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A Chat With Tom Sietsema

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Thanks for being here this week, Tom.

I read your column and your chat religiously. 

However,  I am not sure that I really know who you are.

Therefore please answer the following questions.  Answer them correctly and I will never question your recommendations.  Ever. 

What is your favorite book?

What is your favorite movie?

What/who is your favorite band/recording artist?

If you could live anywhere in the world where would you live?

What is your favorite ice cream flavor?

What is your favorite tv show?

What was your favorite class in school?

I love anything by Anne Tyler. The nonfiction book that gave me the most

pleasure in recent years was TRUMAN.

"Wizard of Oz" is up there. It's really not a kid's movie at all. Lots of life information packed therein. Hitchcock's "Rear Window" is another gem. Was Grace Kelly sexy or what? I know I'll think of others.

I'm a jazz fan. I like swing and big band, too, possibly because my dad played bass when he was in the USMC. One of the great joys in my life was meeting Ella Fitzgerald through Natalie Cole, whose brother was a close friend of mine out in California. I'm a secret country western admirer as well.

I'm living exactly where I want to be living. I love Washington. But Barcelona and San Francisco are pretty amazing cities, too.

It depends. Sometimes it's pistachio, other times it's caramel.

I love The Simpsons, Six Feet Under, Sopranos and (don't tell anyone) the

occasional episode of Cops.

History and English.

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There are times I'd love to be eating a simple bowl of pasta and watching the evening news in my boxers.
I love The Simpsons, Six Feet Under, Sopranos and (don't tell anyone) the

occasional episode of Cops.

It shall be noted for the record that Tom has addressed the boxers vs. briefs question, a photo of him scarfing a bowl of popcorn on his couch and watching Cops to be posted later....

Some of my pet peeves include ... being put on endless hold on the phone when I'm making a reservation

[Furthermore, if you're a reservationist and keep someone on hold for too long, beware if you hear someone singing this on the other end of the phone:

Bad boys, bad boys!

Whatcha gonna do?

Whatcha gonna do

when I come for you!

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[Furthermore, if you're a reservationist and keep someone on hold for too long, beware if you hear someone singing this on the other end of the phone:

Bad boys, bad boys!

Whatcha gonna do?

Whatcha gonna do

when I come for you!

Oooh, I imagine putting someone on hold and getting back to them only to hear an automated recording: "You have exceeded Tom Sietsema's personal piss-off time limit. Have a nice day!"

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Thanks for joining us Tom!

There are all sorts of food fads (mini-burgers for one) that make there way onto many menus around town. What fads or trends (good or bad) do you see on the horizon?

Alinea recently opened up in Chicago with much hype from 'foodie' world. What is your take on this type of dining? Do you share the view that this is the future of dining?

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Tom -

First, to echo the peanut gallery, thanks for taking the time with us to answer a few questions from inquiring minds. My question centers on your anonymity. What happens when you're in a social setting and you're chatting with someone who asks your name? Do you withhold your last name? If not, have you ever slipped up and introduced yourself to someone who works in the restaurant industry or a related field thus potentially blowing your cover?

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Question two: Another term for foodie? "Chowhound?" JUST KIDDING. (Those people don't like me, for whatever reason, even though I'm in their camp.)

Hi Tom, thanks for being such a good sport and participating in this forum and on your weekly chats. About some Chowhounds not liking you, I think it may have to do with the fact that almost all of your recommendations during chats and weekly reviews of restaurants are focused on more expensive restaurants.

While I understand your predicament of wanting to only recommend good places which often correlates into higher priced establishments, a few recommendations of cheaper places would be very welcome.

Now I know cheaper is a relative term and DC restaurant eating can be pretty expensive, but in my mind a cheaper restaurant would be one where most entrees were in the $10-19 range. These restaurants exist in DC and lots of them have pretty good, if not great food. These restaurants might not be destinations where foodies flock (the only exception I can think of is the bar at Palena which I know you regularly recommend) but are good neighborhood restaurants that DC residents want to know about so they can eat at them regularly instead of relying on take-out.

