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

Apr 09, 2014

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Hey Tom, I was wondering if you would post this for your readers' edification. I'm a manager in a fine dining restaurant and am noticing increasing numbers of guests who seem to think that we should be providing outlets for them to charge their cell phones. Most restaurants, ours included, do not have many outlet in the front of the house, and those we do have are used for computer and service equipment. We cannot unplug these things so that a guest can charge his/her phone, nor can we overload our circuits. We also cannot take phones to back of the house outlets where they could be damaged or stolen to charge them. Besides, many restaurants such as ours request that cell phones not be used in our dining rooms anyway. I have been reamed by guests who seem to think it is my responsibility to provide them with charging stations for their phones in addition to food and service. Would appreciate your setting them straight. Thanks!

Hey, guilty diners: Do you expect your doctor, your dentist, your salon, your trainer, your bank or your Whole Foods to also provide you with an outlet for re-charging your cell phone? 


Restaurants are in the business of serving food and drink, not making sure you have enough juice to text the night away or take calls during dinner. Be considerate.


Good morning, ladies and gents. Finally, some weather that resembles spring! I, for one, am itching to eat outdoors.


Time to entertain your questions. Bring 'em on.

Why in the world would I put my napkin on my chair seat when I left the table for a moment? Disgusting when one considers what part of the body occupies that chair seat. ICK!!!!!! Time to change the Etiquette Rules. And some people worry about the waiter touching their napkin?

Who wants to see a crunched-up, possibly soiled napkin on a table while people are still dining? Leaving the cloth on a chair hides any unpleasantness and signals that you're returning to the table.


For those who might not have seen it in the redesigned Magazine last Sunday, my suggestions for improving your restaurant game included a few lines on what to do with your napkin when you sit down, excuse yourself and leave for good.

Ruperts! Loved the terse menu, wonderful lengthy explanations by the waiters, sparse atmosphere, the fact that the restaurant treated all staff as important and planned trips abroad together to learn about the cache and the food, of course.

A fine-dining pioneer on 7th St., Rupperts was definitely one-of-a-kind and very popular with the Clinton Administration crowd.


The menu read like haiku; the amuse bouche sometimes consisted of a single perfect green bean. And remember the hot-from-the-oven country bread, served with herbed fresh cheese rather than butter?

I'm thinking of having a celebration dinner with a bunch of friends at the Tabbard Inn. Should the recent family turmoil and employee uprising have me worried?

Given the many solid choices on the scene, you'd be wise to reconsider. In the same (modern American) vein as Tabard Inn are Buck's Fishing & Camping in Upper NW, Cashion's Eat Place in Adams Morgan and Jackie's in Silver Spring.

What do you think about the Mexican food options in DC? I am from Arizona and I havent been able to find the same flavors I get back home. Although, Mexican food is very diverse! it shouldnt be hard to have many options to choose from

There's not a wealth of good Mexican in our market, I agree. Casa Oaxaca in Adams Morgan was good when it opened, but the place has gone downhill. While the restaurant is probably fancier than you want, Oyamel in Penn Quarter does a great job with its tacos, seviches and tres leches cake.

Hi Tom, a small/pointless note on your Lupo article: Ulah is in the same ZIP code (only two blocks away), so the owner has not actually "added another Zip code to his portfolio."

Duly noted. We have since changed the line to read "flavor" instead of "Zip code"  in my preview of the Italian eatery off 14th St.

I have a manager coming into DC from out of town to meet myself and another female coworker for drinks and dinner. I'm struggling to select a place. I don't want the atmosphere to be romantic or too trendy. Preferably in the Dupont area. Nothing too expensive or cheap seeming either. I can't think! Help!

Urbana on P St. is a great watering hole, but my last meal there was kind of a bust, I'm sorry to say. On Connecticut Ave., Mourayo is a sure thing: handsome bar, good Greek cooking, polished service.

This happened to us on Saturday. We did not go into the restaurant, and told the staff why--previous visits to this place have been marred by secondhand cigar smoke from an unknown source. Like the food. Hate the atmosphere. What to do?

I agree, it looks bad to have staff smoking outside a restaurant entrance.


