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Thanksgiving, private rooms

Tom Sietsema

Washington Post Food Critic

Wednesday, November 5, 2003; 11:00 AM



In a city loaded with diverse restaurants, from New American chic and upscale Italian to sandwich shops and burritos on the run, finding the best places to eat can be a real puzzle. Where's the best restaurant for a first date or an anniversary? Father's Day? What's the best burger joint? Who has the best service?




Ask Tom. Tom Sietsema, The Washington Post's food critic, is on hand Wednesdays at 11 a.m. ET to answer your questions, listen to your suggestions and even entertain your complaints about Washington dining. Sietsema, a veteran food writer, has sampled the wares and worked as a critic in Washington, Seattle, San Francisco and Milwaukee, and can talk restaurants with the best of 'em. Tom's Sunday magazine reviews, as well as his "Ask Tom" column, are available early on the Web.


The transcript follows.


Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.




Arlington, Va.: So did Bob Levey consult your expertise for his column today?


Tom Sietsema: He did not. His column reminded me, though, that there's a lot of gray out there when it comes to restaurant problems. In this case, I thought the customer was wrong to bring in the pie without asking ahead of time and that the owner handled the situation in a less than satisfactory manner.


Good morning, everyone.




Arlington, Va.: Tom, My wife and I are going to be alone on Thanksgiving and were wondering if you could make a recommendation for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Thank you.


Tom Sietsema: A number of area restaurants will be open for turkey and trimmings this Thanksgiving. They include Bistro Bis on the Hill, Corduroy downtown, Harry's Tap Room in Arlington, Tower Oaks Lodge in Rockville, Melrose in the Park Hyatt, Gabriel in Dupont Circle, Seasons in Georgetown, 15 ria in Logan Circle and 701 in Penn Quarter.


Best not to wait too long to book a spot, though, because some places fill up a month or earlier before the feast.




Bethesda, Md.: Please, Please Please answer my question or throw it out for others to comment. I belonged to a moms group over the summer but since the fall most of us have returned to work. We would like to get together for brunch one weekend with our babies. Most of us are in the Georgetown, NW DC Bethesda area. Can you suggest a place that would be able to accommodate around 15 adults with babies?


Tom Sietsema: Chatters?


(I can just imagine the eyes on the faces of the waiters and patrons as they watch 15 moms and 15 strollers enter a restaurant.)




Arlington, Va.: I agree with you on almost everything...but I went to Kinkead's for the third time recently. I think it's a three-star experience. Yes, the food is overly complicated, but the ingredients are first-rate, and so is the service and ambience.


Tom Sietsema: That was not the case on my last two visits to Kinkead's, I'm sorry to report.




Washington, DC: Tom, I assume that the fact that you did not mention any of the not brand new tapas restaurants in your piece in today's Post does not mean that you don't think highly of some of them. Is Jaleo not great?


Tom Sietsema: I was writing only about the new crop of tapas purveyors. Jaleo is as good as ever. Indeed, it is first-rate.








Martinsburg, WVa.: Good morning Tom! Definitely missed you last week. Glad to have you back. I'm going to be in town on Tuesday for lunch. I know this is a holiday, but would like to impress a friend who works on Capital Hill. Expense is not object. It does need to be semi-close to a subway stop. Thanks for all the news each week.


Tom Sietsema: Try Bis or the new Charlie Palmer Steak. (But check your bill at the latter!)




Washington, D.C.: Tom, Welcome back. A follow-up from an earlier question. I asked who owned a recipe - the restaurant or the chef. This was in reference to the seared scallops at Gabriel and Chef Hill's move to his new David Greggory. You suggested I contacted them directly. I did and the scallops are back. I was very surprised and pleased; when last there, I was told "we listen to our customers." Thank you Tom and Thank you David Greggory.


Tom Sietsema: Yes, smart chefs do listen to their customers.




Vienna, Va.: TOM!!!! My head hurts. It has been a real bad morning. Unless I eat something fabulous, its going to be a real bad afternoon. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE suggest for me a place to go to lunch in the Vienna/Tysons area that will soothe my spirits and rejuvenate me.


Tom Sietsema: Lunch at Nizam's make help take away the pain ...




Washington, D.C.: Another restaurant improves their decor and you upgrade their reviews (Vidalia). The menu and food are almost the same. Somehow for you food tastes better, when the owners have spent a ridiculous amount of money on decor, which you admirably resist spending half your review describing (for once). You know what makes my food taste better? When it is cheap.


