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Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, November 26, 2008; 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. You can access his Postcards from Tom to read his recommendations for other cities, read his dining column, First Bite and the Dish or read transcripts of previous "Ask Tom" chats. Tom's Sunday magazine reviews, as well as his "Ask Tom" column, are available early on the Web.

For more restaurant chatter, join Sietsema's Table, Tom's new discussion group about dining experiences.

The transcript follows.

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Tom Sietsema: It's official: Matchbox is opening its second location (521 8th St. SE) for dinner on Friday, Dec. 5, followed that weekend by brunch and *possibly* lunch in a few weeks.

Like the original in Chinatown, the Matchbox on the Hill will serve mini-burgers and pizzas. But the new place will distinguish itself with chicken fried two ways, shrimp and grits, a revised dessert menu and "fancy schmancy" spirits, says co-owner Perry Smith, who announced the opening this morning. Johnny Mac and newcomer Shannon Troncoso, an import from Denver, will be whipping up the recipes.

The future restaurant replaces an old vending machine warehouse, in which the owners discovered a 30-foot-long shuffleboard top that will become Matchbox's bar surface. Another neat feature: "The Matchbox," which Smith describes as "a rough-hewn oak cube" designed to seat four people. The perch will be open to the bar on one side, the dining room on the other.

Happy Wednesday, all. Tell me what you plan to do tomorrow!

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Ballston, Va.: Hello, Tom. I'll be checking out Yaku with a friend for happy hour tonight and going to Willow for a turkey feast tomorrow. What are your plans? What are the best Italian restaurants (moderately priced) in/around Arlington? I'm not crazy about Tutto Bene. Heck, let's say in the entire metro-D.C. area. Thanks!

washingtonpost.com: First Bite: Yaku (Finally) Arrives

Tom Sietsema: I'm attending a T-Day feast in Arlington for about 20 people tomorrow. Fortunately for me, all I had to do was buy wine. But I'm hosting five house guests for the next four days, so ... I've been busy.

Italian restaurants? Right now, I like Al Tiramisu for seafood and pasta, Teatro Goldoni for more innovative fare, Two Amys for the first course plates and Spezie for grazing at the bar.

I keep meaning to get back to Dino in Cleveland Park and taste what owner (and now chef) Dean Gold is up to; I've long admired his wine program and general enthusiasm.

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Sterling, Va. - The Real Virginia: I keep hearing from friends that the Three Jons - Krinn, Mathieson and Wabeck are opening a restaurant in the Tysons area. What have you heard about it and when is it slated to open? Also, I remember how good chef Krinn's food was at 2941 in Falls Church. Who will be at the helm at the new location?

washingtonpost.com: Tom's Dish on Inox (July 2008)

Tom Sietsema: Jon Mathieson is now projecting an opening date of Jan. 20 for Inox. Dry wall has yet to go up, ceilings have yet to be finished and furniture and fixtures have yet to arrive, but the kitchen has been installed, says the chef. He and Krinn are still planning a "dual chef concept," a tasting menu format and "a great steak, great fish and great vegetarian" dishes.

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HELP!: Tom,

I have 18 relatives coming for Thanksgiving Dinner tomorrow and I need a restaurant. 3 are vegetarian, 3 are vegan, 4 don't eat fish and the rest will eat anything. 2 like to talk on their cell phones during dinner, 6 like it when the waiter is folksy and sits down at the table to take our orders, while the others don't. 9 like it when their plates are cleared while others are still eating, 9 don't. 7 like it really loud in the restaurant and 5 will walk out if they can't hear each other. Please help me choose a place.

Obviously just kidding. Thanks for all the great work you do. I, and I'm guessing others, wouldn't have become this much of a foodie (or whatever word is preferred on the chat) without your recommendations and insights. We even found a great restaurant in Rome because of a Postcard. Happy Thanksgiving.

Tom Sietsema: Readers like you make my week. Thank YOU for the kind words.

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Downtown D.C.: Please help Tom! My in-laws are in town for Turkey Day and my mother-in-law wants to see some restaurants that are unique to D.C. I'm looking for places in the vein of Ben's Chili Bowl that are not fancy, not a chain, and different from what they are used to seeing in LA.

