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Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, January 14, 2009; 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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Penn Quarter: Tom, I looked in vain for your dining column last Sunday. Where can I find it? Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for missing me!

The Magazine goes dark once a year. Last Sunday was that week. But I'll make up for that absence with a couple double reviews in the next few weeks, OK?

Good morning, everyone. What are your (cooking/dining) plans for next Tuesday? Share away.

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Bethesda, Md.: Hi Tom - I really hope you can help. I would like to go to an afternoon tea in D.C. for a special occasion. I heard the Four Seasons' was the best, but unfortunately they are no longer serving tea. Where else would you recommend? Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Good thing. The Four Seasons poured a mighty terrible tea when I was there last year.

I'd probably head to the Mandarin Oriental if I were you.

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Old Town elitist: I will admit I think many more linen napkin/white tablecloth restaurants should have a dress code of at least a jacket for men, but here's something that's been bothering me lately: exposed coats -- especially in winter.

Can we agree they look awful slumped over the back of chairs? It's one thing to do that at Five Guys, but waiters should insist on checking in coats when guests pass by the coat check lady to save two dollars. Agree?

Tom Sietsema: I guess I'm one of those diners you dread, because I've been known to stow my coat on a free chair on occasion (not to save bucks, but because there was room). But I can see your point in a busy or cramped restaurant.

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Smitten in Columbia Heights: Tom

I've absolutely fallen for a beautiful, thoughtful woman. Best of all? She loves to cook, and eat, and drink good wine. She's been to most of the usual spots, so I was hoping to find a hidden gem that would impress this adventurous eater. Only requirement, it can't be too dark as I love, love, love to look at her. You should see her eyes Tom, mesmerizing.

Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Stop, you're getting me all wet!

Seriously, tell me where's she's been thus far and I'll try to point you in a few fresh (and well-lighted) directions.

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Yanks come south: Hi Tom,

Today's NY Times has a nice piece on the D.C. restaurant scene. Just thought you'd want to know...

Tom Sietsema: I get five papers at the office. One of them is that paper from New York. But thanks for the heads up.

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Washington, D.C.: My wife and I are going to Paris for a long weekend to celebrate a very special occasion. I've printed off your last five postcards from Paris (I want your life, by the way). Any last minute additions/changes? We have reservations at Le Cinq - is it worth it?

Tom Sietsema: Lucky, lucky you! It is one of my favorite restaurants in the world. I've sent many people there (including my parents, for their 50th anniversary) and I just recently heard raves from a couple of my aquaintance who had been there last month.

If you can get in, Spring is the current "it" restaurant in Paris. And don't miss tea and croissants at Laduree, which has several branches.

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Coats, Coat checks: I avoid coat checks like the plague. I've lost more than one coat in the past because of them. Sosumi.

Tom Sietsema: That was my OTHER reason. Only it's umbrellas that I tend to lose in restaurants.

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Springfield, Va.: Inauguration dining? I'll be hunkered inside, with the proverbial hatches battened down, for Inaugurapocolypse. I might go out as far as the mailbox. And I don't even live in D.C.!

For meals, I'm thinking a nice roast in the crockpot will be perfect. It'll be a warm hearty meal that will make the house smell great all day.

Tom Sietsema: Can I come over?

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Cleveland Park, D.C.: Hi Tom,

My wonderful mom is coming to town for the Inauguration madness, and I was lucky enough to get us reservations at Central on Friday night, which will be my first time there as well as hers. I'm also planning to take her to brunch on Sunday and am looking for a less-expensive place given that Friday will be quite a splurge for us. I've got reservations at Marvin, whose prices are pretty reasonable by comparison to lots of brunch places, but thought I'd ask if you know of any other tasty and inexpensive options. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: You are eating at two of my favorite restaurants -- places I'd suggest the Obama clan try out once they get settled into their new digs. Don't change a detail!

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Dining Guide: Marvin

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Tom Sietsema: Stop, you're getting me all wet! : Oh. My. God.

Tom Sietsema: Good grief, people. I meant from all the earlier poster's slobbering!

