Ask Tom: The Washington Post food critic takes your questions on his 2012 Fall Dining Guide

Oct 24, 2012

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema takes a look inside his Fall Dining Guide, a look at 40 of the best restaurants in the area.

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Please explain why your choice for the Top 40 restaurants is not the top 40 rated restaurants, subject to increases or decreases in quality since your last review?

Easy. Because the question I get asked most often is "What's your favorite restaurant?"  This year,  I figured I should address what readers tell me they want.


Good morning, chatters. It's great to see so many questions and comments in the queue today, but before we get to them, I wanted to share a response to a chatter's complaint about Ceiba from last week and news of a forthcoming celebration of the life of the late Patrick Deiss, a veteran of 2941 in Falls Church.


Dear Tom:

I wanted to reach out to you in response to the comment in your online chat on Wednesday regarding a guest's negative experience at Ceiba.

As you know, we work extremely hard to ensure that every person has a great experience in our restaurants. Unfortunately, there are times when that does not happen, and often that is out of our control. The intoxicated guests were removed from the bar as soon as humanly possible. We regret that our guests had to witness it, the manager apologized to them and we did take care of a round of drinks as a result.

We experienced an extremely high level of business that evening and we did run out of some menu items later in the evening. The guests that contacted you did not place their orders until almost  9:00pm. Upon discovering that this guest had ordered an unavailable item, we gave the guest a choice of available items and comped her choice, as well as a dessert for the table. The manager who handled the situation thought that this was an appropriate action. The guests were upset and threatened, in somewhat profane language, to give us a bad Yelp review as well as complain to you, which obviously they did.

We regret that they did not feel the situation was handled properly, but from our perspective we practiced the same level of aggressive hospitality that we always do.

Sincerely, Gus DiMillo
Passion Food Hospitality
Operators of DC Coast/Ceiba/Acadiana/PassionFish/District Commons/
Burger, Tap & Shake


TOM: Gus, I regret not having had the time to investigate that complaint during a live discussion, and I thank you for the response. There are often two, three or more sides to every restaurant complaint, I've learned over the years.


Regarding the culinary event celebrating the late Deiss, a host of popular local chefs -- Scott Drewno of the Source and Haidar Karoum of Proof included -- are preparing a five-course, $250 tasting menu at 2941 on Sunday, Nov. 4.  The proceeds will go toward a memorial fund for Deiss's two daughters. Can't afford the dinner? Cocktails and hors d'oeuvres can be had for $75 beginning at 5:30 that evening. For more information, go to the restaurant's site  ( or call 703-270-1500.


Let's begin.

Hamilton Johnson, Brendan L'Etoile, Michael Costa, Jeremy Hoffman, Liam LaCivita are not mentioned in your dining guide of your favorite places. Instead, their efforts are attributed to owners who are rarely in the restaurants, much less their kitchens. They deserve as much recognition as the other chefs with star appeal. It only perpetuates the culture of absentee celebrity chef worship.

No slight intended! But point taken. For the record, I've saluted several of the aforementioned chefs in past reviews, just not in this dining guide.


For readers who might not know, Johnson is with Vidalia, L'Etoile is with Chez Billy, Costa is with Zaytina, Hoffman is with Restaurant Eve, and LaCivita is with Liberty Tavern. Applause all around for their good work, please.

Tom- When does the fall dining guide become available?

It went online last Wednesday and came out in print over the weekend.

Tom, I see Minibar is not on your new list. I just looked and saw that the new cost is $225 per person exclusive of everything. That seems a little outrageous. Did that factor into your decision? Do you think it is still worth the splurge (trying to decide whether to go for the first time)? Thank you.

Minibar wasn't on my list of favorites this round because Jose Andres's avant- garde dining experience has yet to reopen. As I reported earlier, the restaurant recently relocated to new quarters near the original in Penn Quarter. Opening night is Nov. 2.

Why do restaurateurs insist on spraying glass cleaners on tables while nearby diners are eating? I’m finding that this practice is more and more common. I really don’t want to inhale ammonia or other toxins while I am eating!!!

I hear about this problem all too frequently. And I see it all too often myself.


Restaurants, try using hot sudsy water on dirty tables. Or, if you insist on cleaning sprays, try to avoid spritzing while diners are eating nearby. Why would anyone want his pad Thai or French onion soup to smell of bleach or ammonia?

