touch!). We enjoyed a fantastic meal (with much more leisurely service than we've had in the past), and then our waiter brought us a complementary piece of pie. We honestly expected nothing and were THRILLED by the extra touches! Thank you, Ray's!

Take a bow, Ray's!

Just chiming in on what I think you should review for your Spring Dining Guide. In a recent chat you said Birch & Barley was a hollow shell of its former self (yikes!), Cork Wine Bar has seen several chefs come and go, Rogue 24 has lawsuits-a-flyin', Table used to get knocked for service, and neither Thally nor Cedar made it past the First Bite mark. Thanks, Tom, I hope you dine well as you assemble this spring's guide!

Wow, you *do* pay attention to my work.


 Thanks for the prompts to return to Cedar and Thally.


Hi Tom - In last week's chat, you mentioned you hadn't been to Restaurant Eve since the renovation. I went there Monday night for my birthday (and had dined there several times prior to the renovation), so I thought I would report back! The restaurant has a different vibe now - it's now closer to the bistro than the tasting room. Dare I say it feels a little less special? Monday night, it definitely felt like a place that would be better to dine with a group of friends than for a quiet, romantic evening celebrating a special occasion. The new layout of the dining room (we were seated in a corner on a two person side-by-side bench, where the bistro used to be) makes it a bit loud. In fact, our meal was dominated by the group of four sitting diagonal to use who were intent on sharing their sister in law's horrific car accident and medivac from a foreign country throughout the entire meal. This wouldn't have been bad (for no restaurant can avoid bad diners) if there hadn't been another group of four also close by, who had to raise their voices merely to talk to each other. The dress code, unfortunately, has suffered a bit: while there were children there with dresses and suits on, several of the adults were wearing jeans (nice jeans, but still...). The new decor of muted pastels and creams is a little dated and the poor wait staff spends half their time dodging chandeliers which are hung a bit too low to be in the main serving path. What hasn't suffered is the food: my gnoochi appetizer was melt in your mouth and my scallops were amongst the best I've ever had. My husband's beef tartare (he reports) was excellent, as was Chef Armstrong's special Monday night: corned beef. The service was also excellent, as always. I saw Chef Armstrong come out and personally greet several tables (sadly not ours). I'd definitely go back, but with a different purpose - with friends, instead of a date. The biggest bummer: they got rid of the Just Because Birthday Cake! That was perhaps the most disappointing part of the evening - panna cotta on your birthday, while very good, just isn't the same :) It's definitely worth a trip back for you!

Great field report. Duly noted.


Glad to hear the food is still good at the JBF contender for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic,  but I'm sorry to hear that the birthday cake for one has left the building.


As for chefs not talking to everyone in the dining room -- that's a tough one!  Even if there's not time for him to chat with every customer, a nod and a smile in the direction of a patron who catches his eye is always appreciated.






While there are certainly some neighborhood eateries in the city, let's face it, DC is a pretty expensive city. Rents are high, and many folks eat out on expense accounts after all!

Right. But I sympathize with the original poster.


My colleague Tim Carman does a good job of finding cheap eats in his $20 Diner column in Weekend.

The Turtle Club on Vanderbilt Beach is the only one I can think of off the top of my head. I'd have to call my mother for the others.

That's a start. Thanks.

How far afield is the poster willing to go? As far as, say the Ashby Inn or Comus Inn? I'm sure there are a number of other choices at about that distance, too.

I thought about the Ashby Inn as well, but the property has experienced  some major changes of late. Just this weekend, its excellent sommelier and host bid adieu to diners on Facebook.

Check Trummer's on Main

Trummers on Main is lovely. I wasn't sure how far the group wanted, or could, venture out.

Another option is the Side Bar, connected to Jackie's in Silver Spring. Lots of options, and I think they can do fru-fru.

Yes to Side Bar!

I am in a bit of a pickle. Former DC residents here who now live in Richmond. Meeting family from out of town for a weekend get together. 11 total, 2 of those high chairs but the other 3 kids older and more predictable. We are going to eat early, 5 or 5:30. Any suggestions of somewhere centrally located? We're prepared to take the youngest to the hotel early if they act up but really want something fun and delicious for our out of staters. Thanks!

This is in DC, right? I'm thinking Hill Country Barbecue in Penn Quarter, Ardeo + Bardeo in Cleveland Park, Roofers Union in Adams Morgan and Ghibellina in Logan Circle

Tom, We have always enjoyed the gardens at Le Auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls and once attended a wedding there so I know it is a large enough area. I have never had a meal at Old Anglers to compare with Chez Francois and the pricing was about the same.

Thank goodness I have you chatters weighing in! Oui to L'Auberge in Great Falls!

