Ask Tom

Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, March 8, 2006; 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.

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Washington, D.C.: Dear Tom-Tom (or so friends have told me your nickname is):

I'm a big fan of yours and regret my first communication is a gripe.

Granted, I'm a major carnivore, but I can't understand how a 3.5 star review results in a two star rating for DC's Fogo de Chao.

You wrote: "salad bar looks like an entire produce section" " meat. For the most part it's TERRIFIC" "Service. If I were a restaurant looking to poach talent, here's where I would begin my search". "Everything's big here: the space, the food, the fun".

I understand the stars are subjective, but the review read a lot better than just "good".

I've been going to Greenfield in Rockville regularly since it opened. On the road, I've eaten at Fogo in Atlanta and Chicago, and I was in heaven when I heard they were opening in DC. Since it's always packed, I doubt the two star rating will hurt business, but it's been bothering me, so I decided to write.

Keep up the good work. I still love your writing. I know your busy, but a brief reply would be appreciated.

Tom Sietsema: (Hmmmm. Only two people call me Tom-Tom...)

You glossed over my criticisms: the side dishes were mostly lacking, the 30-plus item salad bar was best for the uncooked items, and several of the meats were middling.

Good morning, everyone. Lots of good questions today. But I'll start with a request from Galileo: Will the reader who complained last week about slow service at the restaurant's Osteria please get in touch with me? Send me your name, email and number. Galileo would like to make amends for your rushed experience.

The clock is ticking!

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Bethesda, Md.: Tom,

Have not heard much about Merkado since your 2-star rating several months ago. Have you been back? Any drop-off in quality?

Tom Sietsema: I dined there solo not long ago and really enjoyed my meal; it felt, and tasted, like a two-star ("good") establishment.

News flashlette: Opening chef Edward Kim has been replaced by Troy Walker, until recently the executive chef at the nearby 15 ria. I expect the new hire will be adding his own touches to the Latin-Asian menu.

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New Orleans Bound: Tom,

First I love your chats. They are a great resource and fun

to read. I am writing because I am going with some

classmates to St. Bernard Parish for a week to work with

Habitat for Humanity. But we also want to do our part for

the N.O. economy. We are grad students and volunteering

so we won't be able to spend a lot of money, but most of

us have never been there and want to go out to dinner at

least one night. We have people who are really open to

any type of food, but probably nothing more than $15 an

entree, though cheaper would be great too. Any help you

can give is greatly appreciated. Thanks.

Tom Sietsema: Can you wait a week? I have a 6:50 a.m. flight to New Orleans tomorrow morning ...

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Washington, D.C.: Saturday, I was at a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown and was there for an early dinner around 5. After we had finished eating, our plates were cleared, bill was paid, and we were still talking, when the server interrupted us. She asked us to leave so that people waiting could use our table. We left willingly but were surprised by the request. After thinking more about it, I thought it was rather rude to ask us to leave, when we had only been sitting there, after the bill was paid, for about 5 minutes. What gives? Is there a reasonable amount of time that patrons should be able to linger at their table after a meal?

Tom Sietsema: Were there a LOT of people waiting, or just one party? And were you really there only five minutes, or was it more like 15? Whatever the case, it sounds like the server could have handled the situation with a bit more tact.

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Washington, D.C.: Regarding Kotobuki, my husband and I are eager to try it. Will they take reservations? I know it is very small. Also, would our infant (in an infant car seat, probably sleeping throughout meal) be welcome there? Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Small, cheap and very good, Kotobuki does not take reservations; my advice is to go early.

Producer: Kotobuki review

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Washington, D.C.: There are SO many people out there flooding the restaurants w/o any knowledge of how to tip. Here is a short guide for the general public to follow. Feel free to print out and store in your wallet and/or purse.

1. CHILDREN "THE LITTLE DEVILS":

If you have children, DO NOT let them, open and dump anything on the table (ie; salt, sugar, etc). IF YOU DO, you must leave an extra $5 for the server to clean up YOUR CHILD'S mess & to restock the now unusable wasted items. We are neither their babysitter nor their parent. The least you can do is pay us for the extra work. Also make sure you control your kids and don't let them scream or run around the restraunt. It's very distracting not to mention dangerous if they get run over by a server with hot food in their hands.

