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An open letter to Tom Sietsema

I know it pains you to have to pull yourself away from the $200 tasting table and rub elbows with the paying hoi polloi, but doesn't an entire article on restaurant noise seem just a bit self-indulgent even to the most jaded critic? Perhaps you think you should use your bully pulpit to make restauranteurs spend more money to make your arduous labors less stressful, but I'd be much more interested in an article deploring the escalating cost of meals or the generally haughty service in their establishments. I can only conclude that, unlike the noise of the rabble, these are not problems you share with us peasants.
Also, congratulations on convincing your employers to finance field trips to other cities. We Washingtonians have a tremendous unrequited curiosity about Minneapolis eateries. We're glad you don't waste our time writing about Baltimore or Silver Spring or Frederick. Though it's a little unclear to me why anyone should read a DC critic for information about Minnesota - or Italy for that matter. Do you suppose an outsider is more qualified than the local critics to judge the food in other cities based on a visit or two ? Especially when that outsider's judgments on his home turf are, shall we say, rather idiosyncratic?

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  1. Tom does care about the local food for us masses...at his buddies' places, like Johnny's Half Shell, which has about half the quality at thrice the price of the lamest Kent Narrows bar. DC food in his view is about theater. Any reports on those weird, other-worldly places in the back halls of Eden Center? Good eating. Bet this thread gets yanked by the chowcops.

    1. I really disagree with your "letter" to Tom Sietsema. A few things I would like to address. First of all his "field trips" to other cities are more or less financed by Tom himself. He has addreessed this issue a number of times in his Weds chats. In terms of Minneapolis, I'm pretty sure that's where he's from (although I'm not positive), and therefore when he goes home to visit the family he probably decideds to write an article on it. Plus, if you think about it, it's not a complete loss in a city like DC considering the Republican Convention will be held there this summer. When 1/2 the city empties out to attend the Convention I'm sure they will want a refuge from the chicken plate dinners and Tom's postcards will come in handy.

      In terms of Tom not catering to us "peasants", I think he does a pretty good job of mixing it up. If the hottest restaurant in town happens to be on the more expensive side he still needs to report on it. Plus he always does a cheap eats articles and in his chats he proves his knowledge is quite extensive.

      And finally, I thought his article on noise level was great and timely. He is making a major change to his "rating system" and this article served as an explanation and background of why he will be using a decible rating. Clearlly he didn't just pull this out of thin air. This subject comes up quite often on his Weds chats (when he probably has the most opportunity to get in touch with his reading public). He has mentioned on those chats that he plans on writing other articles like this (even mentioned rising costs due to the recession, but he probably doesn't have enough evidence and research yet since it just became apparent that this is a real problem).

      I think Tom is a wonderful food critic. He has a vast array of knowledge and still manages to keep the fun in eating out. He doesn't take himself too seriously which is quite important. He has learned from the greats in his field and remains forward thinking and balanced.

      I know he has his critics (clearly you!) but I am certainly not one of him. His restaurant reviews are still the 1st thing I pick up Sat morning.

      1. He pays for those trips himself.

        And last time I looked, his out of town postcards did not get in the way of (or substitute for) his regular reviews. They are just an additional resource for those who travel and want his advice.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Tugboat

          I thought the noise article was great and much needed. If I'm going to pay a lot of money for a meal, I don't want to come out of the restaurant hoarse and exhausted from yelling all evening. I think some of the "noise" issues could be resolved using common courtesy, though. My parents never let us scream and run around any restaurant EVER. Why is it that 2Amys patrons think that this is acceptable?

        2. Don't see the point in "deploring the escalating costs of meals." What exactly are restaurants supposed to do about it? Fuel costs are up, supply costs are up, labor is up, taxes are up, demand remains steady. This affects meal costs across the board, from high-end dining to Chinese takeout.

          I usually don't mind noisy restaurants, but it seems to be getting out of hand lately. Cavernous interiors with open space and no sound dampening makes for noisy echo chambers. Not much fun screaming yourself hoarse while trying to enjoy your meal, but whatever floats your dinghy.

