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

Aug 07, 2013

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

What does this mean for you?

My initial reaction to the news that the Post is being sold to the founder of Amazon was shock (Did I hear Don Graham right?) followed by sadness (I love the idea of a civic-minded family behind a newspaper) followed by relief (Bezos mentioned restaurants in his note to WP staff) followed by optimism. 


Having worked for Microsoft, I can tell you that deep pockets, state-of-the-art technology and forward-thinking business strategies are all admirable assets. Bezo's purchase of my employer could very well be one of the best things that has happened in my field in years.


Good morning, everyone.  I'm just back from San Francisco and a delicious four days of dining around.  If there's one restaurant you absolutely must try there, it's the Spanish-themed Coqueta from chef Michael Chiarello on Pier 5 in the Embarcadero I wanted seconds of almost everything I tried, including the chef's duck and pork meatballs and his fried egg with shrimp and chorizo "gravy."


FYI, I won't be hosting a chat next week, but I'm happy to take your questions and comments for the next 60 minutes.


Let's begin.

Hi Tom, I have an 18 month old boy. Most of the time he is a fine diner, he'll keep himself busy by eating, starting and waving at people... or by lining up bread rolls. But every so often he needs to get up to walk around. I try to take him to the sidewalk to look for dogs to pet... but sometimes that's not possible. Do you think I should forgo dining out until he is college bound? Should I call restaurants in advance to ask what is the child-policy? So far I've gone to diners and family friendly places but I want to hit the Red Hen (we are in the neighborhood). What do you suggest? Thanks!

Kids won't learn how to dine out properly unless they're exposed to restaurants, so I'm all for parents taking their charges out for a meal *provided* the adults keep control of the situation. Which means removing the kids from the dining room if they cause a fuss.  (Not sure I like the idea of a wee one "lining up bread rolls."  Sounds like a mess, and a waste of food.)


I'd talk to the restaurant ahead of any family visit, to gauge its kid-friendliness, and also dine on the early side of dinner if you can. Other parents have told me they have occasional meals at home where they "practice" going out for dinner with their kids, which I think is a brilliant idea.

I'm shocked by the number of hosts that have no idea what a white cane means. I watch host after host put a menu in front of my SO who uses a white cane. After all, we've just walked from the front door of the restaurant to our seats. My SO has used a cane and has held on to my arm the whole time. When I say "We'll be sharing a menu" I'm often challenged by a host who asks "Are you sure?" If a host is afraid of making assumptions about a diner's eyesight, simply ask him/her "Do you want a menu?" Letting my SO keep a useless menu adds clutter to the table increasing the risk that silverware will get pushed on the floor or wine/water will be spilled. If a host seats a blind diner, be sure to alert the wait staff. The brief discomfort of jousting with a host who wants to give my SO a menu is nothing compared to the issues created by a clueless waiter. Two cardinal rules: 1. Don't move items already on the table when setting down some new item without telling the blind diner. 2. Use verbal cues that will increase a patron's comfort (e.g. "I'm putting your salad to your left.") This past weekend, we ate pre-theater at Ancora and the next night with friends at Marcel's. Special kudos to Tony, our waiter at Ancora who was sensitive and pro-active. For example, he even mentioned how the items on the plate were oriented. Marcel's service was its usual polished quality, but the blind patron's treatment was indistinguishable from that given to the sighted diners. I was really unimpressed that during a five course meal, the waiter appeared not to realize something was different about one of the patrons. There really are abundant clues if a waiter reads the table, something the wait staff at Marcel's are supposedly trained to do.

I sense the anger/frustration in your post, and trust me, I'm sympathetic.


My hunch is that most restaurants are unaware of the specific needs of the blind, or haven't had much experience with blind diners. So, thanks for enlightening us with your helpful suggestions. And let's hope your message is fodder for discussion at restaurant staff meetings everywhere tonight.

Live video of your restaurant visits.

There you go!  From my point of view, right?

Thanks for your review of the restaurant. We went there a month ago and loved the place and the people. The restaurant is a bit out-of-the-way and I hope your good opinion will help their business. We focused on the S. Indian dishes because they're less common around here. The spicing of the chettinad chicken was great though better if they were to use the thigh instead of the breast. The mirchi bhaji (stuffed hot pepper) was also good and I thought not-too-spicy and then my wife ate a firebomb and was out of action for 10 min. Interestingly, they had some Sri Lankan dishes- we enjoyed the paratha which reminded us of the Chinese scallion pancake. Indo-Chinese stuff was well-executed (gobi manchurian is addictive-how can one resist deep fried cauliflower in a deep red/sweet/sour/spicy sauce? )

Indeed. Curry Leaf in Laurel was an unexpected surprise. I liked everything about the Indian newcomer:  the look, the attention, the weekend buffet in particular. Can't wait to return and sample more of its printed menu, foremost the vegetarian dishes.

