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

May 29, 2013

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

My 6 year old son has asked to go to a "Fancy" restaurant which we take to mean a tie required venue. He's an adventurous eater and wouldn't order a typical kids menu dish. Do you have any suggestions, we can go anywhere in the Va/DC/MD suburbs.

Your son sounds like an interesting eater. Just so you know, fewer and fewer restaurants require ties anymore, but I can help you with your request for something "fancy."  


The American-themed  1789 certainly fills that role, and there's the added attraction of a stroll around Georgetown before or after dinner.  Marcel's, the city's reigning French restaurant, qualifies as posh, too, as does CityZen, where Junior can hope to meet a former chef from the fabled French Laundry in California, Eric Ziebold.  Yet another option is Vidalia, the underground (but formal) Southern restaurant run by chef Jeff Buben.


Please let me know where you end up and what your son thinks of the choice.


Happy Wednesday, gang. I'm looking forward to spending the next hour with you. On a house-keeping note, I'm away next Wednesday, June 5, so I won't be hosting a chat then.


Let's begin.

Went to a new restaurant that opened about 6 weeks ago here in DC. The meal itself was quite good -- some of the best veal sweetbreads I've had in a while -- however the service is still a major issue for them to work out. I had a 5:45 PM reservation and did not leave until 8:45 PM. The culprit? About a 70 minute wait between appetizers and entrees. So my question is -- how long are you willing to wait in the middle of a meal before you finally cancel the remainder and leave? I was about 5 minutes away by the time our entrees had arrived.

You have way more patience than I do. After 20 minutes or so, I would have said something, then repeated my request in another 10 minutes if the food still hadn't arrived.


Did you say anything to your server about the delay between courses? Did he or she give you status updates?  I can't imagine that much time passing without either side making note of it.

Why can't people get it through their heads that you only give full stars to pretty good restaurants? "I would never go to a one star restaurant." Even if it was a Michelin star? One star from Tom is not a lackluster review. It just means that the restaurant is not a destination, and most low-to-moderate priced restaurants aren't. That doesn't mean their food isn't worth eating. As a rule, the fact that he bothered to publish his review means the place is worth visiting if its in the neighborhood.

A restaurant with serious ambition probably wouldn't be thrilled to get one star, a "satisfactory" rating in my book.  But as you point out (and thanks for doing so),  sometimes there are good reasons to keep a one-star place on your list: It might be convenient for you, there might be a dish or two that are executed well, maybe the noise level or the service is to your taste, etc.

My husband and I are headed to Easton and St. Michaels this weekend as a last minute getaway before expecting our first child. We have reservations at the Bartlett Pear Inn one night. Any other thoughts? From my experience, Easton usually has a better selection. Thank you!

I'm ashamed to say, I don't know the St. Michael's food scene very well. But in Easton, which does have good places to eat, counts Scossa (Italian), the Barbecue Joint  and the Harris Crab House in nearby Grasonville among its edible charms. Those are all in addition to the place where you'll be slumbering, of course.

If I had my publicist send you a copy of my book, Food Lovers' Guide to Baltimore (Globe Pequot 2013) would you give it a plug?

Online? In print? On the back cover? Keep in mind,  I have to like it to endorse it.

Hi Tom - My wife's 40th is coming up, and I was contemplating Plume. I found a couple of older reviews that you did, which seemed glowing though the star count was underwhelming. The OpenTable reviews are still positive. Have you been recently or heard anything to suggest that I will regret my decision? Thanks!

I prefer the opulent setting to the cooking at Plume, which reminds me I'm eating in a (grand) hotel.  The food tends to "safe," or a little conservative. But the many details in the dining room -- classical guitar music, silk wallpaper, sparkling chandeliers, sometimes a crackling fire -- provide lovely distraction.  Plume is one of the most beautiful restaurants in the city. But it needs consistently good food to match.

Is it ever ok to ask a restaurant for a recipe? If so, how does one go about doing it? The beef bourguignon at Le Diplomate was so delicious I can't stop thinking about it. And while I have no plans to stop visiting this wonderful new addition to the DC restaurant scene, sometimes a girl just wants to eat her beef stew at home in sweatpants.

