An occasional look at my communication with readers.
Never mind what’s on the menu. A number of readers have told me my reviews would be more helpful if I let them know whether they can simply get through the door.
Take Sue Popkin, who pointed to one of my recent columns. “You made a joke in your review of Old Ebbitt Grill about the stairs to the basement restrooms showing the age of the restaurant,” the Vienna reader emailed. “But the thing that jumped out at me — a person with a disability who cannot use stairs without assistance — is that the restrooms … are down a flight of stairs.” Like others who have contacted me, Popkin says she would like to take advantage of the area’s bustling restaurant scene, but she needs to know if she will be welcome: at the entrance, in the restroom, by the staff.
“I wish you would include accessibility in your reviews,” Popkin wrote. “It is as important as the noise level,” which I introduced to the Magazine’s Dining column 11 years ago.
Duly noted — and a shout-out to Laura Hayes of the Washington City Paper, who got the ball rolling with a four-star report on the state of restaurant accessibility in the District. Beginning next week, I’ll be including a few lines about the ease (or not) with which diners can navigate a restaurant. Look for the enhancement alongside the star rating and other key information in my Dining column.
One of the reasons I haven’t included accessibility before now is my desire to remain as anonymous as possible. Wouldn’t a guy using a tape measure here and there draw unwanted attention? Ultimately, the facts outweigh the cons. More than 70,000 Washingtonians live with a disability, a figure that doesn’t include commuters and tourists, according to a guide developed by the American Association of People With Disabilities.
With the help of the D.C. Office of Disability Rights and readers including Popkin, I’ve come up with a shortlist of what to look for in determining an establishment’s basic accessibility. Going forward, I’ll be taking note of steps; doorways wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair; navigation space in the dining room; and bathrooms outfitted with grab bars and low sinks. On occasion, I’ll ask a disabled fellow food lover to break bread with me.
I’ll also be counting on readers for feedback. Needs vary; good lighting, for instance, is paramount to the deaf community. Best practices for restaurant staff include speaking directly to the patron (rather than any companion) and being sensitive to physical contact (including touching wheelchairs, which are considered an occupant’s personal space).
P.S. Old Ebbitt Grill, which can be accessed by customers with wheelchairs on G Street NW, has a single-stall restroom in the back of Grant’s Bar on the main floor. A renovation of the venerable restaurant, expected to be completed sometime next year, will add a second wheelchair-accessible entrance on 14th Street NW.
Paula Bryan recently tried to make reservations at a restaurant in Baltimore, only to discover that the establishment is furnished with high-top tables. The problem? “I’m 5-foot-2 and usually find the high chairs a challenge to get into and then to sit comfortably,” writes the Arlington reader, who intended to include her 88-year-old mother on the outing. Bryan has noticed an increase in tall perches in the past few years, “and not just in bar areas,” she says. “Just who are restaurants trying to attract and please with high-top tables? People who want to be seen?”
I immediately thought of the new Boqueria in Penn Quarter, where about two-thirds of the tables are tall ones, and put Bryan’s question to its owner. “Initially, we wanted people to feel like they were at a tapas bar in Spain,” where customers tend to graze standing up, says Yann de Rochefort. Tall tables, he says, “raise the energy and tie the bar to the dining room.” Waiters and diners have told him the stools change their dynamics. “Conversation is more intimate,” he says, when everyone is more or less eye-to-eye.
Massimo Papetti, the owner of I’m Eddie Cano near Chevy Chase Circle, home to a tall communal table ringed by 18 seats, agrees: “People get to know each other” better when they’re high off the ground, says the Rome native. The fixture in the center of the dining room is a hat tip to “when I was a kid in Italy” and assorted families crowded around one big table. “You make friends.”
A participant of my online chat suggests short customers aren’t the only ones bothered by sky-scraping furniture. “My biggest issue with high-tops is nowhere to put my purse,” the anonymous poster wrote. “I don’t want it on the ground where I can’t reach it, and I no longer hang it on my chair after my wallet was lifted once.” Her complaint comes with a partial solution: “Restaurants, if you insist on having high-tops, please add little hooks under the tables!”
A story I wrote decrying outsize restaurant servings and food waste elicited hundreds of responses, a number of whose authors told me to mind my own (this being a family-friendly publication) beeswax.
One challenger, Katalin Korossy, let me know, ever so eloquently, that I overlooked an important angle.
“I only work part-time due to health reasons, so while I am a foodie at heart, I rarely get to go out to eat anything more than fast food,” emailed the Kensington, Md., reader. “And on those rare occasions when I do go to [a] real restaurant, it’s a big indulgence. So when the food arrives and there’s a lot of it, it’s a particular thrill: I not only get to eat out, but I will have delicious leftovers the next day, extending the pleasure. Or sometimes I share it with my equally strapped brother, letting him eat out vicariously. Either way, that’s a real gift for me.”
Korossy knows some restaurants offer customers half portions and medium-size servings. “I wouldn’t mind that if they also charged less, but the prices don’t usually go down as a result,” she writes. “So I am paying the same, but getting only as much as I would eat for that one meal. Honestly, that’s really disappointing and hardly a solution.”
She figures there are plenty of people with full refrigerators and a need to consume fewer calories, “and for them, smaller would probably be healthier, maybe even more appreciated. But maybe spare a thought in your equation for those of us for whom a large plate is a real treat? We have a totally different perspective on ‘too much’ food.”
Like small plates, clamorous dining rooms are likely to be with us for the foreseeable future. But that doesn’t mean we should stop letting our voices be heard — complaining to management — and coming up with creative ways to mute the problem.
Larry Weiner emailed me with two possible solutions to what he calls the “decibel debacle.” One is for menus to carry warnings for noisy guests. “Management reserves the right to eject anyone from the premises due to overly loud, abusive conversations/singing,” the Las Vegas reader proposes. The other strategy is more dramatic. “Have the manager turn off the background music when the sound level reaches an unbearable pitch.”
I like the way Weiner thinks — and I’d race to any restaurant that took him up on his recommendations.
Next week: A review of Nicoletta Italian Kitchen in Washington.