2. "THE CAMPERS":

If you feel the necessity to stay for longer than 15 minutes after you pay, its an extra $3 every 30 minutes. We make our money from the tables. If you are in one and we can't seat it, we don't make money.

3. COMPLIMENTS AKA THE KISS OF DEATH OR THE VERBAL TIP:

Telling a server they are the best server they've ever had is not a tip. If we are good, let us know by leaving us more money. We cant pay our bills on compliments. Its not that we don't appreciate the praise, its just that if you say that and then leave 10% it's an insult.

4. THE SALVATION PAMPHLETS:

Prayer cards and any other religious pamphlet is NOT a tip. It is insulting that you assume we are w/o religion and must save us. Again, like ..3, we cant pay bills w/prayer cards. We'd go to church on Sundays if it wasn't mandatory to work on Sundays because EVERYONE who goes to church follows it by eating out.

5. TIPPING:

It is not 1960. Cost of living has gone up dramatically since then. 18% is the MINIMUM amount of what you should be tipping your servers. Remember, our companies pay us minimum wage (minimum wage for servers is $2.38 in Maryland). And we are taxed on 10 percent of your meal automatically anyway. So if your meal is $100 and you leave $10 and we tip out $4-5 to the busser, bartender, and whoever else then we pay tax on 10 dollars and we make $5. It seems small but it adds up. How many times do you eat out per week and do this?

6. THE COMPLAINERS:

If you get a discount because of your food was prepared wrong or something, do not take it out of our tip. We didn't cook it. The cooks get paid hourly regardless if the food sucks. However, we only make what you give us.

7. THE FREE STUFF:

If you happen to get anything for free and you did not have a problem with your dining experience, most of the time it is because the server thinks you will realize that they are giving it to you for free. There should be extra tip thanking the server for the free item. They could get in a lot of trouble giving away free stuff. You should give them hazard pay for it.

8. THE LATE ONES:

If you come into the restaurant 10 mins before closing or any time near closing hurry up and order your food and get out. Closed means closed, not social hour. It is so rude to sit there and take your sweet a-- time. We can't leave until you leave because we have to do sidework and clean the table you are sitting at. We don't want to stand there waiting for you for an extra hour just because you don't want to go home. We recommend 24 hour establishments such as Dennys if you wish to sit into the wee hours of the night.

9. THE TABLE HOGGERS:

If you only come in for coffee or a dessert, to do paper work, or to have a meeting, don't sit there taking up our booths for hours. We are not Starbucks or a hotel restaurant. If you want to sit for hours, go there or else you better leave a good tip for us and camping fee included.

10. THE GREET:

When we come up to the table to greet you and we ask how you are doing please let us know. We honestly want to know how you are doing. If you are in a bad mood we want to know that from the beginning. A confused stare or complete silence does not suffice as a reply to "How are you doing?". Also most of us are REQUIRED to say certain things during the greeting, so please don't interrupt our greeting and say "I want coffee", "Can we get some bread?", or "What are the soups?"

11. THOSE DAMN CELL PHONES:

Don't ever talk on your cell phone in a restaurant. This is probably the rudest thing to do. If you must be on your cell, at least keep your voice down in respect for other customers. If you are on your cell phone when we walk up to greet your table we will walk away and not return until you get off your phone. Just show some respect and give us your attention for a couple of minutes.

12. TAKE-AWAY OR TO-GOS:

Always remember to tip the take-out order servers! They work just as hard as a server, and hardly ever get tips for it! WE DESERVE TO BE TIPPED TOO!

Tom Sietsema: Wow! Too bad this isn't a TWO-hour chat today.

Lots and lots of stuff to discuss therein. Who wants to start?

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Bethesda, Md.: Good Morning Tom!

I've been invited to Atlanta for a foodie weekend. Friday night's dinner is at Table 1280 and Saturday night's is at Two. Urban Licks. Do those sound like good choices to you? Can you suggest any place for a long lunch on Saturday or Brunch on Sunday? Thanks for being so wonderful!

