Journalist and author Sarah Wildman searches archives, history books and European capitals for her grandfather's "true love" -- a young doctor he left behind when he fled Nazi-occupied Vienna in 1938.
In the old days, a newspaper review could make or break a local restaurant. Today, positive buzz can be earned– or manufactured– through a dizzying array of actors from food bloggers to PR firms to casual diner-reviews. As DC celebrates its burgeoning food scene with “Restaurant Week,” we talk with local food journalists about what goes into restaurant reviews and promotion, and how online reviews have made everyone a food critic.
- Missy Frederick Reporter, Washington Business Journal
- Chris Shott Food editor and the Young and Hungry columnist, Washington City Paper.
- Tom Sietsema Food Critic, Washington Post; author of "The Washington Post Dining Guide" (2003)
Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema talks about flavors he’d rather avoid:
A Look at Tom’s Fridge:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Food Wednesday. A decade ago, most of us probably couldn't have named a single famous chef in town. Now, thanks to the Food Network and reality shows like Top Chef, there's a long list of culinary superstars cooking right here in D.C. And with food bloggers, diner reviews, PR firms and celebrity chefs fueling a buzz machine, the hype about a new restaurant starts months before the place even opens.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISo as we celebrate restaurant week and the growing foodie culture here in D.C., we talk to local food journalists about what's behind the hype and what makes a good restaurant review in a age where everyone's an online critic. Joining us in studio is Tom Sietsema. He's the Washington Post food critic and author of the Washington Post dining guide. Tom, good to see you again.
MR. TOM SIETSEMAGood to be back, thank you for having us.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Missy Frederick. She is a hospitality reporter with the Washington Business Journal. She also writes the Top Shelf column for the Washington Business Journal. And, Missy Frederick, good to meet you.
MS. MISSY FREDERICKThanks for having me.
NNAMDIAlso in studio, Chris Shott is the food editor and the Young and Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. Chris Shott, welcome.
MR. CHRIS SHOTTKojo, it's awesome to be here.
NNAMDIGood to have you aboard. You too can join our conversation at 800-433-8850. Do you think D.C.'s dining scene is too hyped or do you think that we're a legitimate foodie town? 800-433-8850. Chris, as we've said, there's a whole celebrity culture and buzz around restaurants now, fueled partly by bloggers, reality television, cooking shows and that certainly hit D.C. Would you say that's created a more dynamic restaurant scene in this town?
SHOTTI think so, absolutely. You know, like you mentioned the shows on TV and, you know, I think we're just experiencing sort of a boom in restaurants right now, as it is. It's an exciting time to be a food journalist in Washington, D.C., absolutely.
NNAMDITom Sietsema, does all this hype serve some purpose?
SIETSEMAOh, I think it's great. Anytime you bring more attention on the subject matter, it's good for those of us who write about it and good for diners. It's also helped here in the Washington area by the first family, the present first family. The love to eat out. I -- in all the years I've lived in Washington, I haven't seen a first family that has relished the restaurant experience as have the Obamas.
NNAMDII note, this is a theme of yours. Washington is no longer content to be a culinary backwater.
SIETSEMAI think it's true. And I don't think we've been a culinary backwater for the last five, six, seven, eight years. We have some of the nation's top chefs. There's -- I don't think there's another chef quite like Josè Andrès. I don't there's another chef quite like Michel Richard. I don't think there's another chef quite on par with former White House chef Frank Ruta cooking at Palena.
SIETSEMAWe've got some real talent here. What I'd like to see more of is more female talent. We're a little short on that these days. And I remember back in the '80s, we had a lot of women who were doing interesting things, forward thinking things. If we're missing anything, it's the female component.
NNAMDIWell, we've got female writing talent here in the studio. So let's exploit it. Missy, Washington has undergone a separate revolution in terms of establishments. We're not longer a town of stuffy establishments where Senators and lobbyists eat. Who's eating in Washington now?
FREDERICKYeah, I think that's very interesting. I think that when people -- one way that that sort of shows is in the fact that now, we can think of food as a tourism draw. A lot of the time you think of D.C. as a place that people come on school trips to see, you know, monuments...
FREDERICK...things like that.
FREDERICKBut, yes, now people are actually coming here because they're interesting in our restaurants and our neighborhoods and it's drawing a new type of tourist, like young 20-something, 30-something's who want to experience the urban area of D.C. And I think that that happens a lot with our new restaurants.
NNAMDIWe've got enough homegrown restaurants that are popular enough that they're being franchised, places like Bus Boys and Poets and Taylor Gourmet. What does that say to you about Washington's restaurant scene?
FREDERICKI think it's really exciting, sort of. We've seen this phenomenon of sort of like the homegrown chain. It's not something that's, you know, something that's going to be in a zillion places and it's not something that's going to be just one restaurant. You're seeing people like Taylor Gourmet, people like Cava, people like Matchbox that are, you know, when there's a new neighborhood and there's a new development coming up, they're getting a local restaurant to come in there, instead of something like, you know, something generic like Olive Garden or things like that.
NNAMDII went to Matchbox for brunch on Sunday. There was a line outside at like 11:00 o'clock in the morning on Sunday. I'm like, these people don't go to church? Anyway, that's...
FREDERICKIt's amazing. It's on every single one of their locations, not, you know, just the one.
