Ask Tom: Tipping in Fast-Casual Eateries, 'Sexy' Restaurants, Rome and New York Dining

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Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, April 22, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema took questions about tipping at fast-casual eateries, "sexy" restaurants and dining in New York and Rome on Wednesday, April 22 at 11 a.m. ET.

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Tom Sietsema: TIMES FLIES WHEN YOU'RE A CHEF: Todd Gray tells me he's celebrating the 10th anniversary of Equinox, which made its debut May 17, 1999, with a three-course, $40 menu of some of his favorite signatures.

The promotion doesn't start until June ("May is a crazy month") but I'm already anticipating the chance to taste, for a song, Gray's blue crab agnolotti with local asparagus; barbecued salmon with summer corn salad; and warm strawberry cake with "backyard" basil.

July and August have their own menus; for an extra $25, wine pairings can be added to the three-course dinners.

The chef, who recently signed another 10 year lease downtown, says he hopes to "reach out to a lot of people" with what sounds like a luscious bargain.

Onward!

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Fire & Sage -- Response from last week's chat: Dear Tom,

This is Bryan, Director of Operations for Fire & Sage and the Washington Marriott Metro Center. Thank you for giving me an opportunity to respond to the person who posted in your chat last week about a negative experience that they had here.

I want to apologize for the very unsatisfactory dining experience they had and thank them for their honest comments and feedback -- their comments are indicators of the level of service we are providing, which in their case was unacceptable.

While many new restaurants have glitches in service in the opening weeks, this is no excuse for allowing them to happen or to continue. The reaction from management on the night they dined was equally of great concern. I would like to assure them that we have reviewed their comments with our restaurant staff and are continually reinforcing the steps of service since our opening to insure that this does not recur.

We hope that they will give us the opportunity to prove ourselves better hosts on a future visit to Fire & Sage. We also hope to become a great neighborhood spot for local customers and comments such as theirs (and yours, Tom) will help us focus on specific areas of improvement. They'll also help us provide a warmer and welcoming experience for all of our guests.

I invite the guest (chatter) who was dissatisfied to contact me directly at the hotel, so I may offer my apologies to them.

Sincerely,

Bryan Stolz

Director of Operations

Fire & Sage/Washington Marriott Metro Center

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for taking the time to respond to a reader complaint, Bryan. I'm happy to give restaurateurs the space and the time to respond to matters that concern them.

And just in case anyone missed it, here's my first impression of the new Marriott restaurant:

washingtonpost.com: Today's First Bite: Fire and Sage

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Union Station: For Administrative Assistant's Day, my bosses are taking me to Art and Soul. What are your thoughts about the place?

Tom Sietsema: My thoughts? Here you go:

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Review: Art and Soul

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Rockville, Md.: Tom, you consistently encourage diners to speak to the management when something does not meet a reasonable standard. I'm curious if you do just that; for instance, with respect to today's review, did you mention that your sandwich resembled room service fare and that a few of the waitstaff with whom you interacted were rude?

Tom Sietsema: Occasionally, I'll say something about the service or the food to see what kind of response I get from a staff member. In the case of Fire & Sage, I did not.

Typically, I don't complain to a restaurant while I'm there; I have a forum for doing that.

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Clifton, Va.: Tom, love your chats!

I've got a tipping dilemma for you. I recently started going to Pei Wei (P.F. Chang's little sister restaurant) in Fairfax. It mixes elements of fast food and sit-down dining. You order and pay at the counter, and you get your own drinks, silverware, and to-go boxes. But the waitstaff seat you, bring all the food to your table (very quickly), clear your dishes, and usually check in with you at least once. Last time the waitress brought us bags for our takeout containers.

So how much should you tip? I have been leaving between 10 and 15%, depending on how much extra help the staff provides. But I've noticed that most people don't seem to tip at all! What do you think is appropriate for tipping in such a situation?

Tom Sietsema: Given the service you describe, which sounds like the kind you find in buffet situations, I'd be inclined to tip about 10 percent.

I'd love to hear what others think, though.

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Leesburg review: Tom -- Just wanted to thank you for the review on the Leesburg restaurant that stressed the small seating capacity of the place. So many times, reviews are all about the food (which is good, no question) but don't include important stuff like -- get there early, avoid sitting near the smoky bar, stuff like that. Kudos to your reviewer.