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Dupont Circle: Hi Tom... I'm planning on taking my SO to the Inn at Little Washington for (apologies for sounding sentimental) Valentine's Day. I haven't been there since 2000 so I was wondering if you've seen any slippage. Any other suggestions on where to go would also be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Slippage? Actually, I've been impressed with the Inn's "uppage," as evinced by my last visit and my fall update.

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Dining Guide: The Inn and Little Washington

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Chevy Chase, Md.: Where would you go for one steak dinner in the metropolitan area?

Tom Sietsema: For comfort: Capital Grille (right, Matt?)

For decor and service: Charlie Palmer Steak

For old-fashioned charm and live music: Prime Rib

For a great piece of meat and creamed spinach and not a lot of cash: Ray's the Steaks in Arlington

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Silver Spring, Md.: RE showing your coats. I rarely check my coat, especially in D.C. Few if any restaurants here put any effort into coat check. Have had to exchange prisoners twice this season when my coat was handed out to wrong person. I'll check the coat when I pretty sure that 1) I can get it back in less time than the meal took, and 2) that I'll get mine back. #2 is important in that I seem to have above average quality coats.

Tom Sietsema: I hear you. And I sympathize. Men's winter coats in Washington seem to be all one size and one color.

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Washington, D.C.: inauguration plans? My wonderful fiance took me to Shenandoah Brewing Company so we could brew our own beer. We just bottled it and now have 120 bottles of our beer in the kitchen. No need to go anywhere else! (Maybe make a nice shepherd's pie or a good baked ziti and call it a weekend.)

Tom Sietsema: Be sure to eat something with all those suds, promise?

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Washington, D.C.: I'm sure this has been discussed, but what's your favorite Dim Sum?

Tom Sietsema: I wish I could share news of something new and delicious, but for dim sum, I tend to return to standbys including the A & J siblings in Rockville and Annandale, or Hollywood East Cafe in Wheaton.

washingtonpost.com: A&J Restaurants

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Clifton, Va.: Hate coat checks Have lost too many coats and jackets to trust them. Old own elitists, maybe you had better look. A four-star D.C. restaurant owes me $1200 for my girlfriend's leather jacket we checked.

Tom Sietsema: Ouch! Or the restaurant could repay you with a dish of white truffles, or a half-bottle of Chateau Margaux ...

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Bethesda, Md.: Don't forget Teaism for a nice afternoon tea alternative...

Tom Sietsema: Right, but I think our poster was looking for something loftier.

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re "You're Getting Me All Wet!": I can't stop laughing here! I know what you meant, but I also see what you typed! And you just know that you'll be headlining Weingarten's next chat!

Tom Sietsema: Yes, yes, that's it: I typed that to provide fodder for my Pulitzer Prize-winning colleague!

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Inauguration dining: I will be avoiding the crowds and will make a nice chili con carne at home for the weekend. I can see more on TV and be warm and cozy by the fire with my faux mink throw over me.

Tom Sietsema: Hmmm. Lots of beef on the menus out there.

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Bethesda, Md.: Just a positive comment. Went to Mia's Pizzas on Friday night, Jan 2. The place was packed with a 45 minute wait. It was a chilly night, barely above freezing, but we asked owner Melissa if she would turn on the propane patio heaters for us so we could enjoy a bottle of wine outside. Without hesitation she obliged knowing that it would keep us there for the 45 mintute wait. (The pizzas are so great we would have stayed anyway.) Can't ask for better service that that, now can we? Sandy Snyder, Bethesda

Tom Sietsema: Smart operator, that Melissa (Ballinger). If that epic wait at Mia's is typical, she might consider turning on the outdoor flames on a regular basis -- tonight especially!

washingtonpost.com: Mia's Pizzas

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Capitol Hill: On the winter coat issue, I tend to want to keep my coat with me at a restaurant, since I find it hard to gauge in advance how warm or cold it will be inside. I like being able to put the coat on (or over my shoulders) if it's freezing.

Tom Sietsema: Good point. It was SO COLD in a restaurant I visited over the weekend that two of the four of us at the table kept their coats on. The kid from Minnesota (that would be me) conveniently sat on the side with a space heater.