Tom Sietsema: I'd escort mom to Marvin on U St., which serves moules frites AND chicken and waffles; Art and Soul, for its hoe cakes and proximity to the Capitol; the bar at Palena for a burger and a cocktail; and Domku in Petworth for aquavit and salmon hash for brunch.

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Dining Guide: Marvin and Tom's recent review of Art and Soul

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Inside Scoop on Jockey Club: Those were not hotel guests. They were event planners who hold activities at the hotel being wined and dined. In return, we were asked to complete surveys about the meals. (I should know....I was asked to "help out" evaluating the food and service.) :-)

Tom Sietsema: Well, I heard from two sources that hotel guests were among the early diners at the recently reopened restaurant in the Fairfax Hotel.

So, how did you like the place?

washingtonpost.com: August 2008 Dish on the Jockey Club

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Silver Spring, Md.: Tom, what am I supposed to do when I just don't like the food I get? I mean when the service is fine, the ingredients are fresh, the kitchen didn't make a mistake.....just that the food I ordered doesn't taste good to me (maybe I made a mistake in ordering, maybe I tried something that just didn't work for me, etc.). It's awkward when I'm asked how everything is - saying "fine" is obviously not true because most of the food is left uneaten, but saying "not so hot" also doesn't work because I don't want to insult a presumably well-made dish (and it seems unfair to send something back when it isn't the restaurant's fault). What to do?

Tom Sietsema: Just be honest. Let the server know that you think there's nothing wrong with the dish, but you simply don't care for it, or it wasn't what you were expecting (if that's indeed the case). And offer the feedback BEFORE you eat 3/4s of it. Keep in mind, though, these are especially tough economic times for restaurateurs.

Chefs, do you have anything to say on the subject? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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Chinatown: Re: Matchbox Capitol Hill To clarify the brunch hours: Our first brunch will be Sunday December 7th. After that, brunch will be served every Saturday and Sunday starting at 11 am.

Tom Sietsema: Yep, I meant to include that. Thank you.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom, I've looked through the Postcards, so know that you did one recently for Amsterdam, but thought I would see if you had any other suggestions for seafood based restaurants in Amsterdam, easily accessible from Dam Square? I'm trying to get a gift certificate to a relatively fancy restaurant, and don't want to miss some place you, or the chatters, recommend that wasn't listed in the postcard! Thanks!! Have a great Thanksgiving!!

Tom Sietsema: There's a seafood place I really like -- Visaandeschelde -- but I'm not sure how close it is to that square.

washingtonpost.com: 2006 Postcard From Tom: Amsterdam

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Olney, Md.: Hi, Tom,

I'm asking this for the 6th time! Why are there no Great American Restaurants in Montgomery County? I love Artie's (my favorite) and had a great meal at Jackson's, but they are too far away to go to any of them (except Coastal Flats in Tyson's) very often. I know they would get a good reception in Montgomery County.

Until then, what MoCo restaurants would you suggest as being comparable in variety, quality, and price to the Great American Restaurants?

Please answer me this time. I'm not going to give up.

Doris

Tom Sietsema: Doris, Doris, Doris. This is embarrassing to admit, but I actually called the head of Great American for a response, got one, meant to respond to your query (like, your third one) but ... I DELETED THE VOICE MAIL BY ACCIDENT.

So, Mr. Norton, if you're out there, can you kindly repeat what you told me? Doris and I will be forever in your debt.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, help! I've been asked to think of someplace "chill" for 10-15 family members to eat dinner Friday night. Obviously, no one will be in the mood for anything too heavy, I think. Any idea of what could fit the bill for such a big party on such short notice?

Tom Sietsema: How about sushi at Sushi Taro, Sushi-Ko or Kaz Sushi Bistro? Or pizza and salads at Comet Ping Pong? Or Thai food at Thai Regent?

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Just my Opinion: If I take a chance on an unfamiliar food or preparation and discover I just can't eat it, I chalk it up to experience and just pay for it anyway. I've been in that position before, and had the server notice that I didn't eat what I ordered - but if the only reason I didn't eat it was because, whoops, I guess I really don't like (fill in the ingredient), there's no reason for the restaurant to comp the meal. My mistake, not theirs.