FYI - there's actually importing restrictions on teff, so if the Ethiopian places are making injera in house, they may not be 100% pure teff injera. Most authentic injera is imported.

Did you know Idaho grows teff?

The Naples traveler should check out Inca Kitchen -- Peruvian food that stands up to, or exceeds, that available in the DC area

Sounds promising. Thanks.

Hey tom- so i took my bf out to dinner at posto this weekend for his bday. I've always loved the place, and this trip did not dissapoint. The food was delicious, the staff super friendly. My one gripe was that we were seated next to the waiter station (is that what it's called? where the computer is to put in orders, silverware, etc). Upon being seated I didnt think it would be a problem, but as the night went on, there was just so much shuffling of waiters and busboys, not to mention customers who forgot to tell the waiter something, and the constant clinking of forks and glasses. It didnt ruin our meal by any means, but it was a nuisance. I guess my question for you is how would you have handled this? I know that you always recommend alerting management, but the truth is that someone is gonna be sat there on a busy night, and i did not want to be moved mid-meal. Next time i supposed I could explicitely request not to be seated there, but any other thoughts on these less desirable tables at nice restaurants?

Well, if you didn't want to move mid-meal, there's not much I could recommend. At least now you know where not to sit, right? Anywhere where servers congregate.


Tom: I am at a loss thinking of someplace delicious to have breakfast/brunch this coming Saturday. Meeting a friend of a friend that I had met once so being able to hear each other is important! One person coming from upper NW one from union station. Where is someplace yummy no more than $20ish a person that is not a huge schelp for either member of our party? Thankss as always.

Your best bet is probably Ted's Bulletin on 14th St. NW. Lots of room, lots of options, cheery service and not too pricey.

Tasty and well-priced pub food (if not much atmosphere - I was told it used to be a Starbucks!) at Fat Katz.

That makes three suggestions so far ...

What could cause a chef to produce food at this quality when food at other restaurants had been so much better?

I have no idea. I was shocked at how inferior the cooking was (on all three visits!) at the new Silo.  Lack of interest, maybe? And I wasn't sure if Vetsch was making my food, or an underling was. Either way, the place was a disappointment.

Firefly near Dupont Circle has a back room about the right size and is usually fairly empty at the start of dinner. The kids will love the decorate your own cookies that come out freshly baked for dessert. The adults will love the seasonal food.

Better bring ear plugs! Firefly is definitely fun and definitely l-o-u-d.

Hi Tom, I'm a hospitality professional who reads your chats weekly (as I believe anyone in the industry who cares about what their guests are thinking about should) and I am blown away by something. The chat used to be about which restaurant to go to for what occasion or which big name chef is moving to a new restaurant. Now it seems that a huge percentage of your chatters just like to complain about problems that aren't really problems. Honestly, in a world where children struggle to find enough food to eat on a daily basis, where Russia is attempting to reconquer the old Soviet Union, where buildings are exploding in New York and where entire airplanes just up and vanish, are the biggest problems in your chatters' lives that a restaurant won't let them sit down at a table until the whole party is there? Why is it that people get bent out of shape about a restaurant charging them for a drink that THEY broke but don't get upset that the NSA is taping their phones and emails without warrants? Don't get me wrong. I love my job and I think that the guests who come into my restaurant are some of the most fun and interesting people I've ever met. I'm not bitter about my clientel and I iteraly got into this business because I like serving people. But it shakes my faith in humanity when people spend mutliple hours of their lives insising that restaurants hate women because they didn't like the table they were sitting at. There are incredibly more important problems in the world then "I don't like the table I'm sitting at" or "There's no hooks underneath the bar for me to hang my bag" Honestly, if that's the biggest problem in a person's life, then things are going pretty well for them. So I guess my question is: do you ever get sick of answering questions about these "first world problems" that in the grand scheme of things don't really make that big a difference?

Thanks for sharing your feelings with the group this morning. I appreciate your taking the time to do so.


I'm probably just as guilty as any other diner when it comes to talking about irritations, but --- it's my job, you know? I agree, though, that we ought not sweat too much of the small stuff and focus on what we have to be thankful for: a lot. 


And on that note, friends, I bid you farewell until next week. Eat well, tip as generously as you can, thank people for attending to your needs and *enjoy* your company, even if it's just you at the table.

In This Chat
Tom Sietsema
Weaned on a beige buffet a la "Fargo" in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. In thinner days, he was a critic for Microsoft Corp.'s and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; and a food reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.

This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the '80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section's recipes. That's how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.

He covers the local scene in his Dining, First Bite and Dish columns; keeps tabs on the world at large in his Postcard From Tom column and contributes tasty morsels to the Going Out Guide blog.
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