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

May 07, 2014

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Tom, my sister and her husband from Los Angeles will be visiting us in a month. They love a great restaurant and, he especially, a great wine list. What would you recommend for a special night's dinner that is uniquely D.C.? We're considering Blue Duck Tavern, Fiola, Brasserie Beck ... they loved Restaurant Eve when they came several years ago. Thanks, Mary

Fiola Mare should be at the top of  your list of considerations: the Georgetown newcomer offers very good Italian seafood with the bonus of a dining room that overlooks the Potomac River. It's rare to find a "view" restaurant that also serves good food. 


Another detail in the restaurant's favor: Chef-owner Fabio Trabocchi just hired expert sommelier Jennifer Knowles, late of the Inn at Little Washington, to oversee his wine program.


Good morning, everyone. I'm just back from a long weekend in NYC, where I attended the James Beard Foundation awards and did some eating around. (Hot tip: Racines on Chamber St., with a one star Michelin chef from Paris and a serious focus on bio-dynamic French wines.) 


A round of applause, please, for Vikram Sunderam, the chef at Rasika and Rasika West End for his latest accolade: Best Chef/Mid-Atlantic. (Here's a complete list of winners.)


Bring me your rants and raves!

Hey Tom, My girlfriend and I have frequented Farmers Fishers Bakers many times in the past. It isn't the most innovative food, but it is good, they have great drinks, and it used to be very consistent. We went to the restaurant without a reservation on a Monday night (expecting there to be a wait) and took a seat at the bar once we were told it would be 45 minutes. Over an hour later, we checked back with the hostess who was very rude and said they must seat all the reservations first. In the meantime, I watch the hostess to her left accept a bribe from a man who just walked in the door and immediately seat a 6 person party with no reservation. Another 30 minutes pass, and after another comment to the hostess, we are finally seated. We were ready to just enjoy a meal at this point, but our server was a like a ghost with her disappearing acts. We eventually flagged down a different server, got the check, and got out of there (almost 4 hours after we started). It seems these days you either have to yell or bribe someone in Farmers Fishers Bakers to get a good experience.

I hate to sound like a broken record, but why didn't you seek out a manager earlier in the night?


  I get that you didn't have reservations, but for someone to "pay" for a table is kind of egregious in my book. It makes the restaurant look bad. Had I been in your place, I would have eaten at the bar (bars being more fun and certainly easier to reach than tables, or so it seems).

In the past 12 months I have been pregnant twice. First time didn't last, now preggers again and almost three months along. My husband and I eat out a greta deal and I actually used to work in hospitality. So I am surprised at the number of servers who, when I ask about cheese being pasteurized or a similar question, they respond "oh, are you pregnant?" This has been at high-end, dining guide restaurants and well known upscale chains too. Luckily we have been by ourselves when this happened (we're not telling anyone yet) but I feel like they should just answer my question and not ask outwardly if I am pregnant? Thoughts?

Wow, totally inappropriate to ask such a personal question in a restaurant (or just about anywhere else). Shame on those servers.  Next time a waiter asks, just repeat your question: "I simply want to know if the cheese is pasteurized."

Good morning, Tom. My elder daughter is turning 24 on Saturday. Her restaurant request is Oyamel. Our group will include two people who are mostly vegetarian but do eat fish. From your times there, does anything stand out we should not miss?

You're in luck. The extensive Mexican menu at Oyamel includes all sorts of dishes that your "mostly" vegetarians can eat (and better yet, enjoy). The options include the marinated seafood salad, mushroom tacos, black bean soup and more.

Tom, we really want to like Alba Osteria since we live in the neighborhood, but they are making it difficult. On Friday evening, three hostesses huddled around the computer for several minutes trying to figure out where to seat us, and one of them got so frustrated with the others that she pushed them out of the way in front of us! One of the small plates, white asparagus with bread crumbs and cheese, was very oily. So oily that when we finished the asparagus, there was half an inch of oil still sitting in the little cast iron pan it was served in. I think we'll stick to pizza and beer at the bar.

Oh dear. Yours is one of several complaints I've been getting about Roberto Donna's latest addition to the dining scene. I'd love to think the gripes are anomalies, but maybe not. No one wants to see staff arguing or excessive oil on their plates.

I realized the other day that in the year or so since I moved to DC, I have yet to get sushi! Any places you recommend for good, not obscenely expensive sushi? I've been to Sticky Rice and liked it, but H St. isn't the easiest place to get to. Thanks.