What was the name of the restaurant you featured with their Sweetbread dish?

I've written about a lot of sweetbreads, but I'm guessing you're thinking of the plate displated on the opening page of my dining guide. Those are sweetbreads on waffles, as served by Vidalia in Washington.

Hi Tom, Every year, my parents come to DC for Thanksgiving and we have made a tradition of going to Citronelle for their outstanding Turkey Day buffet. Unfortunately, I just found out that it's still closed due to water damage. Do you have any recommendations on where to make reservations this year for something tasty, but somewhat traditional? Thank you so much! Nancy

Smart to be thinking ahead, Nancy!


I'm not sure how many diners you are, or when you prefer to eat, but I just did a little investigating and found that the following DC restaurants -- a mix of the upscale and the midscale -- all have slots open for Nov. 22: Adour in the St. Regis hotel, Art & Soul on the Hill, Bourbon Steak in the Four Seasons, Equinox near the White House, J & G Steakhouse in the W Hotel, Sou'wester in the Mandarin-Oriental and Vidalia downtown.


My suggestion to you (and others): Start dialing.

I know you covered some less expensive places, but would love to see something from you that is somewhat analogous to the Cheap Eats list that Washingtonian does. Do you have any thoughts of doing a guide like that at all?

It's a possibility. In the course of the year, however, I do aim to strike a balance in terms of cheap vs. not cheap  subjects. At least a dozen of the places in my fall guide qualify as deals/cheap eats/gently-priced venues. 

I find that very hot water all by itself cleans quite adequately, myself.

I suggested that, but I wonder if heath dept requires something stronger? Can a restaurant owner enlighten us?

Hello Tom. Thanks for a wonderful dining guide, as usual. Now, (a) posting early, and (b) asking two questions that have been asked in various forms before. In a city of several 4- and 3-star restaurants, how do you decide among the many 2-star restaurants which to feature in your guide, and of those (ahem, I am talking to you, Chez Billy this past Saturday night) how many chances should I give it to make up for a distinctly sub-par experience? The food was good (steak frites, mussels, bone marrow appetizer; call it 3 stars), the atmosphere was fun, but incredibly loud (call it two 2 stars), but the service was slooow. Seated at 8:30 and our entrees were served at 10:00 p.m. Off night or no, if you were a typical diner, would you go back given the plethora of other 2-star options?

Thanks for posting early.


1) For a two-star restaurant to be included in my collection of favorites, it had to be special or call to me in some way.


Chez Billy is a welcome addition to its neighborhood, which doesn't count a lot role models (in terms of restaurants) and it serves satisfying, moderately-priced French cooking in a handsome environment. I could see myself eating there on a steady basis if I lived closer and my job didn't have me chasing new restaurants all the time. For old-timers out there,  Chez Billy is sort of the the Bistro Francais of 2012.


2) If you want to avoid the noise and perhaps get better service -- not Chez Billy's strong point, as you note -- dine early rather than late. And don't be shy about letting a manager know if the noise or the service is a problem.  Change can only happen if you let high-ups know there's an issue.


3) As for how many tries you should give a restaurant, it depends upon a lot of factors.  Is it close/convenient? Does it fit into your budget? I'll put up with slow service if the food rates three stars; I'd be less inclined to return to that restaurant if the cooking weren't so good. Too many choices. 

I am from South Asia and I believe the basement joint with uber loud music might just be getting lucky with diners who can’t afford to go to Komi. It’s mind-boggling to not understand why people are raving about the food at Little Serrow. I don’t want to put you on the spot, but I need expert opinion on this one. Is Little Serrow’s food authentic to Northern Thailand or is it just Asian ingredients? Is it worth the pre-fixe price and multiple visits? Your two Bhat please…

If I didn't think Little Serow was a big deal, I wouldn't have given it 3.5 stars ( an excellent to superlative rating)  in my fall guide.


Johnny Monis from the four-star Komi nearby is the creator. He and his wife and business partner, Anne Marler, have travelled extensively in NE Thailand and even got married there.  Isaan cooking is also what the couple say they cooked at home on their nights away from Komi before Little Serow opened.


The Thai restaurant is not for everyone, and I said as much in my review.  LS doesn't take reservations, for instance, and it doesn't make substitutions. But for $45 you get a colorful and delicious feast and some very attentive service. I'd eat there more often, on my own, if it were more convenient.