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Bethesda, Md.: What do you & your readers thinks is a fair price for burgers, fries, & soft drinks for two? My husband & I had them at a Gaithersburg eatery, which I won't name at this time, & paid $36 with tax & tip. That strikes me as very pricey.

Tom Sietsema: That's not cheap, I agree. But how big were the burgers, and what kind of meat was used? Were the fries hand-cut or out of a bag?

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Washington, D.C.: Tom: Can we start a campaign to convince D.C. restaurants to stop removing dishes from the table until everyone is finished? Or at least ask if we want the dishes to be removed? It is not the critical issue of the day, but it would certainly improve our restaurant experience. It is uncomfortable to us and embarrassing to the waitstaff when you have to tell the wait staff "Please do not remove the dishes!" We can prepare buttons and bumper stickers!

Tom Sietsema: Having had my entree snatched from me mid-bite earlier this week (and there I was, one of Great American's biggest fans), I know what you're talking about. I prefer that plates be removed only after everyone is finished eating, and I think Miss Manners would agree. Some folks hate sitting in front of a dirty plate, but I say: It's rude to clear a table when some people aren't done with their meals.

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Arlington, Va.: Any update on when Ray's the Steaks will be opening up the street?

Tom Sietsema: Paging Michael Landrum! Paging Michael Landrum!

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Shepherd Park, D.C.: For the inauguration, we're hosting people for the "Inaugural Bawl," so named because my wife knows she'll break into tears when it happens.

Have you been to the Brightwood Bistro recently? We've been impressed with our meals there, and they've been improving the space, too. Service sometimes has a few glitches, though.

Tom Sietsema: "The Inaugural Bawl." I love it! (And if you're serious, can you shoot me a message at asktom@washpost.com?)

Brightwood Bistro. Yours is the first rave I've received about the place.

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Plans for Tuesday: I'm planning on making a bunch of fun, gourmet sandwiches for our group of friends as we trek down to the Mall with the masses. We have no idea how crazy or cold it will be, but at least we won't starve! Plus, the benefit of not having tickets is that we won't have to go through heavy security where they might frown on bringing in food.

Tom Sietsema: You see lunch, the Secret Service sees a weapon of minimal destruction ...

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Tom,

Just curious, did you catch President-Elect Obama's brief turn as a restaurant critic on "Check! Please?" If so, what did you think?

washingtonpost.com: Barack on "Check, Please!"

Tom Sietsema: I think the next president was doing what any smart pol would do if he was sitting in front of some constituents with a camera and a microphone in his face: He raved about their food.

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Alexandria: Hi Tom, On Friday night my husband and a friend of ours had reservations at one of the Passion Food Restaurants. We got there on time and were seated in a back, semi-private room with one other table. The other table had three loud, drunk individuals who were pretty obnoxious. We were a group of three 20-somethings. I KNOW I should have asked to sit in the main dining room (which was less than 1/2 full when we arrived). I guess I'm just more curious. Were they thinking "they are young- they can put up with the drunk people in the back"? I was more baffled by the experience than anything. The food was wonderful and I really just don't have any other complaints. I am just confused as to why they would sit anyone back there when the main dining room had plenty of space.

Tom Sietsema: Since I wasn't there, and I don't have access to the reservation books or the seating chart, I can't offer any wisdom. I can't imagine any of the company's restaurants intentionally inflicting pain on other customers, however.

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Rockville, Md.: And what are the other newspapers you get at the office?

Tom Sietsema: (Is this Katie Couric?)

In addition to the Times, I get the WSJ, the Post (obviously), USA Today and a bunch of food sections from around the country. Oh, and (the weekly) Washington Business Journal.

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Plate removal: When the restaurant gives huge portions and I have eaten all I should, I like to have the plate removed so that I do not keep eating mindlessly. Should I apologize to my companitions for asking the server to take away the plate when I've had enough?

Tom Sietsema: Several other posters raised this question, and it's a good one. A quick apology to fellow dining companions might get you off the old etiquette hook. Better that than gain a few pounds, right?

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Arlington, Va.: Hey Tom,

Do you ever tire of dining out?

