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

May 28, 2014

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Hi Tom - was curious how you would best handle this situation. I was excited to dine at STK and went with a friend when it first opened. We had a great meal but unfortunately, that experience was marred when I noticed on my credit card statement the server added a tip I didnt leave. My friend left the tip (20% on our total bill) and I put a line for the tip to indicate zero. Well, the 20% was charged on both of our cards, resulting in a 40% tip for the server. I called 3x in order to get a manager to call me back. The manager then called me, apologized that there's clearly a line thru my tip and the server must have added the tip by accident. He said he would refund the tip to my card and was going to send me an email of the receipt so I could have his contact info and let him know the next time i come in to make sure it's a better dining experience. Well, 5 days later and no refund on my credit card or email from the manager. What would you do in my position? I live 30 minutes from the restaurant so popping in isn't simple but I find it ridiculous I have to call back for a 4th time! It's disappointing, I enjoyed my meal but am so disgusting by the restaurant's actions, I will never dine there again.

STK DC is such a weird animal.


For a full week around the time it opened in Dupont Circle, I tried calling a number posted on the restaurant's site; it went straight to what sounded like someone's personal cell phone.  I then called the corporate office in NYC.  No no one there bothered to return my message left on voice mail. I finally WALKED over to the restaurant and let the hostesses know that they might want to check STK's phone line, because it was impossible to get through to the restaurant.  They looked at me like I had three heads.


That's a long way of saying, I feel your pain.


First of all, servers have no right to add tips to credit card bills. Second, someone should have gotten back to you pronto. I have the cell number of the director of operations. If you reach out to me ( I'll put you in contact with her -- and keep my fingers crossed that you find resolution.


Happy Wednesday, gang. I'm back from a terrific learning experience in Helsinki, which you need to put on your to-do list if you care about design or food or nature. Still a bit jet-lagged --- I've been up since 3 a.m. today -- but hoping this mug of coffee on my desk will keep me alert for the next 60 minutes or so.


Bring on your rants and raves.

My girlfriend and I had a delicious brunch at Le Diplomate on Memorial Day (thanks for the tip!) but the end of our meal was a bit disappointing. I only ate half of my entree, but when I told the waiter I was finished, he whisked away the significant portion remaining without asking whether I'd like to take it home, and strode off to the kitchen before I could tell him so. It left me wondering - should I have said something immediately when he asked if I'd finished, or is it generally the waiter's responsibility to ask whether I'd like the leftovers? It was a confusing situation. For what it's worth, when our waiter returned a few minutes later and I explained the situation, he graciously offered to have the kitchen make an entire fresh dish to take home. (I declined because I was embarrassed for not saying something up front and did not want to impose on the kitchen, but I was grateful for the offer.)

Waiters aren't mind-readers. It's up to customers to let staff know they want to take leftovers home. In this case, however, it sounds as if you didn't have a nanosecond to make your wishes known.  While I applaud  the waiter's generous offer after you got a chance to speak up,  I'm curious as to why he didn't ask about your satisfaction if indeed half the food was left on the plate in the first place.

I just wanted to take this opportunity to give a shout out to Le Diplomat. We had reservations for brunch on Sunday, and while my parents easily made our reservation time, we got caught in traffic due to Rolling Thunder, and ended up being almost an hour late - completely unforgivable in my book. Le Diplomat not only sat my parents and went ahead and let them order without is, they let us be seated and get brunch as well. It was incredibly accommodating for an insanely popular and busy restaurant. Our server was wonderful, and we never got the sense that we were stressing them out or ruining their seating rhythm. The food was delicious, and we will definitely be returning.

Take a bow, Le Diplomate.

Any good options for a restaurant in the Ashburn/Sterling area? We're getting together with a group of friends we haven't seen in a long time. Would like something with American cuisine and not too noisy so we can hear each other talk. Any thoughts?

I can't promise you a 60-decibel sound check, but Ford's Fish Shack and Taste of Burma would be at the top of my list, followed by the local chain Sweetwater Tavern.

Hi, Tom! Taking my meat-loving husband for a belated birthday dinner at Del Campo this weekend. Any can't-miss dishes? Any specific seating areas we should request? Thanks in advance!

Del Campo's menu is packed with primal pleasures: baked empanadas stuffed with ground beef and onions, puffy veal sweetbreads sparked with a garlic-parsley sauce and short ribs that the chef says are his favorite of the lot. Ask to sit in the main dining room and at a corner table.

This is kind of an academic question, since I know we should have said something at the time, but we went to the still-wonderful Trellis in Williamsburg for a milestone birthday. The menu cautioned that the cocktails took extra time to prepare, but twenty minutes? Without our waiter coming back to ask us whether we wanted appetizers? The restaurant was not packed to the gills and the staff did not seem to be rushed.

Twenty minutes seems like a long time for someone to make even a craft cocktail. Were they still making the ice?