          3 Replies
          1. re: monkeyrotica

            It will be interesting to see how (if anything) the sound rating affects the restaurants. I don't know if it will or will not affect business. For me personally it will affect more when and who I go to the restaurant vs if I go at all. For example, when I went to Proof or Zaytinya for the first time it was pretty noisy. So I wouldn't choose to go there if a friend wanted to discuss her work problems or if my boyfriend's Mom was in town, who prefers less of a scene. But the noise might not bother me as much for a girls night out for drinks and dinner etc.

            I think the rating, and Tom's inclusion of it, will be very helpful though.

            1. re: Elyssa

              Everyone's noise standard is different. Some folks want a noisy place because they think it's all hip and vibrant-like. Some want to eat in a library. Depends on your mood, I guess.

              1. re: Elyssa

                The San Francisco Chronicle started including noise ratings in its reviews several years ago because so many people were complaining about restaurants where they couldn't hear themselves think. The effect on restaurants? Nil -- everyone wants that sleek, urban look with lots of hard surfaces that magnify the noise and they all want to be what monkeyrotica terms "hip and vibrant-like."

                At least, though, I can tell by looking at the rating whether the noise level will be to my taste or suitable for a particular occasion.

            2. I'm confused.

              Are you upset that Tom Sietsema is not eating at cheaper places? Are you dissapointed that he's not writing about issues that you think are important, such as the escalating cost of, well, everything? Are you upset that he doesn't write about things/places that you like?

              Bc if that's it... then maybe you should try not reading his column/articles, and instead: look for publications that cater more closely to your geographical location, food interest, and economic concerns.

              Am I the only one who thinks this is alot like FN's hosts bashing?!

              2 Replies
                1. re: AnneBird

                  Definitely a case of your mileage may vary. I thought the article was fascinating. I had assumed my dislike of noisy restaurants was simply a generational thing. However, Sietsma's article includes many anecdotes about people considerably younger than I am who detest noisy restaurants, and the work-around strategies they've created.

                  Put me solidly in the camp of someone who wants to know noise information and who found this article interesting.

                2. Wow. That was kind of bitchy.

                  I used to live in DC and though I didn't always agree with Tom's ratings on Asian restaurants, I still enjoyed reading his reviews.

                  I'm also from the "peasant" class, but I do enough traveling to enjoy reading reviews about restaurants in other cities, especially from a familiar voice. Just because Tom lives in DC doesn't mean he can't form opinions about food from other areas. Most people pass judgment on food no matter where they are -- I'm sure you do the same.

                  Food at restaurants is made for everyone -- not just locals! If American movie reviewers can judge foreign films, I don't see why food critics can't share the food they try with their readers as long as the readers are aware that it's only one man's opinion.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: chubbybunny

                    The Times seems to cover cuisine all over the globe (with the assistance of freelancers). Perhaps this is symptomatic of the lack of concentration that got their butts whooped by the more focused Post in the recent Pultizers. So now the Post wants to cover food outside the home turf too.

                    I too didn't agree with Sietsma's reviews for ethnic foods and stopped trusting the Post's dining judgment all together years ago. Why acknowledge them at all? Read and follow your local Chowhounders.

                    1. re: Minger

                      "So now the Post wants to cover food outside the home turf too."

                      This totally overstates the situation. Occasionally, very occasionally, Sietsema writes a column called "Postcards" that mentions restaurants in an out-of-town location. The entire article is about six column inches long and includes a brief overview of the destination and a list of, perhaps, four restaurants. Each entry in the list includes factual data about the restaurant and a one-sentence comment. This is hardly worth getting worked up about. Sietsema neither goes to interesting enough places nor often enough to get worked up about the "Postcard" columns.

                      Furthermore, I like reading Sietsma's limited reviews of restaurants outisde the DC metro area. After all, I've got Sietsema's point of view calibrated. I know how to use his opinion of all unknown restaurants based on how experience seeing how my views match up against his views in the DC-area restaurants we both patronize.

                      Of course, Minger has it right. I turn first to Chowhound to plan our eating anywhere in the world.

                    2. re: chubbybunny

                      Chubbybunny you made a lot of good points. I imagine I would fall under the "peasant" category as well. I'm not eating at CityZen and Citronelle every night. But it doesn't mean I don't want to read about whats happening at high end places etc. But again, I repeat, I think over the course of a year, Tom reviews an entire range of restaurants.

                      Also I like your point about movie reviewers :).

