The Washington Post

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

Jun 11, 2014

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Dear Tom: Count this one as a rant. In the past couple of years, I've noticed several instances of restaurants and bars that card everybody, regardless of age. I find this irritating, both in itself and for its stupidity (I'm 63, and usually respond to requests for my ID with "why, do you have a senior citizens' discount?"). In my job, I have to show my ID several times each day, and when I go to a restaurant I want to get away from things like this, not be subjected to them. I hope this pointless and annoying practice is not a trend.

I sympathize. I've been carded a few times in the past few years, and no way do I look like I'm under 21. If a restaurateur has an explanation for why those of us who are clearly of legal drinking age  are asked to produce IDs, I'd love to hear from him.


THIS AND THAT: Downtown's Oval Room isn't the only major restaurant with plans to go dark and refresh itself this summer. Urbana in Dupont Circle is closing July 1 for a month-long, $600,000 renovation that will result in a larger, double-sided bar; fresh patio seating; a relocated private dining room; a "coastal Italian" color palette; and enhanced sound-proofing, says a representative for the hotel restaurant.  On the upcoming menu: more decidedly Italian (and less Mediterranean) flavors .... Only days on the job, the new executive chef at Westend Bistro in the Ritz-Carlton already knows the kitchen well; Adam Barnett was a sous chef there several years ago. The Ohio native replaces Devin Bozkaya, who left the property for a job in New York in March.  Barnett's past posts include Poste Modern Brasserie in town and Liberty Tavern and Eventide in Arlington ... 


Finally, the co-owner of Iron Gate is hoping to connect with the poster from last week who complained about some service snafus at the restaurant. Michael Babin writes:


"We're committed to providing each and every guest with exceptional service, the highest quality of food and wine, and an overall dining experience that is second to none.  That commitment makes what happened to your reader all the more embarrassing and humbling.  In this instance, we obviously missed on just about every mark, and I and the entire team would greatly appreciate the opportunity to make it right.  Please let me know if they would be willing to share their contact information so that I can reach out to them directly."


Original poster, if you're out there, please email me with your contact information at


Good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining me for an hour of food and restaurant talk.

Hi Tom- I am a weekly reader of this column and I have my birthday coming up this week, on Monday night. I'm looking for a place to have a nice dinner with my boyfriend, along with a couple drinks, nothing tooo expensive. I've already been to Rose's Luxury, Little Serow, Le Diplomate, and love all of these places but am hoping to try something new. Preferably in a fun neighborhood where there will be options for places to go out for a drink with some friends after dinner. Suggestions?

Have you been to the new Tico on Fourteenth St. NW? It's an expansive and arty restaurant from Boston-based chef Michael Schlow.  The menu is a little Mexican, a little Spanish, somewhat South American, and based on the chef's travels. The drinks there are especially good.

Last night my partner and I ate at Facci, south of Columbia. It was early, and we discovered that signature drinks were half price, as were all appetizers. I had a signature drink, and we each had two appetizers in lieu of a main course. My question is, should we have paid the tip on the actual total or what it would have been without the discounts? We opted for what the total would have been.

Bless you. If  only more diners thought the way you do.


While you were under no obligation to tip on more than the actual cost of the discounted food and drink, your generosity  no doubt put a smile on the face of the server and helped stimulate the economy.



Tom, Have you revisited the artist formerly known as Rays the Classics in Silver Spring since it was sold? I have a reservation for later in the week and assume that things are the same since Landrum owned it in terms of quality but you know what they say about when you assume. Thanks

I returned to the Classics for my recent spring dining guide, in which I updated nearly 20 previously reviewed restaurants. Here's my take on the affordable steak house.

Sorry I missed the chat, but may I suggest Taste of Tandoor (Indian), Dixie Bones (BBQ) or Bungalow Alehouse (steaks/specialty beers)? Hopefully the OP will see this next week.

Thanks for the additional suggestions.