SIETSEMAMaybe that is their church.
NNAMDIMaybe you're right, maybe that is the religion. We're talking about restaurants in Washington with restaurant critics Tom Sietsema is the Washington Post food critic and author of the Washington Post dining guide. Chris Shott is the food editor and the Young and Hungry columnist at Washington City paper and Missy Frederick is a hospitality reporter with the Washington Business Journal who also writes the Top Shelf column. The number to call, 800-433-8850. Do you rely on restaurant reviews when choosing where to eat and which ones do you read, 800-433-8850? Tom, it's restaurant week, as we said. Can you explain what restaurant week is?
SIETSEMARestaurant week is a biannual promotion. They have one in January and they have one August that sort of celebrates local eating and affords people who might not have an opportunity to eat out a lot. Some real bargains. And this year it's lunch, a three course lunch for two thousand -- for $20.12 and dinner for $35, I believe...
SIETSEMA...at over 200 restaurants. And I think it's a great way to get, you know, acquire a new audience for restaurateurs. I'm not sure that every restaurant participating in the event loves this time, but it sure fills seats and that's -- a full dining room is a dining room that's making some money.
NNAMDIAre you suggesting that there are some, maybe, a few restaurants that don't sling their best stuff during restaurant week?
SIETSEMAI think a smart restaurant will sling their best stuff out because they want people to come back. They don't want people like Chris or Missy or I to hear negative feedback from poor experiences. It really is a chance to bring in a new cliental and show off -- if a restaurant does it right, it's a chance to show off what they do best.
NNAMDIAny tips for navigating restaurant week?
SIETSEMAYeah, I think you should be open-minded. Try some things that you haven't tried before. And especially for people aren't on expense accounts, I would go to the most expensive place that you've been most curious about, you know, because these are some real deals, I think.
NNAMDIYeah, now is the time, do it.
SIETSEMARight. A new restaurant that you have yet to try or a place that is ordinarily out of your budget.
NNAMDIGo during restaurant week when you don't have to sell your house in order to pay the bill. We had you on the show about a decade ago, Tom, talking about restaurant reviews. A lot has changed in that time. There's been something of a revolution in restaurant criticism. How would you characterize it?
SIETSEMAI would characterize it as tiring. You know, it's a lot to keep up with. You know, 10 years ago, my job was to put out a restaurant guide every fall and to write a weekly magazine column. And I have something like five or six deadlines a week now and I'm competing with all sorts of people that I wasn't competing with 10 years ago. This is, you know, before the internet became really big. And I welcome the competition.
SIETSEMAI think that's good. I think it's like having a two or three newspaper town or you know, competition makes us -- keep us all on our toes and we have a more informed audience now too, I think. I'm really pleased to see a younger generation of 20 and 30-somethings who really know that -- their foreign cuisines and aren't content to put up with things that are second or third rate. I think that's very exciting.
NNAMDIYou've also made the point that simply following good journalistic principals could distinguish a review from the rest of the pack, so to speak.
SIETSEMAWhether you agree or disagree with what I write in the Washington Post, I think it's important to keep in mind you can go online and see my bio, where I've been, where I'm coming from. You know, hopefully, that I go three or four or five times, however many times I need to go to assess a restaurant before I give it a star rating. You know, I'm lucky to have the budget. Not everyone has that.
SIETSEMAAnd I'm fully aware of that. And the sad fact is, even a lot of big markets now, you'd be surprised at traditional media, the big magazines, the big newspapers that don't have the budget that they had even five or six years ago. It's really frightening. I think, you know, it's a concern, certainly, among restaurant critics, obviously. And it should be a concern for readers too.
SIETSEMAYou know, who is subsidizing these meals?
NNAMDIIndeed. It brings up...
SIETSEMAOr paying for these meals.
NNAMDI...this issue, Chris Shott. What about some of the ethical issues around covering the restaurant business? Some places like your publications have clear guidelines for accepting free food or drink. What's the bottom line?
SHOTTWhat's the bottom line for me?
NNAMDIFor a publication and for you, in terms of ethical practices?
SHOTTWell, I think there's a lot of ethical considerations to reviewing restaurants and so forth. You know, we're not supposed to take free food. It's supposed to be, when we're reviewing a restaurant, we're supposed to be giving our honest opinion and not have some sort of conflict of interest in that regard.
NNAMDIHow about free drinks? We'll get him liquored up, he'll say nice things about us.
SHOTTWell, I think the drinks fall under the same guidelines.
NNAMDIFall into the same category.
NNAMDIMissy, bloggers and some of the online review sites walk the trickiest line in terms of their relationship with the places they cover. What are some of the dangers of accepting payment in the form of meals?
FREDERICKYeah, I think that you have to really do your research on sort of what each blogger and each website, what their own philosophy is toward it. There are definitely websites and blogs out there that run themselves in the same way as maybe I do or Tom does. They don't accept free meals, they just go into a restaurant, they write their honest opinion and that's it.
FREDERICKBut then there are others out there that will directly contact publicists and be like, you know, I really want to review your place, when are you going to have me? You know, buy me dinner. And I think that people really need to be careful to try to, you know, and do their research to find out what perspective they're coming from.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. Before I go to the phones, Tom Sietsema, let's look at the restaurant review for a minute. As we mentioned earlier, things have changed a lot since you got started in this business. How have some of the newer voices, blogs, Yelp, Urban Spoon changed the restaurant review?
