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

Aug 21, 2013

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Hi Tom - Loved your column this morning on chain restaurants! As someone who grew up in a relatively small midwestern town without many (good) non-chain options, I was raised going to mostly chain restaurants (though now that I'm a DC transplant, I've come to enjoy all of the amazing, unique restaurants we have here). Are there any chains you like that you didn't write about? Growing up, I loved going to the Bonefish Grill, as it had the freshest seafood in almost the whole state (granted, we were fairly land-locked). And at breakfast this morning, my spouse and I were also discussing how much we've both enjoyed Texas Roadhouse, with their inexpensive steaks, delicious rolls, and portions big enough to make two meals. Granted, we don't think these places are as good as, say, Ray's the Steaks or other options we have in the DC area. Do you have thoughts on these (or other) chains? Thanks!

I'm an admirer of Bonefish Grill, too, but I didn't include the chain in my story because it wasn't in the (more or less) Top 10 concepts in terms of size or sales. It's been awhile since I've eaten in BG, but I recall liking its fried shrimp, Parmesan-crusted trout and swordfish with a Mediterranean lilt (thanks to a topping of  feta cheese and spinach).


Fun fact: The Florida-based seafood source is owned by Outback Steakhouse, which ranked among my best casual dining experiences for the cover story that ran in the Food section today.


The chains of my Midwestern youth were mostly family concepts: Country Kitchen, for instance, and Ground Round, which I eventually left for better menus at Houston's and the like on the East Coast, where I went to college.


Locally, I think Great American Restaurants does a pretty good job with its ideas, although the restaurants aren't as polished as I remember them from a decade ago.


Good morning, everyone. It's good to be back in the host seat again.  Much has transpired since we last got together. 


Did you see that Ris Lacoste is leasing a stall at Union Market?  That Cathal Armstrong is returning to the stove at Restaurant Eve full-time this winter?  Meanwhile, the beloved Ashby Inn is losing its chef, Tarver King, who is decamping for Patowmack Farm.  Wonder who his replacement might be ...


Ready, set, go!

My parents are coming down to take me out to a birthday dinner in a couple months. I can't really afford to dine at fancy restaurants too often and want something exciting and upscale. At the same time, I always feel guilty about wanting to pick out the really expensive places when someone else is paying. Any suggestions how and where to strike a good balance?

So want the illusion of  a restaurant that's dear, but not the tab that goes with a big deal meal, eh?


  One idea is Makoto, the slender Japanese restaurant in the Palisades that transports you to Tokyo with its $70 tasting menu of eight or so courses.  Despite the hovering servers and the cramped quarters, I like the retreat a lot.


Another possibility is the four-courser offered at the avante garde Rogue 24, tucked away in Blagden Alley.


I rated both restaurants three stars in the last year, if that helps.

When one is desires to take some left over food home, is proper procedure for the server or guest to pack the goods?

While I prefer not to pack up my own leftovers -- wait staff is better prepared to wrap uneaten eats, in my opinion, and the mechanics of the process take away from the ambiance of a place --  some people prefer to do so, because then  they get to handle the food themselves and take or leave exactly what they want to take or leave.


I'm curious how chatters feel about this subject. Should the restaurant pack up your doggie bag or should the customer?

I've never heard of any of the Barracks Row restaurants named in Tim Carman's article. Are any of them any good?

I've previewed a few of them, including The Chesapeake Room and Senart's Oyster & Chop House. But I've always found the designs more interesting than the cooking, and I didn't taste anything good enough to lure me back to either property to conduct a full critique. 


For those who haven't seen the news about the shake-up within Barracks Row Entertainment, the investment group,  here's Tim Carman's report.

We've got a significant anniversary coming up in a few weeks, and I'd like to take my wife for an elegant, romantic dinner where we'll actually be able to hear each other talk. I'm a meat and potatoes kind of guy, but she's happier with fish or fowl. Cost and location matter less than ambiance and service.

I think you'd * both* be happy with a ground-floor table or cozy nook at the historic 1789 in Georgetown, where  the current menu offers potato-crusted rockfish for her and a dry-aged ribeye for you.   Just be sure to let the reservations-taker know you want to sit on the first floor rather than upstairs, which isn't nearly as romantic.

Where can I find a delicious risotto in the DMV? Bonus points if it's in Fairfax or Loudoun. Thanks!

Try Villa Mozart in Fairfax: pleasant space, good service, and lobster risotto on the current menu.

I prefer to pack my own. I cannot tell you how many times I've gotten the wrong doggie bag or it didn't contain everything I left over. So, give me the box, and I'll pack my matter how upscale the restaurant. But, truth be told, I wish I had lots of leftovers. I belong to the clean plate club!!


