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

Jul 24, 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 college roommate and her husband will be celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary in Sept. They live in NJ but enjoy going to the city. We would like to arrange to pay for dinner for them at a very nice restaurant. One thought is something classic that's still going strong. Price not a factor in this case. Any thoughts? Thanks so much. Regular reader.

Are they famous? Book a table for your friends at Daniel, the haute French restaurant that has 20 years of grand meals behind it in Manhattan. NYT restaurant critic Pete Wells demoted the place from four stars to three -- still excellent --  in today's paper in part because of Daniel's service. Known diners are treated like royalty (hence my opening question); unknowns get the same fine cooking but not as much pampering.


Wells was recognized on all his visits. On one of them, a colleague who was not known by the staff ordered the exact same dinner as the critic and reported a much different service experience.


I love these lines in his critique:


"A restaurant can’t be blamed for trying to impress a critic. It can be faulted, though, for turning its best face away from the unknowns, the first-timers, the birthday splurgers, the tourists. They are precisely the people who would remember a little coddling at a place like Daniel for years."


Wells's review may prod Daniel to pay more attention to *everybody* rather than a chosen few. But if want additional ideas for celebratory venues in the Big Apple, try Le Bernardin, one of the best seafood temples anywhere; Eleven Madison Park; or the Four Seasons, one of my favorite dining rooms in the world (the late Philip Johnson designed the timeless interior). 


Happy Wednesday, everyone. Thanks for joining me for another 60 minutes or so of food and restaurant  talk.



A request: If you have an issue with a restaurant, try to send it to me a day or two -- or even a week! -- before the Wednesday chat.  


Here's why: When I get rants early, I can do some reporting and (hopefully) get to the bottom of a problem, maybe even solve it. When I get gripes after the chat goes live, there's rarely time to call a restaurant to get its side of a story -- which is, of course, fair to all parties.


To illustrate my point, here's a note from chef Enzo Fargione of Osteria Elisir downtown.


"I just read the comment on your chat about the poster dining at Osteria last week and the problems he encountered with one of our servers.


Let me start by saying that after a detailed search in spam boxes in different accounts on the website we were not able to locate the poster's email.


Rest assured, however, it is imperative to me to take each of my customer's comment very seriously. We all know and understand that each server has specific guidelines when dealing with the guests, personal inputs define the quality of service based on how servers read the table and by the guests state of mind at that particular moment.


I am very sorry to learn that the poster has had a less than a stellar experience with the service even thought he highlights the fact that he really enjoyed the food and the new cocktail program.


It is my intention to personally find out what happened, correct any possible mistake that was made and inquire what really went wrong in order to implement a better system so that situations like these will never happen again.


The same server, however took care of other guests at different tables that same evening without any negative comments or complaints, so it is quite odd why that particular table add such a "terrible" experience.


On the other end, the poster took the time to write about his experience, therefore something must have stricken a nerve at some point that evening.


I really have no idea what happened, but if possible I would love to contact this person and hear his side of the story. Do you by any chance have a forwarding address?


Thank you for posting his comment and for giving me the chance to learn about a problem that needs fixing in my restaurant.


Note to chefs and restaurants: Unless a poster includes his or her email address in a post, I do not see where the posts are coming from.


The next note is from the owner of Mintwood Place, Saied Azali. He was responding to a patron who said he/she showed up 15 minutes before the restaurant opened and was not allowed inside, despite the wilting heat:


"I am sorry that is has taken a few days to pen a response to your mention of us on your Wednesday chat. The staff and I apologize profusely to the guests that feel they were left out in the heat and humidity especially if the guests were pregnant or elderly.


I, myself, as well as the two managers were present that day and we must have all missed the guests standing outside.  We have in the past both at Mintwood Place and Perry's allowed guests, elderly and pregnant people, in from any inclement weather outside.


The only person we were aware of coming into the restaurant was a man around his 30's that asked if the restaurant was open. I wish that the situation was more vocally brought to my staff's attention.  It very easily could have been fixed then and there.  The blame clearly lies in our court for not being attentive and aware of the situation outside and for that we apologize, 5-5:30 pm is a busy time for us.



I kindly ask only for two things. One, that if any guest ever feels a situation isn't handled properly or the outcome is unsatisfactory please let a manager know. They have the power to fix it and make it right.  Please let them.