So while I will continue to appreciate your reviews of the high-end tables of the DC areas, think more about the price range of restaurants especially in your chats. There have been a number of times where someone asked for a reasonable priced restaurant and they recommended a restaurant in the $25+ entree range.

Thanks for listening to my (and all of our comments) and please let me know if you think my request is unreasonable. I love to hear your take on the lower priced restaurants of DC.

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Tom,

I'm not sure you have another venue for this type of question, so let me see if you nibble the bait here: can you name some well-known, locally-owned restaurants that merit zero stars on your scale?

Drop the bomb and name a few zero-star restaurants, man. Do it. You're a wimp if you don't. We dare ya. C'mon...

Thank you!

Don

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Drop the bomb and name a few zero-star restaurants, man.  Do it.  You're a wimp if you don't.  No balls.  C'mon...

And no TGI Friday's or Applebee's either.

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"Wizard of Oz" is up there. It's really not a kid's movie at all. Lots of life information packed therein.

Sietsema is right on point here. Many people don't know that Wizard of Oz is actually an allegory on the populist movement. Well, I'll quote my old econ professor here, because he said it better than I can.:

The allegorical meanings start right in the title—Oz is the abbreviation for ounces in which both gold and silver are measured.  Dorothy, the farm girl from Kansas who represents the roots of the Populist movement, is caught in a tornado of industrialization.  When her house lands, it crushes the Wicked Witch of the East—the banks whom farmers detested for having to pay back their loans in more expensive dollars (here’s my mortgage payment sister!).  Banks were seen as a major hurdle toward adopting an inflationary silver standard.  In Baum’s tale, Dorothy takes the magic silver slippers off of the dead witch.  MGM, the sell-out studio that released the movie in the splendors of Technicolor ©, made the silver slippers ruby and hence distorted Baum’s most important message.

Dorothy is then advised to "follow the yellow brick road," i.e. get back on the road to the gold standard, which will take her to the magical wizard who, supposedly, can help her get home.  Along the way she makes three allegiances: (1) the scarecrow without a brain—representing the farmers (of course as it turns out the scarecrow is one of the smartest of the bunch, constantly offering sound advice and saving the day),(2) the tin-man looking for a heart—representing heart-less industry, and (3) the cowardly lion—representing William Jennings Bryan who talked the big talk (such as his "cross of gold" speech) but often backed down on important Populist issues.  [Note:  Dorothy also brings along Toto, her little dog, who represents the Populist’s alliance with the "teetotaler party," who were for the prohibition of alcohol.]

The political coalition is on its way to the Emerald City (Washington D.C., of course) but one last hurdle stands in its way, the Wicked Witch of the West.  This Witch represents the monopolistic Railroads, the main technology opening industrial markets to the West.  Knowing the power of the silver slippers, the Witch will do anything to get them away from Dorothy including sending her evil monkeys after her.  The monkeys likely represent the private police force that railroads sometimes used against farmers.

How does Baum’s story end?  The Wicked Witch of the West is liquidated with a bucket of water and our heroes, with the evil banks and railroads out of the picture, are given a victory party.  Here Dorothy learns that the advice to follow the yellow brick road of the Gold standard was futile—the wizard (political powers that be in Washington) couldn’t help her get home as he was nothing but hot air.  As it turns out, Dorothy had the power to end the farmers suffering all along—she needed only tap the silver slippers together, i.e. adopt the inflationary silver standard, to get home. Baum’s book is full of allegorical references to the late 19th century Populist movement.  Only the most important ones have been addressed here. Get to the library and see how many more you can find!  Incidentally, though McKinley won the election of 1896 and the gold standard was fully restored, the discovery of gold fields in South Africa caused US dollars, which were tied to gold, to lose their purchasing power, and hence accomplished the inflationary goal of the Populists anyway.  Of course this fact has never detracted from my enjoyment of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

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Starting early as we're going to Saratoga this weekend.

Tom,

Thanks for joining us.

One issue that has come up around here is the proper role or place of online fora such as this. There are several interlinked issues.