Tom - I rarely get the opportunity to go to the finest restaurants in DC, but rather read about them often. I rely on your guidance a great bit, but also try to take an objective stance with my dining experiences. That being said, I went to Rose's Luxury on Saturday night and it was one of the best meals I have had in a long, long time. The creativity, quality of the cooked food, and service was phenomenal. The brisket and how perfectly the jerk chicken was cooked stood out. We also received a complimentary dish from the kitchen, which was a pleasant surprise. What way do you recommend, besides a tip or continued patronage, that customers thank restaurants for such a quality experience?

Who doesn't love a mash note with a stamp on it? A pen-on-paper message of gratitude that could be read aloud at a staff meeting? 

We've got reservations at Barmini this weekend, which we're very much looking forward to. Can you provide any guidance about the food (and any drinks we should be sure not to miss)? Are the "snacks" on offer enough to make a light dinner, or should we plan to eat dinner afterward?

Barmini has over 100 drinks in its repertoire. A signature of the collection is the smokey and earthy Highlander, a cocktail so dramatic, it was featured on the cover of my fall dining guide last year. One could certainly make a meal from among the snacks, which change from visit to visit. With luck, you'll find include pork rinds flavored with kaffir lime and served with tamarind yogurt, a fancy twist on a lobster roll and an amazing banh mi burger made juicy with bone marrow.  If you're still hungry afterwards, you can always stroll over to one of owner Jose Andres's other small plates purveyors: Zaytinya for Middle Eastern mezze or Oyamel for Mexican  fare.

Just wanted to share my great experience at Central this past Friday. My father and I were in the middle of dinner when I realized I forgot our West Side Story tickets. I explained the situation to our waiter, who then had the general manager come over. He suggested that I forward him the tickets (thank god for electronic tickets!) and then he would re-print them for us. The restaurant basically saved the day as I never would have made it home and back downtown in enough time. As an important side note, dinner itself was also incredible.

Awesome move on the part of the general manager. Take a bow, Central!

We are going to Portland, Maine over the 4th of July. Any restaurants that we shouldn't miss when we take a break from eatting lobster rolls?

Here's what I ate up in Portland, back in 2008. Perhaps a reader can provide more recent intel before the hour is up today.

Thank you! Finally made it there this past Saturday and enjoyed every one of our 9 selections. A really unique experience on the DC dining scene, I think. My wife had noted in Open Table that it was my birthday, which resulted in birthday greetings from the hostess, waiter, and manager (who chatted us up about Wolfgang's plans for a new series of Asian restaurants that draw frm ideas at the source; first one to be in Bahrain). Only downer was the fellow in my line of sight who somehow thought it was appropriate to keep his baseball cap on in the restaurant. Oh, well!

Glad to hear you enjoyed Scott Drewno's food. (I'm with you on the cap thing; if you're over five years of age, take it off, guys.)

Enjoyed your recent interview in Metro Weekly. It hurt my heart a little bit to see Tabard Inn referenced as Tavern Inn, but it reminded me of this place nonetheless. Haven't been to Tabard for years -- do you recommend it? It used to be a great place to have a hidden quiet brunch on Sunday.

(That typo in the article didn't come from me !)


  I revisited the venerable Tabard Inn twice before I included it in my spring dining guide. I found  the restaurant to be a shadow of its once-great self.


Subsequently, the Tabard's owner appointed a new chef,  Adrian Diday.  I'm eager to go back and see what's cooking. Like you, I have find memories of the place, especially of the brick-enclosed garden.

Hi, Tom. Where can one get a great hot dog in this area? Bonus points if the location is Northern Virginia. And no, a half smoke is not a hot dog. Thanks.

Check out Baby Wale near the convention center. A spinoff of the fancy Corduroy, the sprawling tavern counts a $10 New Jersey hot dog with fries on its crowd-pleasing menu.


Chatters, care to weigh in with other suggestions?

Hi, Tom. I've been a fan of your chats and postcards for years. I'll be in DC for a quick business trip on a Thursday and was hoping you could recommend a nice lunchtime spot for a solo diner. I'll be staying near the Dupont Circle area, so someplace not too far would be nice, and I'm coming in from the SF Bay Area, so I'd love something that is representative of the current DC dining scene. Thanks in advance!