Second, Tom, we would appreciate us contacted either by phone or e-mail before publishing an accusation such as this.


From Tom: With the help of posters, I will try!


Let's rock and roll.

Tom, Last week a chatter asked about BYOBs other than Thai X-ing. Toscana Cafe on Capitol Hill is BYOB, and they don't charge a corkage fee if you buy the wine at Schneider's and can produce a receipt. Good Italian food and a nicer interior than the exterior might have you believe.

Now that's what I call a good neighbor policy!


Thanks for adding the Italian eatery near Union Station to the list.

good morning, Tom. I am looking for a restaurant/eatery near 18th and N, NW, for lunch with an old friend. Doesn't need to be fancy but I don't want Shake Shack or Nando's. Thoughts? Thank you!

Here's what I'm thinking as I take a mental walk in that direction: Sushi Taro is at 17th & P. Pizzeria Paradiso sits at 20th & P. I also like the friendly Greek Mourayo on Conn. Ave between R and S streets.  Also good: the Dupont Circle branch of Teaism on R St. NW off Connecticut. I'd throw in Hank's Oyster Bar, but the storefront is only open for lunch Friday through Sunday.

Tom, I'd never thought twice about your personal relationships before I read your recent Magazine dinner party piece; I have been far more interested in your high quality prose and wonderful descriptions of your dining experiences. The reactions of some readers to the Magazine article disappointed me, as it seemed they focused only on a few lines not on the content. Please be assured that you have a great number of supporters of both your outstanding work, and of your commitment to your partner. I know that it makes me happy to know that, for all its faults, the world today is more supportive and appreciative of diversity of relationships. May you and Ed have many years of happiness together.

You just made my ... month. Thanks so much for the feedback.  That piece on home entertaining was fun to write.


Someone recently asked me what I like most about my job, and my immediate reaction was "the readers."  Your post reinforces that.

Glad I waited to get your take before spending on what sounds like very uninspired food. Did you find anything you liked? Too bad Todd English appears to have another major flop on his hands in Washington.

While I was eating at the new  MXDC for today's preview, I kept thinking, "What can I suggest for a photograph?" 


Ay yi yi.  MXDC is no Oyamel, that's for sure.

Hi - we're looking for a nice place for a quiet dinner near the Kennedy Center. Any recommendations?

I feel like a broken record when I type this, but your best bet is the pre-theater menu at Marcel's, which includes sedan service to the KC and back. 


Right next to the stage is Bob Kinkead's pop-up Ancora: good food but dismal  atmosphere.  And some patrons of the arts also like Ris in the West End before heading off to a performance.  West End Bistro is delicious but noisy.

Hi Tom, We have relatives that are new to town and are interested in iconic DC restaurants and good pizza. I'm leaning towards a late-ish Saturday lunch at 2 Amys, but seem to recall some hearing some not very good impressions of them from you lately. Would you recommend taking my family there? The party would include a youngish 70 year old and a 2 and a half year old. I'm also tempted by District of Pi or Seventh Hill, but they're not quite as iconic as 2 Amys.

Lately, I've enjoyed the small plates in the wine bar more than the pies in the main dining room at Two Amys. But it's still worth your time. So is Seventh Hill , although it's hardly iconic.  But forget District of Pi, which feels like a chain.

Planning a lunch next week in Penn Quarter. Which of the newer restaurants to the area would you recommend?

I've enjoyed my meals at the seafood-themed Azur (in the old Cafe Atlantico space) a lot.


 The setting is serene,  and in the kind of weather we've been experiencing, tilefish crudo and sea bream served with succotash really call to me.

I realize this is probably where the 'one bad apple spoils the batch' comes in, but I'm really frustrated by the trend for a restaurant to call me about a reservation, leave a message and ask that I return the call back to them. The whole reason I use OpenTable is so that I can do reservations on my own time and not talk to a human! And they can tell from my account that I have NEVER missed a reservation. What would happen if I didn't return the call? Is my reservation gone? What's wrong with a voicemail that says 'we're calling to confirm your reservation, please call if your plans have changed.'

Actually, I've noticed more restaurants calling to confirm reservations and ending with "Let us know if your plans change" rather than "Please call back."


I *love* the trend. They've reached out to remind me I have an appointment with them but don't require me to call back  unless something has changed.


Easy, easy, easy.