1) Most of us have neither the time nor the money to visit a restaurant several times before pronouncing our judgement. For example, after one lunch at Cafe Spice in Gaithersburg, I panned it here and decided that I was never going back. Too harsh? Should I have withheld judgement? How to overcome the, "it might have just been an off day" problem?

2) As part of the traditional food media, what do you see the role of these types of fora being? Are we the new reviewers? Are we information gatherers for real reviewers? Are we nothing more than self-obsessed "hipster foodies" with an overly developed sense of our own importance?

3) Given that no more than a couple of hundred people in and around DC read any of the online food forums and a half-million read the Post, should chefs even care that we exist? Some participate here, some lurk, some are disdainful in keeping away, some are downright hostile to the very existence of places like DonRockwell.com.

Thanks again for joining us.

1) I've been doing this for so long, I can almost (almost) predict how many stars a place is going to get based on one visit, a visit where I can sample at least four or more dishes. BUT, I've been surprised -- pleasantly and unpleasantly -- enough times that I would hesitate to really praise or damn a restaurant based on a single experience. Even good restaurants have off days and even bad restaurants can occasionally turn out a decent meal, you know?

2) I've been On The Other Side before, when I was writing reviews online for Microsoft, and I loved it! I could beat print competition with truly up-to-the-minute scoops and my audience, while smaller, was more focused. (At the Post, I write for a general audience, albeit a big one: the Sunday paper has over a million subscribers.)

I applaud the creators of the various food sites and blogs -- chowhound, egullet, donrocks, etc. -- and I think they help keep "traditional media" on their toes. But frankly, I do most of my own homework. When I'm out in the burbs for a review, for instance, I almost always stop in the 'hood to check out the dining scene, to see what's new. I talk to a lot of people, regular diners and industry types.

The one thing I find lacking online is a sense of who most of the contributors are -- what makes them creditable/responsible/fair. Whether you agree with the critic of a major print publication or not, that critic has probably spent years grooming for his/her job and his/her bio and background tend to lend some authority to his/her work. I see a lot of erroneous information on the myriad food sites, too -- about restaurants, about chefs, about moi! -- which just lends major pubs more credibility. I check out rumors for my columns that appear in print, to see if they're true or not. I fact-check and double fact-check. It's a lot of work, believe me, but it's the responsible thing to do.

3) Chefs should care that you and other chatters exist. I know I do. I mean, part of my job is to keep abreast of what people are thinking about, food-wise, right? But the internet means that everyone can be a food critic these days. And I'm not sure everyone who posts a thumbs up or a thumbs down is qualified to do so. Like I said, there's a lot of misinformation out there and unless I know where a poster is coming from, what his background is, I'm reluctant to trust him. Unless, of course, I follow that poster's comments for awhile and know him to be reliable or at least consistant.

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Drop the bomb and name a few zero-star restaurants, man.  Do it.  You're a wimp if you don't.  We dare ya.  C'mon...

Caveats about multiple visits apply, but he may be giving us a hint.

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Tom - I have two completely unrelated questions.

Question 1 - We have had discussions here and at our previous home about the responsibility (or lack thereof) of the food section of the Post and other major daily newspapers elsewhere and the restaurant critic in particular to be supportive of the overall restaurant scene in the region. What is your feeling about the role of the critic as promoter?

Question 2 - I know you are often criticized for "wasting" too many reviews on the suburbs. But I am on your side that many (most?) of your readers live outside the Beltway. What does the restaurant future hold for the exurbs - Loudoun, Prince William, Howard counties and other areas like that? Do you see chef-driven restaurants succeeding there or are we doomed to driving towards the city to avoid chains or the ubiquitous Greek/Italian pizza places in every strip mall? Can these communities of houses filled with children support adult restaurants?

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I was wondering if you ever include children among your dining companions.

Flame wars about inconsiderate parents who allow their kids to run amuck aside, the area has plenty of families with children. Some of those families are trying to raise the next generation of fine diners. We have a vested interest in making sure there is a next generation of them, or we are going to be condemned to corporate chain dining in our dotage.