Tom Sietsema: You're right. A restaurant shouldn't feel compelled to offer a refund for a dish that simply isn't to a diner's taste. But more often than not in such situations, I've watched waiters ask if there's anything else on the menu someone might like.

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Madison, Wisc.: I have a funny story about the price of specials not being announced. This weekend, my boyfriend and I went out for a birthday dinner at one of the nicer restaurants in town. The waiter described three specials, but didn't give the price of any. We thought the appetizer special sounded interesting, and remembering your advice to always verify the price (it had a potentially very expensive ingredient), we asked him how much it was. Instead of telling us the price, however, he proceeded to describe the approximate quantities of each of the components of the dish and the size of the plate. I was stifling giggles by the end, and we were too embarrassed (for him) to ask again. We didn't order it. Oh well, the rest of our meal was fantastic anyway.

washingtonpost.com: Ask Tom on the Price of Specials

Tom Sietsema: How strange. And funny. Thanks for the chuckle.

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PS7's follow-up: Tom, I wanted to follow-up on a comment I made last week concerning a recent unpleasant experience at PS7's. As I mentioned there was an issue with an overflowing group encroaching on the space of other diners, but there were also waitress issues that unfortunately overshadowed the otherwise pleasant food. We had also left comments on a provided card with the PS7's people.

Anyway, later in the week I received a call from one of the managers of PS7's wanting to do a follow-up on our recent visit. He listened to my comments, said he was aware of the particular issue with that group that night and said that management had tried to get them to move. He also stated that the waitress issues were unacceptable and obviously not the type of service PS7's aims for.

In the end it was a very nice chat and it was great to know that the PS7's management takes customer opinions seriously and is aware of/willing to address any issues that customers may have. As the manager said, PS7's aims for to be a high level restaurant that provides high quality food and service, so it's good to know that it is concerned enough with its reputation to address issues brought up by customers.

It was all very professional and certainly left a positive impression. So kudos to the PS7's management for taking that extra step and kudos to you Tom, for your weekly chats, which it seems are read closely by D.C. restaurateurs!

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for the update. I'm pleased to hear that the restaurant reached out to diners who may have been affected by the noisy group.

I also heard from chef-owner Peter Smith, whose email follows. With his permission, I'm posting his missive.

Hello Tom,

I am writing in response to a post from last week (11/19) regarding the noise disruption and service issues one of your chatters experienced at PS 7's.

First, I want to apologize to our guest for the poor level of service they received and state that our commitment to continual improvement and training has never been higher. It is disappointing to have a guest leave unhappy and I assure you that, had our management team been made aware of the guest's concerns, we would have worked to address the problem on the spot. The service issue this diner experienced has been addressed.

I would also like to apologize for the noise disruption this guest experienced in our dining room. Because our lounge was at capacity that evening, some guests requested a table in the normally quieter dining room to have drinks. As this group began to grow, our management team asked them more than once whether they might be more comfortable at a larger table. Unfortunately, the group declined to move, stating that they would be leaving shortly. Our managers were concerned that this group might be disruptive to our other guests due to their size, but since we had received no complaints from other diners while this was all happening, the managers did not feel comfortable forcing this party to relocate. Had another guest complained, we would have addressed the complaint on the spot by asking the larger group to move to a more suitable table.

We would very much like the opportunity to make this up to the diner who posted on your chat. Upon reading the chat we immediately reached out to the other guests in the dining room to address this issue. Unfortunately, we've not yet heard back from the chatter who posted last week.

I would be grateful if the unhappy guest would contact me directly at (202) 742-8550 so that I may personally extend our apologies and hopefully make it up to him/her.

Sincerely,

Peter Smith

Chef/ Owner

PS 7's Restaurant

www.ps7restaurant.com

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Chef Enzo Fargione Teatro restaurant: Good morning Tom, There is nothing wrong to let your server know that you are not thrilled with what you had ordered. Kindly, as Tom suggested, let someone know before you have finished your meal and kindly ask if the Chef would prepare something else you would enjoy. Only unreasonable and too full of themselves chefs will not accommodate your request. It really does take so little to make paying customers happy sometimes. Thanks for the opportunity to speak my mind

Tom Sietsema: That's a generous suggestion, chef. But I'm wagering that there are restaurateurs out there who might disagree.