Hi Tom A friend and I went to a new restaurant a week ago for dinner. We were kept waiting about 40 minutes after our reservation with poor communication from the hostess about how long the wait would be. The hostess at one point said they would send over some snacks on the house once we were seated. Once we were seated the snacks did not show up and the server seemed so harried that it didnt seem appropriate to mention it. About 5-10 minutes after we were seated, the server said the kitchen would be closing in 30 minutes, so there was a bit of a rush to get our orders in. The food at this place was super but the service and obvious growing pains made for a rough night overall. Any advice on how to have better handled the situation regarding the alleged snacks? Thank you!

You sound like patient diners.  Forty minutes is a long time for someone with a reservation to wait.


My question: Where was the manager in all this?


I would have sought out someone in charge after about 20 minutes of waiting and stated my case then and there (but in a nice tone, as in: "We're psyched to be here tonight, and we have a reservation. Curious how long it will be before we see our table?")


It sounds as if you didn't do that. I think you could have raised the issue with your waiter, and early on: "The hostess said that because we were kept waiting, someone would offer some snacks."  Then leave it to him to make the evening right, or at least better.

Tom - Between your first take on MXDC and your verbal annihilation of La Tagliatella, I've observed some very negative reviews recently (in the spirit of your epic put down of the now-shuttered La Pigalle). Is this a coincidence or is it that with all the new openings in the metro area, there are naturally going to be some absolute stinkers among them? I very much appreciate your candour and the fact that "you eat there so we don't have to." Also, which of the anticipated openings on 14th Street are you most interested in? Thanks!

I think it's a coincidence. Plus, I like to mix things up from week to week. A steady diet  of "love it!" or "hate it!" --  or more typically "like it" -- would be boring for all of us, right?


The places that intrigue me the most on 14th St. are Kapnos (which I have yet to visit) and Etto (which I've been to several times). The first interests me because it's offering something (northern Greek cooking) the city doesn't have a lot of and Etto seduces me because of the pedigreed ownership behind the pizza and small plates purveyor.

I like your reviews but sometimes have trouble tying your stars to text. How can a place where you "departed others wondering if there might be a Lean Cuisine back home" get 2.5 stars. I don't have the money to go to an uneven restaurant 3 times wit the hope of hitting it on the right night. And that would be 1 star place as I understand your system

Thanks for your feedback.


The unusual wine program, the smart service, the rustic interior and several terrific dishes were behind my "good to excellent" rating for Red Hen.

Looking back over my many years in Washington, I have fond memories of so many wonderful restaurants that, sadly, are no longer open. As I reflect, a great many come to mind...Rive Gauche, Jean-Pierre and Tiberio are a few that stand out, all of which have been closed for at least 15 or 20 years at my estimation. Given the loss of so many gems like these, it seems DC has become a less refined city. With the exception of places like 1789 and Marcel's, I feel it has become increasingly difficult to find fine cuisine in a formal setting. What's your take on this, and what are some of your favorite DC restaurants of yore, Tom?

I found myself smiling and nodding  as you ticked off  the names of those long-gone treasures, some of which I was lucky enough  to try  (the Italian Tiberio) before they went dark.  Does anyone else remember Le Lion d'Or, the top-tier French restaurant downtown? Its kitchen turned out fabulous pigeon and souffles; I remember eating there at lunch, because that's the meal I could (barely) afford at the time. But my happy memories of yesteryear  aren't all of expense-account venues. Samplings, for instance, was one of Washington's very first small plates restaurants, and it was helmed by Janet Terry back when DC enjoyed more women in top kitchen jobs.


The city still has beautiful rooms with beautiful food -- CityZen comes to mind, as does the sleeker Source --- but luxury dining has changed a lot in the last 10 years or so. A lot of  customers want less pomp and more fun when they eat away from home. Komi, for instance, serves four-star Greek food in a room so spare it could be mistaken for an art gallery.