Tom Sietsema: Rarely.

But you know what gets tiring? The 24/7 news cycle we're all on anymore. Don't get me wrong; restaurant news and gossip is interesting. But like a lot of writers I know, I feel like my work day never really ends.

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Baltimore, Md.: Plate removal -- I have a friend who will dump a decent amount of salt on any unfinished food that she doesn't intend to take home. This certainly deters any mindless eating...

Tom Sietsema: I do that with desserts.

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Washington, D.C.: The Henley Park Hotel for tea.

Tom Sietsema: That's a new one. Thanks.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi, Tom. I love your chats, columns and postcards. You're always looking out for us little people without being a bloviating populist.

OK, now that I'm done buttering you up.... may I get your opinion? I recently had dinner at a well-regarded restaurant whose entree prices range from about $25 to about $30 (so, not cheap). My dining companion and I got very poor service from the wait staff, and we also noted a couple of really disgusting health code violations made by the staff. What did we do? We did what Tom Sietsema would do: we reported all this in detail to the manager; in fact we spoke with him a total of 3 times during the evening.

So what's the problem? The manager did not seem to care. He apologized for the wait staff's behavior at the first infraction. But regrettably, there were several more infractions, and by the end of the evening he acted like he just did not care.

I was disappointed, because I wanted him to understand that -- aside from making diners unhappy -- the staff's behavior reflects poorly on the restaurant and its management. Such behavior can damage an establishment's reputation, which is hard to get back, particularly in this economy.

So Tom, if you think you've done all the right things with respect to reporting poor service, what do you do? Just give up, and swear never to patronize that establishment again?

Thanks.

Tom Sietsema: First, you were kind not to mention the name of the restaurant.

Second, I'm wondering if the manager you spoke to was THE manager or one of several. If he was one of a few, you might have reached out to one of his colleagues, or the owner, after the fact.

It's disheatening to hear stories such as yours. Because service can really make or break a place -- and there's a lot of competition for the public's dining dollars these days.

Note to managers: Remind your servers that diners watch their every move. At a high-end restaurant recently, I watched a busboy flush three toilets (I think he was cleaning?) and leave the men's restroom without washing his hands. I now regret not saying anything to the owner, who was present.

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Alexandria: Have you been back to Hilltoppers, the restaurant at the Goodstone Inn & Estate in Middleburg? We went shortly after your 1-star review (and agreed with your assessment!). Now there's a new chef, so I'm wondering if things have improved.

Tom Sietsema: I'm giving the new guy in charge some time to settle in. Meanwhile, there are plenty of new and/or changed restaurants closer to home to keep me more than a little busy.

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Review: Hilltoppers

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Columbia Heights: Submitting my question early -- thanks for taking it! In a nutshell, who is responsible for the diners who don't show up on a large group reservation?

Over the holidays, I made a reservation for a large group dinner to celebrate my birthday at a smaller downtown restaurant. (Won't specify the name here.) The owner said he'd create a dinner platter for us at a fixed price, since having so many people ordering off the menu would overwhelm the kitchen and make him less able to serve other customers. I agreed, and called to give him a head count a few days beforehand. The head count was 33 adults.

For various reasons, only 20 adults came to dinner. At the end of our meal, we received a check charging us for 30 meals. As the host of the dinner, rather than making a scene, I paid the bill. At no point were we offered the extra food to take home.

This wasn't a catered event, I didn't make a deposit, and we didn't have a verbal or written agreement that I would be responsible for the cost of the final head count I gave. It's crummy that our friends said they were coming and didn't. But I think the restaurant assumes the risk in this situation unless another arrangement is specified.

I sent a letter to the restaurant owner seeking a refund, but received no response. What's your opinion?

Tom Sietsema: I have to side with the restaurant here, although you should have received the leftovers. (Did you ask?)It wasn't the restaurant's fault that the number of diners changed, right?

The 13 people who didn't show should be told how 1) disappointed you were that they didn't attend the dinner and 2) that YOU ended up footing the bill.

Shame on them-- THEY'RE one of the reasons the rest of us can get seated unless we're a complete party in restaurants.