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Petworth: Domku is great, and yes, a special DC thing, and makes me think... The Hitching Post is right up the street and is also unlike an LA place.

Tom Sietsema: I adore the Hitching Post!

washingtonpost.com: 2006 Fall Dining Guide: Hitching Post

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Arlington, Va. by way of NYC: Tom, Just saw the NYTimes article about Gael Greene's "dismissal" from New York magazine. Just wanted to get your thoughts and ask -- did she really think the using the hat only in photographs kept her identity "secret" from the restaurateurs (especially if she was sleeping with the chefs).

Tom Sietsema: Her hats were never understated. I remember years ago, spotting Gael in a Miami hotspot -- from a moving cab on the street. Her bejeweled baseball cap was like this big neon sign: GAEL IS IN THE HOUSE!

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If I take a chance on an unfamiliar food or preparation and discover I just can't eat it, I chalk it up to experience and just pay for it anyway. I've been in that position before, and had the server notice that I didn't eat what I ordered: It all depends on if it was accurately described on the menu.

Tom Sietsema: Yep, descriptions are imporant. Menu writers need to highlight words that a majority of people are either drawn to or shy away from. As in: Cilantro, nuts or limburger cheese.

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Houston, Tex.: Re: Not liking the food, but there's nothing wrong with it. I used to wait tables and this is something that used to drive me crazy. Okay, so you got something that you don't like - not anyone's fault - but people expect you to replace the meal. I don't know, my thought is that you know not to order it again and that's the end of it. Just because you don't like something that is prepared correctly and as it's stated on the menu doesn't mean you should get a free pass and a new meal. Eat around it, lie to the waiter and pay for it. Sorry for the mini-rant, but I find that people expecting free things at restaurants to be a bit out of hand (if you don't like the flavor of the buffer stuff at the dentist, do you ask for a lower bill?)

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for your thoughts, Houston. I imagine a lot of your peers in the industry are nodding in agreement.

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Only unreasonable and too full of themselves chefs will not accommodate your request: I will never forget when I asked for my tuna to be cooked through, the chef came out and snobbily informed me It was declasse of me.

Tom Sietsema: Yikes. Where and when was this?

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Chat: I was wondering if you could comment on how this chat started and what you thought it would become? Did you ever think that it would be used as a conduit between chefs/owners and customers?

Tom Sietsema: I inherited this chat from my predecessor Phyllis Richman back in 2000. I guess I always HOPED it could link consumer and host.

I have a question: Is there anything you in the audience think I should be doing here that I'm not? I know there are folks who hate it when I take questions about out-of-town restaurants, but since I write the Postcard columns, and get a ton of travel questions, I'm cool with that. But I'd love feedback. (And yes, I'm attempting to write a FAQ column, to address routine questions.)

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Cava Chef: Absolutley send it back if you do not like what you have ordered, it's the chef's responsibility to have you leave his or her establishment happy and satisfied, on that note I as chef would also like to know what the reason for the dislike is, was it the ingredients, the technique in which something was prepared, so I can have a chance to maybe rethink the dish and make my kitchen better. A simple, "I don't care for it," does not work for me.

Tom Sietsema: Good point, sir. Guests returning, or not eating, food should offer as much detail as possible.

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Restaurant Eve: Tom, I'd like to get a gift certificate as a thank you for a couple of friends of mine. What do you think would be a good amount for a dinner for two at Restaurant Eve?

Tom Sietsema: For the chef's tasting room? I'd say $300.

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Washington, D.C.: What are your thoughts about The Source? I do not recall you mentioning it a lot -- is it a good spot for birthday dinner for just me and my husband??

Tom Sietsema: You obviously didn't read my fall dining guide, dear chatter! I gave The Source three stars, an "excellent" rating, last month.