The waiter not checking back is a separate issue. He should have attended to you between taking a drink order and getting the cocktail.

Hi Tom, my vegetarian sister (no meat, no fish) is coming to visit me in the District this weekend and since I'm a meat-eater, I'm having a hard time thinking of good spots for brunch that would have a good amount of veggie options for her to choose from. Any ideas??

You can never go wrong at the regal Bombay Club, where the Sunday brunch goes for $25 (or $35 with Champagne).  Plenty of variety for the vegetarian, a manager at the Indian restaurant promises. And don't forget the small plates purveyors in Penn Quarter, Zaytinya (Middle Eastern) and Jaleo (Spanish) among others.

Hi Tom - My youngest brother is turning 21 this year, and my husband and I are hoping to entice him to visit DC shortly after his birthday. He's currently in a fraternity at a Big 10 school (and so I can only assume drinks a lot of Natty Light...), but he also has a taste for some of the finer things in life. We'd be either a group of 5 or 7, with the birthday boy, two-four late-20s/early 30s siblings and spouses, and our parents. We were thinking of starting the evening at BarMini for fancy drinks, going to Jaleo for tapas and sangria, and then ending at 701 for cocktails and jazz music. Are there any other places you'd recommend we add to the evening's plan? Thanks, and love your chats/columns!

All swell ideas. Others places to consider: the sleek lounge at the Source next to the Newseum, the bar at Rasika (bet your bro has never had an Indian-inspired cocktail before), maybe the Mexican-themed Oyamel.

FYI - sometimes it takes your bank/credit card company 5-7 business days to post a refund (annoying, I know). So STK may have already put the refund thru.

 Right. But that doesn't excuse the waiter who filled in the line with a tip. Or the tardy response from the restaurant.

Tom - What are the best seafood places in DC right now? Looking for a birthday dinner so cost isn't much of an issue. Thanks!

If you like your seafood with an Italian accent, try the breezy new Fiola Mare on the Georgetown waterfront. If your tastes run more American, check out Joe's Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab in the former Union Trust Bank downtown.  (Do *not* get the signature stone crabs, however, which I've found bland and stringy. Splurge instead on raw oysters, fried calamari and the crumb-paved mahi-mahi served with mustard vinaigrette.)

Tom - Did you attend the dinner last week for David Lebovitz at Bucks? It was such a fun and delicious evening that I hope you were able to. The book looks amazing, too.

While I'm a big fan of David's writing and recipes, I was at a gig of my own, talking about dining and criticism at the Newseum with Jose Andres. I hope the audience had as much fun as we did.

Have you been to the partisan yet? I have reservations Friday and wondering what to order and what to avoid. I don't eat pork (love steak) but the rest of the group eats anything.

Here's (just about) everything you need to know about one of the best new restaurants to open in the city this year.

Dear Tom - In early June, we 8 (three generations) going to ascend the Washington Monument at 5, then celebrate a birthday afterwards. Where to? We'll have a car, and live in DC. Less posh than Source or Proof for the midwestern parents, but special for the adult birthday girl. Non-din noise level a plus.

Fun idea! Since you'll have wheels, continue the merriment at G Tasting on 14th St., Green Pig Bistro in Arlington or Red Hen in Bloomingdale. Sounds as if you're interested in an early dinner, which is the best way to avoid din in most places.

I've wondered this for a time, not just with you but with other reviewers--how do you remember (or know) all the food details of the dishes you eat at restaurants? The details of the ingredients and preparation is often quite precise--more so than one would be able to tell from the menu. Can you tell by taste, or after you've been to a place and are writing the review, do you contact the restaurant to get the details of the dishes you ate?

I'm pretty disciplined about recording my reactions to a place as soon as I get home, and I always carry a pen and paper with my to take notes in the restroom if a meal is getting complicated or I want to remember the funny thing a waiter said.  And I routinely fact-check my copy in advance of publication.

Hi Tom--- what do you think is the correct course of action in this scenario? We ended up saying nothing as we like to give others the benefit of the doubt (maybe it was a medical issue), but i feel like we should have! Our waitress for mothers day brunch was obviously high and/or still drunk from last night (or has some sort of medical issue that looks similar). She had us repeat everything twice, was teetering while standing up in flat shoes, a glazed look in her eye, and responded to a question of "what is in this [menu item]" with "your guess is as good as mine." She also messed up the bill... twice. My sister was in the bathroom and other patrons were discussing this waitress. thanks!!!

You should have brought her odd behavior to the attention of the supervisor before you left. Bad service needs to be called out.

The restaurant is lucky that the diner went back to them for a refund. It's theft. Period.

My feeling as well.

These days, it has to be easier to disguise your mission; you can just look like those people who are ignoring their dining companions as they text on their cell phones!