Dining with a child changes your perspective. The pacing of service, detail and accuracy of dish descriptions on the menu, and availability of one or two dishes that aren't too fussy (and yet aren't the @)*$# chicken fingers) become much more important. The kind of service you get from the restaurant staff can change a lot, too. Some places bend over backwards to make your kid feel welcome, and they aren't necessarily the ones you'd expect to do so. For example, Matsuri Sushi and Sake bar in Herndon has a kid's sushi platter (no raw fish) and provides crayons. It is one of my five year-old's most frequently requested dining destinations. The same concerns will probably hold true until she is in her mid to late teens.

As the parent of a restaurant friendly child, I find most dining reviews fall a bit short. I can generally decide, based on the review, whether I'd like to eat there. But they leave me wondering whether the restaurant is going to be a good place to go as a family.

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Tom,

Post specific questions

1)I've noticed that the Eve Zibert "Fare Minded" column in the Weekend section has started to appear more sporadically. Any thoughts of giving her some more help to ensure that it appears when she's on vacation?

2)Any chance of getting more restaurant reviews in the regional (Thursday) sections? I rarely see anything food related in the Montgomery County one.

3)Have you and the Post ever kicked around the idea of splitting reviews by introducing an "Under $25" rcolumn a la The NY Times?

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I prefer the company of  architects

Ooh ooh, I'm an architect, can I come along on your next expense-account visit to Citronelle? :lol:

And now for my real question....when you travel for your "Postcards", do you use guidebooks to help select the restaurants you visit? Or do you rely purely on more up-to-the-minute sources (local paper etc)? I ask because I've noticed that it can be harder to track down current local recommendations, especially in other countries. Is there any particular guidebook series that you feel gets it right as to their restaurant listings?

Thanks.

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Tom,

Do your editor's edit the archive version of the chat after it is done? I could have sworn I saw something about Cesare leaving Tosca in the archive about an hour after yesterday's live chat.

I went back to reread last night and it was not in the column.

My assumption is that it was in the live version, and an editor found out it was not accurate and removed it from the archive.

Good assumption or am I just losing it.

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Tom,

Do your editor's edit the archive version of the chat after it is done?  I could have sworn I saw something about Cesare leaving Tosca in the archive about an hour after yesterday's live chat.

I went back to reread last night and it was not in the column.

My assumption is that it was in the live version, and an editor found out it was not accurate and removed it from the archive.

Good assumption or am I just losing it.

Actually, Tom mentioned that Cesare was no longer involved in Extra Virgin. It was mentioned in a "don't blame him for the mess that is this restaurant" context.

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Hi Tom, thanks for being such a good sport and participating in this forum and on your weekly chats.  About some Chowhounds not liking you, I think it may have to do with the fact that almost all of your recommendations during chats and weekly reviews of restaurants are focused on more expensive restaurants.

While I understand your predicament of wanting to only recommend good places which often correlates into higher priced establishments, a few recommendations of cheaper places would be very welcome. 

Now I know cheaper is a relative term and DC restaurant eating can be pretty expensive, but in my mind a cheaper restaurant would be one where most entrees were in the $10-19 range.  These restaurants exist in DC and lots of them have pretty good, if not great food. These restaurants might not be destinations where foodies flock (the only exception I can think of is the bar at Palena which I know you regularly recommend) but are good neighborhood restaurants that DC residents want to know about so they can eat at them regularly instead of relying on take-out.

So while I will continue to appreciate your reviews of the high-end tables of the DC areas, think more about the price range of restaurants especially in your chats. There have been a number of times where someone asked for a reasonable priced restaurant and they recommended a restaurant in the $25+ entree range.

Thanks for listening to my (and all of our comments) and please let me know if you think my request is unreasonable. I love to hear your take on the lower priced restaurants of DC.

Duly noted, sir! Thanks for the helpful feedback.