Tom Sietsema: By coincidence, your question popped up just before I spoke with my buddy Bill Addison, the former restaurant critic and food editor of Creative Loafing in Atlanta. Here are his suggestions:

"Keep your reservations at Table 1280, as much for the up-to-the-minute

minimalist space as for chef Shaun Doty's astute American/Mediterranean

cuisine, but, unless you want to visit a spot for pure spectacle over

culinary substance, skip Two Urban Licks. Go instead to Midtown's Lobby at

the Twelve Hotel -- which is operated by the same folks as Two but has

worlds better food (don't miss the toffee pudding for dessert) -- or Aria,

which has been around for awhile but serves consistently lovely, often

slow-cooked New American in a slyly posh dining room. Or try Kyma, which

does frisky, high-end Greek right down the street from Aria in the tony

Buckhead neighborhood.

Saturday lunch depends on how extravagant you want to go. Seeger's, perhaps

the most highly acclaimed and loudly debated restaurant in the city, serves

Saturday lunch now, but prepare to blow SERIOUS bucks (like minimum $300 for

two). Otherwise, try Brasserie Le Coze in Lenox Mall -- don't worry, we like

to put quality restaurants in shopping malls in Atlanta.

For Sunday brunch, there's no better than Watershed in Decatur. Scott

Peacock accents traditional breakfast/brunch fare with comfy Southern

overtones. Share a plate of banana fritters, then try the country ham with

red-eye gravy and grits."

(Thanks for the detail, Bill!)

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Anonymous: Tom did you publish a restaurant guide in the Fall 2005, and if so, how can I obtain a copy. Thanks!!!!

Tom Sietsema: A link to my fall dining guide in the Sunday Magazine is available on the Post's Web site; my most recent book, published late last year, is available in my local bookstores and on Amazon.com.

Producer: Fall Dining Guide

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Tom,

Thanks for your always-informative columns and chats. I just wanted to pass on to you and your readers that Jaleo in Crystal City has a wonderful room for a private party. It is beautifully decorated and the right size for maybe 25 to 50 people. We just celebrated a birthday there and had a fabulous time. The tapas and Spanish wines were delicious, and the birthday girl was even treated to an impromptu Spanish love song by the waiter. Your restaurant guide does not mention Jaleo as a private dining option, probably since the original Jaleo downtown does not have a private room, but don't overlook this space!

Tom Sietsema: An impromptu love song by a waiter? Now THAT certainly merits a better gratuity! (Confused? See above.)

Thanks for sharing the word about Jaleo's private digs. As far as diners are concerned, there can never be too many of them.

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A world without Ray's?: What's going on with Ray's the Steaks? The message on the answering machine says no more parties over 6, no more reservations (though existings will be honored), and they're closed indefinitely after March 26th. What gives?

Tom Sietsema: From the horse's mouth to your eyes:

"I'm closing because I have to find a way to bring the restaurant back to the neighborhood, where it belongs," owner Michael Landrum told me yesterday. "Even if it involves reformatting my operations."

The "closing" is most likely temporary; the good news is that his forthcoming restaurant in Silver Spring is getting closer to its due date.

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Off to SFO: Tom, Can you recommend any casual restaurants in San Francisco? I am vegetarian, but any recommendation will do. I usually find something suiting me on a menu. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: San Francisco's aptly named Greens is one of the best vegetarian restaurants in the country AND it has a view of the water from its enormous windows. Don't miss it.

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Washington, D.C. and not happy!: Tom- Please help! What is the proper etiquette when you are placed too close to another table and their conversation overwhelms the entire lunch?? This has now happened twice this past week- once at The Prime Rib and the other at Rasika. When there are no other available tables what is one to do???? Do we ask the other diners to please quiet down or talk to the host/hostess? Need to find a solution!

Thanks.

Tom Sietsema: I'd bring the noise to the attention of a manager. A tricky problem, though! I'm curious: Were they loud talkers or loud laughers or what? And how large a group were they (and your party)?

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, My in-laws are coming to town this weekend and we're trying to decide on a restaurant for a birthday dinner. My husband wants to try Rasika, and we know you like it but I'm wondering if it's a little too trendy for older folks. Thoughts?

Tom Sietsema: If it's Indian food -- and some calm -- you're after, try Rasika's older sibling, the romantic Bombay Club. Rasika is pretty young (though Maureen Dowd seems to like it).

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Washington, D.C.: Tom,may I ask a "big picture" question? Do you ever feel strange when you hear or read that half the world's population is literally starving, and then someone writes in that they went to dinner at some fancy restaurant and the whole experience was ruined when a fork was pointing the wrong way or the coffee wasn't refilled fast enough?