SIETSEMAWell, I think there's a more of an urgency to get the news out. I used to be able to wait two or three weeks or months, however long I felt necessary to run a review of an important restaurant. No editor is pushing me to get anything out faster, but I certainly feel a sense of urgency in getting the news out earlier. And one way to remedy that is via a preview.
SIETSEMAI do a column called First Bite that runs in the food section every Wednesday just to acknowledge, to let readers know, like, hey, we're on this. We know this place has opened. It's usually not critical review, although in some cases it is. And I usually go at least once with four people or twice with a couple people so I get a sense of what's playing on the menu and what it looks like and all of that.
NNAMDIWell, you know, Chris Shott, your paper used to be a weekly, but these days with blogging and all of the online work you have to do, how does that affect your restaurant reviews? How regularly do you have file and how regularly do you have to have go to restaurants?
NNAMDIIt's a life.
SHOTTIt's a life, absolutely. Like you said, we used to be solely a weekly publication. Now, we have a daily website. So, yes, there's a thirst for information that is hard to quench so it's a constant job these days. There's certainly not enough hours in the day to cover all the ground we want to do, but we get out there as much as we can.
NNAMDIYou know, many people still want a review they can trust. So while they may check out the blogs and Yelp or Urban Spoon, you, Tom, find that the traditional review is still important.
SIETSEMAI do. You know, hopefully people know that I go two or three times or, you know, big newspaper critics...
NNAMDIOh, we're going to get to that, yeah.
SIETSEMA...go multiple times. The problem is, I don't necessarily not like Yelp, but you have to be very careful sifting through -- there's some people who really know what they're talking about. There are other people who don't know what they're talking about. And I base that on grammar and everything else. So you -- there's a lot of sifting involved when you go to a resource like Yelp or some of the other food sites.
SIETSEMAAnd but one thing I think is -- there are a whole slew of really good food writers out there who may not have been heard in the past who are now being heard. And I think that's terrific. I think that's terrific for my industry.
NNAMDIMissy Frederick with Twitter, Yelp, you'll see a more direct connection between customers and restaurants.
FREDERICKI do. A lot of the time, you know, if you went to a restaurant and you had, you know, a mediocre meal or there was some sort of problem with the service, you probably had to either, at that moment, go ask to speak with a manager or you had to, you know, write a letter to the person and say this was a bad experience that I had. Now, a lot of people will just either Tweet out themselves or they can directly Tweet at a restaurant. And I think that's exciting is the fact that the restaurants are actually following this and responding to them.
FREDERICKI see lots of restaurateurs that are very engaged that they will directly reply to every single message they get, you know, positive or negative. And I think that's really impressive.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Matt in Washington, D.C. Matt, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MATTThank you. I just -- this is not about reviews, per se, but earlier you had mentioned restaurant week. And there was some...
NNAMDIYes, it's about that, too.
MATT...yeah, and you're encouraging people to go to the expensive restaurants. I just wanted to make a comment to make sure that when people go to really tip on the value of the meal and not on the prefixed cost of restaurant week. I think a lot of servers dread restaurant week for the very reason that it's same amount of work, if not more, for less tips because people are tipping on 15 percent of the prefixed costs. So just wanted to make that comment to protect all of our servers in the area for restaurant week.
NNAMDIAre you yourself a server, Matt?
MATTNo, not anymore. I graduated out. I'm into real sales, but I have been for many years in the past.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you for making that point on behalf of servers. We move onto Renee in Baltimore, Md. Renee, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RENEEHi, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. I just have a quick question. I can take my answer off the air obviously. I'm from New York City and I'm down here in Baltimore. I've been living here since '92 and I have yet to find a really good Chinese restaurant. And I was wondering if there's any in D.C.
NNAMDIThe answer is yes, but as to where you will find that restaurant -- because I know that New York's Chinatown is changing and so is D.C.'s, to a large extent. So I'd like to go around the table on that. I'll start with you, Tom.
SIETSEMAWell, cheap places that I like to go to these days are Michael's Noodles in Rockville and A and J, which is a dim sum restaurant, Chinese small plates that has branches in both Rockville and Annandale. They don't use the cards. It's cash only, but it's a lot of fun and I love those long fried pork pot stickers.
NNAMDIHow about you, Chris?
SHOTTWell, you know, The Source in downtown or in Penn Quarter is a great -- you might not think of it from the name...
SHOTTYeah, exactly. But they do some great Chinese food. It's a little upscale, but worth it.
NNAMDIAnd you, Missy.
FREDERICKI'm a big fan of Hong Kong Palace, its location in Falls Church, Va., which is where I live. And they do a really great job of having very authentic Chinese cuisine. It's not as fancy as The Source, but if you're looking for some very spicy, very delicious food it's a good choice.
NNAMDIGot it, Renee?