Tom Sietsema: Thanks goes to my colleague Candy Sagon.

(I have to laugh, though; I'm sometimes accused of writing too much about the design of a place over the food.)

washingtonpost.com: 2009 Candy Sagon Review: The Wine Kitchen

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Takoma Park: Hello Tom-- thank you for making our lives more delicious for nearly 10 years now. ( :

We're going to Michel Richard's Central this Friday for a (somewhat rare) dinner out without our kids. Two questions: Do you have suggestions on what not to miss on the fine April menu (we'll eat anything)? And might you suggest somewhere within walking distance to head afterwards for a drink? We're planning to enjoy a dessert at Central, but also don't need to rush home.

Thanks so much-- you are fabulous.

Tom Sietsema: (Stop, I'm blushing! Honestly, I couldn't make your lives more delicious if it weren't for all the interesting restaurants I am so fortunate to tell you about.)

I haven't eaten at Central lately, but you can't go wrong with one of the bistro's fabulous sandwiches (beef/lobster/tuna), its fried chicken or liver and onions, a personal favorite.

Drinks afterward? Head over to the airy bar at The Source and the chance to try my new favorite cocktail, the Hemingway daiquiri -- fresh grapefruit juice, lime juice, light rum and maraschino liqueur. Yum.

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Dining Guide: Central and 2008 Dining Guide: The Source

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Mt. Pleasant: Have you watched any of the "Made in Spain" series with Jose Andres? To me, his enthusiasm can be rather winning in a chef/travel show host. Should we be worrying that Jose will lose interest in D.C.?

Tom Sietsema: I've seen the Spanish version but not the American show. (There I was in Madrid, unpacking my suitcase, when on the TV came that big smile and that passionate voice ...)

I think Mr. Andres feels at home in D.C. and I know he wants to live where his family can also be comfortable. That rules out, say, Vegas. Plus, D.C. is where all the action -- political and otherwise -- is at these days. Why move?

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Pictures: I think it would be fun to have a line drawing above your chat/columns. The person depicted could change or rotate so that there could be no real assumption of what you look like, but for those in the know it could be entertaining to see how people react. "Spotted Sietsema at Popeye's and he does have cornrows!"

Tom Sietsema: HA!

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Metro Center, D.C.: Hi Tom!

Last night, I had a friend in town and we decided to try Potenza for dinner after work.

Nothing dire to report, but since it's new, I figured I would give you a rundown. The food itself was very good, especially the bread basket which I assume was baked in the on-site bakery. We also each ordered a pasta, which we found delicious. There were a few complaints: Additional menu descriptions would have been nice... for instance, the bruschetta appetizer arrived as a stack of three pieces of bread absolutely slathered and swimming in cheese sauce with minimal tomatoes. Still quite good, but definitely unexpected. The risotto balls were exactly as described, however.

The service really took us aback. Everything came out in a timely fashion, and there was nothing to substantive to take to the manager, but just some oddities. First, the waiter asked if we would like sparkling or still water. We asked for tap water to which he responded: "That was not my question: still or sparkling." We saw on the menu afterward something about "for the environment there is a $3 fee for water, either still or sparkling," but it was never explained. We also ordered cocktails. When we asked about certain drinks,the waiter made a disgusted face. The ones we ended up with were quite good.

Lastly, we ordered tiramisu for dessert. The waiter first said that they did not have any left, but then returned and said that they did have tiramisu but that "it looks different than our regular tiramisu... not that you'd know." We said fine, and that was also good. We just found the whole encounter strange.

I think I'd go back in the neighborhood, but wouldn't eagerly recommend.

Tom Sietsema: Let this be fodder for today's staff meeting at Potenza, which, as you announced, is a relatively new restaurant.

I was in recently and had to strain to hear the server's recitation of the specials (there seemed to be a bunch of them, so why not hand out a fresh sheet?)

All my group could hear was "And tonight we have ... beef rolled .... peppers and ... a kind of pasta with ...") Three minutes later, we ended up ordering what we could read on the menu because we didn't want to make the waiter fo through the delivery again.

