Even as dining rooms and patios open, restaurant meals for delivery and pickup seem here to stay. So we asked food editors, writers, and Instagrammers who’ve ordered their fair share of food to-go to share their best practices. Here’s what they’ve learned over the past five months, from what food travels best to what requires a little reheating magic and more.
Forget about french fries. It’s the one food that led to universal letdown among our panelists. “I’ll tell you one thing — I haven’t had a decent french fry since March!” says Rina Rapuano, a D.C.-based food and travel writer. “They just don’t ever seem to travel well.”
Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema shared a few ground rules: “If you insist on getting fries, choose steak fries over thinner cuts of potatoes, which inevitably go limp before they reach their destination. A reader recently shared an easy tip for reviving fries at home: Put them in a hot-hot frying pan (no oil) for a minute or so, flipping them as necessary. They get crisp as they warm up.”
Curries hold up nicely. “Things that are meant to be eaten soft travel well, and frankly microwave well,” says Anela Malik, who writes the D.C.-based food blog, Feed the Malik. She’s thinking of soups and curries, and Sietsema agrees. “Two cuisines that travel best are Ethiopian and Indian,” he says. “Carryout stews and curries tend to be every bit as good as they’re presented in the restaurant, and they take well to any reheating.”
Reheat your pizza — but not in the microwave. Pizza is a takeout classic, but it’s never quite the same at home as it is straight from a pizzeria’s oven. “This is one of the great lies about delivery pizza,” says Washington Post food columnist Tim Carman. “It always arrives lukewarm.” He rectifies that by sliding takeout pies onto a pizza stone in an oven at 300 to 350 degrees. “Watch it very carefully,” he says. “Don’t wander off and check your cellphone for a half-hour. It will heat up pretty fast.”
When Hungry Travelist blogger Aparna Krishnamoorthy gets one of the oversize pies from Andy’s, Wiseguy or Della Barba, she’ll freeze a few of the slices individually and later pop them in a 375-degree oven. “It helps when we have pizza cravings — which we do basically every week — but just want a slice and not commit to a whole pie,” she says. “I do occasionally heat up [a slice] on a pan on the stove before the oven, to keep the crust and base crispy.”
On the side, please. Lanna Nguyen, a freelancer food writer and photographer who Instagrams at @eatdrinkdc, asks for sauces, garnishes and salad dressing on the side to prevent food from getting soggy.
Certain dishes benefit from separate packaging: “I’ve learned that tacos taste better if all of the components are sold separately,” freelance food writer Julekha Dash says. Carman has noticed restaurateurs have engineered clever ways to keep to-go soups and ramen in good shape by individually packaging the dishes’ components, with some assembly at home required. He thinks you could do the same for sub sandwiches by asking for the condiments and toppings like lettuce and tomato to be wrapped up separately. Just recycle or reuse all that plastic packaging, if possible.
Make the meal feel special. For open-minded diners without dietary restrictions, Washington City Paper food editor Laura Hayes recommends checking out restaurants that offer a prix fixe meal for two. “It’s a fun way to feel like a chef invited you over for a dinner party,” she says. “You eat what the restaurant thinks they can execute best, and sometimes they throw in cool little bonuses like a Spotify playlist to accompany your meal.” It can help a restaurant’s bottom line, too: “The advantage of prix fixe is that having a set menu cuts down on food waste at a time when it’s really challenging for chefs to predict demand,” she says.
You can make any takeout meal more memorable, however. Jessica van Dop DeJesús, founder of the Dining Traveler website, sets the table with real silverware and plates to mimic dining out, and Eater DC editor Gabe Hiatt suggests a change of scenery, like eating in a nearby park instead of at the “kitchen table that’s become your office.”
Think of creative ways to repurpose things. Today’s takeout can be tomorrow’s dinner with a little ingenuity. “I’m a big fan of omelets for dinner,” Sietsema says. “They’re great vehicles for restaurant leftovers: unused Indian pickles, Mexican salsa, Chinese vegetable stir-fry, crab cakes — the sky’s the limit, really.”
When Kim Kong, who posts on Instagram at @nomtasticfoods, gets carryout from Chiko, for instance, she saves the XO sauce from her shrimp and toast to add to rice and grilled veggies for a next-day lunch. And she always throws in an extra order of kimchi: “Stir fry it with a protein of your choice for an amazing bokkeum bap,” she says. You can’t go wrong with roast chicken, either: van Dop DeJesús likes to order pollo a la brasa from Huacatay, turning the leftovers into chicken salad.
Preempt the “What’s for dinner?” question. Give yourself something to look forward to during the week by taking advantage of preorder when it’s available. “We have had many times when orders are delayed and we end up hangry and not enjoying the food as much,” Krishnamoorthy says. “Love the option to preorder for pickup/delivery at a specific time — even more so for peak times such as Friday and Saturday nights.”
Place your order directly with the restaurant — and try to pick it up yourself. “While delivery apps are super convenient, they take a large percentage of each order for themselves so the restaurants’ profit margins are even smaller than they would be normally,” Kong says.
If you want to use a delivery service, Nguyen recommends Skip the Line. “It is a little pricier than standard delivery apps, but they do not charge the restaurant a delivery fee and there are no additional service fees added on top of the price you’re given,” she says.
Tip generously if you can. “It’s the least we can do to show our appreciation,” says freelance food writer Lenore Adkins. “Not everyone has the privilege of working from home.”
Rapuano also advocates making a conscious effort to not judge a restaurant as you would under normal circumstances. “Staffing, sourcing and finances are difficult right now, and people really can’t expect businesses to operate as they did pre-COVID,” she says. “Be kind. Give restaurateurs and staff a break.”
Need some ordering inspiration? Read on for some of our experts’ favorite takeout meals so far.
For comfort food: “Biggest surprise after dozens of takeout meals: French onion soup,” says Sietsema. “I ordered it a couple [of] times from different places and was surprised by its durability. The very best bowl, by the way, is from Le Diplomate.”
For fried chicken: Cork’s fried chicken bucket meal passes Malik’s crunch test. “The chicken was so crispy, and I think part of it was how it was packaged, because it’s in paper,” she says. “It has a paper lid, which has a small little tab at the top which allows some steam to escape.”
For Mexican: Hayes and Hiatt recommend chef Christian Irabién’s pop-up Muchas Gracias for pozole that keeps well in the fridge, as well as staples featuring thoughtful ingredients (think quesadillas stuffed with cheese from makers in Chihuahua’s Mennonite community).
For DIY kits: Nguyen says Feast’s heat-and-eat brunches and dinners are “seamless to prepare and serve,” while Rapuano likes yakisoba noodle kits from Hatoba, which come with instructions and prepped ingredients. “You get a lot of flavor with very little effort,” she says. “Plus, it’s a great way to get kids to help make dinner and gain confidence in the kitchen.”
For barbecue: Both Carman and Hiatt give top marks to Riverdale’s 2Fifty, which offers wood-smoked, vacuum-packed meats you can reheat at home. “I’m originally from Houston. I have really, really high standards for Texas barbecue and that place nailed it,” Hiatt says.