How about Vidalia take that $1 Million spent on upgrading the decor and subsidize the food. They could take $10 off the checks of the next 100,000 customers and I bet everyone would agree the food tastes a lot better. Seriously, Tom they upgraded the room and in your typical "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" sensibility you upgrade the experience, though the food has not changed one bit (has the recipe for the shrimp and grits been altered at all? How about that Tuna Tartare that I had there four years ago?).


Tom Sietsema: Frankly, I was not a big fan of Vidalia six months ago. And it had less to do with the room than the cooking, which I found to be too sweet, too heavy, too clumsy. So I was pleasantly surprised to find a kitchen that was doing much, much better than it was before, even with longtime staples. And the wine program has evolved into something really smart and user-friendly. The tuna tartare preparation HAS changed, incidentally.




Re: the couple looking to have Thanksgiving dinner: I was in the same boat last year with my husband...just the two of us for Thanksgiving dinner, not enough people for me to prepare a turkey. I made reservations at Citronelle....the best buffet because it had traditional and not so traditional food. Tons of fun!;


Tom Sietsema: A buffet at Citronelle? Interesting. Baccarat sneeze guards, no doubt.




Thanksgiving Dinner: A couple years ago, we ordered a takeout Thanksgiving dinner from the Ritz Carlton at Tysons. It came with all the trimmings, from soup to dessert, and was absolutely fabulous.


Tom Sietsema: A good suggestion!




Washington DC: Hello Tom. On behalf of restaurant diners everywhere, I would beg that gentle lady, and the 14 other moms and babies, to have their brunches at one of their homes and order takeout from one of our many fine establishments (Dean & Deluca and Heritage India being two diverse but good choices that offer takeout).


Thank you.


Tom Sietsema: Moms, are you listening?




Re: 15 Moms and 15 Babies: Any place where I'm not. May I suggest New Jersey (and I don't mean the avenue)?


Tom Sietsema: Ouch.




Washington DC: Tom, what happened to you last week?!;


Tom Sietsema: I was in Boston for the annual conference of the Association of Food Journalists.


It was a really good meeting. Among other things, we got a tour of the brand new test kitchen at Cook's Illustrated, listened to experts from Harvard and elsewhere talk about obesity, explored the cookbook collection at the Schlesinger Library (home to the work of Julia Child, MFK Fisher and others), tour the nearby Plimoth Plantation, investigate all the new restaurants .... it was a busy, busy five days.




Northeast, Washington, D.C.: Please please please, no snarky comments on the mom with friends and babies wanting to brunch! It's a legitimate question, and I know there are folks out there that think that children should not be allowed in restaurants until they are at least 25, and we're all aware of one another's biases regarding dining and children. Let's have a happy chat today, and not get all riled up about the second question of the day!!


Tom Sietsema: A thought: Would Teaism work for a group like that?




Washington, D.C.: Tom: Have you ever had good food at any domestic airport? I've had some good stuff at Milan's Malpensa and one or two other European cities, but I can't think of one thing I've eaten at any U.S. airport that I'd rate higher than a 3 (on a 1-10 scale). And even that was at movie theatre gouge prices. These days, with delays and having to get to the airport hours in advance, it's an issue.


Tom Sietsema: Interestingly, Austin has some good local food in its airport, including barbecue and ice cream.




Arlington, Va.: I know some people take shots at you for ignoring the middle-brow chains, which made me want to share my recent experience going to an Outback. I thought our poor server was going to have a conniption when I ordered my steak rare. She asked "So have you ever had a steak done rare before? You know it can be pretty raw."


Tom Sietsema: LOL




Restaurant Employee: You would be surprised at what some people try to get away with, from bringing in their own two liter bottle of soda ("you don't serve wild cherry pepsi so I brought my own") to parents who bring in little billy and suzy with Mcdonalds bags in tow ("they don't like anything you have") Don't like our food or beverages? Then go somewhere else.


Tom Sietsema: I'd add cell phones to the list of annoying things people bring into restaurants (and use, too loudly and too frequently ).




Citronelle Holiday Buffet: Hi Tom,

The holiday buffet at Citronelle is set up on the granite pass in the kitchen under the heat lamps. The Chef's Table is loaded with desserts. If you are lucky, you might even get Michel scolding you for piling too much stuff on your plate. Mark S.