Looking for a place to take my parents for their anniversary. They like basic, simple food -- nothing too fancy, fusion, or out there. Any price point is fine. Any recommendations from you (or the chatters)? Thanks!

I was recently in Richmond and had several terrific meals, including dinner at the newish Dutch & Co. in the city's Church Hill neighborhood. The menu brims with good things to eat: peach gazpacho, mahi mahi with lamb tamales (tucked into squash blossoms), thin dessert waffles sandwiched with caramel ...  the list goes on.

I recently moved to the area, and I'm also planning on proposing in the coming month or two. A good friend suggested a post-proposal meal at L-Auberge chez Francois in Great Falls. She said it's really romantic and delicious, but from doing some research it doesn't seem to be among the upper tiers of the DC area's restaurants on online food sites. What say you?

It depends on what you want. To me, L'Auberge Chez Francois and its flowery curtains and courtly servers represent an old-fashioned idea of romance. For something more contemporary, try Trummer's on Main in Clifton, the clubby Bombay Club downtown or the sleek, pan-Asian Source next to the Newseum.


Bottom line: you want a restaurant you think might be around for future anniversaries.

Hi Tom - I have read your chat since its inception, and consider myself a big fan of restaurants, and hospitality in general. After reading rants (and raves) over the years about late seatings, bad waiters, excellent waiters, restraurant week raves, children being (or not) in restaurants, I think it all boils down to setting expectations. If you go to Prime Rib at 8 PM on a Friday, you do not expect a child to be at the next table. So now, as a parent to an infant, I don't take him to Prime Rib at 8 PM on a Friday. But I might take him to a GAR restaurant on the early side before he gets cranky. If I have a reservation for a table at 7, I have a reasonable expectation that I will be seated within 15 minutes of 7. If it gets later, I have a reasonable expectation I will be accomodated in some way - not necesarily a freebie, but an accomodation - and yes, "we apologize that a table has run late and are doing everything possible to remedy" is an accomodation in my book. In many ways, it is what your business is about - setting expectations. A critic's job is to review, critique, and set expectations about a particular restaurant. All of this to say that (and yes, I am over-generalizing, but hey this is a general audience) that people need to appropriately set their expectations and respond accordingly. I have had some atrocious meals that have been rendered charming by wait staff. I have dined at some top restaurants and left feeling empty by the experience but with great food. It's like when people get put-off by ettiquette rules. They exist for a reason - not to make people feel superior over others, but to lay out a set of groundrules so everyone feels comfortable together. Maybe we need some more restaurant ettiquette. If you make a reservation, honor it. If you are a stressed out server, let your table know that you are slammed, they are acknowledged, and will be with them as soon as humanly possible. And if you are a customer, respond with politeness and charm. You'd be amazed at the results. Only the most boorish would take the attitude, "I'm paying for it, so I get to demand whatever I want" We're all in this together....

This is a terrific post. Thanks so very much for taking the time to write.


I wrote a little primer on dining etiquette recently, after interviewing the president of the Protocol School of Washington.  She talked about a number of subjects that come up in this chat every week, including how to deal with chatty waiters.

My elderly mother was a waitress, not a "server" or, God forbid, "waitperson" back in the day wjhen the average tip was a quiarter. She insists on leaving the tip when we eat out and considers $1 a perfectly acceptable tip on a $50 tab. Rather than argue with her, wich doesn't work and may cause a scene, I'm a generous tipper for good service and try to slip the server $5 or $10 pr appropriate.. Otherwise I'll leave the money under a npkin or thje edge of the plate. I can sometimes do this while Mom is using the Ladies Room, but that doesn't always happen, or I might not be able to flag the server down. Is there a better way to handle this, e.g., call in advance, describe my group and explain the situation? We're talking family restaurants with the occasional nicer one thrown in for special ocsions.

Bring an envelope with you when you go out, stick an appropriate tip in it, and hand it to the server after the bill has been settled. If the server isn't around, give the envelope to a manager or host on the way out. It's too easy for the money to get lost if it's under a plate or napkin.