Welcome to the District! There's not much that's new in Dupont Circle, where, as a solo diner, I've enjoyed the chopped chicken liver and stacked corned beef sandwich at DGS Delicatessen and the fried chicken and biscuits at GBD, which lives up to its initials (Golden, brown, delicious).  For something more glam, hop in a cab and head to the breezy Fiola Mare on the Georgetown waterfront. The pastas are terrific; the chef's brodetto is a dream of a bouillabaise.

I can't speak to the DC area, but when I used to live in Atlanta a lot of the suburbs required a card everyone policy so servers wouldn't forget to ID someone who is potentially underage.


I think it is easier to set the expectations that staff should card anyone who orders a drink instead of leaving it up to the judgement of the staff if a person "looks over 21". If the staff gets into the habit of asking everyone, they are less likely to forget to card someone who is underage.

Several of your audience members are saying the same thing.

I have to disagree. The chef was paid his usual rate to make their meal, the waiters were paid their usual rate to serve it, and the discount should never be taken into account when tipping, in my opinion.

I see your point, but happy hours and discounts are a way to drive traffic to a restaurant. Surely there's money to be made in the (usually brief) time those cheap drinks and plates are offered to (hopefully) a crowd of customers.

Hi Tom, Going out for sushi next week. I get to choose the venue. What would you recommend these days? We need to go somewhere where we can make reservations. Standing in line is not an option. Thanks

There's a reason you'll find members of the Japanese embassy hoisting chopsticks at Sushi Taro in Dupont Circle, which comes with the bonus of fun street views from the second-floor dining room.

Lyon Hall in Clarendon has a delicious brat, and it's pretty cheap (I think around $5) during happy hour.

Agreed. But a brat isn't a hot dog exactly ...

So the waitstaff won't "forget" to do something that could cost them their job, and a criminal violation (in DC), they go through a charade of making people, who have been legal to drink for twice as long as the "forgetful waiters" have been alive, show their ID? You are being to easy on this excuse. I understand carding everyone who looks 30 or under - and I took that in stride when I was 30, 35 even 40 (I apparently look young for my age), but at 51 it is as ridiculous as this "excuse"

I'm not saying I agree with the practice of carding everyone, "because," just that I understand the thinking, however annoying it might be those of us who haven't seen 21 in, um, decades

Hi Tom - My wife and I will be in NYC for a play later this month. Do you have a suggestion for somewhere to eat dinner near the theater district? The catch is for dress to be somewhat casual (so no suit/tie) and around 30ish dollars for an entree. Like all kinds of food, particularly Italian and seafood. Thank you!

My go-to places before a Broadway show continue to be Esca for pristine seafood with an Italian flourish and Seasonal for terrific Austrian cooking.

Today is my birthday, and I'm excited to go out for dessert later with a few friends. What's the best restaurant in town to visit JUST for dessert?

Go to Vidalia and order one slice each of the pastry chef's pecan and chess pies!  Or whatever seasonal sweet happens to be offered.

Heading to the Syracuse, NY area for a wedding - any recommendations of places to eat?

Syracuse anyone?

Doesn't that blow your cover when you show your official govt id (DC drivers license, I presume) to the waiter?

In almost every case where that's happened -- I've been carded --  the server's eyes have clearly missed the name and focused on the birth date. But their glances are so brief, it's clear to me the servers don't think I'm too young to imbibe.

Was celebrating my 40th birthday at a bar and was carded by very young server. He looked at my driver's license and said "Wow you are old enough to be my mom" Talk about a buzz kill. LOL


your chat! Enjoyed a great dinner at Founding Farmers on Friday night but only after being ignored by the 4 people standing at the hostess stand. Yep, you covered the topic of poor front-of-house service a few weeks ago.

I'm not sure what's worse, being ignored or constantly having staff in your face. The other night, at a new restaurant, a buddy and I were interrupted no less than 10 times in the first 20 minutes. Finally, he leaned in and whispered,  "When do I get to finish my sentence?" 