RENEEI got it. Thank you very much.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll take your calls at 800-433-8850. Are you generally the first to try a new restaurant opened by a celebrity chef? Why or why not? 800-433-8850. Send us a Tweet at kojoshow or email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with reviewers about restaurants in Washington. Tom Sietsema is the Washington Post food critic and author of "The Washington Post Dining Guide." Missy Frederick is a hospitality reporter with the Washington Business Journal. She also writes the Top Shelf column for the Washington Business Journal. And Chris Shott is the food editor and the Young and Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. Here is Pablo in Washington, D.C. Pablo, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PABLOThank you very much, Kojo. I just wanted to point out, as a person who's been working in the bar and restaurant industry for about 12 years, that with all this transparency that there needs to be like -- it needs to be pointed out that there needs to be a lot of social responsibility that comes with this. I don't know if you guys understand what I'm referring to.
NNAMDIOh, I think we know exactly what you're talking about. Chris, you've gotten some chefs upset and some...
SHOTTMaybe a few, maybe a few.
NNAMDI...have written comments on you. Is that just a part of the business?
SHOTTAbsolutely, I think so. I mean, as critics we kind of dish -- we do dish criticism so we -- if we dish it, we should be able to take it. Absolutely.
NNAMDIBut, Tom, writing for the established paper in this town your reviews carry a lot of influence. Do you hesitate to pan a restaurant? 'Cause Pablo seems to be suggesting that a review can make or break a restaurant and that you have some form of social responsibility here.
SIETSEMARight. I mean, my responsibility is the readers and their money. My responsibility is not -- I'm not hired to be a cheerleader for the restaurant industry. But I love -- there's nothing that I love more than to write a rave about a smaller mom and pop that could use a little business, or is doing a great job. I love that. It's no fun writing a bad review. But by not writing bad reviews, I mean, I think it's just as important to steer people away from certain places as it is to point them in a more delicious direction.
SIETSEMABut I do take that into consideration. I mean, I realize these are -- this is a big industry and a lot of jobs are involved. But it's no fun writing a bad review.
NNAMDIMissy, how do you feel about this?
FREDERICKWell, I consider myself like Tom. He sees his responsibility to his readers. I see my responsibility is to business readers. That means I might have to come with an article with a different respective. I have to ask the questions that business people care about. I have to ask about investors. I have to ask about sort of, you know, how they hope to succeed, that sort of thing. But I don't -- I also don't think that means I have to be a cheerleader for the industry. I just have to understand the industry and put it in context.
NNAMDIWell, we've got to talk a little bit both -- with all of you, frankly, about one of the approaches you take, I suspect, because of that social responsibility. Tom, you don't necessarily, unless you're doing First Bites, write a review of a restaurant that you've only visited once. Why?
SIETSEMAIt's a little bit like leaving a show at halftime or, you know, a game at halftime, I think. What happens afterwards? Restaurants are, you know, living creatures. They're -- it's like covering a live show and every night's a little different. And by going two or three or four times, I get a chance to try dishes again. I get a chance to sit in different parts of the restaurant. Lunch is oftentimes very different from dinner. And I get different servers, different managers. And, you know, at the end of that, I feel comfortable sitting down and sort of grading a restaurant because I've eaten my way through most of the menu.
NNAMDIAnd, Chris, traditionally restaurant critics often rated a month at least before reviewing a restaurant they visit several times, as Tom was just explaining. Has that changed at all?
SHOTTI think it has, absolutely. You know, if you go on food blogs these days sometimes you'll have pictures of the interior, you'll have the menus up before the place even opens. So already the dialogue is going out there. And in a way if you wait, you know, three months to, you know, say what you're going to say about a place a lot of the people in this town, especially now given how much -- you know, how foodie obsessed it's been, you know, you may have missed the boat. Everybody has already been.
NNAMDIAnd has been written about at some length. Tom, you were gonna...
SIETSEMABut it can also be a very different restaurant. Day one is so different from day 30 in the life of a restaurant. You may have lost the chef by then. I mean, it's happened several times recently. So I think there is, you know, a little patience is required sometimes.
NNAMDIPablo, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Sally in Northwest Washington. Sally, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SALLYHi. I was calling to ask about an experience we had a few years ago. My husband and I were being taken out to dinner by a friend who is a foreigner, but was actually a high level official in European Central Bank and was here for the IMS meetings. And we went to a very fashionable Georgetown restaurant, the name of which I won't mention, and had dinner. And then when a friend put it on his credit card, the waiter came back and said, was the service okay. And we said, well, yes, of course. And he said -- and we said, why did you ask? And he said, well, because of the amount of the tip.
SALLYAnd my husband felt like he was trying to shake us down for more. I think what had happened was our friend wasn't used -- was tipping at European levels rather than American levels. And I pleaded, I said, since our daughter worked in -- was working in a restaurant and I had begun to understand some of the complexities of how tips work, I said, you know, go ahead and pay it.
SALLYBut I felt like I should've gone to the manager and said, look, I think that this happened. I think it was a misunderstanding, but I think that maybe you should -- if you're serving a lot of Europeans, you should put something on somewhere, tell people what are typical tips. Because this was the kind of restaurant where even a very sophisticated European like our friend who had been in the states a lot, but probably was taken to dinner himself, didn't realize. And he was embarrassed and we were embarrassed. And my question was how to handle this kind of thing.
SALLYI do think -- do think most people misunderstand how much a wait staff (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDI...tipping is cultural. It depends on what part of the world you're in. I'd like to go around the table and talk for your advice about how people should handle this.