If traffic is bad, I will stop for dinner instead of crawling along. But, in such situations, I am dining alone. I love a bargain, but none of the two-for-one entrees work for the single diner. Why do I have to feel like I have been left out?

Gosh, I noticed lots of people eating solo on my recent tour of the major casual dining chains.


These restaurants might not offer many deals targeting single diners, but the prices are so low at some of these places, they're practically giving the food away, to paraphrase one of the independent restaurant operators I interviewed.


The two-for-one entree deal at Applebee's is designed for an individual, by the way. "Take Two" gives a diner the choice of two small main dishes as opposed to one big one.  Depending upon your selections, the promotion costs $10.99 or $12.99.

You mentioned Coqueta at Pier 5 in SF in your chat a couple of weeks ago. I will be dining there in 2 weeks. What should we be sure to order? Is there anything we should avoid?

Funny you should ask "anything to avoid?" at Coqueta, because it is one of those rare restaurants where I wanted to order seconds of just about everything. By all means, however, try the pintxos (snacks pinned on toothpicks) that start a meal, the glorious gin & tonic, the "canned" musels with fennel, the shrimp and egg with chorizo "gravy" ... (sigh)


By coincidence, I received the following from a chat participant this week:


A winning meal at Coqueta

Hi Tom, Based on your and other's suggestion, I ate at Coqueta in San Francisco last week. And wow, what a meal! The decor and service were fantastic, and every dish we ordered was delicious (especially the charred octopus!) What really amazed me though, was the extent the restaurant went to in accommodating my food allergies. I have a severe nut allergy, to which I alerted the waiter. Rather than telling me to refrain from ordering any fried items because the restaurant fries in peanut oil, the kitchen at Coqueta changed out an entire batch of oil from peanut to vegetable to enable me to eat the two fried dishes I ordered. Never in my entire life have I experienced that level of service, and to say I was beyond impressed is an understatement. I had the opportunity to thank the manager for this incredible gesture, and said that of course it was an adjustment they would make and Michael Chiarello would have expected nothing less. An amazing meal with exceptional service- would love to see Coqueta expand eastward!

Hi Tom! I think I spotted you at Jaleo on Monday with a couple of friends (not in disguise, so I don't think I'm blowing your cover). Loved watching Chef Andres lovingly palpate a cheese and tell your party stories about upcoming dishes to expect. He's clearly a big personality -- can you tell us more about who your favorite chefs are to interact with?

Mr. Andres and I go way back, to a time before I became food critic. Was I a little uncomfortable about the fuss he made at my table at Jaleo earlier this week? I was. But the chef is a big personality, and I understand his enthusiasm. Plus, I also learned a few things that I can eventually pass along to readers, and that's more important to me than keeping a chef at arm's distance.


I enjoy almost all my (typically telephone) interaction with the men and women who cook in this town and beyond. At the same time, I never go into a restaurant expecting to talk to anyone other than my waiter.

I appreciated the perspective on large chains today. I grew up loving many of the ubiquitous restaurant chains, but shunned them as an adult because, in all honesty, I was being a total snob (it was SO pedestrian and suburban, and I was SO not those things). Then last summer, after a hot and tiring day of sightseeing and no desire to compare the options before us, we landed at a chain because it was literally the closest door to where we were standing when we decided we were hungry. We had a decent meal and excellent service. A very enlightening experience.

It was a really useful exercise for me, eating at Outback Steakhouse and Applebee's and Cheesecake Factory and on and on. I never had to wait for a table; some of the cocktails were quite good (and generous); most places had salt and pepper shakers set on the tables  (one of my pet peeves is restaurants that don't put out seasonings); and no matter your taste, there was always something for everyone, even dieters.

Hi Tom, I have had dinner at Le Diplomate a couple of times, once before your review and once after your review. I'm an ordinary person, not a celebrated food critic, and was treated well on both occasions. What impresses me most about the restaurant isn't actually the food -- which is good but not swoon-worthy -- it's the operations, how they run the place. How a business is run shows up in its every crevice -- the good, the bad, and the ugly. And at Le Diplomate, somebody in charge has made sure that every aspect of the restaurant is smoothly run. Here's how that shows up in each part of one's experience at Le Diplomate. When you arrive, you're greeted pleasantly and the hostess quickly and calmly figures out whether/how to seat you. The person escorting you to your table is also polite and calm, notwithstanding the noise and bustle in the restaurant. Your server shows up soon and is polite without fawning over you, knowledgeable about the menu, and appropriately responsive to requests. The menu is well thought-out and the wine list is well edited and complements the food. Your food arrives quickly (but not so quickly that you're suspicious it was plucked out of a freezer and microwaved!) and the timing is coordinated so everyone at the table is fed together. Your server checks in with you regularly but doesn't hover. You feel well taken care of. Throughout your tasty meal, you look around you and observe a couple of managers always moving around the place, making sure that people (whether diners or servers) have what they need. All these things add up to a terrific experience, and so you tell yourself and your table-mates: that was great! Let's definitely come back! Sounds simple, but it isn't easy, which is why Le Diplomate stands out in our city. And no, I don't work in the industry and I'm not a secret plant by the restaurant. I'm just an ordinary person who appreciates the occasional extraordinary dining experience.