Better bets: Zentan in the Donovan House hotel, the second floor dining room at Sushi Taro, the bar at Izakaya Seki off U St. NW

Hi Tom, trying to sneak one in here. Having an anniversary dinner next weekend at Komi. First big date night leaving the baby, so want to do it up. Fun or fancy place to get an after dinner drink somewhere near Komi? Thanks!!!

Fun (and cozy): Bar Charley on 18th St.

Fun (and bigger): Urbana in the Hotel Palomar

Fancy: Quill in the Jefferson Hotel

Hi Tom, When I was a child, my parents slowly introduced me to fine dining establishments and taught me how to behave in fancy restaurants. They told me in no uncertain terms that if I do not behave, there will be serious consequences. What are DC/VA good restaurants to introduce fine dining to an around 7 year old child? Of course, we would make very early reservations not to bother other patrons.

You sound like awesome parents. I'd start with restaurants that have a kid connection (Casa Luca, named for the owner's young son), or some diversion that might occupy a youngster between courses  (say, the fountain outside the supper clubby 701 or the canal off the deck of The Grill Room at the Capella hotel).


Parents, what say you?

What's our best bet for dinner? Some friends have recommended L'Auberge Chez Francois while others swear by Le Diplomate. We've tried La Bergerie, Bastille, and Fontaine Caffe & Creperie.

What kind of experience are you seeking?


Hands down, our most formal French establishment is Marcel's in the West End.  I adore the cozy L'Auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls for its dedication to tradition and old-fashion cooking. If you want something flashier -- but very good -- head to Le Diplomat in Logan Circle.  Then again, Et Voila! in the Palisades never fails to make me happy to be there, eating duck confit or floating island.

We're having dinner with friends to celebrate finally finding a new home. I'm hoping you can save me from the Cheesecake Factory. We can't get takeout since we're still in the process of moving but as long as it has a dining room, and is hopefully not at the Fair Oaks mall, we're open to anything. Thanks!

In Fairfax -- but far from fast food: Villa Mozart for upscale Italian, Curry Mantra for zesty Indian, Coastal Flats for seafood in a casual, clamorous setting.

Is there a restaurant in DC I MUST go to before I depart? Already have reservations at Komi and have been to Restaurant Eve, Obelisk, Vidalia, Rasika, Oyamel

Excellent list there! If you haven't been yet, you should definitely reserve at Iron Gate in Dupont Circle, the meaty new Partisan in Penn Quarter and the even younger  Soi 38 downtown for Thai in a beautiful setting.

Three girlfriends are looking to catch up tonight and are trying to chose between dinner at Central or Woddward Table. Which would you go with and why?

They are totally different places. What are you in the mood for?


Central is fizzier, with clever American food with a French accent. Woodward Table, home to big salads and interesting flatbreads, feels more like a DC destination: staid, solid.

I have a reservation Saturday. Should I keep it? I have done Tosca, Fiola, Fiola Mare and Casa Luca. It's a night with some special friends and I want it to be great. Thanks!

What's your concern? Osteria Morini celebrates pasta made from scratch, meat cooked over a wood grill and some very good desserts. Plus, it's fun to check out the emerging neighborhood in SE Washington, which is where the New York import is located.

Planning to go to a nice lunch today with the husband. Deciding between BlackSalt or Et Voila. Thoughts? Thanks!

Both have their good points, but if forced to choose one over the other, I'd go with Door No. 2.  I love the latter's French-Belgian menu.

When my kids were younger, I made it a point to always thank the server who took our order, the person who refilled our water glasses and anyone else who helped us. I'm proud to say that, as adults, they follow that practice today. Kids can be sponges--in a good way.

Thanking people for good service is always a good idea. Even better if you remember to tell their boss how much you enjoyed their efforts.

We will be going to dinner this weekend with friends coming down from NYC who of course are spoiled with good food. Where would you suggest we take them that has great food, and casual chic atmosphere. Thanks.

Bistro Vivant is where you want to find yourself. Never mind that the French restaurant is in a shopping strip.  A fresh take on the place is coming out later this month, in my spring dining guide. (New chef in the kitchen since my last review.)

Hi Tom--I'm going to the Jefferson Lecture at the Kennedy Center on Monday, and I'll be taking Metro. I thought I'd go a bit early and grab a drink and bite to eat around Foggy Bottom. Any suggestions? I know the pickings are a bit slim around there. Thanks!

The pickings got a little better when Bob Kinkead's Campono opened this spring, right across from the performance center.  Tip: pizza and hot sandwiches are better than salads and cold sandwiches.

I have dinner reservations next week at Hearth in NYC. Do you recommend the tasting menu? I know what you don't like in the city (Villard Michel Richard) but what do you like these days?