Servers, if you need to light up, do it in an alley or somewhere where diners won't see you. And then (this is crucial), be sure to brush your teeth and wash your hands before returning to work.

After leaving a show at the KenCen, we called and asked the Matre D' at Fleming's in Tyson's when they were open until. We realized we could not get there until just before their closing time. His response was "come on in . . . we're going to be here cleaning up and shutting down for a couple of hours anyway, and you won't inconvenience us." Needless to say, when we want a straightforward steak and salad late, they have our repeat business.

Now that's a good salesman.

My middle sister turns 60 in April and the rest of us (two older and two younger) want to take her out to dinner on a Saturday night. She likes fun places but good service, good food, and a not-too-noisy environment is critical. We live in Maryland but can go anywhere in the area. Thanks

"Not too noisy" is always the tough part of the equation. Because if a place offers good food and service, it's likely to be busy. And crowds often mean "not quiet. "


Of the new crop of restaurants, two of my favorites include Iron Gate in Dupont Circle for Greek-Italian and Aggio, the restaurant-within-a-restaurant at Range in Friendship Heights. Another option is the yet-to-be-reviewed Menu MBK in the former Cafe Atlantico space in Penn Quarter.  It features lots of interesting small plates -- cauliflower panna cotta, veal meatballs, steak tartare -- in its upstairs bistro, spread across two floors.

Hi Tom, My boyfriend and I went to Osteria Morini to mark our first anniversary. We took your recommendations and had the pasta with crab and sea urchin and then had two desserts - chocolate budino and lemon tart. We loved everything and thought the desserts were seriously unusual and great. Where else can we find desserts like that in the area? My boyfriend has a huge sweet tooth. Thanks, Jason

Excellent dessert menus are few and far between. Among the lists that stand out are those offered at the southern-inspired Vidalia downtown (think pecan pie and caramel cake) and the cafe at Palena in Cleveland Park (where pastry chef  Aggie Chin does elegant work).  


That said, there are plenty of individual desserts I enjoy, including the seasonal fried fruit pies at Nopa Kitchen + Bar in Penn Quarter, the refreshing campari panna cotta at Iron Gate in Dupont Circle, the decadent fantasy in chocolate for two at the new Grill Room in Georgetown and the rice pudding with apple sorbet at Restaurant Eve.

HI Tom, Will try asking one more time, although maybe you don't have any suggestions. Going on a girls weekend to Philly and looking for good food at fun places. Any ideas. The Stephen Starr restaurants and Jose Garces restaurants have been recommended but I"m looking for anything else. All kinds of food are welcome, nothing too stuffy in atmosphere though! Thanks so much!

One of the many restaurants I can't wait to eat in again is Serpico, a star from Starr on South Street in Philadelphia. The chef, Peter Serpico, previously worked for David Chang at Momofuku Ko when that restaurant won a James Beard award for Best New in 2009.


Here's my dispatch from 2010 to give you some additional ideas.


Hi Tom- We love G sandwich shop on 14th st, and eat there for lunch all the time. Last week we stopped in for a late sandwich and noticed the staff was rearranging tables and chairs, apparently setting up for something. I asked one of the staff members what was going on and he told me that the sandwich shop turns into a restaurant at night, with a 4 course menu. It sounded like a cool idea, and the menu looked to be a pretty good deal. Have you heard of this? We were thinking of trying it but none of my friends seem to have gone yet.

I've not only heard about the tasting menu at G, I'm *writing* about the $40 five-courser for the Magazine May 4. Stay tuned.

I have been looking for accommodations for a large party of 12. Do you have any suggestions for a moderately priced (for DC), a little quieter, and we have a few vegetarians. I'd prefer to select off the whole menu verses some large party limited menu. I've already placed an inquiry to Osteria Morini. Thanks for your insights

Woodward Table, on H St. NW, might be helpful: big space, good meatless flatbreads, dinner entrees starting at $16.50.  Mio, near the Washington Post, would be another place to check out. I notice some interesting vegetarian dishes on its menu, including cheese arepas and a white bean stew. Finally, there's the convivial Ardeo+ Bardeo in Cleveland Park. Its menu (cauliflower couscous, fried chickpeas, etc.) encourages you to graze.