I probably do a better job highlighting inexpensive places in my Magazine and Food section columns than I do in my online chats, because in the rush (and crush!) on Wednesday mornings, I sometimes forget about a good hole-in-the-wall or two. But I'm conscious of that now. Did you notice I mentioned Kotobuki as a cheap but quality source for sushi, and the Spy Museum for its kid-friendly menu, in yesterday's discussion? I hope to include plenty of cheap-to-moderate places in my fall dining guide, too.

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Tom -

First, to echo the peanut gallery, thanks for taking the time with us to answer a few questions from inquiring minds.  My question centers on your anonymity.  What happens when you're in a social setting and you're chatting with someone who asks your name?  Do you withhold your last name?  If not, have you ever slipped up and introduced yourself to someone who works in the restaurant industry or a related field thus potentially blowing your cover?

Ha! I rarely use my full name when I'm introduced in Washington, because when I do, the typical reaction is "I want your job!" or something similar -- followed by 15 minutes of the usual questions: What's your favorite restaurant? Do you wear disguises? How often do you eat out? Can I tag along? and so on and so forth.

Don't get me wrong, I love what I do, but I would rather talk about somebody else's profession than my own.

Every once in awhile, I'll meet a waiter or a restaurant manager in a social setting, but I try to steer clear of functions where that might happen. I never go to restaurant openings or press receptions, for instance.

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Dining with a child changes your perspective.  The pacing of service,  detail and accuracy of dish descriptions on the menu, and availability of one or two dishes that aren't too fussy (and yet aren't the @)*$# chicken fingers) become much more important.  The kind of service you get from the restaurant staff can change a lot, too.  Some places bend over backwards to make your kid feel welcome, and they aren't necessarily the ones you'd expect to do so.  For example, Matsuri Sushi and Sake bar in Herndon has a kid's sushi platter (no raw fish) and provides crayons.  It is one of my five year-old's most frequently requested dining destinations.  The same concerns will probably hold true until she is in her mid to late teens.

As the parent of a restaurant friendly child, I find most dining reviews fall a bit short.  I can generally decide, based on the review, whether I'd like to eat there.  But they leave me wondering whether the restaurant is going to be a good place to go as a family.

It seems like it would be difficult to address this in a dining review, because in my very limited (22 months so far) experience as a mother, I've found that people's ideas of family friendly dining vary so greatly. I'm with PollyG in that I look for places with real food that's appropriate for little palates, but an online menu doesn't tell you how warm the reception will be when you come in with your child. Unfortunately, for every restaurant-friendly kid out there, there are more kids and parents who expect to have a kid's menu loaded with deep fried processed food and who will get angry with Tom when he tells them that Majestic Cafe offers child portions of many adult entrees.

I guess I don't have anything to add to the question but I am looking forward to the answer.

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Ha! I rarely use my full name when I'm introduced in Washington, because when I do, the typical reaction is "I want your job!" or something similar -- followed by 15 minutes of the usual questions: What's your favorite restaurant? Do you wear disguises? How often do you eat out? Can I tag along? and so on and so forth.

I work down the block from the Post offices. A co-worker friend and I often think about just standing outside and shouting "Hey Tom!" to every guy that leaves the building, on the chance it's you. Just something to watch out for.

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Hey Tom,

It's great to see you here!

Here are my (more than likely overlapping) questions:

How do feel that online media, blogs and forums like this one have most affected how you do your job these days or even your writing style? 

(For example, do you ever feel pressure to review a place sooner than you might have in the past because of the inevitable buzz has already generated on a blog or website? ) There most be days you truly resent the convergeing media!

To which U.S. cities would you steer an epicurean friend on a summer vacation this year ? 

Where and what do you think D.C. lacks the most as a dining town? 

Where would you like to see yourself in 10 years from now?

1) First, I think competition is healthy. Having more than one voice weighing in on restaurants is a GOOD thing. The myriad blogs have not really changed the way I write or cancelled out the rule I try to maintain about waiting a month or so to review new restaurants. But I DO like to be first with news about chef changes, restaurant closings, etc. in the Weekly Dish, and I sometimes feel at a disadvantage in reporting those things, because I'm tethered to print deadlines. If something big happens on a Tuesday, I have to wait until the next week to write about it (in the Food section), unless I choose to highlight the scoop in my online chat the next day.