What qualifications does someone need to become a good food critic? Is it more about the writing style and personality or is it the willingness to try something new? I like to go out to different places, but to be honest, there are a handful of dishes that I order. I rarely get an appetizer or dessert. While I might be able to rate a place on the atmosphere or service, I don't think I would be able to rate the food as a whole. I don't know if it is possible to say that an Italian paces is good because I liked the chicken parmesan or bad because the garlic bread wasn't very good.

It certainly helps to know something about food before you start writing about restaurants.


My training was testing recipes for four years here at the WP, then scouting restaurants for possible review by my boss, then covering suburban restaurants for the Weekly sections, which no longer exist. I also spent many hours in professional kitchens watching chefs in their natural habitats, and in food markets shopping for groceries.


That said, it's also really important to be able to write well and give readers the sense they're at the table with you. Or at least give them a good story and an idea of what to expect of a restaurant.  Come to think of it, having a "voice," as writers say, is probably more important than being able to differentiate between, say, mace or nutmeg.

Tom, how can you possibly pay simultaneous attention to the food and service at your table *and* those at other diners' tables?

I take my nose out of my wine glass or put down my fork and I look around the restaurant to see how servers are interacting with other customers. I also stroll around the dining room to see evidence of  patrons' happiness or dissatisfaction (and servers' mindfulness or inattention).  Don't forget, service is provided by telephone receptionists, valet parkers  and other types; I judge a restaurant on those details, too.

Tom- please tell your colleagues to quit beating their chest and writing about the "shock" of being sold. The fact that it isn't happened before now is what is shocking. Must of us in today's workforce have had this happen to us at least once or even twice. Heck some of us have gone through it three times and you know what? We survived, got another job, and your colleagues will to. Face facts- no company is a family. Companies need to make money to survive. If the company can do without employees and still make money, bye bye employees. Yes it's hard to realize this, but the sooner your colleagues get over it, the better off they will be.

I hear what you're saying, but to have the paper sold to an outsider after 80 years of being owned by a single  family came as a real surprise to a lot of us.

I read last week's chat a few hours after it concluded, and just wanted to answer the question on where to find good bouillabaisse. Le Diplomate serves it as a special on Fridays, and it (like all of the food there) is fabulous! I really do think that Le Diplomate may be the best restaurant in DC.

Yet another reason to applaud the most popular restaurant in town: its seafood stew.

Are there any national chain restaurants that you might recommend? My husband and I recently went to a Ruby Tuesdays and were pretty horrified at just about every aspect of the experience, except for the price. Wondering if there are any similar national chains that are consistently good.

I think Outback Steakhouse does a good job (love those bloomin' onions) followed by Olive Garden, provided you know how to order.  The worst of the big chains, in my experience, have been Red Lobster and Applebees.


Curious which places today's participants visit?

Kapnos has been open about a month now - have you been yet? What was your initial impression?

Can you hang tight a few more weeks? I've been a couple of times --- once with Sam Kass sitting next to me -- and plan to review Mike Isabella's ode to northern Greek cooking in the near future.

I recently dined at a new-ish trendy restaurant in DC. The dining room is small and there's an open kitchen. While the service, in general, was attentive and the appetizers were very good, one of my two pricey lamb chops was so tough that I couldn't comfortably eat it. I first cut into the tough one, which was cooked medium rare, and discovered that it was difficult to chew. I then cut into the other chop and discovered that that one was perfectly tender. It seems like a got a bum chop. The waiter stopped by at about the time I was looking for him to tell him about my tough chop so when he asked whether everything was ok, I told him that while one of my lamb chops was delicious, the other was so tough that I couldn't eat it. He said that he would check with the chef, and then walked away. The manager then came over and asked how everything was. I told him the same thing. He said that he was sorry to hear that. My dining companion then asked whether they could do anything about the tough chop. He said he would check. I finished the rest of my meal, leaving the tough chop untouched except for the first bite. As they cleared the plates, the waiter told me that sometimes they get a touch piece of meat. As an apology, they comped our two glasses wine and didn't charge us for the dessert that we shared. All told those "freebies" added up to just about the full cost of my entree. Nonetheless, I was surprised that they didn't just offer to cook me another chop (or explain that they were out, if indeed that was the case) instead of letting me dine on half my meal. The meal was otherwise nice, but I'm not inclined to go back unless I'm wiling to settle for half a meal (or less) should something else unfortunate happen to my next plate. I was wondering, Tom, what you think about how they handled the case of the tough lamb chop...

The freebies were a nice touch, but it sounds as if you would have preferred a piece of lamb with better texture rather than a gratis glass of wine and a split dessert.