FREDERICKYes, I've definitely heard of that story before where people say because, you know, the Europeans don't tip in the same way, that they don't. So, I mean, the easiest way is, you know, kind of -- I mean, you could always take responsibility yourself. The woman could, you know, go back and, you know, leave an additional tip if you find that you think you might be in a scenario where that might happen. But I'm also not convinced that it's appropriate for a restaurateur or waiter to directly confront somebody in that fashion. I'm sure it happens, but I'm not sure that that's necessarily the best way to go.
NNAMDIWhat do you say, Chris?
SHOTTI think that kind of sucks, frankly, the way they approached that. You know, a lot of receipts these days, especially in restaurants where they're -- they tend to attract a international clientele will have, you know, percentages down on the tip as sort of a handy guide. And they'll say gratuity, you know, not included and so forth. So, you know, it's -- I don't know, it's kind of incumbent on the restaurant, maybe if they attract that clientele, to sort of help clarify those issues. Washington's an international town and I think people are aware of, you know, the differences culturally.
SHOTTBut, you know, maybe it was smart of the manager to see if there was an issue, but, you know, the shakedown factor is a little -- it's not very gracious.
NNAMDIWell, there are two aspects of that that I'd like you to address for me, Tom Sietsema. On the one hand, in general terms, aren't tips technically supposed to be optional for good service? Okay. We understand that that's not entirely true. On the other hand, are there variations in tips depending on what part of the country you're in, what part of the city you might happen to be in and the like?
SIETSEMAWell, where I come from in the Midwest, Minnesota in particular, specifically, people tend to tip about 15 percent. That's just the way it is. I think people tend to be more generous in diners. They will tip, you know, 30, 40 percent of a pancake breakfast perhaps. And, you know, in restaurants that are, you know, better restaurants, I think the norm these days -- well, the norm these days is 20 percent -- 18 to 20 percent. And with -- for superlative service, possibly as high as 25 percent. But that would be saved for the very top, top places, I think.
NNAMDIWhat do you say to people who say, look, the service was lousy. Why should I have tipped at all?
SIETSEMAYeah, I don't think you should over tip if you -- you know, a 10 percent tip for poor service...
NNAMDI...sends a message.
SIETSEMASends a message. Absolutely. And I know some people might write a little note behind it just so they know that the reason for the 10 percent tip is not because they don't know better, but because they're saying something about the quality of the service.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Sally. Here's Dan in Prince William County, Va. Dan, your turn.
DANHey, guys, thanks for taking the call. I dine in Prince William County as a rule and my wife and I are constantly bemoaning the vacuous nature of quality service down here as (word?) . One thing that we do like, just north of us is the Great American Restaurant chain. And they seem to be inherent with quality. Atmosphere may not be there, but the quality of service and the quality of food is a constant from our experience. I wanted to see what your thoughts were with Prince William County and the Great American Chain.
FREDERICKYeah, I think that the Great American group of restaurants have really done a great job in kind of establishing consistency. And I think that people tend to undervalue consistency. I mean, even if a place has a really great and a very exciting meal, if you don't get the same service next time, that can really be a turnoff for diners. And the Great Americans may not have the most exciting and the most variety of a menu, but its consistently good food and something that you can bring someone who's not as adventurous to go to. And I think that there's a lot to be said for that.
NNAMDIHey, thank you very much for your call, Dan. On to Bill in Arlington, Va. Bill, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BILLHi, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. I love your show. I listen to it all the time.
BILLI've got a question for Tom. I'm retired and we moved out to Hugh, Va., way out in western Fauquier County. And you evaluated a tiny little place in Sperryville called the Indigo Café, which we've gone back to a couple times and had a delightful meal there. How do you find those jewels and (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDIWere you lost?
SIETSEMAYou know, a lot of times whenever I'm far, far away from home, I make it a point to drive around the block or a few blocks of wherever I happen to be. That's one way I find restaurants in distant, distant places. But I also hear a lot from readers. Readers are a great source of tips for me and I frequently check them out. So I think Indigo was actually a reader tip, if I'm not mistaken.
NNAMDIWell, Bill, you...
NNAMDI...you certainly benefitted from that review, did you not?
BILLOh, absolutely. Even my wife -- we had this dish that was broccoli -- you know, not broccoli, but what do you call those little cabbages that you eat -- Brussels sprouts. And she did these Brussels sprouts so excellent -- you know, and the way he prepared them, we took the recipe home and it converted my wife to liking Brussels sprouts.
NNAMDISo, Bill, do you now consider yourself a regular at Café Indigo?
BILLAbsolutely, yeah. I mean, it's a delightful little place and we (unintelligible) ...
BILLYou know, it's hard to find good places to eat way out in Sperryville or unless you go to The Inn at Little Washington, you know, where do you go eat?
NNAMDII'll tell you why I brought that up, Bill. Because seated around me here at the table are three people who virtually can never be regulars anyplace. Isn't that one of the problems, Tom Sietsema?
SIETSEMAI devoted my dining guide to that very subject this year. Yeah, you can't -- you're always on to the new, the next great find -- hopefully great find.
NNAMDIIn your case, Chris, you can't be a regular anyplace because they'll be looking for reviews.
SHOTTWell, I think that's true too. But, you know, there are a few places you might be able -- if they're close to home, you might be able to hit them a few more times.