Hello Tom, Longtime DC waiter here... have had the chance to work at some great restaurants, don't think I've ever had the chance of waiting on you, but I'm firmly opposed to treating guests differently along the lines of VIP/non-VIP status. I do believe in tailoring the experience to first dates, business dinners, anniversaries, and that sort of thing. Authentic, informative, and comfortably paced are a few pinions of the service philosophy. One thing I've noticed in your reviews is they (naturally) focus on the restaurant's cuisine. Are there any restaurants that have impressed you as much with the qualities of the front of the house staff as the abilities of the back of the house, and if so, are you ever compelled to write pieces about service and hospitality? Pardon me if I've missed any, but I do love the craft and I feel that we're given short shrift in general. Thanks - hope you'll be coming back to a certain relatively-new unnamed Belgian eatery soon :) Peace, Peter

Ripple in Cleveland Park comes to mind as a great example of intelligent service up front and interesting food flowing from the kitchen. Everything just hums in that restaurant.


Years of eating for work has taught me many things. One lesson is:  food isn't everything. Good service can make up for indifferent cooking (well, SOMEtimes).  I aim to mention service in all my reviews.


Peter, you sound like a terrific waiter. I like the way you tailor your service to the needs of different diners.

With the Giant construction near 2 Amy's right now, I might go to Pete's Pizza on Wisconsin over 2 Amy's (Biden likes it there, which might make it a good newbie place)

Good call. Love Pete's white clam pie. But the OP was looking for a spot with more "history."

I'd recommend NOPA for someone looking for a new restaurant in Penn Quarter, but be prepared for a loud (but good) lunch

I'm definitely a fan of the newcomer's chicken, be it fried or roasted, and its fried fruit pies.

Fiola I was at Fiola for Happy Hour last night, dressed in a suit (I'm a lawyer, yes I know in this town how unusual) and was offered either complimentary olives or pistachios with my wine by the bartender I am by no means a regular having only been there twice before over the past months. An older couple, dressed as tourists (shorts/sneakers) sat down, ordered drinks and were not offered complimentary appetizers. They then ordered the olives ($5)! I heard the lady remark "I don't think we fit in here." Any rules on who should get the complimentary appetizers?? Any standard restaurant practice. I felt badly for the couple.

This is a PERFECT example of why I like to get the restaurant's side of the story before publishing an item.


Some thoughts: If one person gets a free snack, everyone should enjoy be able to enjoy it. Did the "tourists" order something alcoholic? Just curious if the snack was for people who were drinking something stronger than water or soda.

So you mix up your reviews to keep it interesting rather than honest? DC would have a better food scene if there were less blood sport first bites. Where is the harm in passing on a place that serves its purpose and keeps people employed rather than raking it over the coals.

That was my quick -- and incomplete -- answer in the middle of a live chat.  Of course reviews should be honest. I'd never run a negative review for the "sport" of it.

Hi Tom, I'm the person who commented on Elisir last week. My name is Seamus H. and email is [redacted] if Mr. Fargione would like to get in touch with me. I'm not sure why the restaurant didn't receive my email. Maybe I submitted the contact form incorrectly. At any rate, I withdraw my comment on Elisir not responding to me if they never received the email and I appreciate them reaching out now. However, I do stand by the poor quality of service we received. I think restaurants need to know that many diners may feel awkward complaining about their server and/or don't know the proper way of doing it. I personally looked around the restaurant as we were leaving to see if I could find a manager but couldn't easily identify one, and was certainly not going to ask the server. Furthermore, this was the first time I have ever emailed a restaurant about poor service. My point being that just because you only received one complaint in an evening it doesn't mean that there isn't an issue. I'm not looking for any kind of "freebies" from the restaurant, I would just like them to ensure their quality of service matches their delicious food and drinks. - Seamus

There you go, Mr. Fargione.

I agree with your review of MXDC (although my wife is a salt fiend, so we loved the chips). You didn't mention the service, but we found it...strange. The server was VERY enthusiastic and yet things were spotty. When the waiter asked me if I wanted a refill of a margarita, took my order, and walked away while ignoring my wife and our friend (also a woman), both of whom had ordered and finished drinks, I knew that I wouldn't be back.

My service was spotty, too.  Although there were a sea of empty tables, and I had a reservation, I was told I needed to wait in the bar for my party to show up (they were a minute behind, trying to find coin for parking). And no one commented on all the food that was returned to the kitchen pretty much intact.

Tom, the couple ordered a Peroni and a Bailey's on ice, yes alcoholic drinks. I should have prefaced the story with the lady first asked the bartender if she made strawberry daiquiris. So, there you go. . .

Gotcha. Thanks.

Can you suggest to the owners that Red Hen open earlier? There are four major hospitals up the road from them and with shift change at 3:30/4, they would have a big group of folks ready for happy hour.