Had I been the manager, I would have proposed offering a replacement chop. But that would have taken extra time to cook, and were you up for waiting, given you were dining with company?

Did any of the reporters bother to read the financials of the paper? If you did, then you would have been expecting it.

Of *course* we did. A lot of us expected further cuts in resources and staff as a result, but not what actually happened.

The Original House of Pancakes (which is NOT IHOP). The potato pancakes are almost as good as my grandmother's: light, thin, and lacy. Yum!

Yep. They're mostly on the West Coast, though.

Hi Tom, I'm taking two co-workers out to dinner tonight. One is a vegetarian who will occasionally eat fish, the other is like me who will eat anything. Can you recommend a place where we would all be happy that is preferably near Dupont and not Sushi Taro (we've been there)? Most importantly, a place where we can expect to get a table at a reasonable hour? Thanks.

What about the cozy Firefly on New Hampshire Ave.? I see the online dinner menu has a chopped kale salad and three-bean risotto, as well as shrimp and grits and halibut with spring pistou -- plenty of options for the vegetarian who eats fish, in other words.

I hope the man who asked about a restaurant to celebrate a proposal sticks with the traditional and formal L'Auberge Chez Francois. Tom, I hope you don't also try to talk him into holding the wedding ceremony in the Hirshhorn. Goodness, there are some times when formality and tradition are most appropriate.

I wasn't trying to talk him out of LCF. Just wanted to offer a few options. The definition of "formal" has changed a lot in recent years.

Tom, did the CEO of La Tagliatella ever reach you?

He did. He invited me out for a meal when he came to the area, I believe to check out the restaurant in question, but I declined. While I'm happy to talk to chefs and restaurants, I'm reluctant to break bread with them face to face. The policy has worked well for me over the years.

My aunt progressively lost her sight due to complications from diabetes, but she was able to use assistive devices to read some menus, even though she used a white cane to navigate when walking. She would have been insulted if a waiter did not give her a menu. Maybe waiters should not assume and always ask, as you can't really tell how much eyesight somebody has left simply because they use a white cane.

Right. Waiters aren't mind-readers and there are different degrees of blindness to consider.

I took visiting family to Hill Country last night. We really enjoyed the food and the atmosphere, but the wait service was sub-par. Our waitress initially offered to bring the dessert tray while one of us was still eating, cleared some debris from the table and left the rest until we asked her to remove it, then had to be asked three times to bring the dessert tray when we had finished, did not replenish water when asked, etc. We were having a nice evening with each other and chose not to speak with management. I tipped her 15% instead of my customary 20%. This go tme thinking. At Hill Country the food is usually self-service...the waiters / waitresses explain how it works, bring drinks, desserts and (ultimately) the check, clear your table, and otherwise aren't responsible for ordering or carrying your food. Assuming the service is good, under these circumstances would 20% still be appropriate? Frankly, I'd like to reward the guys who cut the meat (they are very personable and helpful and offer advice and tastes,) and there doesn't seem to be a vehicle for that. Advice appreciated for such restaurants that are a mix od self-service and wait service. Thank you.

I wonder if the barbecue restaurant pools its tips, or shares gratuities with the meat slicers? Regardless, if the dining room service wasn't great, I think 15 percent of the bill for a tip is fine.


I say this *all* the time, but you really owe it to management, and your fellow diners, to bring problems to the attention of supervisors. How else will things improve?

They are attached to a metal plank with VERY sharp corners. My girlfriend tore her dress while holding a menu in her lap.

Ouch! You'd think the restaurant would have thought about that when they were selecting menu holders.

I think Bertucci's does a nice job for what it aims to be. Also, I end up getting breakfast/brunch at the Cheesecake Factory whenever I visit my parents, and I enjoy that meal, though they give you enough pancakes to feed 2.

Yep, the portions are ginormous at Cheesecake Factory. And so are the 200 + options.

Hi Tom, Any inside scoop on the recent closure of Bistro Le Zinc? The food and service were always above-average, and it was a nice addition to the neighborhood. I was surprised to see it go. It will be missed.

I was -- not so surprised at its demise.  Le Zinc went through at least two chefs after my review.

Do you have any recommendations to pass along for restaurants in Mexico City? Anything you've heard or read about recently?

Here's where I ate when I was there several years ago.

Hi, Tom--I always enjoy the Ask Tom column in the Sunday mag, but I haven't seen it lately. Have you stopped including it in your reviews?

I've been using the extra space for more photographs in the last few months, but I include Ask Tom when I get a good question, or sometimes as a collection of reader rants or raves in place of a review. 