NNAMDIThen you've got to say, I will never write about you, okay, so stop bothering me. How do you find that, Missy?
FREDERICKWell, because I’m a reporter, I'm not a critic, I'm a little bit -- I have a little bit more freedom in terms of it's okay if someone recognizes me and that sort of thing. But every once in a while, it can be a little bit awkward if someone knows you're in the industry and, you know, they're being a little bit too attentive and that sort of thing. That always makes me feel a little uncomfortable.
NNAMDIBill, thank you very much for your call. Speaking of being recognized, we got this email from Todd in Falls Church. "I would think that most restaurants know what Tom looks like. I would think that he is treated much better than most of us." Tell our listeners how you deal with it.
NNAMDIAnd it ain't easy.
SIETSEMA...I've been doing this job for 12 years and to say that no one recognizes me when I go in a restaurant would just not be true. There are ways around that. I never, ever make a reservation in my own name. I -- sometimes where I know that I'm recognized, I will have friends go in ahead of me and I'll show up ten minutes later after they've ordered appetizers. I also have some friends who have set me up with some pretty cool disguises that I've managed to wear in all the top restaurants over the years. But...
NNAMDIWell, tell us about the credit cards.
SIETSEMAAh, the credit cards. Ah, the credit cards. I gotta mix those up though. Too many people know who these different people are. I have about nine different credit cards under different names and I will bring them with me to a restaurant and -- but I have to remember who I was at the last visit, you know, and I'm always working on 15 or 20 different restaurants. It's...
NNAMDII guess the credit cards ...
SIETSEMAYou have to be organized.
NNAMDI...companies mind once you pay the bill.
SIETSEMARight. As long as you're paying the bill, it's not a problem.
NNAMDIHow do you deal with, Chris, although you have not been at it as long as Tom has, obviously the recognizability factor is one you have to be concerned about.
SHOTTYeah. When I was hired first for this job, I did spend almost an entire day deleting photos of myself of Facebook.
SHOTTYou know, there is a prominent food website nationally that has a photo of me from the James Beard Awards a couple years back, but thankfully they misspelled my name in the caption, so it's not so searchable.
NNAMDIIt's a little more difficult for you, isn't it, Missy, because as a business reporter, you have to go places in your official capacity and be recognized.
FREDERICKWell, I think that sort of the trade off is that people are not then looking for me to provide, necessarily, opinions on food. Now, they are trusting me to have accurate reporting, and they're trusting me to, you know, sort of know about the industry and developments and where the new restaurants are, but because I'm giving them a different service, it's okay if restaurateurs know who I am. It's actually sort of encouraged, because I want them to come to me with new stories and with developments and everything like that.
NNAMDIGot to take short break. When we come back, if you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your call, but the lines seem busy, so if you'd like to get in touch with us, go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question or make a comment there, send us a tweet @kojoshow, or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Do you trust other diners to review restaurants? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on restaurants in Washington. We're talking with restaurant reviewers, and whether or not there's too much restaurant hype in Washington. Chris Shott is the food editor and the Young and Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. Missy Frederick is a hospitality reporter with the Washington Business Journal. Not technically a reviewer, she also writes the Top Shelf column for Washington Business Journal.
NNAMDIAnd Tom Sietsema is the Washington Post food critic. He's also the author of the Washington Post Dining Guide. Back directly to the telephones, here is Marty in Takoma Park, Md. Marty, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARTYHi Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. And hi to all the panelists there. I'm actually calling to give one of those reader's tips to Tom that he was talking about a little while ago.
SIETSEMAHey, Chris is here, too. Not too loudly.
NNAMDIDon't say it too loudly, whisper it. We don't want Chris to hear.
SIETSEMAChris is here, too.
MARTYOh, okay. My fiancée is fan of pho, and we're constantly driving around the D.C. area and she'll get a craving for pho, and we'll stop in at different pho places. We've gone back to that, is it Three Sister or Five Sisters? It's a Vietnamese place up in...
NNAMDIFour Sisters, been there.
MARTYOkay. I knew it was some number of sisters there. That's a good -- and I first heard about that from you. We found this little place in Centerville called Pho Aura, and my fiancée has a house down there, so we find ourselves down in that area a lot. And this place is relatively new, and it's a little notch above your average pho, and I just thought I'd tip you off to it. I know last time we were in there, I told her, I gotta tell Tom Sietsema about the place, and now here you are on the radio, and I get the opportunity to do it.
MARTYNot only do they have a good pho, but a really nice presentation of lots of other traditional food from Vietnam. They also have added recently an excellent selection of Belgian ales and beers.
SIETSEMAIt's a hybrid restaurant. Who knew?
NNAMDIIt sounds like it. But thank you very much for mentioning Pho Aura, is that correct, in Centerville?
MARTYYes. Pho Aura in Centerville.
SIETSEMAVietnamese beef noodle soup, delicious.
NNAMDIReally. We've taken note of it and obviously, Tom Sietsema already knows about it. So thank you very much for your call. We move onto Michelle in Sterling, Va. Michelle, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MICHELLEHello, Kojo. I was just turned on your show, and I was looking for Tom to email him my experiences -- two experiences over the holiday, and I see that he's on your show, so I thought I'd call directly.