                    3. Don't understand your beef. Restaurant reviewers, unlike the hoi polloi like me, are supposed to eat at a lot of different places. That's their job.

                      1. I agree that some people think noise means buzz- electricty in the restaurant- and T often find some buzz at the right type of restaurant is very good

                        however, try taking your aging parents out to dinner- nearly impossible and those with hearing aides are miserable and the popluation is getting older

                        1. Sorry to pile on, but I agree with all others who have taken issue with your various gripes. Our very limited dining out dollars mean that we really want to enjoy ourselves, and to us, that means relaxing, and that, in turn, means relatively quiet. So I am really glad to know that there will be decibel ratings. Plus I thought the article was really interesting.

                          I don't know why you need a discussion about the escalating cost of restaurant meals. Everything is going up - is this news to you? You are paying way more for eggs, milk, cheese, flour, corn - not to mention the costs of electricity and gas needed to cook - do you think that restaurateurs have some special connection that allows them to pay less than you do? So of course prices are going up.

                          Sietsema does comment on service in all its flavors - good, bad, haughty, friendly, overfriendly, sloppy, nasty, careless, wonderful...I'm wondering if you actually read his reviews.

                          And as everyone else has pointed out, the Post does not finance the out-of-town trips and those of us who travel appreciate them. It isn't that he is more qualified than a local critic - it is that he is as qualified as any other critic to assess a restaurant. He isn't trying to tell you about the entire dining scene of that city. He's just trying to tell you about a few places he enjoyed.

                          Sietsema reviews restaurants all over the area. He has the main Sunday column and the Wednesday first bites. That means that he can review at most 104 restaurants per year. I'd guess that there are at least 1,000 restaurants in the DC metropolitan area. I don't think he reviews Baltimore area restaurants - they have their own scene, their own major daily newspaper, and their own professional critic (I still miss John Dorsey - he was in a league of his own) and so adding the several dozen or more Baltimore restaurants probably doesn't make sense when it is already so hard to cover the DC-area restaurants.

                          Sorry you are having such a tough day. I know what that's like.

                          1. Foodcheck, why not ask Tom directly? Tomorrow is Wednesday. Tom does a live hour-long chat each week on Wednesday at the Washington Post website. It starts at 11am Eastern time.

                            You can submit your question anytime before or during the chat and he can answer you himself. The usual caveats about the Washington Post modeerator having the right to select questions from the submissions and Tom choosing which ones to answer are all in force, of course.

                            Lots of folks are hard at work at 11am. In addition to submitting a question right this minute if you like, you can read the transcripts of all the chats at a time that works for you. Give it a shot! Even if your own litany doesn’t get printed, you’ll find that he has addressed your gripes, point by point, more than once:

                            “$200 tasting table” – he reviews all kinds of restaurants at all price points and can name several favorites that are completely accessible to folks without an expense account.

                            “an entire article on restaurant noise seem just a bit self-indulgent” – this topic got attention because the people who email him questions/complaints and participate in the chats have been vociferous about it. What’s self-indulgent about responding to a topic that was raised by the readers?

                            “make your arduous labors less stressful” – again, it is we average eaters who are having a problem with the noise. And we do expect that restaurateurs have more control over their music system’s volume setting and the sound-reflecting surfaces in their own dining room than they do over the price of tomatoes.

                            “not problems you share with us peasants” – see above, see above, see above.

                            “convincing your employers to finance field trips” – previous posters have it right. He finances these himself.

                            “Minneapolis” – previous posters have it right. The Twin Cities are home to Tom’s family and also to three 2008 nominees for the James Beard Award.

                            “Baltimore or Silver Spring or Frederick” – Tom has repeatedly answered this question about Maryland (and Virginia) destinations by asking the complainer for names of places to check out. What have you got out there, and are you sure he hasn’t reviewed it already? Remember, if it’s a small operation and it isn’t good, he’s going to omit it rather than trash it publicly.

                            “an outsider is more qualified” – like this article, the concept of the postcards is in response to local readers asking him about destinations.

                            “rather idiosyncratic” – previous posters have it right. Feel free to read any of the other critics whose taste more closely matches yours.

                            1. Today's food chat with Tom showed overwhelmingly that people (at least diners) appreciated his article and new inclusion of a volume rating: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/...