Tom Sietsema: I think about it a lot, actually. And I'm sometimes tempted to yell: "People! It's just FOOD (or a MEAL), for heaven's sake!"

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, the server rant above was incredibly rude. Those of us who read your chat are obviously experienced diners and know the "rules". If the server above treats CUSTOMERS the way they just treated your readers, no wonder they are only getting 10% tips. Please post this as I (and many of your readers) understand how little servers get paid, but gratuity is just that, GRATUITY, and servers should expect to be tipped poorly if our dining experiences suck because of them.

Tom Sietsema: I was WAITING for one of you to say something!

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Washington, D.C.: Re: "If you come into the restaurant 10 mins before closing or any time near closing hurry up and order your food and get out." I'm not one to hang around until the wee hours of the morning, but it would be helpful if restaurants explained what their closing hours meant. If they are taking orders at 9:55, that implies that you are welcome to stay until 11 or 11:30. If you aren't, they should say something like "Serving food until 10; dining room closes at 10:30." If the rules are clear, diners can make informed decisions. If they aren't, servers end up hating lingering customers, and customers end up feeling unfairly rushed.

Tom Sietsema: I'm all for clear rules myself. You raise a good point.

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re: NOLA bound: For the volunteers heading to St. Bernard Parish, I know for a fact that Herbsaint is back in business. I doubt their quality has dropped off since Katrina, but I can't say that for sure.

Brennan's is still closed, but is supposed to open in the middle of March, so you may want to check with them. Brennan's is incredible for brunch, and you HAVE to get the Bananas Foster if you go there.

Cafe du Monde is open for sure, and is a MUST if you're visiting NO.

I don't know if it's open yet, but Mother's is a great lunch place (it is open for dinner some nights, too), with incredibly authentic southern cooking.

(All of this from a girl EAGERLY awaiting your trip to NOLA so that I can start making reservations for our big Jazzfest trip)

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for the advance tips.

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WHOA!: Are you calling Maureen Dowd "old"? Oooh, she's going to write a column about you.

Tom Sietsema: Well, she's closer to 60 than to 30 -- not that there's anything wrong with that. And she's GAWGEOUS on top of it. I like Mo.

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Take Away Tipping: I don't do it, and I don't feel badly about it. The restaurant is lucky to have my business, and the host stand typically clears takeout orders and is paid hourly. If a bartender is in charge, I'll leave a buck or two for the time to move my bag from kitchen to me. Should we start tipping for that takeaway sandwich at lunch as well?

Tom Sietsema: I anticipate reaction from restaurant workers on this one ....

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Clifton, Va.: Hey DC here's how I figure your tip:

1. Wait person with an attitude. Cut tip by a third

2. Doesn't ask if we like another drink or a refill. Cut tip by a third

3. Cant remember who gets what? There are only 2 of us. And then we have to find you to get the check? Cut tip by a third.

Hey DC wait person can you say Stiff! I can and I can write it too on the credit card receipt. Lose the attitude or find another profession. And BTW I waited table to put myself through college. And I have worked at every position in a restaurant except for manage to include dishwasher and chef!

Tom Sietsema: As Glinda said to Dorothy in "Oz": "I'm afraid you've made some rather bad enemies..."

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take-out tipping...: Actually, glad they brought that up. I never know how much...usually I tip about $2(for usually, two meals)? That seems small, but then again, the point of takeout is to enjoy at home and not pay for table/service.

Can you advice? I definitely don't want to stiff anyone. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: There tends to be unseen work by other than the cook with regard to take-out. I tend to tip $1 or $2 (or more) depending on the size of my order.

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Arlington, Va.: Just wanted to thank you for recommending the Custom House in Chicago. I was there last weekend with my sisters. We had a terrific meal, but what really made the evening was the wait staff. Our waiter was SO nice, really laid back, but fully knowledgeable about the menu. Not at all snooty. When my sister picked an $80 bottle of wine, he steered her to a far cheaper bottle that was excellent. Another waiter stopped by to ask how we liked the wine because it had just arrived the day before and he was curious. A third waiter (who somehow found out where we were all from and shared our hometown) came by to chat and then gave us suggestions on where to go after dinner (since we were all out of towners.) The bill came with an 18% tip included, and when we gave the waiter more than that, he actually came back and pointed it out, to make sure we'd seen that the tip was included! Couple all of that with the excellent food (I'm still having dreams about these little creme puffs with horseradish that came with the short rib) and it made for one heck of an evening. So many many thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Ah, I'm thrilled to hear you had as much fun as I did there.