MICHELLEOne was at the Mt. Vernon Inn, which was a disastrous experience, and the other was at Lightfoot in Leesburg, which was wonderful. My friend is blind, and he called ahead to both of the restaurants to explain the situation and that he wanted to be presented with the bill, and to be asked himself what he would prefer for dinner, not me, and Lightfoot did it beautifully. Mt. Vernon did not, and our waitress was just very loud and very rude, and I'm just wondering what's happening at Mt. Vernon Inn. I've never been there before, and he was so excited to take me.
NNAMDIAnd you said he called ahead and made specific requests that were ignored?
MICHELLEYes. Yes, he did. And she held out the bill -- the check for him, and for one minute held it out, but he can't see. So, he can't see to grab it. She was quiet, and at Lightfoot they tap his arm and gave it to his hand. It was just a disastrous experience.
NNAMDIThe issue of service, Tom Sietsema, and I'd like you to weigh in on this also, Chris.
SIETSEMAYeah. Well, that's really unfortunate, because I always tell people with special needs, whatever they might be, to call ahead, explain the situation to a manager and let them know, and sometimes call twice, you know, just in case you got the wrong person. Always speak with a supervisor. In this case, it sounds like it was ignored or forgotten in the shuffle there. You might have been a little proactive too to say, you know, my friend, you know, give me the check, or you could have gone up to the host stand earlier and said, hey, we have a situation here, or could you make sure that my friend gets the tab, he is blind, if you could just let the server know that, you know. So I think it's -- everyone's duty-bound here to be a little proactive in a situation like this, but I do sympathize.
NNAMDIMichelle, thank you for you call. What do you say, Chris? Same situation.
SHOTTI think that's all good advice. I mean, I've worked in the restaurant industry in the past, and, you know, when she was just bringing up this story, I kind of flashbacked to what -- I'm like what would I do in that situation, and I certainly had never been confronted with that, you know, sort of situation before. And, you know, maybe this restaurant was trying to handle it properly and just botched it. It's quite possible. I don't think that they necessarily train you to handle blind diners right off the bat. So but I think Tom's advice was good.
NNAMDIMichelle, thank you very much for your call. We got an email from Larry, Missy. Larry writes, "What do the guests think about all the new restaurant activity happening on the 14th Street corridor? Small eclectic restaurants openings are being replaced by larger format one. Large seating and more bar restaurant concept. Do you think 14th Street is becoming restaurant row, or just another Adams Morgan?"
FREDERICKThat's a very interesting question, and I think it's something that the people who live in that neighborhood, you know, struggle with a lot because, you know, of noise and nightlife and that sort of thing. But I think that 14th Street is really one of the most exciting places to be living right now and, you know, you're seeing all of these developments and these independent restaurateurs. It's not like there's a bunch of, you know, chain restaurants coming in and homogenizing the place.
FREDERICKYou're seeing some of the most existing new concepts, you know, opening there. So while it might be something to be complaining about from a noise perspective, I think from a dining perspective, you know, it's a very vibrant area.
NNAMDILooking good. What do you think, Tom?
SIETSEMAI love -- whatever happens in Logan's Circle benefits me directly because I live there. So and I would...
NNAMDIWell, then you're banned from talking about it.
SIETSEMAI'm banned? Okay.
NNAMDIWell, go ahead.
SIETSEMABut Bar Pilar is really good, Cork is really one of the pioneers over there, Cork Wine Bar, and Birch & Barley from the Neighborhood Restaurant Group is a terrific restaurant that really showcases beer and, you know, sort of upscale pub grub. It's a terrific restaurant, all three of them.
NNAMDIMichael in Leesburg, Va. You're on the air, Michael. Go ahead, please.
MICHAELHello, Kojo. I recently made a pilgrimage over to (unintelligible) Promenade during the lunch hour and noted the proliferation of lunch trucks there. I was wondering if the panel would like to comment on the national and local trends regarding lunch trucks.
NNAMDIYeah. We've done shows here on street food and food trucks, and the increasing number in Washington. First you, Missy.
FREDERICKI think it's a very development in terms of variety, in terms of options for diners. I think what we're really gonna see in 2012 is how many of the people that have gone into this business can do it from a sustainable perspective. It doesn't cost a lot of money to launch a food truck, so a lot of people try it. So -- but they have to actually make money, so I think it's gonna be interesting to see how many close, how many stay open, and how many expand.
NNAMDIWhat do you think, food trucks?
SHOTTWell, there's definitely been an explosion, and right now we're seeing sort of this conflict between the, you know, traditional industry and this upstart industry with the food trucks, and I know everybody's sort of twiddling their thumbs waiting for the city to come out with some new rules governing, you know, how these businesses are regulated. I would agree with Missy, you know, the diversity is kind of amazing, and it's exciting to see it, and it's great if you've got a bunch of trucks outside your door.
SHOTTFrankly, I wish some of them would set up near City Paper offices during the lunch hour. So, you know, I think it'll be interesting to see how that whole conflict plays out.
NNAMDIBut City Paper's offices are right off Columbia Road on a fairly narrow street that has parking on both sides.
SHOTTIt doesn't have to be right on Champlain, Kojo.
NNAMDIIt could be in the neighborhood generally.
NNAMDIBut the business, of course, the conflicts between the food trucks and the trucks on the brick and mortar businesses are one thing. One the other hand, Tom Sietsema, how does that improve our eating choices if you will.
