Ask Tom - Goodbye Spezie, Hello Virtue Feed & Grain

May 19, 2010

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema answers your questions, listens to your suggestions and even entertains your complaints about Washington dining.

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

LOOKING AHEAD: The trio behind some of Old Town Alexandria’s best places to eat and drink, including Restaurant Eve and the speakeasy PX, are whipping up something new -- with a view -- at 106 South Union St.: an Irish and American tavern, Virtue Feed & Grain, that takes its name from the building’s long-ago function as a feed house.

Chef Cathal Armstrong, his wife Meshelle Armstrong and business partner and mixologist Todd Thrasher plan to open their two-story, 300-seat, brick-and-iron pub on Alexandria’s harbor in May 2011.

Virtue’s menu will mix some of the chef’s favorite comfort foods from his native Ireland and his adopted home. Anticipate smoked haddock soup and steak and kidney pot pie along with hamburgers and roast pork belly with carrots. Thrasher will serve “hop-tails” in addition to a selection of craft beers. Taking advantage of the location’s deck and an outdoor alley, the team will host six food festivals a year. Probably a pig roast one time, says Meshelle Armstrong, and definitely something festive for St. Patrick’s Day.

More cool details: Pool tables in the upstairs bar and a walk-up window for ordering fried chicken and such on the ground floor.


“Every building we’ve taken over has had some history,” says Meshelle Armstrong. (The restaurateurs’ other interests include the nearby Eamonn’s/A Dublin Chipper and the American-themed Majestic.) The side of their future tavern bore traces of a 19th-century sign advertising Wales Alley Feed & Grain: a good omen, the team figured.


 Is the trio planning to take over Old Town with more ideas? “It depends on how good the properties are!” jokes Meshelle.  Asked for the name of Virtue’s chef, she said they had someone in mind but were reluctant to share it so soon.  “Then the poachers come!”

 Good morning, everyone.  I hope you like our new chat format.  Bring on your questions, your comments, your rants and your raves! I'm ready for 'em.

My colleagues and I love eating at Spezie, but all of a sudden it was closed and there is no sign indicating why it is closed, or when it may reopen. Do you have any insight?

 Spezie, as I reported in today's Dish column in the Food section, was yet another victim of the economy.

Tom, Where do you stop for 'fast food' around Dupont or Logan? I'm getting tired of switching between Chipotle and Nando's.

Honestly? I go to the drive-through at Popeye's.  Or if you want "slower" fast food, what about Zorba's, the Greek spot near the Dupont Circle Metro stop?

Tom - I know you have answered similar questions but I can't find the answer in your archives but if you had to pick 3 places to have (a more casual) lunch in San Francisco what would those places be? Thanks!

I love the burger and Caesar salad at Zuni Cafe on Market St.

La Mar Cebicheria Peruana on the Embarcadero serves a view of the Bay along with its frothy pisco sours, fresh seviches and terrific corn tamales.

Finally, and especially if you like wine, check out RN74 on Mission St.  It's a train-themed restaurant with some fine,  seasonally-oriented small plates.

Tom, Have you been to Lyon Hall yet, the new German (with shades of French and Belgian) brasserie in Clarendon. I thought it was great, how can you go wrong with a plate of bratwurst and a Hofbrau Munchen, but the group I was with were underwhelemed. Curious if you've gone

Yes, I've been to the bistro from the folks who gave us Liberty Tavern. It's terrific fun. I love sending first-timers to the loo downstairs (it's an inside joke that I don't want to spoil for anyone who has yet to visit).

I'll have the ring in a couple of weeks, and I want a venue for dinner that won't tip-off the object-of-my-affections, but is still special, i.e. tasty and romantic, but not so lavish that she'd know that something is up! Kushi? La Perla Ristorante? We loved Makoto, but it's so out of the way and it screams "special night" a little too much. Grace Garden is even more out of the way, even though we live in Montgomery County; it's tasty, but not exactly romantic. Sigh.

Kushi is too loud, Makoto is too small and La Perla is, um, less than delicious. My inclination is to send you to one of the intime booths-for-two at the sleek Corduroy near the convention center, or the corner banquette at the gently lighted Palena in Cleveland Park. Just do yourself a favor and let a manager know, in advance, what you're doing. He or she can than help create just the right tone for the evening. Good luck!