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Cold Muffin, Le Pain Quotidien: I had the same thing happen a few weeks ago with a cold muffin! As soon as I started reading your article, I thought "I bet that was LPQ on the Hill", but lo and behold, it was LPQ somewhere else.

And I'm sorry, but there's no way those don't go into the fridge. Mine wasn't just not warm -- it was COLD. Like, just defrosted cold. It was their savory cheese muffin, and while I still go back, I haven't ordered that item again (it was also VERY dry, by the way -- so the warming up argument seems to kind of fall apart -- something the muffin wasn't doing!) :)

Tom Sietsema: The chatter is referencing my round-up of reader questions from last Sunday.

washingtonpost.com: Reader Questions in This Week's Magazine

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Washington, D.C.: Tom,

Good morning! Thanks for chatting with us.

It's often asked which restaurants in the D.C. area are "romantic," but which would you say are "sexy?"

Tom Sietsema: Washington isn't known for doing "sexy" well, but I can think of a few places that fit that adjective. One of them is the Asian-themed Sei in Penn Quarter; another is the dessert-and-coktails oasis not too far away, Co Co Sala.

Chatters: What other places would you consider sexy?

washingtonpost.com: 2009 Review: Sei and 2008 Dining Guide: Co Co. Sala

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Cocktail confusion: Hi Tom. I ordered a $9 specialty cocktail at an upscale restaurant in Reston. What I got served was not what I was expecting (from the description, which included the words "sparkling wine") I thought it would be like a champagne cocktail. It also didn't taste like what I was expecting either -- very heavy on the orange bitters. What's the etiquette on this? Could I have sent it back? Asked the waitress?

Tom Sietsema: I would have politely returned it and let the server know why: It was unlike what the menu indicated. (If that's true; were bitters listed?)

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Fairfax: Tom, do you know any restaurants that serve Baked Alaska? Does it also have other names -- we heard that it is also called Norwegian Omelet. Thank you!

Tom Sietsema: Baked Alaska. Haven't seen it on any dessert menus lately. Nor have I ever heard the classic called a Norwegian Omelet, but I like it, I like it ...

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Washington, D.C.: Bebo Trattoria -- So sorry to hear it closed. I signed up for one of Roberto Donna's weekday classes for next week...and paid my money as required in advance, by check. Anyone have ANY idea how I might be able to get hold of someone to get a refund? Naturally, no one is answering the old restaurant phone.

Tom Sietsema: Hold on to your certificate. When Roberto Donna reopens downtown -- and he swears he will -- see if you can't redeem it then.

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Maryland: Tom, do you know if Obelisk makes their burrata in house or if they get it from somewhere? It is incredible stuff.

Tom Sietsema: The cheese, which I also love, is imported from Puglia. Obelisk buys it from Euro Gourmet.

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Dupont Circle: Hi Tom, Just wanted to give a nod to California Pizza Kitchen on Conn. Ave. for being very kid-friendly. As our preschool class of 24 kids were walking past the restaurant a few weeks ago when the manager came out, gave the teachers his card and invited them to schedule a field trip to CPK. Last week the class took their trip to the restaurant for a tour of the kitchen (all were facinated by the walk-in) and a chance to make their own pizzas! The restaurant staff members were all so great with the kids and the manager was so inviting and generous! They did not charge our school a penny for this opportunity so we'd like to return the favor by spreading the word that CPK rocks as far as family-friendliness goes (and they pizza is pretty tasty, too!)

Tom Sietsema: That CPK is one smart businessman. Not only is he getting a big plug online, he's won over at least 24 new customers.

Seriously, people like that remind me just how generous so many in the restaurant industry are. Kudos to The Man!

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19th and Penn: Tom please please help me. I am in charge of organizing a dinner for about 12 Bank officials this Sunday for the IMF Spring meetings. I was attempting to reserve Taberna but they are closed for a private event. Where can we go, preferably walking distance or a short cab ride from the World Bank and IMF? They've been to Marcel's last year so that is out. Hoping to hear from you. Thanks a million.

Tom Sietsema: Dinner on a Sunday? In an upscale restaurant? For a dozen suits?