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Dining Guide: The Source

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Washington, D.C.: Regarding problems at restaurants, noisy patrons, food errors, staff errors: When I've felt it necessary to bring it to a restaurant's attention, usually via e-mail, all I expect is acknowledgment and perhaps an explanation. I don't need to be comp'd, I don't need to know someone's been reprimanded, I don't need promises it will never happen again.

People are human, waiters may make mistakes, chefs and cooks may make mistakes, someone may have missed something in cleaning or layout, the restaurant or diner didn't expect the guests at the next table to drop the "F" word numerous times spoiling my "experience" or that of my children. Stuff happens.

Just as I'm probably not perfect when my organization serves them - despite our trying - I'm comfortable knowing that management or staff listened to me and paid attention. That's all I need. And I've found almost everyone in the service industry listens. Not everyone, but almost.

Tom Sietsema: You sound like just the kind of customer I'd like if I ran a restaurant.

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What you should do...: I like your balanced coverage. I do like your "theme" reviews that contain several "snipets" on places. So, I would suggest you do more of those. Thanks for keeping us informed!

Tom Sietsema: I was referring to this chat, but I appreciate the feedback on the Magazine column. Just fyi: My next two columns feature "themes:" Where to find good weekday breakfasts (outside of hotels) in Washington and where to find entrees for $10 or less.

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Cold Office...: Hi Tom! Just curious, what do you recommend for Christmas gifts to the staff at your favorite local restaurant? These guys take good care of us, and we'd like to show our appreciation.

Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: If you give cash, you won't have to worry about giving anyone the wrong size or color. It might sound impersonal, but particularly in this economic environment, I think servers and others appreciate money. And good for you, thinking of all those restaurant folks who take care of you throughout the year!

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I know there are folks who hate it when I take questions about out-of-town restaurants: I'd like to see more info on common day-tip and weekend destinations: C'ville, Skyline drive, Richmond, Va Beach, Rehobeth, etc.

Tom Sietsema: You and a lot of others. Thanks.

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Arlington, Va.: A great pice of Tuna should never be cooked through because then you will get complains on how tough it is just like a steak.

I used to cringe when I waited tables and someone would order their steak well done because I knew that there a 50% chance they then would complain about how their 12oz Ny Strip was now so small. Duh, burn a piece meat and cook all the moisture out it and it will now weigh 5oz. And most places put aside the worse looking cuts and save them for the well-done requests.

Tom Sietsema: Having once worked in a steak house, I know your last statement to be true in most cases. If you ask a chef to desecrate a piece of meat, he's not likely to do it to a choice cut.

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re: Buyers' Temorse: I don't have a stake in the discussion of what to do if it turns out you gambled on something unfamiliar from the menu and lost -- but let's echo those who say that if you are going to speak to someone about it, do so before you've finished the meal, for heaven's sake. I had a table once that ordered coffee, drank it, and then when the bill came said "You know, it's really too hot for coffee," and expected us to remove the charge. I do not make this stuff up.

Tom Sietsema: Um, coffee is SUPPOSED to be served hot, right?

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hoco: The only thing I'd see different in the chat is have it be in real time. With a real time count of the number of chatters.

Tom Sietsema: This IS in "real time" if you participate between 11 a.m. and noon!

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Washington, D.C.: For the person looking for "places in the vein of Ben's Chili Bowl that are not fancy, not a chain, and different from what they are used to seeing in LA," your suggestions were Marvin, Art and Soul, the bar at Palena, and Domku. I'm sure those are all fine places and are certainly not chains, but when someone says "not fancy," I think of the lunch counter at Eastern Market, Eamonn's, Florida Avenue Grill, Nando's Peri Peri Chicken, Amsterdam Falafel Shop, Full Kee, and seafood at the Maine Avenue Market (obviously not a great idea for December, though).

Please remember that not everyone is willing (or able) to pay the same prices that you are.

Tom Sietsema: Hey, I love cheap eats as much as anyone. A steady diet of fancy food is not my idea of a ton of fun. But you are right to point out that my suggestions are on the high side of "casual." Eastern Market would be terrific for lunch. I dig Nando's, which I highlighted in my fall guide. Florida Ave Grill is a shadow of what it used to be, however.