And don't try to hide this from your mother. Yes, she's elderly, but she's stiffing people who worked the same difficult job she once did.

I tend to agree. Surely she must know that times have changed and prices have gone up since she worked as a waitress. Ask her if she's paying the same for housing, health care or even a movie as she was back in the day.

How about a little proactive, "I am blind and so would appreciate ...." fill in the blank with specifically what you need. To assume a waiter would know exactly what level of involvement you want (orientation of food on the plate) is presumptuous and may make the waiter appear that way to a patron (never a good idea). And put your dukes down.

I like the proactive approach! Nobody gets offended that way.

I went to a food truck sponsored by a very well-reviewed (by you) local restaurant. The sandwich was delicious -- but I found a large metal staple that had been baked into part of the filling at the restaurant. (I thought I had lost a filling until I fished it out!). They were apologetic and gave me my money's the question -- would you go back to this food truck, or the restaurant? It was very tasty, except for the staple.

I'd be inclinced to go back, figuring the odds of a repeat staple sighting are low, but I'd pass the sandwich through a metal detector or otherwise inspect it carefully before biting in! 

Hi Tom! Jumping late but in the hopes that you can take this question- my husband is unexpectedly returning from business travel a few days early- just in time for his birthday tonight! He's requested dinner out at "someplace comfort food-y like Vidalia." I'm considering just booking at Vidalia, but we go there a lot and I was hoping for someplace we hadn't tried yet. Any suggestions for something similar (and either downtown or in Arlington)?

There's aren't many places like the southern charmer downtown. But if that's the kind of restaurant you're looking for, on the formal and familiar side, try 1789 in Georgetown, 701 in Penn Quarter or the Oval Room near the White House.

Thanks for your answer. I agree that it is best to speak with management. In this case we did not because, honestly, we were having such a good time we didn't really notice the service was poor until we were trying to leave...which took too long because we coudn't get our waitress to show us the dessert options or get the check. It was very busy and we didn't want delay our departure further by trying to locate a manager. We weren't looking for a free anything, just wanted to get our family home. Perhaps I should send an email today. I appreciate your thoughtful response, as always.

Or, you could have scribbled a quick message to a manager and delivered it to him or her on your way out, as an fyi.

I used to work as a hostess and-although it isn't always necessary-it is EXTREMELY helpful for guests that may need a little more attention to make a reservation and mention exactly what they need. For example, if we know a blind diner or wheelchair-bound person is coming in, we can reserve a table that is easily accessible for them, rather than panicking when we see them coming through the door and have the only available table upstairs. It's also helpful to know just so we can keep an eye on them and help them to the restroom, door, etc if need be.

Great advice. Thanks for writing.

I have two school aged kids and frankly eat at chains all the time with them...saving nicer restaurants for adults only nights. Anyway, we love Five Guys, California Tortilla, Shake Shack, Clyde's, Rock Bottom, Matchbox (may not qualify as a chain) and, yes, of course, Popeyes. Can I also send out a plea for more casual restaurants to get those super awesome Coke machines with a million flavor combinations...those things are like kid magnets and I love them too!!

Your list is a pretty good one. Yes, definitely, to Shake Shack, Matchbox and Popeye's (my guilty pleasure).

Where should we book Thanksgiving dinner, and can you recommend funky artsy places for the rest of our meals. tia!

I can't advise you on T-Day, but I enjoyed these three restaurants in a recent swing through Atlanta.

has been consistently good for over 30 years. Best chain in the area. Sorry you hate them Tom but typical of your bias

I *don't* hate them. I just think they used to have higher standards and better food than they do now. 

put it on the credit card and let mom have her pride leaving her dollar.

Good solution.

We have a 2 year old that we like to take to happy hour because it is early, not crowded, and our daughter has a chance to walk around and not disrupt anyone too much. We took her to Ghibellina yesterday for pizza happy hour and they did an amazing job taking care of the whole family. And pizza is toddler-friendly, to boot. Kudos also to Clarendon Grill for their kid friendly 1/2 price burgers every Monday.

Happy hour not crowded? Really? Kudos to Ghibellina and Clarendon Grill.

Hi Tom, Just read your recent first Bite where you dealt with some overzealous wait staff, full of some water pour interruptions and small conversation. If service were porridge, what would be the service in your mind that is "just right"?

Asking just *once* how the food was and not trying to sweep every crumb of food from the table as it fell. For starters.


Thanks for a lively hour, folks. Remember,  I'll be back here in the host seat Aug. 21.

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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