Tom, longtime reader and fan. I haven't lived in D.C. for five years but I still follow your reviews and chats religiously. I, and I think most people reading this, appreciate your commitment to interacting with your audience on a regular basis. I have only one complaint, and it really isn't limited to you, but many of your colleagues as well: Please don't post "questions" from obvious trolls disrespecting you and the topic, and there for little more than getting a rise out of the chat host and readers. It wastes your time, and frustrates those who have genuine queries that don't get acknowledged. Now, I'm off to read your Fall Dining Guide. Even if I'm not in D.C., I live vicariously through your fabulous reviews! Best wishes. ~Pats Fan

Thanks for your kind words.


I think it's important to hear from readers who might not agree with me. I like to keep an open forum, where people feel they can be heard.  At the same time, like you, I'm getting tired of the handful of stalkers coming on here with the same criticisms week after week -- criticisms I've attempted to explain. I'll do my best to identify them before NOT addressing them any more.

We are not terribly fussy people, but my husband and I had a disastrous dinner a while back. A staff person dumped my dinner on the floor at my feet, then the same guy made/served my husband a drink with a bug in it, and brought me stone-cold replacement food, had to haggle about a "comped" drink (the one with the bug) when it showed up on our bill, and on and on. It was so bad by the end we were laughing. The offending staff person appeared to be the manager and we suspect he may have been intoxicated. So, we wrote off that restaurant, vowing never to return. But, it has now been nearly 9 months since that horror show of an evening, and the place has gotten quite good reviews lately, and it is near our house and has a nice I need some advice on when/if to forgive and forget.

Bad things sometimes happen to good restaurants. If you trust the source of the restaurant's recent good reviews and the establishment is as convenient and comfortable as you say ... why not give it another chance?

He's going to be in Richmond for several months and the plan is for him to come up and visit a bunch of weekends during that time to see the museums and eat through the city. He is really hoping to be able to eat a lot of ethnic foods that he can't get in Montana (basically everything but mediocre pho and sushi). From my own dining I have a lot of the obvious ones on the list (Jose Andres' restaurants, a few others from your recent list), but are there any you'd recommend that would be unique to big multi-cultural cities (don't need to be four-star or anything like that). I'm in Germantown, but we'll spend plenty of time in the city so anything in the District and north (could have reason to go to Frederick) would be great. Any non-ethnic hole-in-the-wall places I should know about?

I could devote a guide to your question (not that I want to start *another* one right this week!). In the interest of time, however, I'll share a short list of places you absolutely, positively have to show off to your pal from out West:


1) Ethiopic, for what might be the area's best eat-it-with-your-fingers Ethiopian cooking.


2) Little Serow, for amazing hot-sour-sassy regional That fare in a funky underground setting.


3) The omakase (chef's choice of Japanese dishes) served in a private room in the back of Sushi Taro in Dupont Circle.


4) The bar at Rasika, which I gave my highest rating to, for its superlative Indian menu.


5) Toki Underground for ramen noodles and awesome cocktails in a hipster setting.


6) Finally, for a "non-ethnic" spot, try the charming CF Folks for an easy American lunch.


I hope your friend from Montanta goes back with some love for DC.

Great Dining Guide this year. Thanks Tom! My questions is about Restaurant Eve. Previously, you've given the Tasting Room 4 stars, but this year included the Bistro with 3.5 stars. Why did you exclude The Tasting Room? Is it no longer up to being a four-star place or did you just want to feature other restaurants?

I left off the Tasting Room in part because I wanted to spread the love around this year, but also because I actually had more fun in several visits to Eve's Bistro. Plus, the (less-expensive) food was sensational. There was a warmth and a sense of humor in the bistro that I found lacking in the room across the way -- not enough to write off the Tasting Room, mind you, but just to give it a rest for the moment.

A few weeks ago I wrote asking you for advice about where to go with my mobility-challenged inlaws. We took them to 1789 and I'd be so grateful if you could let everyone know how wonderful they were. When we pulled up the valets alerted the folks inside that we might need help getting everyone inside. When we got inside, the maitre d' took me aside to show me the TWO tables he had reserved for us so that we could decide which one would work better. The waiter helped my more impaired mother in law get seated and brought her a pillow for her back so that she'd be more comfortable. Absolutely everyone helped and made the entire table comfortable. The food was pretty terrific, too -- all in all, a great evening from a team of caring professionals. They made us happy customers for life (and we eat out a lot!).