Missed the discussion on pie but feel duty-bound to weigh in for the benefit of pie-lovers. The General Store in Silver Spring has some of the best pie I've ever had (besides my sister's strawberry rhubarb pie). My favorite is the lemon chess pie and the coconut cream pie. The lemon chess is tart and creamy and the crust is tender and flaky just like you'd expect good pie crust to be. The food is good too, though the service.. well, I think I apologized to my companions last time for "surly" nature of the staff, but the pie makes you forget all about it. P.S. The chat submission feature says the chat is at 11 p.m.... turning into a night owl, are we?

 We can never have too many sources for pie. Thanks for weighing in.


 I hear you re: the mood at the place. What IS it with those gals at the General Store? Everyone seems so sullen.

I've read yours and other critics' reviews for many years and continue to be puzzled how you can report news on chefs' comings and goings, their backgrounds, and their current cuisine trends, etc., without "blowing your cover." You seem to be on talking terms with chefs and restauranteurs and to be interviewing them regularly. Do you only do interviews over the phone or email?

Almost all of my interaction with chefs and others in the restaurant industry is conducted over the phone or via email.  (Oh, how I  miss my food reporter days, when I could hang out in kitchens and talk to my sources in person!)

I'm meeting a friend at Union Station between trains on Friday morning. Is there someplace nearby where we can get breakfast...a real breakfast, not just a scone and coffee...thanks for your guidance

You two want to head to the nearby Johnny's Half Shell on North Capitol St. for very good quiche, an elegant fruit plate, bracing espresso and more.

Dear Tom: Thanks for doing this great chat! I would love some help in finding a restaurant for a wedding rehearsal dinner, 12-15 persons, in the Dupont Circle area. Something nice but not outrageously expensive that will appeal to a variety of tastes.Thank you.

 Firefly has a cozy private room in the back of the restaurant. I actually celebrated a birthday there a few years ago. The new Ezme (Turkish) is another possibility, although you'd be sharing the room with others. A third option is the southern-themed Vidalia, which is probably the priciest but most elaborate of the three.

Hi Tom. My dad is coming to town this weekend and we have reservations for CityZen on Saturday night. How would you characterize the noise level? Also, any ideas for Sunday brunch? Anywhere in Penn Quarter/downtown/Dupont is great, and any price range is fine - we'd love someplace we can actually make a reservation. Thanks Tom - love the chats!

 In my last review, I gave CityZen a sound check of 70 decibels, which means "conversation is easy."

As for brunch, try to reserve a garden table at the always-enjoyable Tabard Inn in Dupont Circle.

Hey chatters, a little reminder that the latest episode of Tom's TV Dinners is out today. Warning: this one is not for fans of industrial bacon.

My best friend from college, who is sometimes a little off the mark with restaurant recommendations, has invited my wife and me to dinner at L'Auberge Chez Francois. The restaurant's website seems a little dated and online reviews are mixed. Should we go along with his recommendation, or should we suggest an alternative?

Stick with your pal's idea. L'Auberge is indeed a trip down memory lane, but it's also a lovely place to spend a few hours. Go for the classics, including Dover sole and beef Wellington, and bring an appetite: dinners are six courses long. An updated review of the 56-year-old institution goes online tomorrow, as part of my spring dining guide.

I had a 7:30 reservation for 2 at Filomena last Wednesday. I arrive to a packed foyer, checked in, and was told that I would be seated "in a few minutes." We left at 8:00 after standing for half an hour. I understand why restaurants overbook--no shows--but I don't tolerate a restaurant being so rude to guests who have a reservation. Am I being unreasonable to expect to be seated within 10-15 minutes of my reservation?

I would have left sooner than you did. I, too, hate to be left standing (long) for a confirmed reservation.

I also hate being sent to the bar when my guest is just minutes behind me, because I'm an "incomplete" party. Happened to me last night at a new hot spot. Grrrr. I told the hostess I'd start ordering right away, with a drink, if she seated me. "And order for your friend, too?" she asked. At that point, a smarter superior rescued (and sat) me. 