Tom Sietsema: Cool beans! Thanks, Mark.




For moms and babies: A few ideas: La Madeline has good food and is low-key. You could also get take out sandwiches and such at a number of places and sit by the canal, if it's nice out.


Tom Sietsema: Thanks for the tip.




Mom's Club: There's a great Irish place called McDonald's.


Tom Sietsema: Hey, now!




Association of Food Journalists: Was there a seminar on the latest disguises so as not to be recognized around town?


Tom Sietsema: I did that panel last year, in Vancouver. The makeup artist did me up in such a manner, I looked like Arthur Treacher.




Manhattan, N.Y.: I took the bus up to NYC yesterday from D.C. to get away from the stress of my job. Where should I go eat lunch right now that would be better than just taking a nap? $20 max.


Tom Sietsema: Grand Central Station's Oyster Bar is just where you want to be. Love those oysters. Dig that soup.




Virginia: Tom, I love your chats. Will go out on a date with me?


Tom Sietsema: Depends who you are.




Washington, DC: Tom, love your chats and enjoyed this week's Weekly Dish!; Of the two D.C. restaurants that you mentioned, Cilantro and La Tasca, which would you recommend more highly for a fun, celebratory, mid-week lunch? Thanks!;!;


Tom Sietsema: Honestly? I'd go to Divino Lounge. But that's in Bethesda. Cilantro is handsome (oops, too much decor already!) but the menu is less Spanish than Middle Eastern and eclectic. La Tasca is BRAND new. I have yet to eat there. But the chef doesn't come from Spanish training, I should let you know.




Minneapolis, Minn.: Tom, I miss your reviews! I have moved to MN and really wish you were here to review! Anyway, my question is not about Minneapolis, but rather Miami. Can you suggest a place or two to for a nice business dinner in South Beach? Thanks


Tom Sietsema: The Minneapolis area has a fine critic in Rick Nelson at the Star-Tribune. Miami? I haven't been there in a year, but I understand Casa Tua in Miami Beach is fun.




Arlington, Va: I was out in Denver and found a place which served a great fish taco. Can you recommend any places in the DC area that serve a great fish taco?


Tom Sietsema: The new Ceiba on 14th and G streets has pretty good fish tacos on its menu.






Lookin to impress: Hey Tom!; I am coming to DC from out of town and taking a friend from high school out on a date. I'm trying to rekindle a little romance so I want to take her somewhere nice. She's a high-class senior at Georgetown, so I want to take her somewhere sophisticated but not uptight (we're both 22). I'd like to spend around $50 on the meal. Any suggestions? Thanks!;


Tom Sietsema: Check out my online review of Little Fountain Cafe in Adams Morgan. It is just what you are looking for: cozy environs, soulful cooking, sweet service.






Fairfax, Va: Hello Tom!; Let me just say that I think your chats are terrific--a nice balance of humor and information. Anyway, I am hosting a large, important party at Zaytinya later this month. I am a bit worried because they seemed less than anxious to accommodate my large (25-person) group on a Saturday night, and I keep thinking something might go wrong. How do restaurants typically handle large parties? Would it be wrong for me to request a meeting with the manager prior to the big day? I want to pay beforehand, so my guests aren't fumbling with the check, and I also want there to be sangria pre-poured and dinner ordered, so when the guest of honor arrives, everything's set. How do I arrange this? Does this exceed the bounds of proper restaurant etiquette? Any insight would be helpful, thanks!;


Tom Sietsema: Your timing is interesting. A food savvy colleague just visited Zaytinya with a group of six and he said he liked the restaurant better when it was just he and his wife dining there. The restaurant is loud, the lights are low (so dim that they make reading the menus difficult at night) and not every server makes a point of explaining how the menu works: people typically order two or three mezze (small plates), which come out as they're ready. The food is also meant to share. Are your guests prepared to be adventurous?


Much as I enjoy the place, it wouldn't be my first choice for an important group gathering. And I'd hesitate to give my business to a restaurant that seemed less than thrilled to host me.




Somewhere, USA: Went to Matchbox before a Caps game last week. The mini-burgers were excellent as you said in your review!; I was a little disappointed in the pizza though. The crust was nicely crisp, but the sauce was too sweet. In general I though Pizzeria Paradiso has much better pizza.


Tom Sietsema: I would agree with your review.