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RE: Server: Tom,

How would you have suggested the server ask the seated party to leave? Just curious.

Love the chats!

Tom Sietsema: "I'm so glad you all seem to be enjoying yourselves today, but I'm wondering if you could lower your voices just a tad?"

or

"Maybe you'd like to continue your conversation at the bar? I could treat you to one of our great desserts."

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Take Away Tipping - Followup: Okay, you've convinced me. There's work that goes into preparing the order for takeout. I'll start tipping $2 or so on my typical order for two.

Tom Sietsema: THAT was easy! (Whew!)

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Washington, D.C.: Wow that credo was fantastic. One other gripe I do have about the pamphlets being left on tables; to those of you who feel the need to leave disturbing and graphic anti abortion propaganda DON'T! As my daytime office job is taking off I care less and less about my night time waiting job. The next time someone leaves one of these might be the night I decide to go out in a blaze of glory and assault someone. BE WARNED! (PS I am not claiming pro-life or pro-choice affiliation, just find leaving these about as appropriate as me pulling out pictures of a colonoscopy at the table)

Tom Sietsema: Maybe I'll skip lunch today.

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Washington, D.C.: For the disgruntled server:

Tip One: Knock the chip off your shoulder

Tip Two: If you are that unhappy with your industry find another one.

Your list reads as if diners are blobs whose sole function is to cough up cash. I can guarantee you that attitude will come through; and that directly affects that amount left at the end of the meal.

Tom Sietsema: Well put.

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DC Restaurant Worker: As a server, I agree partially with some of the earlier posted rant, but concede that it came off rude and arrogant. I work with a few servers for whom that attitude is the standard, sorry to say, and I have no doubt that some diners' experiences suffer for it. However, to play devil's advocate, waiters and waitresses do have to put up with a tremendous amount of condescension and rudeness even from the so-called "experienced" diners, so I can see how one can reach a breaking point. No doubt everyone out there, no matter how much they like their job, has ranted to a friend or coworker about how frustrating some of the little things are? This person just chose to do so in a public forum, appropriate or not. However, I urge your readers to not assume every server shares the nuances of that individual's views.

Regarding "experienced diners" who "know the rules," I'd like to put in my own two cents: if you are on a business dinner or lunch meeting with foreign colleagues (which happens often in this town) and the colleague offers to pay, is it possible for you guests to discreetly inform them of standard tipping practices in the States? Or slip some extra $$ to the server on the way to the bathroom? It's not fair to an American server to be tipped like he/she works in Europe. 5-10% is nowhere near acceptable, and those guests who allow it to happen are just being cheap.

Thanks, Tom!

Tom Sietsema: Some restaurants that cater to a lot of Europeans actually put the tip on the tab (or so I've seen here and there in Washington).

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Tipping Rules: I have been the waiter and the waitee, and I completely agree with the posted "rules."

Many, many people do not tip properly and/or do not treat the wait staff with basic respect and politeness. I tip generously and routinely add money to the tip after others I dine with because I have empathy for servers.

PS - I add $1 to the tip per drink refill after the first. Drink refills are incredibly time consuming.

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for sharing.

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Washington, D.C.: One quick note on the closing time issue, I don't know how it works in every restaurant, but I can check out and leave once I have all my checks accounted for. So once you pay the check I can take off. If you are planning on staying and relaxing over a bottle of wine late at night, it would be great if you would ask for your check and pay the tab. Then you can sit and chat until the lights go out. So many times I have been stranded another hour past when I could have gone home(making no money by the way!) as a party sat with the check on the table sipping on sodas.

Tom Sietsema: Did you catch that, meal-lingerers?

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re: 10 Point Manifesto: I bet whoever wrote those "rules" is a really bad waiter....

Tom Sietsema: You think?

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Tom,

What is the hottest restaurant at the moment?

Tom Sietsema: Hot as in popular? Hot as in good? Hot as in they just set sail and people are talking it up?