Just a funny story about carding everyone: Last year I sat down at the (empty) bar of a DC Italian restaurant around 3pm with my 1 year old strapped to my chest in a carrier, and ordered a drink. I was told (politely) that I had to move to a table because no one under 21 was allowed at the bar. They didn't ask for his ID.

Ha! Only in the U.S.

Yes, yes, yes - something for everyone! Dinosaur BBQ, New Century (Vietnamese), Eva's European Sweets (not just sweets, full Polish restaurant), Strong Hearts Cafe (vegan).

We thank you.

Haven't been there in a while, but I see Johnny's Half Shell still has the Baltimore Dog on its lunch menu. I remember it as being very good.

Gosh, have bitten into a dog at Johnny's in ages. Thanks for the memory jog.

My wife and I went for the first time two Wednesdays ago, with mixed results. First impression: a hectic greeting in an oddly designed and cramped entryway. But we were soon led through the large main dining room to a smaller room beyond, with views out toward the Potomac, and the two of us were seated at a 4-top. Delightful: quieter than the main dining room. Johanna greeted us and took wonderful care of us throughout the evening, including suggesting wines by the glass and offering samples. We split an entree-sized portion of lobster ravioli ($38). It arrived within about five minutes -- almost too fast. The lobster was slightly rubbery and swimming in too much sauce, although the noodles themselves were sublime. The entrees themselves arrived almost immediately after our appetizer plates had been cleared; again, a little too fast. "Under the Sea" for my wife ($50), brodetto for me ($40). All of the ingredients seemed exquisitely fresh and well cooked. BUT both our dishes were exceptionally oversalted. My wife noticed that first, and when a young manager dropped by to ask how we liked the meal, my brave wife said hers was much too salty. He reduced the price from $50 to $25, with the notation printed on the receipt: "TOO SALTY, 50% Food Comp." (Maybe they have a special button on the POS for that?) Mine meal did not seem as salty at the time ... but after leaving, my only sensation was a mouthful of salt. Many glasses of water later at home I still was still overwhelmed by the taste of salt. Our check noted suggested gratuities "for your convenience" based on the food total, not the total with sales tax. But, interestingly, the suggested amounts were based on a percentage of the food total before the $25 that had been comped. Fair enough -- except I didn't notice that at the time, so left a bit extra, ending up closer to a 25% tip. Johanna deserved that, but whoever made our broths should have his or her pay docked.

Saltiness has not been a problem during my (five? six?) visits to the latest from Fabio Trabocchi. Good for your wife for piping up and bravo to the restaurant for reducing the cost of the entree. Too bad you experienced your salt hangover after the fact  -- you can't really fault the restaurant at that point, though, right?


As for the little tipping chart, that's likely something that appears (pre-printed) on every check, and doesn't factor in comped items. I seriously doubt the restaurant/server were trying to fool you. 


Lesson here:  It pays to go over a bill carefully and have a fellow diner read behind you. 

Tom: I hope this isn't too long. Due to a fortunate set of circumstances, in one week I was in three "Tom-rated" places - Restaurant Eve (lunch), Bistro Vivant (lunch) and Notti Bianche (dinner). All good, but quite different. For ambiance, plus outstanding service, not to mention a low noise level, Eve wins hands down. Vivant, set in a shopping center is low on ambiance, but had good service. Noise - so-so. Bianchi is low on ambiance, and while it was quiet while we were there (Sunday evening after the Kennedy Center crowd had left), it no doubt is noisy enough with a decent crowd. Would I go back to all - yes. For value for the dollar, Vivant wins. Special occasions - Eve without a doubt. Bianchi - as with the others, the food is great, and the "compote" desert is a killer. My recommendation - read your reviews and make your choice!

Thanks for the field report. Glad to hear you like Notti. Haven't dropped by in ...  forever.

Does getting carded blow your cover? I could see it'd be a particular annoyance for you, unless you've got a bunch of fakes to choose from (which you probably shouldn't admit to).

My lips are sealed.