Mom's Brunch: You could probably get the second floor at Austin Grill reserved. Cafe Deluxe or Chef Geoff's would be happy to accommodate as well. I'm sure the Mom's would be a club of very dedicated patrons to the restaurant that takes good care of them and their offspring.


Tom Sietsema: Good suggestions all.




Arlington, Va.: Excuse me very much, but McDonald's is SCOTTISH.


Tom Sietsema: One thing I love about writing for the Post: smart readers!




Washington, D.C.: Jaleo is first-rate? I have a friend who has family in Spain and Venezuela. She considers Jaleo very Americanized tapas. My experience was very mediocre food that tasted good only because it was swimming in butter, oil and/or garlic.


Tom Sietsema: Having grazed my way through Madrid and Barcelona, I beg to differ.




Moms: Chadwicks in DC-by the water, under the bridge, does a nice brunch and has an upstairs private room. If you call ahead you can reserve it and you wouldn't be bothering other patrons w/ all the kids.


Tom Sietsema: I KNEW we'd get some helpful recommendations.




Washington, DC: Hi there -

I'm trying to remember the name of a restaurant that I stepped into a week or so ago. It is an Asian restaurant on M Street in Georgetown and the name of it was a sort of play on words. It is pretty new, with a dark inside. Anyone know what it's called?


Tom Sietsema: The (dreadful) Mie N Yu perhaps?




Harrisburg, Pa.: While in Boston did you meet Philadelphia restaurant critic Craig Laban? He does a disservice to all restaurant critics nationwide. ANY THOUGHTS?


Tom Sietsema: I know Craig, but he wasn't there in Boston. Can you be more specific in your complaint?




Washington, DC: Tom, I just wanted to share a happy experience with the newish Georgetown Pizzeria Paradiso. We decided to have our rehearsal dinner there since our Sept. wedding was in Georgetown. They have an awesome private room downstairs and are really accommodating with a group menu and good service. Everyone had a blast and it was a wonderfully relaxed and casual evening.


Tom Sietsema: Thanks for sharing. I like the eatery, too. And doesn't it have a fireplace downstairs?




For Moms and Babies: If you can stand another suggestion--try Buca di Beppo on Connecticut--they have some rooms that are off to the side and were very accommodating to a large group recently that had a baby shower with some children involved. I know it's not haute cuisine, but has lots of options and understanding servers.


FWIW, A Sympathetic Mom


Tom Sietsema: A tip from the field. Thanks.




Washington, D.C.: I happened to be at the bank next to Corduroy last week and remembered your recommendation. I had lunch there and it was fantastic! Great omelette, great wine and great unobtrusive service. O.k., so the decor isn't spectacular but I loved the place.


Tom Sietsema: Corduroy is definitely a keeper.




Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom. Love your chats, missed you last week... hope you had fun! I tried to ask you this question a couple of times now, hopefully, third time is a charm.

My husband is an absolute pastry freak. And I mean freak. unfortunately, since moving to the area about a year ago, we haven't been able to find a place that has really exceptional pastries. Tried Cake Love (didn't like it at all), Cafe Poupon (intentions better than actual execution), dessert at Palena (not bad). But we're still looking for the ultimate in pastry in the area. Hopefully something in the French tradition (tartelettes and the likes), or German/Austrian. Any ideas? Please please please answer. You don't know what it's like to live with a pastry freak who hasn't had his fix in a while....


Tom Sietsema: Nectar, Citronelle, maybe Cafe 15 downtown? I've had some really nice desserts at Four & Twenty Blackbirds in Flint Hill, too -- a lovely plum tart, hot donut holes with pumpkin preserves.




Arlington, Va.: In defense of the Outback waiter, how many "un-steak-educated" diners do you think have ordered a rare steak, only to send it back when it came back rare!! The waiter has probably encountered this every day.


Tom Sietsema: I bet you're right.




Washington, D.C.: A few of your three star reviews--for places like 2941 and Vidalia--have only good things to say. While some places (Four Sisters) probably don't feel "special" enough for three stars and others (Zola) attract minor gripes, what is it that stops places like these from getting a fourth star from you?


Tom Sietsema: To get four stars, a place really has to transport a diner. And it has to dazzle from start to finish, and from visit to visit.




Arlington, Va.: What do you think is the best Mexican restaurant in the DC area?


Tom Sietsema: I'm still waiting for it.




