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

Sep 11, 2013

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Thanks Tom for the enticing review of Kapnos. I feel a little though, like you buried the lede. What can you tell us about the 4 course tasting menu?

The four-course tasting menu you refer to is offered at G, chef Mike Isabella's sandwich joint by day and family-style dinner spread at night.  It's located next to Kapnos, the focus of my Sept. 8 review in the Magazine. (I've had, and liked, the sandwiches at G, but have yet to go there for dinner.)


On a related note, Isabella announced earlier this morning that he plans to open another Greek restaurant, Kapnos Taverna, in Arlington next summer.  The spin-off will include a patio, "a monster bar" and a menu expected to be based on his next travels to Greece.


Lots of food news to chew over. Did you hear that Ben's Chili Bowl is taking over the original Ray's Hell Burger spot in Rosslyn?  That Osteria Elisir lost its chef de cuisine and GM to Sax?  (Good "get" from my colleague Tim Carman.) That the Denver-based Smashburger opens its first joint in the District today?


Happy Hump Day, everyone.  Thanks for joining me. I won't be hosting a chat next Wednesday, so try to send me your pressing dining queries this morning. I'll be back at the table again Sept. 25.



I've heard it's a wonderful dining city. I'll be there in two weeks and would welcome any and all suggestions.

I'm due for another trip to Montreal. Here's some background on the scene from a Postcard column. Meanwhile, a food friend sings the praises of a restaurant there called Lawrence.

Just writing to confirm your review/assessment. We got an Olive Garden card as a wedding present, and I was going to be all snobby about it. After your review I decided to try it, and was very pleased. Excellent well-tuned service, decent if not inventive food including some heart-healthy options, and a lot of people around me visibly enjoying themselves. What's not to like?

All that, and a free taste of whatever wine you might want to try from the list! 

In the last chat, you said that when you make reservations, they don't include "Tom" or "Sietsema." What happens when it comes time to pay the bill? Do you have a credit card with another name or always pay in cash? By the time you pay, your opinion may already be made, but letting them know who you are would prevent your being able to go back anonymously.

I have all sorts of ways of paying my restaurant tabs without involving my name, some methods of which I'm reluctant to share in an open forum such as this. On occasion, friends pick up the tab, and I reimburse them afterwards. Other times, I might pay in cash.  It just depends on the restaurant.

Hi Tom, I really enjoy your chats! My dad read the article in another newspaper last week that highlighted the changes on 14th Street NW and identified six of the best restaurants. (According to the article - Ghibellina, Pearl Dive Oyster Palace, Le Diplomate, Birch & Barley, Estadio, and B Too.) Now he wants to try one when my parents come to town next month. Where should I make our reservation? Noise level is a consideration, and half of our party prefers pescatarian. Thanks!

None of the places you list would be considered quiet, but I'd start with a call to Le Diplomate, which has great oysters, trout amandine and skate on its menu, and ask for one of its less noisy nooks (maybe outside if the weather cooperates).  Second choice:  Ghibellina, for great pizza, terrific meatless options (try the rustic chickpea soup) and the best panna cotta in town.

best vietnamese in DC? Is it passe?

The Vietnamese food in DC that impresses me the most at the moment can be found at the freshly minted Doi Moi on 14th St. NW, the subject of my First Bite preview today. There are dozens more Vietnamese sources in the suburbs, notably in Eden Center in Falls Church, of course, but you were specific about a pick in the District.

Hi Tom, I'm curious - what would be your "go-to" these days for a casual lunch or dinner in Georgetown? I always find myself underwhelmed when seeking a good meal in the neighborhood. I find Paradiso hits the spot for good beer and food, but that's about it. Am I missing something?

Pizzeria Paradiso is certainly reliable. It's a tad precious, but Ching China Cha is good for tea and Chinese snacks. On the waterfront, Farmers Fishers Bakers has some decent cooking to recommend it -- burgers, short ribs, Key lime pie -- although in general I like the way it looks more than the way it tastes.  Otherwise, G'town is not such a good place to find oneself for a casual lunch.

My wife has put up with a lot of long hours to help me get this promotion so in addition to a gift I want to take her someplace really special. Do you have a few ideas for where the best place to take her that would be around or under $300 for two people who drink one cocktail each within an hour of Arlington? Looking for great food and real special occasion atmosphere. Many thanks

First, congratulations! A couple of places spring to mind. One is Pabu, the luxe pan-Asian restaurant in Baltimore's Four Seasons. The other is Ashby Inn in Paris, Va. The latter has a new chef  on board, but the owners have a history of hiring talented chefs, and I appreciate the cozy romance of the inn's several dining rooms.

