A periodic look at my communication with readers.
Bad Saint is a phenomenal Filipino restaurant that doesn’t take reservations and doesn’t have a phone number. Which led Ken Charney to ask me if the Columbia Heights eatery, awarded 3½ stars in my fall dining guide, is suitable for a vegetarian. “I seem to recall that you’ve mentioned some restaurants at this high level where the chef enjoys this kind of challenge, even without notice,” wrote the District reader in an email.
Charney should practice his line-waiting skills, because “Bad Saint can definitely accommodate vegetarians,” says Genevieve Villamora, co-owner of the 24-seat dining room. Since the restaurant opened in fall 2015, about a third of the menu — three to five dishes — has been meatless, she says. Some options are even vegan, among them an heirloom rice salad (ensaladang ifugao) with roasted celery root, roasted sunchokes and a tamarind vinaigrette. “I am partial to our newest vegetarian dish,” Villamora says via email, “a veggie version of pancit canton (which you almost never see in a vegetarian incarnation).” The pleasure is composed of fresh egg noodles and royal trumpet, beech and oyster mushrooms, which are stir-fried in a wok.
Charney’s missive went on to ask if I could recommend another of my Top 10 dining picks as especially accommodating to customers who don’t eat meat, not necessarily based on their vegetarian menu selections, but on chefs who “would create something somewhat special.” One of the best examples comes from Cedric Maupillier, chef-owner of Convivial in Shaw. For vegetarians who want to splurge, he says he can make a casserole that sounds tempting even to this carnivore: lightly roasted and smoked celeriac, cauliflower, butternut squash, Brussels sprouts and mushrooms, everything arranged on a hazelnut soubise, scattered with sliced black truffles and cooked in parchment paper. “It will be cracked open in front of the guest to release all the scents,” Maupillier says, painting a heady picture, then finished with a few drops of apple cider vinegar at the table “to brighten the dish.” But, please, asks the chef, who spends an hour a day customizing his menu: Call ahead with any special requests so he can be prepared.
Looking out for the two 4-year-olds in his party at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House in the District this fall, Robert Rosen inquired about a children’s menu. The waiter told him the restaurant didn’t offer one but said the chef could make macaroni and cheese without the lobster that was part of the dish. “We then jumped at the opportunity as the kids were starving. The mac and cheese was phenomenal,” Rosen reported in an email. “However, when the bill arrived, it included two lobster mac and cheese orders” at $18.50 each.
When he questioned the price of the unadorned pasta, Rosen was told it was priced the same as the one with seafood. “Had we known that they were the same price,” he wrote, “our children would not have had a problem eating the lobster mac and cheese.”
I reached out to the steakhouse’s general manager, Ann Thibert, who confirmed the lack of a kids menu and the charge. Her branch of the chain, she explained, “doesn’t see a lot of children, except holidays.” As for the costly mac and cheese, “Traditionally, when a guest omits an ingredient from a dish, we do not adjust the price, though the staff should have communicated that or offered another solution.”
There’s a reassuring outcome. The day after Rosen’s complaint — “a coaching opportunity for me and my staff,” Thibert told me — she reached out to some of her peers at other locations to come up with an informal children’s menu that includes grilled cheese, sliders, chicken fingers and plain macaroni and cheese. And since Rosen raised the issue, the pasta sans seafood at the steakhouse now costs $10.
After a participant of a recent online chat asked how to tip a bartender for gratis drinks and snacks, I heard from a number of industry insiders who told me their establishments empowered them to use edible gifts to enhance the experience of customers: “sometimes regulars, to reward them for being regulars, sometimes newcomers, to welcome them,” submitted one hospitality veteran. “If you’re getting a drink or bite for free every now and then, take it as a compliment,” wrote a restaurant group manager. “They’re probably trying to show appreciation.”
A former bartender, allowed by his employer to give away two cocktails a shift, echoed the sentiments of other restaurant workers regarding gratuities: “I wouldn’t expect an exceptionally large tip on the free drinks, just a tip on the cost,” which can be checked with a peek at the menu. A waiter in another life, I agree.
A follower of another online discussion praised Masseria for the way it handled a situation in which a party that had initially approved a bottle of wine found it not to their liking as they drank more of it. The upscale Italian restaurant took back the wine and replaced it with something that met their approval to the finish.
Was Masseria obliged to do that? No. Did it score points for hospitality? Without a doubt.
Subsequently, I heard from several restaurant operators, including Brent Kroll, the former wine director at the Neighborhood Restaurant Group and now the general manager of the wine-themed Proof in Penn Quarter. He understands the scenario (“Not always does a region or grape translate to what’s in the bottle”) and shares Masseria’s philosophy. “A sommelier should never debate if a bottle is bad at a table or show dismay if a guest doesn’t like a certain wine. I’ve had a guest send back correct Champagne before, because they were anticipating more carbonation.”
Returned wine doesn’t have to go to waste; Kroll says leftovers can be gifted to other patrons or used for staff training.
But another reader, Daniel Orkwis, more or less counseled diners not to be cavalier about sending back wine once it’s been sampled and approved. Redirecting wine “might mitigate a small portion of the cost of the bottle, but almost none of them will make up for the loss of the sale. Restaurant margins are often razor thin, and it can take a more cool-headed and experienced wine director to recognize that those lost dollars are made up for by the positive word of mouth.”
Next week: A review of Ottoman Taverna in Washington.
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