Take a bow, 1789. Good work!

What are your favorite things to eat at Central right now? Is the food there different since Citronelle isn't open at present?

I guess you didn't read page 21 of my fall guide, in which I mention how the food has improved at Central, thanks chiefly to the efforts of Citronelle's No. 2, chef David Deshaies.  My go-to dishes include his chicken schnitzel, designer burgers, "celebration cake" and seafood stew.

Hi Tom, I'm trying again. I'm headed to S.D. in early December and I don't see any Postcards from there. Have you been/do you have any suggestions? Or could you throw this out to the chatters, pleeeeeease? Thanks so much. Will be traveling solo, if that makes a difference.

San Diego, anyone?

Dear Tom, How dare you now include (insert favorite restaurant here) in the dining guide! It's much better than anything on your list. You must be (crazy, drunk, one). And why didn't you include any restaurants in (insert home neighborhood here)! Don't you know you have readers all over? Do better next time! That should take care of most of the comments, no?

You are reading my mind, dear chatter.


The reality is,  this recent guide hit some kind of nerve with readers. I got way more (positive) feedback on it than I have on the last two issues. I think that's because the theme is pretty simple and it addressed a question I get every day.  Readers can argue with "the best," but it's more of a challenge to argue against a writer's faves.

Tom, I've been lax and have not made reservations for my husband's birthday in a couple of weeks. In the past we have been to Bourbon Steak, J&G, Inn at Little Washington. He loves steak, but is willing to try some different. Recommendations would be appreciated.

Have you been to Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan. It boasts a nice, meaty menu.

Do you have a favorite restaurant in Reston? Doesn't have to be the town center. Trying to see if I've missed anything. Thanks!

I honestly don't visit as much as I should -- maybe because so little interests me in Reston? It's been awhile since I ate there, but I always had a soft spot for El Manantial.

Yes, it's worth it. I thought it was a much more interesting (and less expensive) experience than Komi. Flavors you can't find anywhere.

Another reader's perspective.

Wow, if that diner at Ceiba really did get a round of drinks, a comped replacement entree and free dessert, I don't know what they have to complain about. I'm not sure what "aggressive hospitality" is but clearly this diner had an axe to grind by complaining online while holding back some crucial details. I may not go back to a place where I encounter drunk patrons and limited menu options but you can't fault Ceiba for their handling of this situation.

I agree.


As an aside, I can't use about a quarter of the emails I get for my Ask Tom column in the Magazine because I can't tell, even after investigating complaints, which side is not embellishing,  withholding crucial details, etc. Frustrating.

Tom, I thought you were always very high on Thai X-ing but I notice it's not in the guide. Has it slipped in your estimation or was it just not right for this year's "theme"?

Thai X-ing is still great fun, but as I was deciding what to include and what to cut, I had to make sometimes painful decisions. In my estimation, Little Serow is a superior experiennce. I also wanted to find room for a Thai restaurant in Virginia, the two-star Elephant Jumps.

Really surprised Cordoroy didn't make this list.

Some of the stiffest service I've found in the city. And too much up-selling! I feel like I'm in 1999 there.

Tom--What was the most dispiriting trend that you saw in restaurants this year as you assembled your list? What, more than anything, prompted you to leave any given restaurant off the list?

Restaurants charging too much for middling (or worse) cooking kept a lot of the usual subjects off my list. 


After spending $400 for four diners at BlackSalt, for instance, a waiter came over after we were eating and asked how everything was. "Too salty," a companion said, pointing to a couple of uneaten seafood entrees.


"I'll let the kitchen know," was his only response.


No, "I'm sorry." No, "would you like something else."  No comped anything.


Excuse me? I just paid $400 for poor service and a meal that was only half good!

I am surprised you listed Vermillion in the fall dining guide when (as you noted) the chef will be leaving in 10 weeks. Aren't there any other places on or near King Street besides Restaurant Eve worth giving a shot?

My meal at Vermilion was so good, I couldn't leave it out, plus I wanted to share the news in the review of the chef's  plans to relocate to DC.


That said, I'm eager to return to Majestic, Society Fair, Virtue and a bunch of other spots in Old Town.

