WITH SO MANY new restaurants opening this fall, it seems timely to throw some praise the way of a few old restaurants. So here's a small selection from my mailbox:
Diners with diminished sight have a hard time in "romantic" restaurants, reports a reader. But she has found some restaurants that cooperate to solve the problem. For this reader, La Chaumiere's hostess takes care to give her one of the three tables directly under a chandelier, and Tout Va Bien seats her at one of the two tables directly under a light. She also recommends Table 45 at Dominique's and Table 2 or 4 at the Appian Way. Maybe when restaurants ask whether you want to reserve a smoking or nonsmoking table they should ask whether you have any other special needs.
One lunchtime at Stan's Restaurant on Vermont Avenue, a diner was served what seemed to him an adequate turkey sandwich, but the waiter apologized that the sandwich was skimpy because the kitchen had run short of turkey. The waiter added that the customer could have the sandwich at no charge or have it replaced with another dish. As the customer wrote, "In more than 40 years of eating in downtown restaurants, I have never been treated with such class."
At Sfuzzi one day, a diner found a piece of metal wire in a piece of bread. The waiter immediately alerted the maitre d', who came to the table to apologize. As it happened, this column had recently been addressing what restaurants should offer diners in compensation for a problem. The diner overheard a couple of managers discussing what this column might consider appropriate. What they came up with was two desserts for the table of nine to share. Sounds about right to me.
Then there was the carefully detailed letter a reader sent to a restaurant that had let him down in more than a half dozen ways. What I liked was the reader's reminding the restaurant that in taking the time to write he had given the restaurant much more personal attention than the waiter had given him. Restaurateurs should realize that a letter of complaint is a valuable learning tool and much cheaper than a consultant.
YOU'VE HEARD of New England and Manhattan clam chowder, but how about Mexican? The First Annual Waterfront Washington Restaurant Olympics, to be held Saturday from 11:30 to 3:30 on the Washington Channel at 600 Water St. SW, is hosting a chowder cookoff. And for this first year, participation is limited to the restaurants along that stretch (Hogate's, 700 Water Street Grill, Phillips Flagship, Gangplank, the Spirit of Washington and El Torito's). They'll also compete in a vegetable- and fruit-carving competition (featuring carved coleslaw?) and such events as a keg roll and a waiters' race. The organizers promise chowder samples on a first-come, first-served basis. Admission is free, and music will accompany the festivities.
THE FOOD IS Italian-American, but you may automatically think of France when you enter Ecco these days. That's because Diana Damewood, longtime and much-loved dining room manager of Dominique's, is back in town, now running the front of the house at this Alexandria restaurant. I always thought her bubbly enthusiasm was more Italian than French anyway.
CACTUS JACK'S, a new Tex-Mex restaurant that has replaced Flaps at 1207 19th St. NW, claims to be the "first entirely smoke-free establishment" in D.C. No smoking is allowed in the dining room, though it is tolerated at the outdoor patio tables. The press release announcing this policy also describes the restaurant as a "new hot spot" and goes on to boast of such specialties as smoked chicken breast. So only the foods are allowed to smoke.
Phyllis C. Richman's restaurant reviews appear Sundays in The Washington Post Magazine.