Great essay on what makes up proper service! Thanks for writing in this morning. Le Diplomate should consider this an early Valentine and its competition should lift the above good practices.

If you travel you can always count on Outbback, Bonefish and Carrabas. I can remember when Great American had just one pizza place in downtown Fairfax City. They then expanded to Fritzbees in Annadale and Fairfax.

Yep. One of the reasons dines gravitate to the chains is because they know what they're going to get. The Olive Garden in Falls Church is likely to resemble the Olive Garden in Minneapolis. ( But not all branches are alike. I encountered one Olive Garden on my tour that forgot to offer the free splash of wine.)

Whenever I find myself in a noisy restaurant, either from music or crowds, I think I am back in the high school cafeteria. Wonder if the people who frequent these places are yearning for the youthful ambiance?

They could be. They could also be young customers who like the buzz of so many new restaurants in particular.


I DARE a restaurant to open with a sound check of 70 decibels or less! (60 decibels is normal conversation.)

A local restaurant has one TV up on the wall. Most of the time, it seems to be set to FX. When a movie with a PG-13 rating came on, I asked the staff if they really thought that was the best channel for a family friendly place. They became defensive, saying they didn't know who selected which channel to show. In my opinion, new, sports, or cartoons are the common and safe channels to pick. I know that I wouldn't want to bring young kids into a place that had the TV set to PG-13 rated movies. They said they were busy at lunch, but every time I have gone there for dinner the place was empty. And they wonder why...

Maybe the reason they're not so busy at night is because ... they're not listening to what customers want?


I agree: No PG-13 stuff should be shown in a family restaurant.

I was always a fan of having the waiters do it. However, a recent experience has left me questioning that. My wife and I went to a fairly new restaurant that you liked (we did, too!) and split the rib-eye for two. It was delicious (nice and smokey) and REALLY big. We asked the server to pack up the rest and to even include the bone for our dog. We took the large bag and left satisfied. However, I was very disappointed the next day to see that only our sides had made it into the bag. No steak. No bone. Given the price and how much was left, it was probably $25 worth of meat. On another note, I wrote a message to the restaurant and sent it privately to their Facebook account. (I couldn't find a good email address on their webpage.) I didn't ask for anything free and, in fact, complimented most of the night. I just pointed out that maybe they need to talk to their staff about leftover packing. It's been weeks now and they haven't responded. Two things to restaurant owners: Put a good, general email address on your webpage. If you have a Facebook page, check it regularly for correspondence. I know that I could have called, but I feel a good, well-composed letter is usually the better way to go.

Here's to a good, well-composed post!

I'm like the other chatter who confessed to being a food snob as an adult (i.e., I grew up with nothing but the chains). And experiences in recent years with local outposts of some of those chains seemed to confirm my snobbery. But earlier this year I was visiting a relative in an area where Olive Garden was the best of the available dining options. I hadn't been to one in years, and I too was very pleasantly surprised -- by the wine list and, as you pointed out, by the healthy options. (I was not surprised to love the breadsticks -- I remembered those! But I do have to say that the salad was disappointing. I remain a mixed greens snob.)

Did you try the minestrone? It's tasty, and generous.


Those breadsticks turn to cottony fluff when they cool down, but out of the oven, with a slick of olive oil and some salt, they're good at staving off hunger pangs.


Lesson: Warm bread -- even OK warm bread -- is better than room-temperature bread.

For many of us going to a top restaurant is a very, very special, infrequent experience. How do you make the most of that experience when there are so many different choices on the menu and you only get one shot?

First, tell yourself you're going to have a good time. A positive attitude really helps.  The feeling is catching; the staff will pick up on it.


 Also, do a little homework ahead of going out: Read the restaurant's menu online and look for reviews from trusted critics.


At the restaurant, let the staff know what your likes and dislikes are. They can help steer you to dishes you might enjoy.


That help?

The mushroom risotto at Primi Piatti is wonderful -- and the tableside finish with the big wheel of parmesan is great theater.

Agreed, although the poster was hoping for good risotto closer to Fairfax or Loudon.

I don't much like the food at the Olive Garden (I always feel like I've licked a salt trough), but there is no doubt they put in the effort with their staff and offerings. Also, they know how to handle large parties with lots of young kids.

Yes they do.  Olive Garden is very good with some of its touches, like putting a big salad bowl on the table after everyone orders -- a homey touch.