I do! I do! But I hate myself for doing something I tend to complain about in forums such as this. When people are texting, after all,  they're ignoring their table mates.

It's all well and good to contact the restaurant regarding an incorrect tip entered on the bill, but to preserve your rights on the credit charge the first thing you do is dispute the bill with your credit card company and let them sort it out. Life is too short to argue with restaurants.

Especially restaurants that don't seem to care about their customers.

I would like to host a retirement party at a restaurant in the NoVa area and I was wondering if you have any recommendations. It will be for about 20-25 people and I would like to spend around $25/person. It would be for the end of June; I would prefer brunch but lunch is good too. American or Latin food. I like the atmosphere of Carlyle in Shirlington. Thanks.

Places that pop into my head at the moment: Boulevard Woodgrill or Liberty Tavern in Arlington, Bamian or La Caraquena in Falls Church and Evening Star Cafe in Alexandria.

Hi Tom! I hope you had a wonderful trip! I always like when they give my partner and me two tops, because I find four tops too much for a dinner personally. I did see a heated exchange by a young couple this weekend arguing about wanting six tops for four people. I found that quite overboard. As a former restaurant owner, I hope people realize the restaurants have to maximize their resources to maximize their revenue. Ciao.

It all depends on the size of the table. There are expansive tables (see: Grill Room) and tables that don't support the menu concept (I'm talking to you, Toro Toro).

I think it's a symptom of very poor management and no communication between the bar, kitchen, and servers. Went there a few years back for a special occasion dinner. The restaurant was not packed, but we did noticed people complaining about meals not coming out quickly, and people leaving before receiving their food. The waiter did not communicate to us there there was anything amiss- served us an amuse bouche and soup right away. We waiting an hour for our meals before we gave up and talked to the manager who let us know they were incredibly short staffed in the kitchen. I feel that the restaurant should've 1) closed at that time 2) that the manager should've raced to help out 4) the kitchen should have concentrated more on getting meals out than the elaborate amuse bouche 3) we should've been alerted immediately before we sat down so we could have enjoyed a meal elsewhere. We left around 9 pm without dinner....

Yes, yes, yes and yes.

Hi Tom, love the chats. Where can I get good chinese food in DC proper?

It's hard, right? My go-to source is brunch at the Source, for chef Scott Drewno's superior Asian dumplings. 

You went to Chef and Sommelier!! I went there with my g/f, who is vegan, in March. It was close to, if not the best meal of our lives. The food was amazing, service impeccable, and the way they were able to talk through each of the dishes, you knew they were interested in the entire process from the source to your mouth. Not only were they amazing that way, but their ability and willingness to modify and creating off menu vegan dishes made it an amazing experience for both of us. And to boot, it wasn't even that expensive at 50 euros for four courses. I recommend it for anyone going to Helsinki (just reserve very much in advance.)

Chef and Sommelier was my first taste of Helsinki off the plane. For such a casual space, it sure puts out some amazing Finnish food. 

I totally agree that table size is so important! I find this particularly true of restaurants that serve dishes with lots of accompaniments, like fajitas. I've been in a situation where there isn't enough room for all the dishes if two people at a two-top order them.

I hate it when you have to start handing stuff to the server -- votives, bread baskets, flowers (it's happened!) -- to make way for lunch or dinner.

Last Friday I had a lunch date with my wife but discovered--owing to the fact that I'm an idiot--that I'd gone to the right restaurant but the wrong branch. Neither of us had time to get to the other, so I just dined alone. When I made the embarrassing discovery, I'd only ordered an iced tea. If I'd decided to leave, I'm sure the place might have charged me for the drink. But would it have been appropriate, given that the server would have to reset the table on account of my mistake, to tip as if I'd had a full meal?

I like the way you think -- and I'm sure restaurants do, too. But there was no need for you to pay for anything other than what you consumed and add a generous tip if you were so inclined (and it sounds as if you are/were).



Just wanted to vent that I absolutely hate when my family of five is seated at a four-top. Yes, I understand that two of my family are four years old, but don't they deserve their own space? If anything, they need more space so as not to knock over their drinks!! I always end up saying something even it if means schlepping back to the waiting area, and then waiting.

I hope restaurant owners are tuning in to this chat today ...

With the constant turnover of restaurants in Old Town, is there a French restaurant (or any other type of cuisine) that stands out for you (besides Restaurant Eve and Vermilion)?

I  *thought* it was Majestic, until I went there twice for the spring dining guide and discovered otherwise. I haven't been in awhile, but I really enjoyed the chef's counter at Society Fair when it set sail.

Good Morning Tom, I was wondering if you will be doing more live discussion events in the near future similar to what you had done at the Newseum last week. Unfortunately, I missed that one and was hoping that I could catch you speak at the next event.

I do those kinds of events rarely, for a number of reasons. But I really admire the Newseum and the kinds of events it hosts.