Hi Tom, My husband and I were interested in doing an omakase (sp?) dinner for our first anniversary. Could you recommend somewhere in DC or Baltimore that would be delicious and "special" for us? Also this would be in February (we are planners :-) ) so do you think there would be any issue with freshness of ingredients?

The best omakase ("chef's choice")  in the city is the rear counter at Sushi Taro in Dupont Circle. It's an intimate stage for chef-owner Nobu Yamazaki, who does wonderful things with whatever is in season. 

I don't want to be mean, but surely no one thinks that a restaurant critic uses his own credit card in his own name for his job?

You know what amazes me more? People who think I go to a restaurant once and eat basically the whole menu at one time. (In reality, I go at least three times, sometimes more, for restaurants that I'm star-rating. And rarely alone.)

Hey, Tom! This one is harder than we expected - 5 couples looking to go to dinner to chat, catch up. Want somewhere in the city with a fun atmosphere, not overly formal, with good food, good wine, and a decibel level that lets us catch up without yelling down the table. For some reason, we're not finding the perfect fit. Ideas? Thanks!

I can't promise the noise level will be comfortable, but I can vouch for good cooking and a lively atmosphere at Del Campo, the dramatic South American grill in Penn Quarter; Oyamel, the nearby Mexican restaurant with a splashy new private party area (grab it!) on the left-hand side; and  the aforementioned Doi Moi on 14th St. NW. That help?

My husband and I love dining out, but it has become even more of a special treat than it used to be since our son, now 2 1/2, was born. He is a joy, but a very picky eater, and not yet accustomed to restaurant-quality behavior (although we continue to try to offer appropriate chances to practice--outdoors, at early hours when family-friendly establishments are likely to be nearly empty, etc.). I was, therefore, rather concerned when the little guy and I had to meet dear friends from out of state for a prime-time lunch downtown. Remembering the recommendations of previous chatters with children, I made a reservation at Firefly and crossed my fingers. Our experience was just fantastic. From the hosts to the servers to the food runners and other staff, everyone smiled at our little guy and made him feel welcome (including picking up the occasional fallen toy car). He was given a clean (I can't tell you how rare that is) high chair, a little box of crayons, and the by-now-well-beloved raw sugar cookie man to decorate with sprinkles and chocolate pearls. His milk came in a plastic cup with a lid and a child-friendly short straw; his mac-and-cheese (which was homemade, and over which we all swooned) came in a cast-iron dish too heavy for a toddler to accidentally knock over. But what is harder to capture is the general attitude of the place. Firefly is a real restaurant, with real food (we thought ours was excellent) and genuine atmosphere. Most of the other lunchtime diners were adults, predominantly dressed for the office, and no one seemed to look askance at a child or even be surprised that he was there. Perhaps they were return visitors accustomed to seeing how Firefly goes out of its way to try to help families have a positive restaurant experience. Our little guy behaved like a champ the entire time, because of how he was treated. Suffice it to say we went back that weekend for brunch, and brought my parents along, too. We are now loyal fans, and so is our son, who refers to Firefly simply as "the restaurant." We will definitely be back!

Take a bow, everyone at Firefly!


What I *love* about this post is its rich detail. The writer didn't just say the restaurant was "great," she provided numerous examples of what impressed her and her young charge. The post also pointed out a few things that restaurants might want to focus on, including cleaning kid chairs and providing some form of amusement (those cookies sound awesome).

Tom, I recently went to Lyon Hall and they have completely destroyed the beloved happy hour menu and offers we used to know and love. The $3 beers are now $4, the half price wines that used to span the entire wine list are now limited to only two (white and red), and the food specials they used to offer are now gone. Mussels and fries for $16 and a $16 hamburger and fries hardly seem like happy hour fare. The online menu has not been updated accordingly and knowing this, we wouldn't have gone. Now we'll never go back.

I just got off the phone with the GM at Lyon Hall, Gillian Schroeder, who was happy to correct some of misinformation above:


Drinks-wise, the restaurant's happy hour wines were cut from five selections to three (red/white/sparkling) because the majority of customers were asking simply for "the house wine" during the late-afternoon deal, Schroeder says. ( The three choices also change seasonally.)  As for the beer price, $4 has been the happy hour cost for the past 1 1/2 years, says Schroeder.


Regarding food, steamed mussels go for $10 (without fries) and a burger sells for $9.95 (with fries) during happy hour.  


Note to everyone:  Because the poster sent me this before the chat even began, I was able to call the restaurant and set the record straight. Thank you, thank you, to all the chatter who post early!