Waiting for rant from some buffoon about how the fact that you are recognized means that you CANNOT POSSIBLY continue on as reviewer in 3...2...1...

Off topic but thought I'd share:


The strange thing about that night: diners behind a screen at my table were obviously trying to eavesdrop -- something a companion at my table observed throughout dinner. And later in the evening, as I found myself  saying adios to Mr. Andres near the entrance, two people were trying to sneak in a photo on their cell phones. 

I prefer the restaurant to pack my leftovers because I am a klutz and would spill everything all over the table. A peculiarity of the Capital Grille is, no matter how many times I ask them to put everything in one box (say, leftovers from two different plates), they invariably separate everything into three or four separate containers.

Is that the restaurant's policy, I wonder? Or is someone (repeatedly) not listening to you? I hate waste/excessive packaging.

Really? Even at Cheesecake Factory? As much as I love independent restaurants, my friend base does not. I find that Cheesecake has the worst wait times, followed by Olive Garden. Maybe you did not go during the weekend, which is when I find it the worst! And you're right, large chains have something for everyone!! Sometimes, that's really what you need!

I went *early* to a few places. And come to think of it, my server at Outback did mention a recent Monday night where customers were given an hour wait time estimate. So, it depends....

Thanks for the interesting article. Did I read correct that Olive Garden offers discounts for Women on Wednesdays? I am a little confused since I did not find it on their website. Thanks.

Applebee's has a Ladies' Night during the work week.

It's technically a health code violation for a server to pack up a guest's leftover. Of course at fine dining establishments, they're willing to risk the fine in order to give you a good experience.

Interesting. Could I have a source on this, please?

A friend of mine saw you once and told me that you are very lean and handsome. How do you stay lean?

He/she must have the wrong man.

We adore Eve and never have had a bad meal there, but I do think the website needs to do better than "a sample Spring Menu" when you look for the menu options. I sent a guest there to check it out and it was no help. I am sure my guest will find something to eat, but would it be too much to ask for the Armstrongs to keep the site current?

What say you, Mr. Armstrong?


I can understand a restaurant that cooks to the tune of the season giving itself some wiggle room, but  I agree, the online menu ought to be as fresh and specific as possible.

I saw a picture of you online. You appeared not to have any facial features.

I love that. In this day and age, due to technology, it is very hard for a restaurant critic to remain anonymous or keep his or her face offline.

Just opened up in Arlington, is the one in Bethesda any good?

(Are you baiting me?) I didn't care for the original, but you know what? I'm keeping an open mind with regard to the offshoot.

Could not the server *ask* me whether I would like them to wrap it up or do it myself? (I prefer to have them do it.)

Some restaurants *do* ask. Others, for sundry reasons,  insist that diners bag their own.

Hi Tom! For my birthday last weekend, my husband made reservations at Decanter at the St. Regis, and for a multitude of reasons it was one of the worst meals we've ever had in DC (we've lived/dined here for almost 10 years). I actually sent back my lamb flatbread entree (which they kept pushing as their "house best") and we had to wait almost 25 minutes for the sparkling wine we'd ordered, as they didn't keep most of their wines chilled, apparently. The hummus we got in our appetizer platter was some of the most poorly executed hummus I've ever had (chalky, tasteless). This was on top of having to eat in their ballroom, since the restaurant's floors were being redone. Had I known about most of these ahead of time, of course we would've dined elsewhere. Have you heard simillar things about Decanter? I know we won't be back, but I just would've hoped for more.

How unfortunate. Twenty five minutes for a glass of wine, huh? Was that because you weren't in the restaurant proper -- which to me is one of the best things about Decanter (its design)?  Someone should have let you know in advance that the floors were being redone.

Tom, your mention of a positive attitude is correct. We were at Le Bernadin in NYC. We truly believe that the staff noticed our happiness of being there, and we got an extra dessert comped. Totally unexpected and made a special meal even better!

One of many reasons Eric Ripert's seafood temple retains its four stars from the New York Times.

I refuse to eat at Outback as their PAC contributed big bucks to help reelect Bush in 2004 and we all know where that led the country. I also think the blooming onion is disgusting and I noticed their portions become smaller and smaller. I realize you can't/won't publish this but I felt you should be aware of Outback's activities.

My job requires me to eat the full range of possibilities, and I try hard to keep politics (among other things) out of the equation.

I have been told that a pre=dinner cocktail deadens the palate. Could you comment on this adage?

So THAT'S why I haven't given out very many three-star reviews!


I do not believe that to be true at all -- well, as long as a person doesn't over-indulge and get hammered, right?  Honestly, it would be irresponsible of me not to cover one of the major restaurant trends of the last decade, the cocktail revival.


And on that note, dear readers, I bid you all a delicious remainder of the week. Let's do this again next Wednesday. Chow for now.

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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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