I'd certainly put Rasika in Washington on the "hot" list. And David Craig in Bethesda. And the recently reviewed Fogo de Chao.

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Adams Morgan, D.C.: Tom--Do restaurant owners and chefs know what you look like?

The NY Times' Frank Bruni has addressed this question in his blog. I've asked you this question for several weeks in a row now and have been ignored each time.

Tom Sietsema: Sorry, but this is the first time I remember seeing your question.

Some background: I was a Food section reporter before I took over the critic's job in 2000 (my, how time flies!) and in the course of my assignments, I occasionally came into contact with chefs, restaurant owners and other food professionals. But even then, I preferred to fly under the radar -- eat in places without restaurants knowing I was there, etc. It just made my professional life easier.

Do chefs and others know what I look like? A lot do. I don't like it, but it's just the way it is. Washington is a small place and restaurant workers move around. That said, I've been able to slip into every major restaurant, and a few minor ones, in disguise in the past six years.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom,

Thanks for all your helpful guidance! I'm hoping you can help me score some big points with my boyfriend I'm looking for the best coconut cake in DC. I saw that you suggested the Caucus Room a few years ago for coconut cake and wonder if the recommendation still stands or if you have any new thoughts? Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: The Caucus Room still serves coconut cake (for $12 a wedge), but it's not listed on the menu. You have to ask for it. I recall having a very good coconut cake ($10) at another steak house awhile back, too, at Smith & Wollensky downtown.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: Any suggestions on a place near the Studio Theater - but not a Thai restaurant?

Tom Sietsema: The closest restaurants to the stage include the modern American-themed Cafe St.-Ex on 14th St. NW and Logan Tavern and Merkado, both on P St. NW.

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The short guide: Wow, what an attitude. I hope I don't end up with that server. And I agree with much of what they wrote.

Tom Sietsema: It's all in the delivery, huh?

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, if you experience a problem with anything during your meal (lack of salt, undercooked/overcooked meat, etc.) do you inform your server at the time or do you feel that you compromise your anonymity if you speak up?

Tom Sietsema: It really depends.

I had some grossly underseasoned food earlier this week. My solution: I used the salt shaker at the table.

Elsewhere, my entrees showed up BEFORE my appetizers. I mentioned this to the server, who said the starters were coming. My response: "You're kidding." I had her remove the entrees -- which she put under a heat lamp in my range of vision before serving the appetizers.

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tip on drink refill!: Ha! I'm a server and I don't expect that! I only tip a $1 on a drink when I'm at a bar!! Not for free ice tea refills!!!

Tom Sietsema: That could add up, no?

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Agree with Fogo complaint of review: You don't have to post this, I just wanted to quickly say that I agree whole heartedly with the first poster of the day (I just logged on and this is as far as I got). I read your review, and it sounded terrific. Everything you wrote was complimentary- there was no "this was horrible, this was bad, the service was slow, etc." Everything sounded tremendous. And I read your reviews every week. So I just laughed when I read the amount of stars you gave to the restaurant. With such glowing praise, you gave it 2 stars? You gave it a mediocre rating? I just laughed and turned to a companion and commented that your rating system was far from desirable. I use your reviews to guide me on what to order, but I think I'll stop using the star system as a guide on where to go. It just makes no sense anymore. Everything is a 2 or 2 1/2 star. Just my .02

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for your feedback, but ...

Two stars is not a "mediocre" rating. It's a "good" evaluation.

As much as I dine out, the truly three- and four-star experiences are few and far between. It makes sense that the majority of the places I review fall into the greater "god" category. I'm not about to lower my standards because someone wants to see more stars than a business really deserves.

(Ah, I feel better now.)

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Washington, D.C.: I am a server and I don't like how people have this attitude that servers should be lucky to have their money. Trust me I would be MORE than happy to jack the price of all entrees 20 percent and just have a steady paycheck from the restaurant. The CONSUMER is the lucky one because it is one of the only times you get to pay what you feel like. In almost no other retail field can you alter what a person is paid. If a cashier at the grocery store is rude you don't get to knock down their pay from 8 bucks an hour to 7 for that night. On cruise ships you just add in gratuity before ever receiving service. It is thought of as just a service charge. Businesses are lowering the costs of their product and passing that expense on to the consumer. How come in restaurants people still have the mentality they are giving the server some type of gift by throwing a few bucks on the table.