Hi Tom - This may seem like a silly question, but why are expensive restaurants so expensive? If I go to a basic chain restaurant, I can order a Caesar salad for five or six dollars. However, a high-end restaurant will charge three times this amount for a Caesar salad. Why is this? Is it the ingredients? (Is high-end lettuce that expensive?!) The overhead? The experience? Love the chats!

Part of what you're paying for in an upscale restaurant has little to do with the food. Are there linens on the tables? A sommelier on staff? A sweeping view of a monument or super-comfortable chairs? All those details can be factored into the cost of  a meal.


To use your example, not all Caesar salads are created equal. A "fancy" kitchen might use only the hearts of romaine, genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, imported anchovies, brioche croutons ... catch my drift?

Tom, My beloved and I are craving good Ethiopian. Where do you recommend? Its date night time!

While I'm not quite as keen on Ethiopic as I used to be, I love the place for its vivid beet and spicy ground  chickpea salads. Better right now is Meaza in Falls Church, despite its shy service.

If they generalize yours, wouldn't you think they generalize or have misguided impressions of how we in the industry do ours???

I realize my job is different from most. Come to think of it, this gig as much about eating as writing, at least in August and September as my fall dining guide deadlines approach. I've been doing more double dinners lately than I prefer.

Good morning. I will be in Newport this weekend and flying back on Monday from Providence (so, lunch only). Do you or the readers have any dining suggestions? Thank you!

Check out my 2010 Postcard from Providence. Lots of good eats there!

Does Mike Isabella think there's some sort of contest to see who can open the most restaurants in the shortest amount of time? It doesn't count if they all implode within a few months, like Bandolero, dude.

I do not worry that Kapnos, or any other Isabella venture from here on out, is going to implode.  He has a good team in place.

What do you think of this fad for "grilled Caesar salad" which involves an entire head of romaine, which is way too large for any one person to consume and is usually served on a plate too small for it? I think it's stupid, myself.

Me too. A little smoke, a little singe, goes a long way in my book. And there are some places where it doesn't belong, as you point out.

Hi Tom. Have you been to Tabard since the big management shake up? Has food or service changed?

I've not been back since the many staff changes. As I race to finish my fall dining guide, I find I'm side-stepping a lot of  places, including previous favorites, that have recently changed hands/chefs.

Tom- Any inside info? It looks like a lot of fun and I can't wait to see how the food is.

It's a BIG space. Very industrial, but also warmed up with what appears to be reclaimed wood and cool lighting. The food, from chef-owner Tom Power of Corduroy, is all over the map, both snacky and sophisticated.

Hi Tom, I read your Kapnos review and found it didn't match the stars. The words seemed to give the place 3 but you came in at 2.5. How do you pick? (and FWIW, we had an AMAZING dinner there. Drool-worthy)

A couple details kept me from giving it an "excellent" rating: burnt-tasting chicken souvlaki, dry Greek cookies, a merely OK waiter one night.  Kapnos was also incredibly loud one visit in the bar, so loud a buddy and I basically had to eat without talking. I felt sorry for the servers. 

How about Baked and Wired? And I still have a soft spot for Cafe La Ruche.

Baked & Wired? Love it. But I think it's too small for lunch. I could be wrong. Cafe La Ruche is a place I reviewed way back in the 1980s, when the Post had zoned restaurant reviews. (I can't believe I wrote: "Dessert here is as certain as death and taxes."  Hey, I was green!)

As a warning, a party of 10 will put you into private room/pre-fix menu territory at a lot of places. Alternatively, some will have you eat at the early bird or very late hour so I'd make reservations early. I like Mintwood Place and Woodward Table (especially Woodward for large groups).

If only the food at Woodward Table were better! It's hard to believe the restaurant is owned by the same talent behind Vidalia.

I'd like to set the students at MIT & Cal Tech onto this, because the problem of high-ceilinged bare-hard-surfaced restaurants where you can't hear yourself think seems to be increasing.

I agree. I can't *wait* to give a restaurant with very good food and truly helpful sound-proofing three stars. The thing is, that buffering costs money and some restaurants would rather spend funds on, say, art work or a pastry chef or whatever.

In addition to reading your reviews, I also read reviews of NYC restaurants in the NYT. Their online reviews have slide shows of the restaurants and food--often about 10 photos to give a good impression. It's one of my favorite parts. Any chance the Post could do something similar?

We are already doing that with my Magazine reviews. Check out this tour of Richmond eateries, and the slide show of  Etto, for instance.

I have an anniversary coming up and am looking for an appropriate restaurant. I think we'd both like great Italian food and I'm looking for a place that doesn't (totally) break my budget - it'd be great if I could cap the whole thing, with wine and tip etc. at $200. Anywhere in the greater DC metropolitan area is fine. Suggestions?