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...we asked him how much it was...: Hmmm...sounds like the waiter thought you were asking how much food it was. There are many people who normally don't order appetizers if they think it will fill them up too much and they won't be able to finish their dinner (my wife will only order smaller appetizers and will usually try to check how much food it is). If you were not clear that you were asking how much -MONEY- it cost vs how much food it was, I can see how the waiter misunderstood what you were asking.

Tom Sietsema: Good point!

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Re: Silver Spring: That happened to me once when I just didn't like the sauce on a pasta dish. Absolutely nothing wrong with it, just didn't suit my palate. The waiter obviously noted 90% of it still on my plate but I insisted it was fine, the salad and bread were so good it didn't matter, I was having a nice conversation with my dinner partner, please don't worry, I'm fine....but he brought the manager over anyway. Repeated same. He gave me a coupon for a free appetizer or dessert on our next visit, which really flummoxed me because it wasn't their fault and TRULY I was fine. It made a good impression on me that they were concerned but the only advice I'd offer to restaurants is that it's okay to believe a guest if she insists to you that nothing is wrong and she's perfectly happy to drink her wine and have a nice conversation. I promise it is!

Tom Sietsema: Okay. But I know from my mail that readers are sometimes intimidated when managers and chefs inquire if everything is alright. They don't want to insult the restaurant. So a little digging by the staff seems justified.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, With wine bars popping up on every other corner in Northwest, I have a question for you about the food versus drinking protocol. I stopped in Cork last night for a glass of wine with a friend. After noticing the bar was full I asked about having a drink at a table. They were pretty emphatic in pointing out "the tables are only for customers having dinner with us." This seems a little unreasonable - especially when most of the tables were empty and the economy is heading south - but am I missing something? Nonetheless, we moved on to Bar Pilar where I highly recommend the Shooting Star, a great wine on a cold evening.

Tom Sietsema: "Most of the tables were empty?" Gosh, I've hardly ever seen that at Cork. But if the place truly wasn't busy, I see no reason why the staff didn't let you sit down, given the SRO situation at the bar.

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Dining Guide: Cork Wine Bar

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Gallery Place metro stop: Hello Tom,

My husband and I recently ate at a restaurant by Verizon Center before a show and had terrible service, mediocre food and FILTHY FILTHY SILVERWARE. In caps, because, dried pieces of food in the tines of not one, but two forks in not one, but two separate wrapped napkins, earns it. My question for you is, I sent an email to the contact us email address on the website, but have gotten no response in over two days. I would like to elevate it, but I don't know how? How does one make sure they are heard (barring stopping to talk to the management which was not an option, or we would have missed the beginning of the show) when email is not responded to?

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for letting me raise a complaint I get from a lot of people: Restaurants need to CHECK THEIR EMAIL on a regular basis and RESPOND IN A TIMELY FASHION. Nothing irritates diners more than being ignored.

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Fairfax, Va.: Taking a friend out for dinner for her Birthday in December. Tried unsuccessfully to get reservations at Komi and the bistro at Restaurant Eve. Now have reservations at Proof. Good choice, or would you recommend somewhere else? (We've already been to Cityzen, Central, and Blue Duck Tavern and would like to try something new)

Tom Sietsema: If you haven't been to Proof, go. It's a consistently smooth-running and delicious show over there. For what it's worth, Proof is where I like to take visiting food lovers these days.

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Dining Guide: Proof

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Arlington, Va.: I'm done cooking! I picked up a turkey platter (for one) from the Greek Deli. Reheat and enjoy tomorrow.

Tom Sietsema: Lucky you. The Greek Deli does an ace job on its homier dishes.

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What not to include in the chat: When someone submits a funny story ("How much is the appetizer") you don't need to post the other person who feels the need to explain the joke.

Tom Sietsema: Duly noted.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom. Please would you share with us what you're planning to eat and drink tomorrow?

Happy Thanksgiving!

washingtonpost.com: Sietsema's Table: Tom's Thanksgiving Plans

Tom Sietsema: Hey, everyone, thanks for showing up today. Enjoy the big feast tomorrow and be sure to report back next Wednesday. Chow for now.

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