Tom - your reminiscence last week about Tiberio's reminded me of a funny experience we had there. My husband and I moved to Annapolis in the early '70's; the best/most elegant restaurant in town during that time was a French restaurant on Main Street called (I think) Auberge Normande, with a very personable maitre d' named Georges. We were semi-regulars there, but hadn't seen him for our last few visits. For our 4th anniversary, we decided to splurge and try Tiberio's, which had been open about 6 months. The maitre d' was Georges from Annapolis, but he corrected us when we greeted him by name - no longer Georges, he said, but Giorgio.

Funny! Thanks for sharing.

Had an AWESOME meal at Little Nonna's a couple months ago. Casual-ish Italian and some of the lightest, fluffiest gnocchi I can remember eating (since my Nonna was around to make them)

Thanks for chiming in.

My husband and I have two landmark birthdays to celebrate this summer. We want to eat at a romantic restaurant with comfortable seating where we are able to hear each other talk. Your review of Iron Gate Inn sounds promising - but where to sit and which menu for the best experience? Any other restaurant suggestions in DC or Maryland?

Yes to Iron Gate's back room, maybe a seat against one of the walls, where the formal tasting menu is served.


It's buzzier (read: louder), but Fiola Mare, the glam new seafood restaurant with postcard views from Fabio Trabocchi, should also be on your short list.


Is Baltimore too far to go for dinner in Maryland? If not, Charleston is where you want to find yourself toasting one another.  The rooms are plush; the cooking is southern in flavor, and sophisticated in execution.

Hi Tom: While on our Hawaiian honeymoon last summer, we decided to splurge on a highly-recommended restaurant. We placed our order, and my SO was very excited for his New York Strip steak. When the food arrived, the server placed a rib-eye in front of my SO and walked away. We tracked the server down, and explained the problem. The exchange went like this: Server: "Yes, New York Strip, that's what I brought you." Us: "Actually, it's a ribeye, we're confident in that." Server: Oh, I like rib-eye better, it's a better cut of meat" Us: That's nice, but we ordered a new york strip, and that's what we'd like to eat. Server: Oh, I really think you'll be pleased, the ribeye is much better than the new york strip. Us: May we speak with a manager? The manager came, was quite apologetic and concerned, and informed us they had run out of new york strip, and only had ribeye left,. She said our server should have told us, and checked to see if we would like a different dish. Exactly. So, we chalked this up to a funny story from our honeymoon. Well, it has happened three times in MD/DC in the past nine months! And the "it" happening is servers bringing us a dish we didn't order and telling us they prefer it to what we did order. Each time, the problem has been solved by requesting to speak with a manager but I'm curious, is this a new trend, that if a kitchen runs out of something, rather than informing the diner, the server/kitchen decides what to bring them?! While all managers have worked out the problem to our satisfaction, it has disrupted our enjoyment of our time together as one of us is eating, while the other is waiting for their original/or new dish. So please restaurants, communicate to your servers often on the status of anything 86'd, or about to be 86'd. And servers, communicate that to your diners. And servers, while I appreciate your likes and dislikes, they really have no bearing on my likes or dislikes! Thank you!

Strange! I eat out an average of twelve meals a week and I have yet to encounter The Switch in a restaurant. By all means, you should be informed if your request isn't available -- and ahead of the time your meal comes out, for obvious reasons.  I'm also in your camp with regard to servers' preferences. Theirs' aren't necessarily going to be mine.


Now I'm curious: Has anyone else been the recipient of a dish he didn't request?

"Disgusting when one considers what part of the body occupies that chair seat. ICK!!!!!!" Unless you live in a nudist colony, I'm pretty sure that chair seat never has naked bums on it and also has far fewer germs than your hands or the tablecloth.

Precisely what I was thinking when I read the post!