I don't get to Reston much (I live in Olney), but when I go there I head for Jackson's. I love the deviled eggs, the chopped salad, and (if I remember correctly as I didn't have room for dessert the last few times) white chocolate cherry bread pudding.

Jackson's has its good nights, for sure.

I travel frequently to northeastern Thailand (where the Isan food is served) and Little Serow is a wonderful American interpretation. So much so that, when I travel to DC (about 3 times per year), I make a point to arrange my schedule to eat there. I don't think I've been to another restaurant like it in America. A little loud for me, but the service has always been outstanding. One of my favorite restaurants in America. PS thanks for the fall dining guide - used it to choose Vermillion this trip. Delightful!

Thanks for the feedback.

I travel to San Diego every year for a conference. I just had one of my best experiences there at Cocina Urbana. Wine is priced at retail plus a reasonable corkage fee. The gnudi were the highlight of my dinner. You can't go wrong, but do reserve early. For a great view across the street, Bertrand at Mister A's overlooks the airport and features excellent New American cooking. I'd also recommend heading down south for terrific bierria. Check out San Diego papers for recommendations.

More responses from chatters:


Go to the cheap taco shops, especially around Mission Beach. The best tacos I have ever had (I like Robertos). I also can say the homemade tortillas and guac in Tijuana (if you walk along the tourist area you will see plenty of places) were the best that I have ever had.


Try Brooklyn Girl in San Diego. We had a fabulous dinner there this summer.


Years ago, before my first visit to SD, I posted on Usenet (remember Usenet?) asking for suggestions, and someone gave me a priceless tip: any taco stand with a name ending in -berto was bound to have great and authentic Mexican food. Sure enough, my SD-dwelling friend took us to his favorite, Rigoberto's, which lived up to the tip.


Fish tacos at Point Loma Seafood near the submarine base; I am drooling thinking about them!

I feel like I could say that about half the restaurant meals I get these days . . .

Me too! 

Is it possible to go there with a party of one?

Yes, says this diner who once sat solo at the counter and enjoyed himself immensely.

Piatti's and Brockton Villa in La Jolla Lots of good places in Hillcrest neighborhood Avoid the Gaslamp--overpriced, filled with drunk Marines and college kids after 9pm

Thanks for the additional tips.

Do you wish that you had more pages? A top 50 instead of 40? Is this a matter of ad pages/printing cost, or just a convention that fits with Casey Casem? If you had 50 - would those 10 choices come easily....or would you be scratching your head for more?

Forty worked for me. It really did.  But if I had the luxury of one more page for four or more mini-reviews, I might have included .... aw, I don't dare write about the almost-rans, do I?

Tom, Just wanted to thank you for including this charming restaurant in your Top 40. My wife and I recently celebrated our 29th anniversary there and our experience was every bit as warm and wonderful as it had been years before. The service was perfect: friendly and attentive without hovering. The food was wonderful with many choices offered on the Prix Fixe menu. We should eat there more often!

It's a very cozy and easy restaurant, I agree.

Tom, We never hear about the Grand old places that have graced DC for years. Thoughts about some of these places like Taberna del Alabardero, Marcel's, Ristorante Tosca, The Oval Room, etc.

Taberna looks better than it tastes ... Marcel's isn't as delicious as when I raved about it a year ago ... Tosca has become boring ... the Oval Room made it in the guide.

Why is the Inn at Little Washington listed as being from Virginia, VA?

On page 20, the official list, it says "Washington," as in "Virginia?"

I know the hour has almost come to a close, but I'm seeking anyone's feedback about the new four course meal at Rogue 24. The BF and I have the same birthday, so try to make it special, but don't want to break the bank this year. Right now, I have reservations at The Source, and am considering Graffiato's tasting menu, but Rogue 24 tempts me!

Go to Rogue 24 and order the four-courser. You'll be able to hear each other.


The lunch bell ringeth. Thanks for your time, everyone. Let's meet up again next Wednesday, same time.

In This Chat
Tom Sietsema
Weaned on a beige buffet a la "Fargo" in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. In thinner days, he was a critic for Microsoft Corp.'s and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; and a food reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.

This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the '80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section's recipes. That's how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.

He covers the local scene in his Dining, First Bite and Dish columns; keeps tabs on the world at large in his Postcard From Tom column and contributes tasty morsels to the Going Out Guide blog.
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