I liked Hearth when I last ate there, but that was years ago. For what it's worth, it was one of five James Beard contenders on Monday night, for Outstanding Restaurant.  My fave new destination is the aforementioned Racines (see my introduction).

The first one, Founding Farmers has always had and continued to have TERRIBLE, Soviet style service, except more dismissive and I haven't been back after one too many experiences. You couldn't pay me to eat at another location: their service is just awful every, single time. I've discussed this with numerous people over the years and it never improves, except rarely and then falls back down.

Thanks for the field report. I've always had better luck drinking rather than eating at Founding Farmers.

Did you go in disguise since you were surrounded by chefs/restaurant types? Did you sit next to any big names with them none to the wise?

No disguise this trip, since I wasn't wearing a name badge. Saw lots of familiar faces: Martha Stewart, Sam Kass, Ruth Reichl, Ted Allen, Corby Kummer, Eric Ripert, the posse from Restaurant Eve ...

Hmmm.... We would like to be able to hear each other talk and minimize potential disappointments involved. I think we will be in a festive mood since we haven't seen each other in ages. A great drink/wine list would be a plus for us.

Central gets my vote then.  Aim for one of the tall tables between the bar and the dining room.

Where do I go for a burger now? :(

Central Michel Richard grills an awesome burger. 

Tom - we took your advice on our first visit to Lyon Hall several years ago. When we waited and waited for service after being seated, I complained to the manager, who presented and introduced a server - not sure if she was supposed to be ours originally, and things went well from there. In fairness, we arrived separately because I had trouble finding parking. Had a nice chat with the manager later, congenial local guy. This could have worked out much worse if I had not said something, so follow Tom's advice.

Thanks for the show of support.

Hi Tom, Do you have a recommendation for a date night, medium-priced Italian restaurant? Anywhere in DC but preferably close to other bars for before/after. Thanks.

Okay, time to give Bibiana some love. The Italian restaurant is not far from the convention center and Penn Quarter, homes to Columbia Room and Barmini, among other great DC  lounges.

If you're looking for another kid connection Thally is named after the owners daughter. Tom, I know you didn't have the highest regard for the place but I had a wonderful meal there and think an early reservation would work well with a child.

Who says I don't like Thally? I've sung its praises several times, in both a preview and a round-up. (Thanks, though, for the suggestion!)

Sunday early is a good time to go to a higher-end restaurant with kids. Make sure that there is something on the menu the kid will like, or you're setting yourself up to fail. Have consistent expectations for behavior at home, so there are no new rules the kid has to remember in the midst of everything new around. The first few times you will need to pay extra attention to your kid, so don't go with friends you will gab away with and lose track of what Jr. is up to. And remember to have fun! We've had such a great time with the four-year-old (now six) that we adopted.

All good tips. Thanks for chiming in.

We have family coming in from out of town for our daughter's high school graduation in June. Would love to go out on a Saturday night for a fun and tasty dinner, not fancy or stuffy. We have 10 people including a 12 year boy and a gourmet cook by hobby. Northern Virginia and DC are fine.

Try Roofers Union in Adams Morgan. Parking can be a challenge (take Uber!), but the warehouse-y space is great fun, and I dig the chef's clever takes on American favorites. Awesome drinks help, as does a rooftop bar.

Catching up with an old friend. Can you suggest a bar for drinks after dinner that is on the casual side and won't be too loud?

The bars in that part of town tend to be busy, hence loud. The couch-dressed second floor at the new Menu MBK might be what you're looking for. I seem to recall Poste serving drinks on its lovely outdoor patio, too.

Would you recommend the 4 course, 6 course, or Chef's tasting menu? We don't want to leave so full we can't move the rest of the night.

Regular readers know I'm not a huge fan of epic tasting menus. I'd much rather eat (and focus on) several good dishes than stuff myself and be overwhelmed by too many details. I say, go for the four-courses at Iron Gate.

I've been bringing my now 8 year old twins to Firefly on New Hampshire for years. There is a good children's menu, the food is interesting and seasonal, and the decorate your own sugar cookies keeps the kids busy. Sunday are especially nice as there's ample room for an early dinner and the half price special on wine by the bottle has returned.

If only the restaurant weren't so NOISY, huh?

I recommend a neighborhood place, so you can get in & out quickly if need be (we started our kids much younger than 7). In Woodley Park, we really like Petits Plats - they have great food, a range of choices for kids (our 8 yr old prefers snails!), paper and crayons available, and a number of small rooms as well as patio dining. Often as not, we can be alone in a room if we want, and the outdoor people watching is a good distraction for a bored kid. Finally, a comic book in the back pocket can be helpful if boredom sets in.