Hi Tom! Up until about a year ago, my husband and I went out to eat very frequently. Then, along came baby ... (well, along came pregnancy, with nausea and no alcohol or good cheese, etc.). So we've been away from the scene for about a year, and would love to get back. This time, we'll be bringing our 4-month-old, who is a very quiet baby (we'll be dining in the very early evening and we promise to take him out at the first hint of fussiness). So what are the new places we need to try? We're looking for places that are on the nicer side, would accommodate a small stroller without too much trouble, and that wouldn't be overwhelming for the little guy (e.g., Central, even at off-peak times, always seems loud and hectic). Any suggestions? Thanks so much!

New and delicious and (hopefully) accomodating: Masala Art for very good Indian ... Masa 14 for Latin-Asian small plates .... Eola for good seasonal American cooking in a warm townhouse setting ... Againn for the British pub experience ...  that enough?

Friends are coming from Australia next month. When we visited them at home we were told, "We pay servers a living wage, don't spoil things by tipping." Obviously this doesn't play in this country. How do we tactfully clue them in about 20 percent when they will not always be dining with us? Made it in and out of the UK earlier this month without complications from the ash cloud. When dining with friends over the pond we were told that 10 percent was the standard tip. These same friends were accosted by a waiter in Rehobeth for leaving only 15 percent tip a couple of years ago. I'm not sure how to reconcile all these differences. I'd be happiest if the "living wage and no tipping policy" was adopted worldwide.

I'd smile and say something like, "Mates, when in Rome do as the Romans: In our country, we tip 15 to 20 percent for good service. I know it's not the custom Down Under, but it it is here in the States."  Then pour your chums another glass of wine and tell them which restaurant you're excited to introduce them to while they're visiting.

Hey Tom. Just moved to Chicago from DC so I'd like to respond to last week's question regarding must-visit restaurants in Chicago by tossing the Purple Pig into the mix. Their slogan is "Cheese, Swine and Wine". Must haves: Pork Rillettes, milk-braised port shoulder, crispy pig's ear, roasted marrow bones and serrano ham with grilled asparagus and a duck egg on toasted bread. All small plates meant for sharing. Hard to find a seat there on most nights but definitely worth the wait. Slogan could be 'Bovine, Swine and Wine" although they do have seafood items which I have yet to try. 500 N. Michigan Avenue. My new favorite Chicago restaurant (although Frontera Grill & Topolobampo also rock)

Thanks for the lusty tip, Chicago. It makes me want to pack my bags and head to the Midwest.

Hi Tom! You've never steered me wrong before (in D.C. or elsewhere) and I need your help and the chatters help as well. My fantastic husband is taking me to Sydney, Australia for my 30th birthday. The last time I was down under was 5 years ago and, honestly, the only underwhelming meal we had was a Rockpool. I know, it's supposed to be great but it was overpriced for what we received (both in food and in service). So, since you don't have a Sydney postcard, do you have any recommendations for can't-miss places (cheap eats, splurges, etc.)? Chatters? Thanks so much! If you want, I can bring you back some Vegemite (yuck).

Alas, I've never been Down Under. But I'll post your plea and hope someone in the audience comes forth with ideas.

He was doing a demonstration at colleague's school last week, kids were allowed to bring a parent. My friend sent her husband to attend. When asked how was it. She said that her husband found it quite amusing. He said that the mom's were so busy fixing their hair, touching up their makeup and trying to get his attention, they didnt pay any attention to their kids! Thanks Chef Bryan for getting involved in the community and taking the time out to visit some kids in school.

Funny.  I watched Mr. V at a recent tribute to Phyllis Richman in Bethesda. He was clearly the star attraction wherever he walked. Men, women -- everyone wanted their photo taken with him.  

I've heard that 106 South Union Street (the old Olsson's bookstore in Alexandria) is going to become a restaurant from Cathal Armstrong, and that the exterior alleyway is going to be modified into balcony seating. Any truth to this rumor?

  Yes! See above.

Love your chats, keep up the great work! I will be attending a conference at National Harbor with several out of town associates next month, and am wondering where is a good place to have a great dinner there? Thanks.

