October 12, 2011

Maybe it sounds churlish. And I don’t mean to complain. I know my job requires me to spend 40 hours a week in restaurants with people I generally like, eating food that is seldom awful and sometimes grand, and having everything paid for by my employer.

Nice work if you can get it.

But if there’s one thing I miss about being a civilian diner, it’s the chance to get to know the people who feed and serve me. I’d love to be welcomed at places I admire and to be able to return to favorite dishes without the cloud of deadline: to be a regular in a restaurant.

Regulars seem so carefree, even if the meal in front of them isn’t chock-full of stars. They earn the best table in the house, or at least the one they have deemed the best. If they crave something that’s not on the menu, the chef whips together their wishes. As if by magic, the cars of these blessed regulars are waiting right outside the door after they bid everyone farewell.

Great work if you can get it.

My 12th Annual Fall Dining Guide features 40 restaurants I fantasize about developing steady relationships with. They include Obelisk, the intimate Italian townhouse in Dupont Circle whose cooking aromas I’d love to bottle; Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore, where every night feels as if it’s a birthday party; and even a couple of gas stations. Those last spots speak to both the economic times — cooking wherever real estate allows — and the reality that there’s much to admire about what’s “lower” on the food chain.

My reviews are accompanied by musings from several Washington personalities about where they eat on a regular basis, as well as results of a user poll that asked readers to share their restaurant routines. The No. 1 reason most respondents say they go back to a place does not reflect knife skills or locavore standards. Instead, it’s “welcoming service.”

Eat on .

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. 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.
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