It's perfectly OK to ask a chef for a recipe, but keep in mind that he or she 1) may wish to keep it private, for business or professional purposes and 2) restaurant recipes can be difficult to follow and/or execute at home, in part because some chefs assume too much of the non-professional cook.  They might omit important steps or figure everyone knows how to say, make a roux or demi-glace or whatever.

Somebody over there is following the chats. Their web site has been updated to move the staff bios behind links and fill the home page with location, reservations, and hours, links to menus--all the useful stuff requested in the discussion two weeks ago. (Sadly, it's all outside my budget. But at least they're responsive.)

Kudos to Michael, Mike and Sebastian, the trio of owners of the Red Hen who made the appropriate changes to their online site almost as soon as they read the discussion. Gotta love Same Day Service!


And while we're on the topic, I got permission from chef Victor Albisu of the new Del Campo to publish his follow-up response to the chatter last week who reported lags between courses and an absent server:

Service is as much a part of the dining experience as the food, and our goal is to provide warm hospitality to everyone who walks through our doors. Like many new restaurants, one of our challenges has been finding consistency in the service arena. I believe the FOH team has shown significant improvement in recent weeks. We have made various operational moves in order to continue to improve into the future.

Regarding the reader comment, this guest asked to speak with one of our managers and shared her concerns only after she had closed out her check, leaving us with limited options to make amends for her wait time. During the conversation she also made it clear that she and her party were ready to leave, again eliminating the option to send her party something gratis or find any other way to address the issue.

While we sincerely regret when any guest experiences a long wait or otherwise unsatisfactory experience, we wish guests would express their concerns immediately and not wait until the end of a meal or after they have left the restaurant to vent their frustration. The sooner an issue is brought to our attention, the sooner we can and will address it.

Del Campo is a result of the food memories and family experiences of my life. I feel as though I owe the people that taught me and came before me to represent our culture of hospitality with the utmost respect. Nothing matters more to me than our food and our service.


Thank you,


Good morning, Tom. We relocated from Arlington to Franklin, TN earlier this year. We love it here but really miss the NOVA/DC dining scene. Our standards may be too high as our son is a chef in DC and we have been spoiled. Do you have any recommendations on where to dine in Nashville? Thanks so much. Barbara

Two places that leap to mind: Catbird Seat, which I haven't tried, and City House, which I adore.

Tom - Any plans for cities in Scotland? Or suggestions from Chatters? Also, how about an updated link to all post card columns? Thanks,

Scotland, anyone?


Here's the link to the Postcard archives, meanwhile.

Hi Tom, I am looking for a restaurant that would have a private room for a birthday celebration for up to 25. I am looking into Rasika but am also looking for other suggestions. The celebration will be in September. Thank you

You might also consider Rasika's new sibling, Nopa Kitchen + Bar, also in Penn Quarter, or the recently re-reviewed Corduroy near the convention center or Marcel's in the West End.

Hey Tom. Just curious if you've been to New York City recently and have any recommendations, particularly in the Times Square area for before a play (a section of town I find challenging to find good restaurants). Thanks.

Yep, I was in NYC for the James Beard Awards earlier this month, but none of my eating was done near any of the city's theater stages. However,  I can still vouch for Esca for pristine seafood on West 43rd and Seasonal for modern Austrian fare on West 58th.

While I have some doubts as to what a six-year-old might have in mind when asking to go to a "fancy" restaurant, I think that most children his age would enjoy live music during dinner, so perhaps a venue with a jazz quartet or pianist might be a good choice (as long as he or she is mature enough not to disturb the musician).

Thanks for suggesting. For starters, the Bombay Club downtown has a piano player at night.

Tom - Every year, my kids spend a week at their grandparents cabin. My wife and I stay in town and celebrate our own personal Restaurant Week. This year, I started a new business and our resources are a bit tight. Can you recommend some of your favorite value meals in the city? Note - this doesn't have to necessarily be a cheap restaurant. Just a great deal for the money. For example, I've long believed that the hamburger at Palena tops the list as an incredible deal - despite the fact that Palena isn't extremely affordable. Thanks! A loyal fan

Have you thought of taking advantage of the many area pre-theater menus? Those can be one way to keep the dining out budget in line. Among my favorites are the deals at J & G Steak in the W  Hotel ($39 for three courses), 701 in Penn Quarter ($32) and Westend Bistro in the West End ($40).