Red Hen, the ball is in your court.

Glad I waited for your preview of the new place. It sounded very interesting on the web site. Thank you for saving me time and money. I remember Olives started out nicely but over time the food and service declined and I gave up on them. Sounds like MXDC is headed for an early departure, but then again, one never knows.

One never knows, you're right.

At the same time, some of your loyal readers do not support sodomy or its promotion, so perhaps you can stick to the food in your writings? A restaurant critic should not be part of the editorial page.

Yikes. I'm at a loss for words.

Ruppert's. It was the first time after having moved to DC from the left bay that we had a meal to write home about......

Yep, Rupperts is missed. It was very much in the San Francisco  mindset, but bordering on the precious.  My friends and I had to try to stifle our laughter when the amuse bouche -- often a single green bean or whatever per person  -- was introduced.

As a kid I was lucky enough to eat multiple times at both Jean-Pierre and Le Lion d'Or, thanks to my oenophile and gourmet grandfather and father. They were fabulous, but to be honest I can't imagine, now that I'm on the early-side of middle-aged, that I would want such a stuffy experience these days. I still dress up for DC's fanciest restaurants, though I'm likely to keep the jacket and ditch the tie for most of them. But while the dress might not be as fancy, and the room not as heavily appointed (if you're looking for that, try the Tasting Room at Eve or the Inn at Little Washington!), the service at our top tier restaurants is still just as refined, if not more so. And frankly, we get better ingredients and more interesting creations now... And remember, there's nothing wrong with being the best-dressed person in the room. If you want to get gussied up for your night on the town, go for it. The dining room doesn't have to be strictly formal for that to happen!

Well said! Let's not forget, some of DC's "best" French restaurants garnished their plates with canned carrots back in the day (60s-70s) .

I am so confused by your praise of Ripple's service. The one time we (my boyfriend and I, both in our mid/late 20s) went there, we waited 30 minutes to be seated even though we had a reservation. I did ask multiple times when we would be seated; it seemed they had a backlog or overbooked or something. Then, we waited an hour and a half for our food. The waiter did bring us a complimentary cheese plate while we waited, but it was still almost 10pm by the time we received our entrees. We also observed that the waiters were bringing out food one table at a time in 10-15 minute intervals. It was truly one of the most bizarre dining experiences I have ever had. This was about one year ago.

I'd give Ripple another chance. Your experience sounds like an anomoly. I haven't received similar complaints from readers (not that I don't believe this happened).

I remember on my first visit to Washington I had a lovey dinner with a glass of wine at the old Chez Francois and got change from a $10 bill. Liked it so much I went back for lunch the next day. Disclosure: That was 1964.

LOVE it.

And don't have a life or anything on the side, Tom. Your life is the food. Any mention of having a civilian life is an unacceptable breach of your only purpose: the food. (In all seriousness, I want to second the sentiments early in the chat supporting you and your "real" life beyond the service you do for us and for the Post, which is appreciated. Pretending that you aren't a real person beyond that role, however, is ridiculous.)

Bless you (and everyone else who just sent messages my way). You folks rock. Well, MOST of you folks rock.

This has also been my experience and I also love it.

Let's hope it becomes the norm.

When I ifrst came to DC in the mid-70's, Lion d"Or was THE ritziest, priciest place in the city with that fabulous old-world food and service. Also remember Dominique's, where you could order lion, snake, bear and antelope and San Souci where White House type still dined. I think the San Souci was at it's height when JFK was prez, though.

Dominque's! Ahhhh. That was a *fun* restaurant, even if the cooking wasn't great.

After reading your review, I took my South American spouse straight to Del Campo. In contrast to your service experience, our waiter barely muttered a word to us. Luckily we got the best of both worlds by eavesdropping on the table next door, which was getting the full lecture. Thought it was wonderful, from cocktails to morcilla to the Don David wine (which the chatty server noted it was your recommendation to our neighbors). Our only concern was that the dining room was barely half full on a Friday night. Hope it succeeds so we can go back and try more!

Summer has been strange for a number of restaurants, partly because of the extreme heat (patrons less inclined to dine out) and partly due to people being away for vacation, etc. I expect Del Campo to be playing to fuller houses soon.


That's a wrap for today, everyone. Thanks for showing up, thanks for the support (you know who you are) and let's do this again next week, same time.

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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