I'd start -- PRONTO -- with the nearby Equinox near the White House and the taxi-accessible 1789 in Georgetown.

washingtonpost.com: 2009 Review: 1789

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Fairfax, Va.: Archibald's is very sexy.

Tom Sietsema: For some folks, I'm certain it is.

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Fairfax, Va.: Three couples in their early 60s meeting Saturday night, having not seen each other in years, looking for a spot for dinner along the Metro corridor in Arlington. Our requirements: Good food, quiet enough for conversation, takes reservations, no Thai food and has tables that seat six people. Is that too long a wish list? Hope you can help.

Tom Sietsema: The first place that comes to mind is the fledgling Eventide on Wilson Boulevard, designed in part by its three owners to address their pet peeves -- including noisy dining rooms and tables set too close to one another.

I haven't eaten there is awhile, but Willow on N. Fairfax Dr., also has its fans.

washingtonpost.com: 2009 First Bite: Eventide and 2005 Review: Willow

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Washington, D.C.: Tom,

Last Saturday I went to Oya with some friends for dinner at 8:30. We made reservations but when we got there they said our table would be ready in 5 minutes. Well after hearing that 4 times we were finally seated at 8:50. Then we wait what seems like forever and a waiter comes around and says tonight I will be sharing your table with another waiter. Well after we order some wine to start we waited for over 20 minutes and then the other waiter came and asked us for our order. Well we still did not have the wine and asked where it was and he said he would try to find the first waiter. We finally ordered and our appetizers and wine came out 45 minutes later!!! They were delivered to us by the manager when they finally came out not even by one of the two waiters. After that I saw the manager yell at the waiter in front of us but he did not offer any apology to us. All in all we did not get our check until 11:15 and I can say that will be the last time I go there.

Tom Sietsema: I hate it when managers dress down staff in front of diners. It makes everyone uncomfortable.

I wouldn't have waited 45 minutes for my wine. I would have gone to the bar and placed my order there.

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Chantilly, Va.: Just wanted to say thanks for the news about Equinox. That was one of the first good restaurants I went to when I first moved to the area several years ago. I enjoyed it a lot, but with so many other restaurants to try I've never gotten the chance to go back. You may have just given me the motivation to give it another go!

Tom Sietsema: One reason I like to write updates now and then is for the chance to remind readers that just because they've been around for awhile doesn't make some restaurants any less interesting.

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Charlottesville, Va.: Oceanaire serves baked alaska, by the way.

Tom Sietsema: Ah, thanks for weighing in.

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Popeyes: Good to hear that racism and elitism still rule in the fine dining world

Tom Sietsema: Did I miss something?

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Logan Circle: As a long-time reader, I knew to check if you had any postcards before my Italy trip last week, and decided to try one of the restaurants you included for Rome - Ristorante Ditirambo (the other restaurant was too far away). It was an excellent experience. Notwithstanding my mistake of showing up without a reservation on a Tuesday, they still found me a table (while turning many others away). I deferred to the waiter what to order - provided it was vegetarian - and had an outstanding lasagna with asparagus on his recommendation. And, I was delighted for the dessert wine offered by the waiter as a "gift" after the meal (maybe he took pity on the poor American dining alone!). So, my question is, when you travel to cities, such as Rome, with a multitude of incredible restaurants (as I said, this was a fantastic choice, but there are countless other great restaurants in such a city), how do you choose which ones to try, and possibly include in a postcard?

Tom Sietsema: I've learned, sometimes the hard way, to visit a wide variety of restaurants (new/old, ethnic/local, cheap/dear) and give myself sufficient time to eat in more than three or four restaurants when I'm on the road.

Because stuff happens. Plane delays or bad weather sometimes result in missed reservations. Tips from even the best sources sometimes don't pan out. I also tap a variety of people -- food pals, frequent travellers, chefs, fellow critics, cookbook authors -- to come up with a list of places that is reliable.

Ultimately, I aim to give readers three solid recommendations and variety within the list: something new, something high-end, something cheap.

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Postcard From Tom: Rome

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom,

My husband's taking me to an undisclosed location for my birthday this weekend. Clues: Georgetown, pricey, jacket required. I'm pretty sure I know where it is, and I believe it lost a star from you this year for service issues.