Chatters, feel free to weigh in with your favorite "value meals" out there.

Hi Tom- I loved your Spring Dining Guide and based off of your current review, I choose Ripple for a night of treating myself tomorrow. The menu and wine list both look intriguing. My only concern is that reviews for Ripple by regular folks on the internet do not always match what you said. Quite a few said the food doesn't live up to the hype. Why do you think there is such a difference?

Well, one of  the differences between "regular folks" and me is that you can go online and see my entire body of work: what I choose to review, what I like and don't like, where I come from and where I've been. And based on that, and your tastes and experiences, you can choose to trust or dismiss my opinion.  (Just so you know, I dined twice at  almost all the restaurants in my spring guide  to come up with my updated evaluations. )

any early word on the eatery? Do you plan to go up and check it out?

I had a really unfortunate experience at the original Scion, which was so sub-par I didn't even bother to write it up, but if I do go to the spin-off, I'll keep an open mind.

Hank's Oyster Bar does meat plus two every night of the weekly, mostly in the low 20s. I have become addicted to Jamie's short ribs, a Monday and Tuesday night special. And a lot of the seafood options are also well within the "value" range.


Tom, love your chats and all the great work you do. Went to Del Campo after the chef was on the free range food chat. We went on a Saturday and had very attentive service. It was such a treat to try smoky flavors on something besides meat. The ceviche with avocado was silky and flavorful. The gnocci was good, but the sauce it was in, with smoky tomato, was divine. The portion was a bit on the small side for an entree, but I think they expect you to get asados too, so if that's the concept then that is fine. The sides were unique and delicious. The chorizo were disappointing, but only because of texture issues. They were more sausage than a traditional chorizo, and my husband hit some gristley unchewable bits. Flavor was amazing, and my first taste of smoky salt! We will be back.

Music to the chef's ears, no doubt!  My review of the newbie comes out in the Magazine June 9.

Hi Tom, What factors do you consider when deciding on a tip? I ask as on a recent visit to a restaurant, a server was training a new hire and failed to introduce her or involve her in the process at all. It was as if the server-in-training was not even there. In addition, the server did not check in after the meal was served and we had to flag him down for the check (this was during a non-busy weekday lunch). Thanks.

I think servers-in-training initially are meant to be seen but not heard, although I'd love confirmation on that from someone in the industry. New hires act like "shadows" to the person training them. Sounds as if your main waiter needs to go back for extra training, however.

Why no mention of Evo Bistro in McLean when chatters as for recommendations in the McLean/Tysons area? I find their food to be fantastic, not to mention their wine selection.

Because it's been awhile since I've eaten there (and it was OK, not great, back then).

I think you get good value for your money at the Great American Restaurants; Artie's is my go-to restaurant for special occasions; I'd go more often if it were closer.

I'd go if my last few meals at GAR restaurants were as consistently delicious as they were back when I started this job. Artie's, for instance, was typically in my early fall dining guides. No more.

Hello Tom: My husband and I recently treated our son and daughter-in-law to a celebratory dinner at Glashaus. This was our first time there. Somewhat disappointed. Since only my husband and I were having wine with dinner, we ordered by the glass. The waitress explained that they were supposed to get five glasses to the bottle. At 750 ml. = 25.3 ounces, that works out to a meager 5 oz. pour per glass. Not exactly generous. My husband and I shared the asparagus with creme fraiche and morels for appetizer. The asparagus was delicious, but the morels were deep-fried, which in our opinion seriously masked the delicate morel flavor. Our dinners (pork; hanger steak; two orders of pasta bolognese) were OK, considering the price, but only the steak was voted "great". My husband and I ordered the banana nut bread with miso caramel ice cream for dessert. The bread was no better that my mom's recipe, but the ice cream was outstanding. Not sure we're going to hurry back. What feedback have you had from other readers?

Your missive makes me sad. I adore the Glass Haus Kitchen, and haven't heard anything but "likes" from readers since my review.  But, as we know, things are subject to change.

