RECURRENT THEMES from my mail: Why doesn't Washington have a good deli, and why don't I designate whether there's wheelchair access to the restaurants I review? The answers to these are inevitably unsatisfying, so I find myself answering them anew every once in awhile. Once again:
DELI BELLYACHE -- Letters pour in about frustrations with the new Carnegie Deli in Tysons Corner. It opened to enormous fanfare and media attention, and the first week ran out of food and closed down briefly. I haven't reviewed it yet, and won't for a couple of months. It needs time to settle down before any review could be valid.
Diners are complaining about long waits, inept service and the kitchen running out of things. No wonder. Washington's been waiting decades for a good deli, and this is one of New York's most famous, opening a branch in our very own suburbs. Nobody should expect calm and competent treatment in the opening days of such an event. The staff can't yet be attuned to their jobs, the pressure in such a situation is outlandish.
And the Carnegie hasn't even found good rye bread in Washington (nor, apparently, accepted that if the rye bread is to be deli- worthy it's going to have to come from New York). The fact that we now have the Carnegie Deli doesn't (yet) mean that we have a good deli. I'd no more try the Carnegie so early than I'd go to Commander's Palace in New Orleans during Mardi Gras.
ACCESS ANGST -- Washington Post reporter Carole Sugarman examined the subject of restaurant access in the Food section recently, going out in a wheelchair to study the problems firsthand. Once more it was demonstrated that the obstacles are often subtle and unexpected, and that a simplistic designation of a restaurant as wheelchair-accessible can be misleading.
The Responsible Hospitality Institute has issued guidelines for determining accessibility, which indicate that doors should provide a clearance of at least 32 inches with no step or abrupt change in level; bathrooms should have no steps and stalls should be 36 inches wide with sufficiently wide doors, sturdy grab bars and five-foot turnaround spaces; aisles should be 36 inches wide and tables 30 inches high. Then there's the parking . . .
Simple visual inspection isn't enough; for one thing, downstairs or upstairs rooms may be in use one night but not the next. Table rearrangements may create new barriers.
To personally assess accessibility would require me to stalk a restaurant with tape measure in hand (and to demand access to both men's and women's bathrooms); that is incompatible with a restaurant critic's dining anonymously. I have tried telephoning restaurants to ask whether they are accessible, but often the answers were inaccurate -- which can be worse than no information at all.
It's better for a handicapped diner to call and ask for specific information, or for an organization with access expertise to survey restaurants to make accurate measurements and evaluations.