Head to Casa Luca, the casual sibling to Fiola in Penn Quarter. Great service, great drinks, great nibbles, amazing gazpacho ... I actually prefer it to Fiola.

I love such interesting cuisines but I cannot take hot peppers. Can you give me some guidance about which dishes to order, or whether Ethiopian restaurants can make some dishes milder?

Not all Ethiopian food is spicy, not at all. Of the vegetable dishes, try the collard greens, the yellow lentils and the cabbage with carrots; of the meatier dishes, ask your server  for the milder lamb or chicken preparations. Heat levels can be adjusted even in dishes known for their fire.

Nice looking postcard. Unfortunately, only 1 of 3 restaurants serve lunch but is closed on Monday. Oh well...thank you anyway.

I try!

I like the food and vibe at Leopold's. I am dying to try the chicken pot pie at Pie Sisters!

Ah, thanks for the memory jogs!

Any can't miss places for me to try? I eat fish, just not red or white meat. This will be my first time to Paris, and I mainly plan to eat at little bistros and cafes, but would love to go out for one nice dinner.

Believe it or not, I ate in a restaurant in Paris called FISH, and it was a treat.

Native Rhode Islander here. In addition to the places in your postcard, The Grange is a great vegetarian spot that's opened since your last journey (I'm a dedicated omnivore). If the reader wants Italian, Federal Hill is a great option with plenty of good places, from the greasy spoon but filled with history Angelo's, some of the best grilled pizza at Bob and Timmy's, and the great outdoor seating and quality food at Venda Ravioli in DePasquale Plaza.

Reader to the rescue! Thanks.

Tom, Looking way ahead of time for a nice restaurant for Christmas Eve in the Tysons area for dinner with elderly parents. Had a very underwhelming experience last year at Chef Geoff's in Tysons where due to the size of the crowd we were crammed in to the bar/lounge area in full view of TVs and taps. Better experience the previous year at Harth. Looking for contemporary American fare. Any thoughts?

That's a tricky area. There's a Clyde's out there, and a Coastal Flats, but I think your best bet is to stay with Harth, which I've heard good things about.  If you like Greek (grilled fish, lamb), check out the modern Nostos.

I enjoyed reading the comment on Firefly, which mirrored my impression upon bringing our then three year old twins. Five years on, it's still their favorite restaurant and one of ours. We'll be going there next month for their eighth birthday.

There's a lesson here, maybe a couple: Kids drive more decisions than we think. And Firefly is grooming a fresh set of customers by impressing its pint-sized patrons.

How can Doi Moi have no website??? I went there and it is just a page with the address. Open Table has no menu, either. As a vegetarian, I really need to check out menus in advance, and it seems bizarre that sophisticated restaurateurs do not have a site up and running from day 1.

Doi Moi, are you listening?

Cuz that wouldn't trigger any red flags! ;0

Right. I try to experience a restaurant as a civilian would:  order three courses, include friends along for the ride, etc.

... People who think I go to a restaurant once and eat basically the whole menu at one time." That's because they watch too many Robert Irvine/Gordon Ramsay-type shows where someone goes in and "fixes" restaurants.


Heading to San Francisco this weekend. I recall you recommending a number of restaurants in a previous chat. Would you be kind enough to mention again? Many thanks!

You bet. Your must-try list should include Rich Table and Coqueta on the waterfront.  Both are crazy-popular, so if you don't have a reservation, be prepared to wait or eat at the bar. (Or show up just as the doors open.)

funky, off the beaten path sorts of places?

Here's my Postcard from Atlanta for a few suggestions.

All these references to Caesar Salad are making me hungry. Tom, do you know anywhere that still makes a tableside caesar salad? I really like classic caesar salads, and (as someone who makes real caesar salad-- yes, with raw egg-- at home, I think it tastes a lot better if the dressing is made at the last moment and wanted to see if anyone still does it that way.

Possibly my favorite Caesar in the area is tossed at Majestic in Old Town Alexandria. The staff wheels out a trim table and tweaks the seasoning to your taste.

Do you make an effort to ensure that you're not famished when you try a restaurant? (Since everything tastes better when you're hungry.) Similarly, when you have to do a "double dinner," isn't the second restaurant at something of a disadvantage?

I have a fruit bowl and raw almonds in my office, just in case I'm heading out to lunch or dinner with hunger pangs (it happens!).


When I do double dinners, I'm careful not to eat too much during the first meal, then squeeze in a little walk around the block before my second.



Time's up, folks. Thanks for joining me today. Remember, no chat Sept. 18. I'll be here to take your comments and questions again on Sept. 25, at the usual 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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