Hello Tom, Submitted about a month, did not get through. But happened again and this time the saving grace was the apologetic manager. In March our daughter turned 21 and we made a 7 pm reservation at Fiola. When we arrived on time, they asked us to wait in the bar and said that the previous guests were finishing their coffee. We ordered drinks (though our daughter was disappointed not being carded :) ) and waited. After 30 minutes again approached the host and same story. Around 45 minutes, we were really hungry, we were settling to pay our bills and walk out. Bartender noticed this and went got the manager, who was the rudest person we had encountered. After being unapologetic a table magically appeared for us to sit down. Not wanting to ruin our daughter's big day, we proceeded with our dinner. Spent big bucks but felt fuming inside. Happened again this week with a different twist. We are new implants in the city and decided to go to the neighborhood restaurant, Casa Luca. Should have seen this coming. Around 9 pm, we walked in, this time with no reservation. Were told there was a 20 minute wait and can we sit in the bar. Again this time after a 45 minute wait when we approached the host (a different person), who told us rather rudely that it was not him, who told us about the 20 minute wait. The restaurant was almost empty by the time. Again the bartender to the rescue, He saw what happened, got the manager TJ who was very apologetic, comped our desserts, gave her card and asked us to come again. It almost feels like they have this standard 20 minute wait line, so they can rope you in and seat you when they can. Really upset about this trend. Can't wait to try Fiola Mare (Sarcastically!!)

Because you sent in your post early, I was able to reach out to the owner for a response. Here it is:


"I am very disappointed to learn of your experience at Fiola and Casa Luca, and I want to extend my most sincere apologies on behalf of our entire team. This is truly not the guest experience that we strive for, and we can make no excuses. We let you down.


Reservations can become challenging at times, especially on weekends and in the prime dining periods, even with our best intentions to make it work for everyone. As restaurateurs we are never happy when we cannot honor our guests' reservation times, and we are constantly adapting to the challenges presented when diners linger longer than we expected or when our guests with reservations do not show up even while we are holding their table for them.


Regardless, we value your patronage. I hope that you will contact me directly at so that we can welcome you as our guest for a prompt reservation without any delay at any of our restaurants. I know that we can win back your confidence in us.

Fabio Trabocchi
Chef Owner

I'm going to keep this question short with little in the way of stylish prose, are you a fan of more casual style service or formal? My question arises from the fact that many more casual and generally excellent eateries have sprung up recently (Red Hen and Rose's come to mind). I went to an old favorite of mine, a downtown Italian restaurant of some repute and I couldn't help but notice how stuffy it was. My server was dressed in what I assume was an uncomfortable and overly starched uniform and while efficient and knowledgeable to a reasonable extent, he lacked even the smallest modicum of personality and when pressed by my wife mostly about his likes and interest, I couldn't help but notice that he kept glancing uncomfortably at a larger gentlemen in a suit whom I could only assume was a manager as if in fear of being taken out back and beaten with a rubber hose. I just find this to be a touch to much. I know we live in a professional city but I mean come on, even at the French Laundry ( which I've enjoyed on several occasions) they are dressed comfortably and are almost always willing to share a little jest or a personal tidbit to make the meal memorable. I just feel like this style of service really isn't warranted anymore, thoughts?

I like prompt, smart, welcoming and attentive service, whether it's at a diner or a temple of haute cuisine.  Your experience at the unnamed Italian restaurant is counter to the great strides that have been made in American service in the last decade.  The very best places exude warmth and polish with a slightly more casual air than before.

I fully agree with you that restaurants shouldn't be in the business of charging phones. But I wonder if some enterprising manager might get a handful of those wireless chargers and have them as a little extra nicety. Oooh, or have the bar set up a multi-charger for people sitting at the bar to use. Two-drink minimum, of course. ;)

What great ideas! I don't *expect* a restaurant to offer charges, but if they do, it's an unexpected frill.

Hey Tom - we have a family member who will be undergoing hip surgery in the near future. They're birthday is next month and they intend to fly to DC to celebrate with us. As they aren't from DC (but have been here on occasion) we hoped to take them somewhere charming (restaurant/neighborhood) to celebrate that won't require an inordinate amount of walking to enjoy (e.g. charming neighborhood/scenery in the immediate vicinity of the restaurant). My initial thoughts went to something like Old Town/Restaurant Eve, but I can't recall hearing much about it from you recently. Another option could be Georgetown or even the Kennedy Center's roof, but I haven't dined recently at either. Any suggestions?