Tom Sietsema: Great response. Anyone else care to chime in?

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Silver Spring, Md.- Help: Tom,

I value your local reviews, and always had fun matching your "postcards" to whatever cities I have visited. However, I keep forgetting to clip and save the hard copy. (WHY are your fans forced to do so?) The WP-dot-com versions either don't exist, or your editors throw them into the ether too far for any search function to find... never to be heard of again.

If you have a SF Post Card from the last couple of years, is it possible your editors would allow your readers (or at least this one) e-access to it... just this once?

Thanks!

PS: What are the magic words for finding your "PostCards" on line?

Tom Sietsema: My most recent postcard was actually FROM San Francisco. There should be a link on this page (in the intro) to my Travel section articles.

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Logan Circle, D.C.: Silly Tom... the closest restaurant to the Studio is Viridian (and they do a great job getting you out the door in time for your show). I also enjoy Rice before a play.

Tom Sietsema: But the poster didn't want Thai and I can't recommend Viridian right now, not as a new chef (from Bistro Bis) is getting his sea legs.

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Foggy Bottom: I got a hearty laugh from the server who suggested patrons add a dollar to the tip amount for every drink refill, because drink refills are "incredibly time consuming."

Line-editing proofs is an incredibly time consuming part of my job, and last time I checked, I didn't get an extra dollar for every page!

Tom Sietsema: LOL

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Washington, D.C.: Although the server comments were on the harsh side, I have been a server and agree. The bottom line is we work for tips..if the kitchen messes up, it is not our fault. If the host was rude, it is not our fault. If your drink is weak, it is not our fault. I actually worked at an outdoor restaurant and you would have sworn people think its the beach. Pay rent on the table because once again, we work for tips. And coming in 2 seconds before we close is just plain rude. Don't you feel weird being the only people sitting in a restaurant.

It is easy to rant when you see how uninformed even the 'experienced' diner is.

Tom Sietsema: Rant away!

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Silver Spring, Md.: Tom,

Submitting early - I've enjoyed a few meals at Rock Creek in Bethesda and wonder what other area restaurants take a similar approach to their menus. Is it too much to ask for healthy, good tasting food in reasonable portions in restaurants these days? I certainly enjoy a gastronomic feast now and then, but I wish there were more restaurants that followed the "less can be more" philosophy. Just my two cents.

Tom Sietsema: I'm eager to see what Sidra Forman & Company offer at Vegetate down the road. (It's to early to say, since they took over the kitchen, after leaving Viridian, only recently.)

Producer: Review of Rock Creek Restaurant

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Washington, D.C.: Is there decent Indian food in or near Adams Morgan?

Tom Sietsema: The closest place I can really stand behind is Heritage India, a glam spinoff of the Glover Park original, on Connecticut Ave.

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Re: Lima: One of my favorite foods while I was in Peru was causa--a sort of potato and olive concoction with a yellow sauce. Is that on the menu at Lima?

Tom Sietsema: It is not. Actually, there were no Peruvian dishes on the menu. The restaurant Lima gets its name from the Spanish word for lime, not the Peruvian capital.

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Washington, D.C.: The greater "god" category? Wow, maybe 2 stars really is something to aspire to!

Tom Sietsema: Blame my fingers!

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Arlington, Va.: To servers out there, here's OUR view:

1. TIPS - its called a GRATUITY! Yes, its customary to tip 18% plus, but "customary" means just that - not MANDATORY! Come up to us with a surly attitude, keep us in the dark about what's going on and you get what you deserve re: tips. Yes, you need to tip the busboy, bartender, sommelier, etc., but we ALSO have to tip the coat check person, valet, and if we've sat at the bar, the bartender. Don't just be another person with their hand out - show us you DESERVE it. Oh, and STOP comparing this to other jobs. Believe it or not, people who are paid a standard wage CAN AND DO get docked for poor performance. Hell, they can even get fired without the warning that a dock it pay provides. Don't like it? Get another job.

2. CATCH PHRASES - don't call us "guys" when there is a mixed group. "Welcome Ladies and Gentlemen will do just fine." Do not come up with a sugary fake smile and say "HI! MY NAME IS CANDY!" I won't remember your name two seconds after you told me and I could care less. Tell me information I can use like what the specials are, what is the soup of the day, AND THE PRICES OF EACH!