Oval Room has a tasty pre-theater menu. We've had a few delicious and relatively affordable meals there, with tuna sashimi, the steak, and the delicious donuts for dessert!

Let's add Oval Room to the list, too.

I, too, heartily recommend Corduroy for the chatter looking for restaurant suggestions. On top of some fantastic entrees, I am always amazed at how clean they get their vegetables. It's an amazing experience.

Clean vegetables? Sold!


Corduroy came to mind because it has a good-sized second floor bar and private dining area.

Hi Tom, My husband and I are intrigued to try out the new Del Campo restaurant in Chinatown. The diners' reviews are mixed. What are your thoughts? Have you eaten there yet?

As I posted earlier, my review comes out June 9.


Do you like smoky flavors in your food? That's a question you need to ask yourself, because almost everything on the menu is touched by fire.

I know you've recommended a few restaurants near the Kennedy Center in the past, but do you have any choices for dinner for 2 people who are both vegetarians?

How about Rasika West End, a short cab ride away?

I know where to not get a good value--Eammon's in Arlington. $8 for one piece of fried haddock and $2.50 for baked beans that were straight out of a can, and served in a thimble size plastic container. Ridiculous.

Sometimes, it pays to know where not to go as much as where to spend your money, right?

Vidalia does a mini-restaurant week throughout the year, with a 3-course prix-fixe lunch for $19.90, usually with 3 choices in each course. They usually post the week's menu on Monday on their Facebook page. Nice way for those of us on limited budgets to enjoy some of the best food--and service--in town.

And the southern charmer goes on our "value" list as well.

Does the price of a wine determine the size of the pour? I've noticed lately if I order a $10 wine & someone at the table gets a more expensive $14 one the pour is bigger. Is this common practice?

The standard pour is about 6 ounces for a glass. But you have to keep in mind, glasses come in all shapes and sizes; six ounces in a big balloon glass might look like a mere splash (when in fact it's not).

Sweetwater and Coastal Flats great.

Good to know. I've not been to either in a year or so.

Hubby and I are frequently in this area (family home in Oxford) and some of our favorite food places are: AVA's pizzeria in St. Michaels (patio seating if possible), Martini's in Easton, and Out of the Fire in Easton (going there this Saturday). We use to frequent General Tanukis but when we there a few months ago it seemed they had gone out of business. If you are willing to head to Oxford the Robert Morris Inn is amazing and right by the ferry for easy access.

Thanks for writing. Out of the Fire was more fun than delicious, at least when I dined there.

I think one thing to keep in mind is that most of us are pretty tolerant and optimistic. So, if there's a 20 min wait between wait between appetizer and entree, it's not that big of an issue, and why would we raise it? So, by the time most of us bring things to a manager, we're past the point of being mildly frustrated (and are ready to leave)

20 minutes is pretty long for an entree. Someone -- the guest, (better yet) the waiter -- should have raised the unusual lag in courses.


One thing that might help going forward: Tell the waiter when you sit down you're looking forward to a nice evening and 1) you are up for a leisurely pace or 2) you need to be out by X time.

One thing you don't tip on is things that are none of your business. Like how attentive he is to other tables or, um, whether he trains a new hire they you think he should. If his interactions with the trainee made your meal less or more pleasant, that's a factor, but not otherwise.

Thanks for writing.

The reason I wait until the end of the meal is I fear if I complain someone in the back that's making my food is going to either rush and give me something bad or worse do something to my food....

Most kitchens are professional. I wouldn't worry excessively about anyone messing with your food (despite what you see on cable TV).

Prime Rib is a fun experience that I think your son would enjoy. The servers treat you like royalty, and the live piano and old-school vibe are such a throwback that it's almost cartoonish (not in a bad way! Think Medieval Times for the 50's era).

Unfortunately, the Prime Rib is no longer as delicious as it was one I first reviewed it for the WP

Check out Patterson House for incredible cocktails in an amazing setting. The fresh donuts are an added bonus!

And that makes three solid suggestions for our Nashville reader!


The lunch bell is ringing. Remember, no chat next week. I hope to be back to take your questions June 12.   Until then, dine well.

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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