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Reston, Va.: You do think Urbana is "newly delicious" right? I think I have seen some positive posts recently here. Well, I took a large group there on Monday and it was excellent - great service, and great food. Rave reviews for the porterhouse for two which impressed all at the table. Just thought I would confirm some recent praise.

Tom Sietsema: Good to hear!

washingtonpost.com: First Bite: Urbana

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Re Coat Check: I've had two coats stolen at coat checks, even with ticket stubs and a coat check monitor. I no longer check my coat anywhere.

Tom Sietsema: Were you reimbused at all?

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Inaugural Bawl: I like that name...but I thought the chatter was indicating that they were Republican! Well, I am (republican) but voted for Obama and will be happily watching the festivities from my snug home. Not sure what we're eating yet, but I thought about a Chicago deep dish pizza, or some other regionally-appropriate dish (beef would be appropo, but no poi!). When Bush was inauguraged, I made a Texas beef brisket and cowboy beans (told you I was Republican!)

Tom Sietsema: I did, too! I thought the chater was a member of the GOP!

Deep-dish pizza sounds like a good idea to me.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, What's the noise level like at Posto? Want to bring some friends there, but want to make sure we are not yelling. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Despite the padding under the tables there, you're likely to END UP SHOUTING BY MEALS END.

washingtonpost.com: First Bite: Posto

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Washington, DC: Good Morning Tom:

Based on your reviews, this past week I took a group of visiting guests (including a noted cookbook author and a chef from Montreal) to Proof. While we were all impressed by the wine list, we all found the appetizers and entrees to be unimaginative, forgettable and overpriced. On top of that, the service was forgetful and erratic and the extreme darkness in the restaurant (which prevents you from seeing what you are eating) was obnoxious. Do you really contend that Proof is a serious contender on Washington's excellent restaurant scene...as opposed to just a nice neighborhood place to have a few glasses of wine and some charcuterie with friends?

Tom Sietsema: I need a lot more detail about your experience before I can comment. What exactly did you order, and find lacking? Tell me more about the service gaffes.

I recently took Chris Kimball, the bow-tied publisher of Cook's Illustrated there, and he raved. And I've not heard complaints from readers.

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Fall Dining Guide: Proof

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Boundary Street: What is your opinion of Tackle Box now days? I was there on their first day and recently returned. The menu has a lot more price points and options. I like that. On my most recent visit, the fish was great. The sides, unfortunately, were cold. All in all, it was tasty but I left wondering if a $16 lunch shouldn't have been better, or at least if my mashed potatoes and mac and cheese should have been warm. All in all, it seems like they need some quality control. Could say the same about Hook, actually. Very solid, but should be slightly better.

Tom Sietsema: I haven't been back to Tackle Box since I revisited it for the fall dining guide. (Cold food? I would have asked for it to be warmed up.)

Hook, on the other hand, shows signs of improving, or at least aiming to improve. Owner Jonathan Umbel recently hired Simon Pound, a veteran manager at the Inn at Little Washington, to oversee dining room operations there. "I want to take Hook to the next level," Umbel tells me.

washingtonpost.com: Tackle Box

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Woodley Park: I have an etiquette question. When dining alone at a restaurant and sitting at a table (not at the bar), it is rude to read a magazine throughout the meal? I assume it's ok during lunch, but what about dinner?

Tom Sietsema: I LOVE to catch up on my reading when I'm dining solo (which, I should say, is an infrequent thing). In my experience, and more than a few times, restaurants have proffered magazines or newspapers when I'm eating without company. A nice gesture.

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Glover Park, D.C.: Good morning, Tom! Just a quick note to readers - I've read several places that there will not be food on the mall for the Inauguration, but that's not true! We'll be down there all day, selling food and beverages! Not sure who else is setting up, but we'll be there with bells on! Thanks- Anne from ROCKLANDS Barbeque and Grilling Company

Tom Sietsema: Ring-a-ding-ding.

Thanks, Anne.

And thanks, chatters. Let's do it again next Wednesday. Bring me your Inauguration stories.

Ciao for now.

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