No, it doesn't excuse the original problem. But the original question indicated it had been 5 days and he/she was contemplating a 1-hour+ RT visit to the restaurant. Just trying to save them the trip!

Gotcha! Thanks.

We're heading there next week for an anniversary, wanted to know if you had any recommendations / places to avoid.

It's been awhile since I've been to Rome, but maybe this dispatch will help.  Warning: Rome is one of those cities where it's very easy to get an inferior meal if you don't do your homework.

I wrote in last week complaining about getting stuck at a too small two-top when our daughter stays home but benefited this Friday when we were seated immediately at an available two-top while the larger parties waited. All the quicker to get my margarita, happiness!

I'll toast your good luck.

I'm pregnant and can't eat sushi, but after the baby comes (and once I can get a night away from the baby, so not for a little while), I want to go to a very nice sushi restaurant. Which should I go to? I can't afford more than $100 a person (including drinks, although I wouldn't have more than 1 or 2 glasses of wine anyways).

One of the best places for raw fish and vinegared rice these days is the counter at Perry's in Adams Morgan. Close behind is Sushi Taro in Dupont Circle.

Do you ever let anyone tag along with your on a review meal? I'd be willing to put in a few dollars for a charity lottery for the chance to tagalong . . .

I do about a half dozen review dinners for charity during the year. Recently, I started donating mostly to causes that support food concerns (hunger relief and the like). I've met some very generous, very interesting folks, this way.

I have a reservation there tonight...but wonder if is still as great as it was a couple of years ago. I fear that once praised restaurants lose their luster after a while.

Some do. But Zaytinya is still my ready response to a lot of questions from readers: Where to go with a vegetarian? Where to go with a group? Where to go for good drinks, service and interesting food? The restaurant has aged gracefully over the years.

Close to old town in Bastille, although I've never been. How are they doing these days? Is Mark Slater still doing their wine program?

Mark has never been there when I've been in, but I believe he's still associated with the French restaurant (which almost made it into my spring guide, looking back at previously reviewed establishments).

I just saw the kudos to le Diplomate for holding someone's reservation. Sadly, I had the opposite experience. Last summer 6 of us had an 8:45pm reservation for dinner on a Saturday night. We waited at the bar until 9:30pm for our table to open up. The hostess was blasé and said that the group at "our" table wouldn't leave and there was nothing she could do. We finally left, without dinner, because it was getting so late and we couldn't be assured we would get a table any time soon. It was so upsetting I will never go back.

Wow. That sounds so unlike the French restaurant I know. Did you advance the problem to a manager?

I follow your chats religiously. My fiancee and I live in Petworth and we are regulars at Chez Billy. We took your recommendation and tried Bistro Vivant last Saturday. It's not a classical French bistro but more like a bistronomie that you see in Paris. Everything was as you described on your review if not better. The flavor profiles was outstanding. Service was very friendly but professional. Wine list is packed with interesting and affordable choices. It was worth the trip, which only took us 20 minutes.

Thanks for the feedback. I'm always happy to hear others have encountered what I've experienced. Bistro Vivant has really matured under its new-ish chef.

STK, accidents can happen, especially with some overly complicated POS systems. I'm pretty sure it wasn't outright theft on the staffer's part, as I've innocently made mistakes like that before as well. Trellis really didn't ned to close for the evening. That would've been unfair to those who also had reservations and willing to wait. As a career bartender, I've never been shy about communicating with guests about kitchen/service shortcomings in advance. It's really not bad service if you apologize upfront and the guest has that expectation that there may hiccups in the event!

Thanks for the industry view.

Hi Tom, Re: the manager--the hostess refused to find him, but when we walked out, he chased after us, apologized and gave someone in the party his card and said that if we came back another night, he'd comp us dinner. I have no idea if our friend followed up with the manager. I was just too upset at the time to talk to him.

Ah, that's important info to know. Thanks.

I need a refresher on what the stars mean, and can't find that information online. Can you provide a link? Thanks so much. Also, great job with the Spring Dining Guide. Particularly happy to see one of my favorite restaurants, the Classics, included. I only wish their hot chocolate was served year round.

A full explanation of my ratings are on page 23 of the spring guide. In brief:


No stars: Poor


One star: Satisfactory


Two stars: Good


Three stars: Exellent


Four stars: superlative



It's been some time since you reviewed Boulevard Woodgrill. What, about ten years? Their menu has certainly changed (improved, IMO) since then. How do you decide to revisit places you've reviewed? Is it based on time? Interest? Thanks. Any plans to get back to Clarendon soon?

Hey, I have but one stomach to give to my job -- which has gotten might busy in recent years, given the surge in restaurant activity. Thanks, though, for pointing out BW as a place I need to revisit. (The list is a long one!)


That's a wrap for today, folks. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me. See you next Wednesday morning.

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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