Washington, D.C.: I was in the bar section of Galileo today for lunch. The service was abysmal. The tablecloth was dirty and not replaced. At two, a worker came in and started drilling at the bar. Staff was eating and drinking behind the bar. Any request for service was seriously delayed and met with heavy sighs. I was being sarcastic and apologized for interrupting our hostess/waitress (to place our lunch order). Unfortunately, the sarcasm was not understood and the nonservice continued unabetted. I regret not having made a point by leaving a nontip. There was always 3-4 staff (some drinking and eating) in the area, so no excuse for being busy. I will never go back (with perhaps the exception of Laboratorio).


Tom Sietsema: Ouch. Roberto's bar menu deserves better.




Washington DC: I appreciate that the Post publishes an annual dining guide and generally find your restaurant reviews to be very helpful. I do agree, however, with the criticism that the guide includes too many loser establishments. It seems a waste of ink. I also think it baffling that you defend the inclusion of B and C listers as a demonstration of the new rating system. The use of one to four stars is hardly innovative or unusual. Nor does it require explanation to readers. In fact, the star system is undoubtedly the most simple and common way to rate restaurants. I think it is fine as a tool but certainly seems overhyped by the Post as an innovation. Am I missing something?


Tom Sietsema: Admittedly, I took some heat for messing with what was traditionally a collection of the critic's favorite restaurants -- mostly from chefs who typically make the list and count on the boost the ink gives their restaurants.


But I stand by my work and my stars and the inclusion of lesser lights in the mix. Of the 50 restaurants featured in this year's guide, I'd be happy to pay my own way in 35 or so. Just as I wouldn't judge a restaurant based on one meal, I hope nay-sayers don't discount me on a single issue.


As for not having to explain things to readers --- obviously, you've never worked for a newspaper. Trust me, changes require explanations.




Washington, DC: Is it appropriate to bring your own bottle (of wine) to a nice restaurant? Assuming you are prepared to pay a corkage fee (unlike the pie-bearer in Levey's column).


Tom Sietsema: It depends on the restaurant and the wine. My advice: Call ahead and ask what the restaurant's policy is. And don't bring a wine that is on that restaurant's list or as a way to get around said restaurant's prices.




Petworth: Oh Tom. Don't you think that Mixtec deserves at least a nod as a decent Mexican restaurant?


Tom Sietsema: Decent, yes. But by no means "the best."




Re: Pastry: What about La Ruche, in Georgetown?


Tom Sietsema: The desserts there are good but not in the same league as the places I mentioned (and the reader was looking for).




Clarendon, Va.: Hey Tom. My dad is coming into town tomorrow on business. Every time he visits, he insists on going to the Peking Gourmet Inn in Virginia. I find the place hugely overrated. Where can I take my (somewhat tame) father in the 'burbs for interesting Chinese and dim sum?


Tom Sietsema: Tell Dad he needs to broaden his horizons. A good place to start is A & J in Annandale, the pretty and inexpensive dim sum purveyor. I haven't been myself, but a lot of people also like Full Kee in Falls Church.




Washington, D.C.: I was reading past chats and questions came up about your marital status, age, and whether or not you have children. One chatter inquired what all this could possibly have to do with your job. I think all of these factors play a role in how one typically experiences a restaurant. One's tastes change as one gets older, both in terms of the food one enjoys and the "scene" one enjoys. One's ability to "put up" children while dining out is impacted by whether or not one has children, which can impact how one ultimately feels about the atmosphere of a restaurant. Your reviews can't help but be tempered by who you are, and that includes all of the above factors and more. I'll give the people who initially asked the questions the benefit of the doubt, and say they wanted to know these things for that very reason. Personally, I wonder how you can keep from weighing 500 pounds with eating out all the time at all these good restaurants.


Tom Sietsema: To answer your last question first, I eat in a LOT of bad restaurants, too, so the temptations aren't as great as you might imagine.


As for how my life situation affects my reviews, you raise a good point. But I try to include people of all ages on my review visits. So I DO know how a senior or a teenager experiences a lot of the places I write about.




Washington, D.C: Can you recommend a great restaurant (with a good wine list) in Baltimore for a Thursday evening? Preferably somewhere located in a lively area that is nice to walk around at night.


Tom Sietsema: At the top of my list is Charleston, the handsome Southern-styled restaurant in Baltimore's Inner Harbor (East). Its wine list is terrific. Call 410-332-7373. Reservations are essential.


Thanks for a good chat, everyone. See you back here next Wednesday.





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