 Can you settle for a "good" dinner instead? Right now, your best bet is probably the commodious new Bond 45, an Italian import from New York.  Lots of meat, lots of vegetables, lots of service -- and warm chocolate chip cookies as you're winding up! Gotta like that.

Tom, I was walking on P Street on Sunday (en route from the Dupont Farmers' Market), and thought I noticed that Obelisk's signage looked suspiciously absent. Has one of my favorite DC restaurants moved, or horror of all horrors, closed?

 I just got off the phone with owner Peter Pastan, who says his Italian restaurant is very much open.


"We just got a new sign," he says. "It's subtle," so much so that "we don't get FedEx deliveries anymore."

Tom, Just a quick rant on this. My wunderful mother told me, with taht wunnerful sparkle in her eye, that she drank like a fish for her hole term with me. And I terned out fine. So you preggers out there, Booze IT UP> GO CAPS. I have to go water my toes now. Bye.

 Maybe you just got lucky. Good genes, perhaps ? I don't think your tale is going to send many moms-to-be to the liquor store.

I think the new format is too busy, and obviously, about plugging advertisers and previous columns. I am finding it hard to follow the conversation and I do love your chats!

I'm new to all this, so please be patient with me/this forum today.

Hi Tom, We tried out Bistro Provence in Bethesda this weekend and were rather disappointed. The place is pretty, the service was great, but the food was just meh and pricey. We had hoped for a true bistro, with some lesser-priced menu items (most of the entrees are around $25+). Plus, both our entrees -- a duck dish and a turbot with beans -- were oversalted. On the other hand, we also visited 8407 kitchen bar in Silver Spring recently and were blown away by the most delicious chicken we've ever eaten!

 My experience was pretty good food, a lovely courtyard setting -- but goofy service, which is pretty much what I'm hearing from readers who have also dined there.

How about Mourayo? They can accomodate a party of that size and the service and food are top notch. The bartender is really creative as well.

I like the setting and the service there, but I don't think the cooking is as good as before the re-do of the restaurant. In fact, I pulled it from my dining guide list last fall because I thought the quality had slipped.

I'd hesitate to bring a 4-month old baby to Masa 14; the noise level would drive him nuts. My wife and I ate there pre-theatre on a Thursday night about a month ago. It started out fine but by the time we were ready to leave, the place was so loud my wife actually had to leave before I paid because she couldn't endure it.

Right. But the woman said they would dine on the early side. (Seats tucked into the alcoves or up front there are less noisy, I think.)

comment: i hope you will review your recommendation about this place. based on your opinion, i took several old friends from the midwest to this place for lunch today. first the good news: the reception and service was great. now, the bad news: the menu was pedestrian; the execution was deathly; and the bill was inappropriate. now, some details: i ordered a crabcake sandwich and a salad. the kitchen burned the small and unappetizing crabcake, and then turned the black side upside down onto the supermarket sesame bun with a hard mexican tomato slice so the customer (me) wouldn't notice (at least on first site). the so-called salad had at least a fourth of a cup of mayonnnaise with a little bleu cheese on top of a big hunk of iceberg lettuce, with some kindof a smiley face on top made up of a couple of halved grape tomatoes and chives. disgusting! my four guests were served overcooked steak with sauces in little ceramic boats which could not be accessed by fork or spoon, salmon grilled to smitheeens, and desserts made too well in advance, including the wilted mint leaves. in short: a disaster for a couple hundred bucks. if you want to give a good review to a restaurant in the vicinity which serves standard american fare, why not go to the standard bearers: old ebbitts or the occidental. next time, i will.

The execution was "deathly?!" Your review does not mirror my experience of the restaurant in the W Hotel downtown. Nor have any readers filed similar complaints.