SIETSEMAWell, people like to eat on the run. They like to eat fast, and I think food trucks fit into this beautifully, and if I had one truck I would go to on a regular basis, it would be the lobster truck.
NNAMDII knew it.
SIETSEMAGreat lobster rolls, great -- even better shrimp rolls. I love that truck. I think, you know, it really varies, like a lot of restaurants. I mean, some of it is really good, some of it's just okay. Some of it is to me novelty, and I wonder if it's gonna go the way of the cupcake boom, you know.
NNAMDIYeah. Jim, which way is the cupcake boom going in your view?
SIETSEMAYou know, how many cupcakes can we eat?
SIETSEMAI'm sort of over that.
FREDERICKWe said that three years ago.
NNAMDIHere is Jim in Washington, D.C. Jim, you're on the air, go ahead, please. Hi Jim, are you there? I'll put Jim on hold, and we will go to Gwen in Beltsville, Md. Gwen, your turn.
GWENYes. Hello Kojo. This may be a less pleasant subject, but actually the way a restaurant smells makes a difference. As I recently went to a sort of small market deli, and as soon as I walked in the door, after noticing the sign saying fresh picked crab, one whiff of the place, and I turned around and left. And another time I went into a restroom at a restaurant I used to like in Georgetown, and apparently the toilet had overflowed, and once again, the smell just made me decide not to go there anymore. So maybe they can get people who have been outside in fresh air to come in and tell them that there's a problem.
NNAMDIWell, you know, it's interesting that you brought that up because Tom Sietsema, a lot of people will want to know what you include in your ratings for restaurants. We got an email from Lee in Arlington who said, "Could you ask Tom whether his food ratings, the number of stars he gives, is totally independent of the price of the food," or I would add anything else?
SIETSEMAI certainly take value into consideration when I'm rating a restaurant. For me, food is sort of half of the experience, and then the other part of the star rating involves service and the atmosphere, the way a place looks, feels, and smells.
NNAMDIAnd that's a huge business decision, is it not?
FREDERICKNo. I think it's definitely true, and I think that this caller shows that restaurateurs really can't leave any angle unturned. Todd didn't mention this, but I know that in his reviews he talks about how loud the place is, and so when a restaurateur is designing the restaurant, they have to think about acoustics and what materials they're using to do that. So really, there's just so many details that they have to pay attention to from a business perspective.
NNAMDIBut a lot of times when people are going for what the Washingtonian might call cheap eats, Chris Shott, the décor is not as important as the tastiness of the offering.
SHOTTWell, absolutely. I think, you know, that's what the bottom line is, everybody wants food that tastes good.
SHOTTI think that's, you know, the décor is nice, and that certainly lends itself to the experience, the overall dining experience...
NNAMDIBut it doesn't matter whether the food truck...
SHOTTAt the end of the day it's gotta be good.
SHOTT...is on Champlain Street or on Columbia Road. If it's good, you want it.
SHOTTThat's absolutely true.
NNAMDIHere is Newt in Fredericksburg, Va. Newt, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NEWTHey, I was wondering if any of the critics can talk about the overall quality of the food that -- what I'm getting at is I've had food poisoning several times, and I was just -- that when they -- when a restaurant orders a supply of chicken or beef or fish or whatever, (unintelligible) manage, you know, keep it from becoming old and stale, or, you know, spoiling and then serving it to you? I mean, how do they do that, because they gotta make a profit, but they gotta do inventory. So how do they do that?
NNAMDIThe business decision there, Missy Frederick.
FREDERICKWell, I mean...
NNAMDIThrow it out or keep it for another day.
FREDERICKI don't think there are many restaurateurs out there that would intentionally skimp on, you know, like risk food poisoning to save dollars. I also think that diners -- and when it comes to food poisoning, obviously it's a very unfortunate thing if it occurs, but I think people have to be educated about the fact that food poisoning, it's not always clear where you got it from. Some types of food poisoning might hit you in like eight hours. Sometimes it might hit you in 48 hours, and I think a lot of people assume that the last meal that they had, that restaurant must have done some terrible, and it's not always quite that simple.
NNAMDIThank you very much for you call. And we're running out of time, Tom, but in your fall dining guide, you point out something that is really interesting about the reason people go back to a place. It's not about divine desserts or locally-sourced ingredients, it's welcoming service that people value most.
SIETSEMAI hear that over and over again. People are very forgiving of food that is not great if they feel welcomed and taken care of, if a place smells nice. You know, ten years ago, it was more all about the food.
SIETSEMAAnd if my reviews have changed at all, it's more about how people feel in a restaurant, what goes on in a restaurant, what the restaurant does for them, how it looks.
NNAMDIPlacing an emphasis on service. Tom Sietsema is the Washington Post food critic. He also is the author of the Washington Post dining guide. Tom, thank you very much for joining us.
NNAMDIChris Shott is the food editor and the Young and Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. Chris Shott, how long have you been doing this now?
SHOTTSince last April.
NNAMDILast April, it will be a year soon. Good luck to you.
SHOTTSoon. Thank you.
NNAMDIAnd Missy Frederick is a hospitality reporter with the Washington Business Journal where she also writes the Top Shelf column. Missy Frederick, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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