Have you heard better reports since then? I'm excited about this dinner, but I also wonder if we need to slip someone a few extra bills to ensure we enjoy this rare treat.

Tom Sietsema: Are we talking about Citronelle?

No need to slip anyone money. A restaurant either treats you well or it doesn't.

I'd love to get your feedback. Michel Richard is one of this country's true food talents, and rumors are flying that he may be taking his high-end act to the suburbs.

This much is true: Citronelle is being recast as a less expensive dining room with fewer luxury ingredients.

washingtonpost.com: Tom on Michel's rumored move to Tysons

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, we are two women who want to treat ourselves to a great brunch in Georgetown this weekend (expensive is okay). Suggestions?

Tom Sietsema: For something different, and fun, you should consider Hook on M St.

washingtonpost.com: Hook

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Richmond, Va.: I went to "sexy" Sei this weekend - not the first adjective I'd use to describe it, but my friend and I had a lovely dinner, and I especially liked the Snow White roll. Yummy eel! I'd say Rasika belongs on the sexy list.

Tom Sietsema: Rasika is handsome but also too noisy to be considered sexy (in my book).

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Kingstowne, Va.: Tom,

I had to laugh when I read your article in the Magazine this week when someone complained about the lack of 3 and 4 star reviews in your columns. It reminded me of my recent trip to Naples Florida, where my in laws have a house. I was leafing through a local paper, and came across the restaurant review section. Being an avid reader of yours, I decided to see how a reviewer down there compared (reviewing the reviewers I guess!). The columnist reviewed one restaurant for that week, but also printed her other four most recent reviews. I was astounded. The 5 or 6 restaurants reviewed -averaged- something like 4.875 stars in all their categories (food/ambiance/service). I mean, talk about grade inflation! Don't change a thing.

I know I'm pushing my luck, but a quick bonus question -- I'm taking my wife to NYC for a weekend away since she's been stuck at home having to watch our seven month old with little reprieve. I read your NYC post cards and was trying to find a place. Fiamma closed, and I was trying to decide on another place. I was looking at Insieme (which was in one of your post cards) and also Crispo (on 14th st), Scarpetta, or Cesca (Upper West Side). Any advice?

Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Hey, thanks for the show of support. My mom has a condo in Naples, so I've actually had occasion to dine there. Let's just say, I've never eaten above a two-star level (well, except for my Mom's cooking)!

I like the food at Insieme a lot, and there's the bonus of being close to Broadway. Friends who just dined there raved about their recent experience, so I have faith that it's as good as when I was in.

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Postcard from Tom: New York

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D.C. to L.A.: Hey Tom, I'm headed to L.A. in June. Thanks for the timing on your postcard! I was wondering, as someone who has eaten at all the Jose Andres restaurants, including minibar, do you think it's worth visiting Bazaar? It sounds really fun, but I only have a few days in L.A. so if it's going to be redundant to a D.C. diner, I don't want to make the trip. Thanks for your advice!

Tom Sietsema: You should definitely put Bazaar on your itinerary. While parts of the sprawling amusement park resemble some of Andres's Washington restaurants, as a whole the Los Angeles hot spot is like few other places I've visited.

washingtonpost.com: First Bite: Bazaar by Jose Andres

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13th birthday: Just wanted to let you know our son enjoyed his dinner at the Oceanaire Saturday night. Hubby and I had been there before and were pleased he enjoyed it. We then celebrated his 10-year-old sister's birthday the next night at her favorite restaurant Bamian. Thanks for the advice.

Tom Sietsema: You're welcome! Thanks for the thanks.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom! where does one go to have a delicious German food..

Tom Sietsema: Locally? It's been some time since I've dropped by, but Cafe Mozart and Old Europe have been eliable bets in the past. I had a good time recently at Schmankerl Stube in Hagerstown.

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Mini Review: Schmankerl Stube

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Dale City, Va.: Tom,

Believe it or not, lately I have had trouble with servers sticking their thumbs in my food as they set the dish on the table. When it happened at Cracker Barrel I made them recook the dish but was by myself at the time. When it happened at Rasika I was with someone so I didn't want the food recooked as it would have delayed them. The waiter there stuck his thumb in my rice so I was able to scoop aside the rice he thumbed. Needless to say I told him about it and cut back on his tip. What do you suggest when this happens?