How about dinner at Majestic, Eve's sibling, followed by some window-shopping in Old Town? Or a meal at 701, where you walk out to see a fountain (the Navy Memorial) and the Capitol down the way? The civilized 1789, in the shadow of Georgetown University, is yet another option. 

You never seem to steer us wrong, so I am hoping you might be able to help us plan for our visiting family. Family will be staying in Georgetown without a rental car. Any suggestions for Saturday and Sunday evening meals for a group of 12 (including 2 toddlers)? I don't think the group is too adventurous and one night we will need to load up on carbs for a race. Thanks for any suggestions!

Pizzeria Paradiso to the rescue!  Leopold's Kafe has the advantage of an outdoor patio; Peacock Cafe probably has the widest variety of fare.

Probably someone complained to the manager earlier that week about waitstaff's overfamiliarity, and the management is overreacting.

Uh huh.

I have never heard of such a thing happening. The fact that it apparently happens to them regularly makes me wonder how they go about ordering food in a restaurant.

Is the original poster with us?

where would a good place to dine beforehand be? We avoid The Corner like the plague because of the traffic so don't know what's available there.

One of the handful of good restaurants out that way is Nostos, a gracious Greek establishment.

I know I am way late in asking, but have you been in Munich recently and do you have any recommendations for where we can make reservations for Easter brunch? We are not picky, but would prefer something traditional rather than ethnic.

Not sure Munich does Easter brunch, but I'll throw your question out to the crowd and pass along any suggestions that come my way

Tom, I work near Rose's luxury and was thinking of trying to get in after work one night. Is there a bar where a solo diner can eat at? Or do I need to make sure I have a second person for a table? Thanks.

You're in luck:  Rose's has a counter, fronted with stools,  that looks into the kitchen. Perfect for solo acts.

If a manager doesn't want people charging their phones in their restaurant, then they should put a sign up indicating their disapproval. Quite frankly, I don't see the harm in using an unused outlet to charge up a phone. Sometimes I've been out for most of the day and it's nice to be able to charge my phone when I get the opportunity. I certainly wouldn't expect the restaurant to unplug computers just to let me charge, but sounds to me like this is some bossy manager with anger issues taking it out on hapless diners.

I don't think the original poster came across as gruff at all. As a diner, I'm not sure how welcoming it would be to see a sign like the one you suggest.

Hi Tom - Just had to comment on this. As someone who travels for work and frequently dines alone, I rely on my smart phone to give me something to do while sitting by myself! I'm not making phone calls, just catching up on email, checking out the mobile version of WaPo, etc. Unfortunately, my battery is constantly being drained so I will sometimes have to ask a bartender or waiter if there is a place to charge my phone. I certainly don't expect there to be a plug at my table. However, I don't think it's an unreasonable request. If the answer is no, then that's it. If the establishment can accommodate me, that's great!

Yep: If there's a charge available, great. If not, no sweat.


Bottom line: restaurants shouldn't be *expected* to offer outlets for recharging cell phones.

I see this everyday at both the Tryst (Adams Morgan) and its sibling in Woodley Park, as I walk by both daily! I can safely bet that the smoking wait staff do not wash their hands, let alone brush their teeth afterwards... you are overly optimistic there.

But a guy can always hope, right?

Hi Tom -- I have a conference coming up in Cleveland, and I've never been. Do you or the readers have any restaurant suggestions, especially in the downtown area? Thanks!

I was there late last year. My favorite meal was at Greenhouse Tavern, a whimsical restaurant with bikes suspended from the ceiling and a truly original American menu.  (Foie gras steamed clams, anyone?)

Just got back from Munich -- brunch isn't a thing there; it's just lunch. And remember that shops and a lot of restaurants are closed on Sunday, so you want to plan ahead to find something open.

Good to know, danke.