I've mentioned this before to other chats that have switched to the new format. One big problem is that they no longer list the chats for the day at the top. Some of us monitor more than one chat at the same time. In the old format, it was easy to switch back and forth between two chats. Now, without the links at the top, you have to go back out to the main page and into the other chat and back and forth. Considering the number of Javascript and Flash images on the chats and the main page, that makes switching painful. And for those of us that do not use IE, the advertisements are a royal pain now. Especially the ones that are large and overlap the text of the page you are loading. They say to close the ad, just roll off the ad, but it still blanks out that space and you can't read what's under. You have to either reload (and reload and reload) until you find an ad that is smaller and does not overlap the screen, or you have to turn Javascript off in your browser and then you can't see the things that want that do require Javascript. Feh. Smaller ads please.

Duly noted!

Actually, the daily schedule is listed in the right hand column underneath the first ad. We'll hopefully be moving it to the top of the right hand column soon.

Hi, Tom. While I understand the conundrum that the OP is in when hosting international travelers to the world of dining in the states, the questions of whether or not to tip, and if so, how much seems to elude many? Why is this so difficult? When I travel anywhere that I am unfamiliar with the "appropriate local tipping custom" I always do my research and find out. What is so hard about this? Just because you are not a local does not entitle you to blunder erroneously because this is how it's done whereever said traveler resides. Please take a couple of minutes (if it even takes that much time) and find about about where you are going. Thanks


Noisy restaurants tend to make babies fall asleep! Many babies do that as a reaction to the overstimulation of noise.- they fall asleep and then they don't have to deal with it. Therefore a noisy restaurant might be perfect for a 4 month old.. she/he sleeps while mom and dad dine in peace!!! Although this might screw up sleeping later..but alas, that is the life of a parent!

Heck, noisy places make ME fall asleep!

Don't your coworkers at the WP get? The new format is awful. Please return to the old one. How hard is this to understand? A comment from your editor ?

From your fingers to my bosses' eyes ....

Going to see Bourdain and Ripert at the Warner Theater on Friday night. Is Cafe du Parc a good pre-theater option? We want a delicious meal before we go see these great chefs!

The French restaurant would be a perfect place to refuel before the chef show.

So, friends took us out to dinner this past week at Buck's. I await your review in spring dining guide; but we had good food and good time. Everyone in the place looked to be enjoying themselves. Among other items, we had a delicate sorrel soup, duo of beet and carrot salads, whole pompano with a lovely smoked flavor (and expertly filleted by our waiter), a generous steak/frites plate for a great price, and ended the meal with a lemon pie that was on-spot sweet/tart. While I appreciated Chef Greenwood's artistry, I think the "new" Buck's deserves praise and a return visit. Just so you know.

 Ah, your meal sounds, bite for bite, as memorable as my last one at Buck's.

so we don't have to scroll back to the top!

The blue submit bar should scroll with you and always be present at the top of the page. If that's not the case, please email us and let us know which browser you're using. Thanks.

Tom -- have you been? Given I live in the neighborhood, I've been a few times and noticed things have slipped considerably even since they've first opened! They're no longer serving breakfast all day, and while one my my first visits in their opening days showcased some great hand cut french fries, my most recent visit saw some lackluster frozen variety. any thoughts? heard anything?

Interesting! I went one day and got (clearly) frozen fries with my lunch. At a subsequent dinner, the side was clearly fresh and hand cut.  And I, too, was told "no breakfast" early on a Friday evening.

Here is Julia Beizer's Going Out Guide blog post on Ted's Bulletin.

We had a family show (Knufflebunny!) at the Kennedy Center with my 6 year old later Saturday afternoon. Not knowing how long the show would be for sure, I made a reservation a few weeks out at Eventide for 7pm. Needless to say, the show only lasted an hour, so we were left wondering how to pass the time before our 7pm reservation. On a whim, I called Eventide. They were so nice on the phone; I explained the situation and she said, come on over we'll seat you when you get here. That was our first visit there. Yes, as I've read here a lot -- the place is great! The kid's plate was great. Although my son also had to have an appetizer of Scallops from the full menu. The food was great. Service was great. And, who doesn't love the booths with doors that swing open! They are not in our 'hood, but it was worth the trip!

We'll end on a happy note. Eventide, you still got it going on, baby!


Thanks for joining me today. See you next Wednesday, everyone.

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 moderates the Sietsema's Table discussion group. His new video series, Tom Sietsema's TV Dinners, pulls back the curtain on a critic's life -- in and out of the dining room.
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