I like comic books over Ipads for kids. Reading encourages active participation (and Ipads come with glare).

I'm not a parent, but my parents took my sister and me to nice restaurants very early on. One of their keys was ordering an appetizer so we wouldn't have to wait too long for food.

Bread baskets help, too, right?

We took our kids to Trummers on Main with good success.

I note that Eli Saslow got an award for his food stamp article. Not a relative, just a fan.

And a round of applause for one of the nicest guys in the WP newsroom, Eli Saslow, who also won this little award called the Pulitzer Prize for the same story.

Tom - Wanted to give a "kudos" to Matchbox Merrifield. Their attentiveness to service was on tested after I had accidentally left a gift card after paying for my bill. With some cash still on the card, I was bummed to find out that a server had unknowingly and likely thrown it away. After an unsuccessful search through my house and car for the lost card I went in a few days later and spoke with the manager, Mike, who went into his office and brought out a new gift card in the amount for what I told him I lost. Keep in mind that his was all by my word, which he took in good faith. I was impressed by Mike's response and service in an instance such as this and it has won me over. I also wanted to restaurant patrons to know what a good example of above and beyond service Matchbox has set. That's one way to convert an occasional customer into a regular. Hope you enjoyed the JBF Awards.

I love posting stories like yours. There are a lot of good apples in the industry, but we typically hear more about the rotten ones.

Tom My husband and I ate out twice at fairly expensive places in VA. One being a steakhouse. Both times my husband and I had half our meal left and asked for the rest to be boxed up. Both places forgot to include the leftover sides that were with our meal. At one place this was the best of the entire meal. I called back the next day when I went to open the boxes to reheat for dinner and only found the meat. BOTH places said they no longer box up the sides if you don't finish it. Restaurant 1 ended up costing us just under $100 but restaurant 2 was $175 with 1 drink each and tips. Have you heard of this? Is this the new protocall?

What was their explanation for not including the sides? Strange!

And with sounds. Please don't do this to your fellow diners. Stick to books and crayons. Or start them on word games.


Tom -- I don't know if this is still the case, but it used to be that L'Auberge Chez Francois had a TERRIFIC kids' menu for kids who eat Real Food. We went when our daughter was 7, she loved it, and the staff couldn't have been nicer to us, there with our 4 year old and our 7 year old. Our daughter's now 23 and we still go for her birthday every year.

The smart restaurant takes care of its youngest patrons, because those little ones 1) often determine where the family goes to eat and, with luck, they 2) grow into adults who continue to patronize the restaurant.

The previous poster just reminded me that I have a gift card from Matchbox that I received... probably at least 3 years ago. Any chance it's still good?

Does it have an expiration date?

A quick shout out to Dakaiya for how they handled an awkward situation a few weeks back. A young woman at the next table had a major emotional meltdown—shouting at her tablemates, weeping, calling her fiance’s mother a b***h to her face, and generally disturbing the peace. It went on for an hour and a half. During the show our waitress brought us some sake on the house, and on our way out a manager handed me a $50 gift certificate “for our trouble.” These gestures were totally unnecessary—Daikaya wasn’t responsible for the woman’s behavior—but they are the mark of a restaurant committed to excellent service and we appreciated them.

Oh my. How uncomfortable -- for everybody. Lovely response from Daikaya, but if the scene was as loud and teary as you depict, I really think a manager should have gently intervened.

Agreed! I never get a chance to sample the rolls at my favorite place when the kids join us. Fortunately, that means more yummy mac and cheese for me at home later.

I like your attitude.

No expiration date on the card

I say, go ahead and try to use it (but be prepared if someone flags the certificate as old).

District Commons is pretty good for a quick bite.

Another good choice.

I LIKE the Cheesecake Factory, but, if I lived closer to Fairfax (I live in Olney), I'd go to Artie's. It's my favorite restaurant, and I would recommend it to them.

We agree on Artie's.

Or not so gently. This is a case where a manager should have told the table that the woman would have to leave.

There's a polite way to do that, sure.

I found it odd that both places told me the same thing - the sides don't reheat well and they didn't want it to ruin the overall experience. I was dumbfounded and felt like if I spent $45 just for the main course (not including an appitizer or desert) and didn't finish the sides that they should be included. The food was outstanding and I'd recommend the restaurant but just shocked about the sides.

What sides were you trying to take home -- a savory sorbet or dressed salad? Regardless, you paid for the food and are entitled to leave with anything you haven't consumed.


That's a wrap for today, folks. Thanks for joining me, Let's meet again next Wednesday, same time, same site.

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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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