Tom Sietsema: "Oops, it looks as if your thumb is in my rice."

If that doesn't get you a fresh serving of rice, you might take a manager aside and share your concern.

Note to servers: Watch where you put your fingers. Diners are watching. Plus, it's just bad form.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hi Tom,

I'm hoping you or your stellar chatterati can help my husband and me. It's been a roller coaster year, with a layoff and now (hurray) a new job. We're celebrating that, plus our 25th anniversary, in Portsmouth, N.H. Any not-to-be-missed restaurants or drinks places?

Tom Sietsema: Chatters? (And congrats on the new gig.)

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Good to hear that racism and elitism still rule in the fine dining world: apparently -someone- found the reference to cornrows vis-a-vis Popeyes (fried chicken) racist. (if cornrows are racist, why do people wear them?)

Tom Sietsema: Gosh, that went right over my head. I'm a big Popeye's fan and I have stated so many times in this space. My apologies to anyone who read anything more into what the poster or I wrote.

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Alexandria, Va.: I have a question about table squatting. I was at a very popular breakfast place with a large group (10 of us!). The restaurant could only accommodate us in a certain section of the restaurant, where they could push tables together. There were several other parties, also waiting for tables. My party waited...and waited... for half an hour after they paid because their children were coloring. What, if any, responsibility does the restaurant have to remove table squatters?

Tom Sietsema: I guess the manager couldn't ask the kids if they'd like to move to the bar and finish coloring, could he? But he should have said SOMETHING. To keep more than 10 people waiting, thirty minutes after a meal has been eaten, is ridiculous. And shame on that group for lingering so long.

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Roman lasagne: Just a PSA for those serving to vegetarians: many of us do not consider most cheeses vegetarian because they are made with rennet (from cow stomachs). Thus, most lasagnas are not, in fact, vegetarian. Neither are mac and cheese. or risotto made with parm We sincerely appreciate your thinking of us and providing these alternatives, but, alas, we still usually end up with a salad. I have found this to be a real problem both here and abroad.

OK, end of soapbox. I love your writing, Tom, and think the sign in the Magazine went beyond confusing to overtly misleading.

Tom Sietsema: Here's hoping that all the restaurants out there that *think* they're serving vegetarian-freindly choices will see your post.

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Portsmouth NH: Try the Blue Mermaid Inn for "caribbean" food.

Tasty, though large and noisy and not superauthentic.

Tom Sietsema: You lost me at "not superauthentic." Or was it "large and noisy?"

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Sweaty Waiters: What do you do if you waiter is sweating and using his arm sleeve to wripe it away, and then serving you food.

Tom Sietsema: Inwardly, I groan.

I might also be inclined to say something to a manager on the way out.

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Washington, D.C.: What is the best strategy for eating out when one is on a recently imposed low sodium regiment for medical reasons -- less than 1600 mg per day? I know the kinds of food to avoid, but don't have a clue about all the prep ahead of time that occurs in restaurants but not at home for otherwise safe dishes. And a few recent experiences, in places with great food and service, suggest that simply asking the waitstaff to ask the chef to hold the salt doesn't work. It is either too late or not realistic in a busy dining room. Is calling ahead for low sodium something restaurants would consider? And, by the way, the cravings for Thai, Chinese, Indian, etc., are growing more severe every day.

Tom Sietsema: I'd call my favorite restaurant, ask to speak with the manager or chef and explain your situation and your desire to eat there if the kitchen can accomodate your special needs. If they can help out, follow up with a phone call reminder the day of the reservation.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hi Tom! Submitting early and hope you can help -- we are stumped.

Our group of 4-6 people are looking to converge on a coffee or brunch/lunch place in/around Adams-Morgan where we can reserve a table on a Saturday at noon or around then. Price is definitely an object.

Type of food not important, as long as it's delicious, but we need to stay in that area and don't want to wait for a table (some people have commitments on either side of lunch). Is this impossible?

Hope you can help!