When I was in high school, I had a friend who donned a grey wig and her mom's clothes to buy booze. It worked every time. We're in our 30s now, so it is no longer necessary.

As much as I don't condone under-age drinking, I give the girl props for ingenuity!

Dinosaur BBQ is awesome. It is not a fancy place, but has great BBQ and a fun atmosphere.

Lots of votes for Dinosaur rolling in ....

There is a relatively new (one year) place in North Old Town Alexandria - Haute Dog. Went there last week for the first time....its fabulous if you are looking for an old-fashioned hot dog, half smoke, or bratwurst.

Awesome. Thanks.

Hello Tom. I was reading last week's chat and had a thought about cell phones. If all of these people so detest when someone at a table or a bar next to them is on their cell phone, then why don't they tell the person to get off the cell phone themselves? Why is it the restaurant's responsibility to tell someone they need to get off the phone? Waitstaff lives off the tips of people, so it can literally cost them their livelihood if they start telling their guests how they should and should not behave. Management lives in fear of 1 star reviews on OpenTable or bad publicity on Yelp so asking them to tell a guest to stop a certain behavior puts them in an EXTREMELY uncomfortable position. I guess it just boils down to this: I think that if the person on their cell phone at the next table is bothering you, you should tell them. You shouldn't passive-aggressively stew about the restaurant not saying something to them. If people are afraid to ask the person next to them to stop using their cell phone because it will lead to an uncomfortable situation, maybe they should think about how they would feel if that person was also in charge of their income.

Gosh, I'm not sure how comfortable I would be telling someone sitting three inches away from me at a bar to basically shut up.   That's why I think little table placards ("please refrain from using cell phones") are handy.  A diner or a server can just gently place the sign in front of the gabber.

Hi Tom, Do you have any favorite lunch spots for takeout in downtown DC? Thanks!

You bet: Shophouse Southeast Asian Kitchen for rice bowls, CF Folks for whatever special might be scrawled on the chalkboard, G for amazing grilled-meat sandwiches.

And, I, who look every minute of my over 50 age, alternatively thank, bless or hug anyone that asks me for an ID. Just take it as a compliment. That's what I do.

I dig your 'tude.

Founding Farmers here! Dear Guest, I'm SO sorry that our front desk failed to execute an acceptable level of hospitality to you! With the front desk being the first impression of the restaurant to every guest, we are nothing short of mortified to read this! Please email us directly, as we would like to make this up to you and gather more information. Warmly, Meaghan

Gotta hand it to the restaurant for following up on this situation LIVE.

Hi Tom -- I will be treated to dinner by some Australian visitors (very young) in early July (right after the 4th). Since they will be staying in a house in Southwest DC, I thought that the restaurants on the SW Waterfront might be nice. I haven't been to any of them in ages, though. Are any of them any good anymore (if they ever were)? Any suggestions? I don't want to make them pay too much.

Honestly? SW DC is sort of a food desert. Better to take a short drive to Southeast and, say, Osteria Morini for good Italian (and desserts!) on the emerging Capitol Riverfront.

So do I. I'm sure the servers are as embarrassed about carding you as you are annoyed about being carded, but a momentary annoyance (if you let it annoy you; you needn't) vs. the possibility of some kind of entrapment -- it's a no-brainer. Let them do the job the management requires them to do.

And that's a wrap on carding for today.

Tom, I have a friend visiting tomorrow night from London who has a passion for unique food and high quality dining experiences. He has lived in this area for a few months at a time but hasn't been back in over a year. Is there any newer (in the last year or two) restaurants you would suggest that can provide an interesting gastronomic experience without a reservation weeks in advance. Also, we're both young professionals so a mildly to less expensive recommendation is appreciated!

Well, the aforementioned Rose's Luxury rocks, but you have to get to the no-reservations destination early for the first seating.


Other restaurants to consider include Daikaya for Japanese tavern food, Red Hen for Italian and "orange" wines,  G Tasting for the young chef's very good tasting menu in casual environs.


Time's up, gang. Thanks for spending time with me. See you here again 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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