3. DISAPPEARING ACT - I know you are busy, but don't plop down the drinks and disappear. Take the order!! After we're done eating, COME BACK!! I can't tell you how many times I have to go hunting for a server who disappears after the food is delivered. Hello!! Job not done yet!!!

4. PAY ATTENTION - When taking an order, LISTEN to what we are asking. Most of us do have some type of food preference and we if we ask a dish to omit something (i.e., can't stand cilantro), tell us if that's doable or not. Yes, I understand your chef is an "arteest" but I'm the one eating the art!

5. COMMUNICATE! - Sure, mistakes happen. We all understand that, but don't LIE or otherwise make excuses. Simply tell us what happened and that it was a mistake. THEN tell us what is being done to correct. Not all of us expect a free meal, but if one of the orders gets screwed up in the kitchen, tell us! We may be more flexible than you give us credit for!

6. ATTITUDES - simply courtesy and etiquette go a long way. I don't care if you've had a bad day or if the table before us stiffed you. Don't assume we're all bad and treat us that way. If you treat people like sh_t, you'll get sh_t in return. Your 12 point missive is an excellent example of crap thrown at diners in shovelfuls. Let me know where you work. I promise NEVER to go there while you are there!

7. CHILDREN - ARE NOT little devils. Remember, you were one once too. How did you learn manners and how to eat properly? Learn some patience and you may appreciate how to laugh at the foibles of kids. And yes, my wife and I tip EXTRA for the messes our son made when he was younger or we cleaned it up ourselves. Same for our friends with kids. Don't look at us all sideways or you may get the same in return.

8. SOCIALIZING WITH CO-WORKERS - remember, being a server is your job. Its not your job to sit in the back room or to the side telling your fellow servers about the awesome date you had the night before when your customers need you. We aren't supposed to be getting up to help ourselves to condiments, napkins, or to get our own food - you are. So save the socializing for your own time.

9. APPEARANCE - guess what? We're not fascinated by your pierced tongue or the fact that you have more multiple holes in your ear, eyebrow, lip, nose or other appendage. Same goes for tattoos. They may be fine for actors and strippers, but you're handling our food. Try to dress and groom appropriately!

10. INPUT - when we ask what is good, don't say "EVERYTHING!" That tells us nothing and also says you don't care about helping. Try again.

There's probably more, but you get the idea. I hope you realize the type of griping you did on your missive did more to widen the gulf between servers and diners than help.

Sign me,

Former Server, now Diner.

Tom Sietsema: The clock is winding down, but I wanted to be sure and share this with the peanut gallery today.

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Arlington, Va.: Now that you've let everyone know about your 6:50 a.m. flight a gaggle of early-rising restaurateurs will be scanning the gate to get a glimpse of the mysterious Tom-Tom.

Tom Sietsema: But I never revealed the airport!

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What's with all the profanity today?: Several people have made references to a dining experience "sucking." In my day, that term referred to something that Monica Lewinsky did that would CERTAINLY make for an unusual dining experience. Come on, people, can't we keep it clean?

Tom Sietsema: Clean is good, clean is good!

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Washington, D.C.: I'm also a waiter and I think it basically comes down to respect. I'm a server, not a servant. Some patrons just manage to look down at me and treat me as a sub-human and this is my mental-scream breaking point!!

When you are eating in a restaurant, just be aware of what is around you. If the restaurant is empty except for your party and you see staff just hanging around, think about paying up. If there is a wait at the door, and if you waited yourself, please don't pull out a laptop and settle in. If you have a child, notice if he/she is disrupting others. Just be aware that a restaurant is a group of strangers and respect both other patrons and the restaurant employees.

And yes, the politer and nicer you are to me, the better service you will get. It goes both ways. I like working in a restaurant, and I like meeting new people, but that doesn't make me any less of a person because you are sitting and I am standing.

Tom Sietsema: Wow, lots of good posts today.

Before I sign off, I wanted to answer a post that I accidentally deleted, from a reader wondering about the forthcoming Mai Thai at 1200 19th St. The 200-seater is expected to open later this month, according to "Woody" Tongrugs, the owner. He also has a Mai Thai in Alexandria and operates Thaiphoon in Dupont Circle.

That's all, folks. See you next Wednesday.

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