Tom Sietsema: I've been hearing great things these days about Perrys on Columbia Road NW. I see it's open for lunch this Saturday.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi, Tom. My wife and I would like your opinion about tasting menus. Recently, we had dinner at Rasika where we each ordered the four course, non-vegetarian tasting menu (the "Grand Menu"). Our meals were nothing short of amazing. Afterward, we looked at Rasika's menu online to see if we could identify any of the dishes we had. Interestingly, we noticed that all of the dishes we were served were on the menu. It was our belief that a tasting menu provided a chance to sample some off-menu items, and we were surprised that wasn't the case here. We were also surprised that it didn't include any small extras, like an amuse-bouche. Furthermore, when we looked the prices of the dishes, we realized that the cost of the Grand Menu actually was more than the total cost of the dishes had we ordered them individually (including side orders of rice and bread). Suffice it say, we are disheartened. Had we known that we could've had the same incredible meal for less, we would not have gone with the tasting menu. Assuming our calculations are accurate, is there cause for complaint here? Or, does the cost of a tasting menu include the extra "value" of having your dishes selected for you, even if all of those dishes are on the menu?

Tom Sietsema: I'd be disappointed, too, if my tasting menu was just a parade of dishes from the regular menu *and* more expensive than if I had just ordered everything a la carte. A chef as clever and talented as Vikram Sunderam might want to come up with at least one or two items that are off the regular script or somehow special (which is what most of his competition does).

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PG County: Tom, My wife and I are heading up to NYC in a few weeks. She loves Indian food, but I couldn't find any Indian places in your New York postcards. Do you have any suggestions? Price isn't the primary concern (bonus if it's anywhere near the theater district).

Thanks

Tom Sietsema: It's been a few years now, but I've had very good Indian cooking at Dawat in the East 50s, which features the recipes of actress Madhur Jaffrey, and the contemporary Tamarind in the Flatiron district.

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Cafe Salsa - Cafe SoSo: Tom, hate to pick on a new spot that I hope will do well, but ate at Cafe Salsa on Saturday. Aside from their growing pains from only being open 3 weeks the food was remarkably bland.

And from the menu descriptions for the Nuevo Latin small plates we got -- we were pretty disappointed. Salt, pepper, whatever -- please pass the flavor!

We told the server (who was very gracious) our thoughts to pass along to the kitchen in hopes that the dishes improve. It's not the concepts that were bad, just the bland execution.

This was true for each of the 5 items we ordered. Bad night or more representative of your initial experience there?

thanks

Tom Sietsema: I have yet to try the new restaurant in Logan Circle, but your experience there reminds me of what I recall from the original Cafe Salsa in Alexandria, where the starters outperformed the entrees. You say all five of your dishes were bland? That doesn't sound like a fluke to me.

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NoVA: Hi Tom, I'm leaving my company after 7 years of service (not long some places, but a lifetime in this area!) I'm not much of a "lunch person," preferring to run during lunch instead and eat a sandwich later at my desk. Also, the boss is probably going to insist on takeout that we can bring back to office since some will still have to work, at least off and on, during my going-away luncheon. We work in McLean. Suggestions? (I'd like something really delicious that won't kill the waistline!) Thanks for your input!

Tom Sietsema: I tapped one of my favorite dining companions, Ms. S., who happens to live in McLean. Here's her response:

"My first thought is Lebanese Taverna Market -- technically Arlington (Old Dominion & Lee Hwy) but close to McLean. Otherwise, there are Moby Dick Kabobs, Tachiabana for sushi, Puccinella for Italian, Chicken Out and Balducci's."

Hope that helps, NoVA.

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Totally uncool!: Dear Tom,

I'm with you--and probably many others. It is totally uncool to "correct," "chastise," "berate," or "address" whatever issue with person in front of people. I hold this standard true for other businesses, too. It is so uncool and such a big mis-step in my eyes that I would really think twice about ever visiting such a place again. That to me is a worse error or offense than so many of the "normal" or "average" dining out offenses.

Thanks.

Tom Sietsema: And on that note, I bid you all farewell until next Wednesday.

Thanks for a lively chat.

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A veteran food writer, Sietsema has worked as a critic in Washington, Seattle, San Francisco and Milwaukee and covers the local scene in his Dining, First Bite and Dish columns and moderates the Sietsema's Table discussion group. Join his live Q& A each Wednesday at 11 a.m. ET.

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