I do find myself spending more and more time surfing the net and reading or scanning food and restaurant sites -- and spending less time reading the big food magazines. There's more originality online than in print right now.

2) Anyone who is serious about food should make a point of visiting Barcelona, Madrid, San Francisco, Chicago and Las Vegas (yes, Vegas!) -- among other interesting restaurant destinations. I was underwhelmed on my last trip to Paris earlier this year. Spain is really where it's at right now, in terms of setting the agenda for food fashions.

3) My wish list includes more serious wine bars, more dessert-only venues, more moderately-priced "neighborhood" spots (along the lines of Hank's Oyster Bar or Jackie's in Silver Spring) and more places that do proper breakfasts throughout the week. It would be nice to have a good Argentinean restaurant, something representative of Sweden.

4) Gosh, who knows? I really like what I'm doing now. But this is the longest I've ever stayed in one position and I get bored easily, so I need to challenge myself on a regular basis.

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Tom,

Do your editor's edit the archive version of the chat after it is done?  I could have sworn I saw something about Cesare leaving Tosca in the archive about an hour after yesterday's live chat.

I went back to reread last night and it was not in the column.

My assumption is that it was in the live version, and an editor found out it was not accurate and removed it from the archive.

Good assumption or am I just losing it.

The text of my weekly chat is archived as it appears online. There is no "after hours" editing (sometimes much to my chagrin).

Cesare is NOT leaving Tosca. I don't believe I wrote anything like that. He is NOT advising the team at the fledgling Extra Virgin any longer, however. Maybe that's the update you recall seeing.

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I was wondering if you ever include children among your dining companions.  

Flame wars about inconsiderate parents who allow their kids to run amuck aside,  the area has plenty of families with children.   Some of those families are trying to raise the next generation of fine diners.   We have a vested interest in making sure there is a next generation of them, or we are going to be condemned to corporate chain dining in our dotage.  

Dining with a child changes your perspective.  The pacing of service,  detail and accuracy of dish descriptions on the menu, and availability of one or two dishes that aren't too fussy (and yet aren't the @)*$# chicken fingers) become much more important.   The kind of service you get from the restaurant staff can change a lot, too.   Some places bend over backwards to make your kid feel welcome, and they aren't necessarily the ones you'd expect to do so.   For example, Matsuri Sushi and Sake bar in Herndon has a kid's sushi platter (no raw fish) and provides crayons.  It is one of my five year-old's most frequently requested dining destinations.   The same concerns will probably hold true until she is in her mid to late teens.

As the parent of a restaurant friendly child, I find most dining reviews fall a bit short.   I can generally decide, based on the review, whether I'd like to eat there.  But they leave me wondering whether the restaurant is going to be a good place to go as a family.

I eat out with a mix of people -- young/old, straight/gay, Caucasian/non-Caucasian, single/married -- and do in fact include kids in some of those visits.

It's interesting to see their different perspectives -- how loud places affect my older acquaintances, for instance, or how vegetarians try to navigate a steak house menu. I write for a general audience and try to think about the needs and concerns of a diverse group of readers as I make my rounds.

Thanks for your suggestions. I'll be keeping my eyes open for coloring books, high chairs and things other than chicken nuggets on the kiddie menus!

Edited by Tom Sietsema

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Hi Tom:

Thanks for taking the time to answer a multitude of questions from the many posters on this site. I recall, a few months ago, some were upset that you reviewed Pazo, an establishment in Baltimore. From what I read, the reason behind their angst was that you are a writer for a DC area paper, and they felt that you should focus your attention on the establishments with in D.C. proper and the surrounding suburbs. Personally, I have no problem with you reviewing places that are within an hours drive, as if the food is good I would be willing to take the trip. What was your take on the reaction of those that disagreed with you? Also, how often in a calendar year do you review restaurants that are not in the D.C. area?

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