Of course it's an unreasonable request. I travel extensively for work, and have a portable charger for this. Unless you are seated right next to an outlet (unlikely) the staff has to plug the phone in out of your sight. Of course, they would likely have to do this for more than one customer, and then monitor the phones' safety. Buy a portable charger, or plug it in during the day. It's not that difficult. Having waited tables through college and graduate school, I can only imagine that these people have never had a service job.

Thanks for weighing in.

You always answer approximately 40 questions in an hour, and you give complete, thoughtful answers. I really appreciate that. Now if only you would take a trip to Pittsburgh (even without seeing the Pirates, Pens, and/or Steelers!). . .

I'm *trying* to get there, I swear. But first, I'm headed to Nashville (this weekend. Tips welcome.)

a smoker (I was one) is never aware how much their clothes and hair carry the smell well after the cigarette. Now that I don't smoke, it is disgusting to smell ashtray when I'm trying to enjoy an expensive meal. Power through and smoke when you get home, that's what I did.

Good advice, thanks.

Tom...not a question but an answer. Mia Cocina Restaurant, 5471 Wisconsin Ave, Chevy Chase, MD is excellent for Mexican food. I patronize their restaurant in Plano, TX frequently and the one in Chevy Chase is almost as good. Try the chicken mole...excellent!

I'm not a fan.

Hi. I'm being taken to Barmini this weekend for my birthday. Do they serve enough food to get a meal there or do you recommend dinner elsewhere? If so, what do you recommend near there? Thanks!

You can definitely compose a nice light meal from among the  snacks at Barmini. But if you need more food, I suggest you stroll over to Barmini's sibling, Zaytinya, for some Middle Eastern mezze.

Second the comments that you won't find brunch in Munich, unless it's in a hotel (preferably yours). You didn't mention whether you'll be there on Good Friday (April 18), but be prepared to find very slim pickings on that day as well. We went last year and there was not a single dish with meat in it on the menu of the first restaurant we found open, after 4 attempts at other places.

Consider yourself warned, traveler!

Service jobs or worked in restaurants. I have done everything from dishwasher through server. I never managed a restaurant. Wouldnt want to. Tom did you work in restaurants? If not you should for a couple weeks for fun and a great article.

I was a server in high school and throughout college. The one thing I never mastered was carrying trays of drinks on one hand. My worst memory:  Dropping a dozen sangrias in my attempt to look more professional (using one hand, that is).


When I worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, I went under cover as a waiter at three different establishments: a fine-dining restaurant (anyone recall the late, great Stars?), a hotel (where I pitched in at a banquet) and a diner in the Haight.

A friend and I went to a major local chain establishment at Gallery Place after the circus on March 23. Our waitress seemed more interested in chatting with another waitress than looking after her customers, so it took me several minutes to flag down another server to get the appropriate utensil as my meal went cold. I sent a polite comment to the contact on the web site and never got a response. I sent a follow up email a few days ago. Still no response. I'm not looking for any freebies, just some kind of explanation. Their lack of response suggests I should eat elsewhere in the future when I'm in that neighborhood.

Sounds as if someone isn't monitoring incoming comments very carefully.  The non-response says a lot about the restaurant.

Blue Ridge Seafood waay out in Gainesville (take I66 to the 2nd Rte. 29 exit, & go south) has imperial & norfolk -- crab, shrimp, scallops, lobster, or any combination. It looks like a dive -- a bunch of shacks hammered together. The food is great, service pretty good, & the parking lot is always full.

Thanks for following up. (Anyone else getting hungry?)

What a great idea. At Citronelle one time, when we had been handed our menus, my mother discovered she had forgotten her reading glasses. A waiter must have seen her desperately searching her handbag, and approached with a big wooden box (like some restaurants bring when you order tea). Bewildered, my mother opened the box, and was delighted to find an orderly assortment of reading glasses (lined up in order of magnification). Completely unnecessary, but obviously this is a common issue which the restaurant chose to address, rather than saying "it's not our problem."

Marcel's, the excellent French restaurant in the West End, also offers reading glasses for diners. Nice touch.

Zahav is one of the best meals we've had anywhere.

I concur. Love Zahav.


And on that note, I bid you all a delicious remainder of the week. Hope to see you back next Wednesday.

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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