My Lunch With Tom Sietsema, Washington Post Food Critic

August 1, 2019

For some time, I’d noodged [it’s Yiddish and is different from the word “nudge”] The Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema, via various methods of messaging, to ask that his restaurant reviews in the Post include accessibility information, especially because he includes decibel levels in his reporting.

Too often in reviews I’d read recommendations such as “the best place to sit is upstairs”– with no information about elevators to get thereso I’d imagine it was inaccessible for those of us who can’t walk up or down steps because of a disability or bad knees, hips or back.

The reviews contained no information about whether entrances had steps or higher door jambs, or whether mobility devices (chairs, scooters, adult walkers, etc.) would have easy access into, around and out of the restaurant, or access to restrooms.

I’m not sure if Tom ever responded directly to me, but it appears he did take my commentsand evidently those of other readersunder advisement.

Finally, mobility accessibility was added to his Sunday Post restaurant reviews. (Like good meeting planners who understand the ADA, during a lunch together Tom told me that he often travels with a tape measure to check foyers, restroom access and restrooms. During that lunch, he did decline my offer for him to use my scooter to attempt to get in and out! Next time, Tom!)

The Power of Noodging (and Connections)

So how did my lunch with a well-known food critic come to be, and what did I consider before having lunch with Tom?

It was the noodging that resulted in Tom asking me to have lunch with him. After I said, “Yes,” my heart raced! I was completely intimidated at the idea. He’s TOM SIETSEMA, with The Washington Post, and with incredible credentialsa celebrity critic.

Fortunately, we have one degree of separation: Ken, my friend of more than 30 years.

Ken and I met when he was in hotel sales and I conducted a site visit of a hotel at which he worked. Ken eased the way, letting me know how hamish (Yiddish again, “for down-to-earth”) Tom was. They’d met many years ago and become friends.

It was agreed Tom would select a restaurant in my downtown D.C. neighborhood so that I could ride my scooter (vs. taking a cab and using my cane) so we could assess access.

I asked if I could interview him for my blog; he agreed.

I then asked if I could pay for my lunch, since the ethics of my interviewing him changed the dynamics for me. He said that his meals for reviews are covered–he eats at restaurants often 12 times in a week!–and I was to be treated. (Joan's Note: I also read the ethics statement of the Association of Food Journalists (AFJ) to double-check. You all know it still made me uncomfortable—more so because he sent the leftovers home with me).

Meeting Up for Lunch

Tom and I met at the restaurant, where access was relatively easy for me on the scooter. There first, I selected the table at which I could easily park and have the scooter out of the way of the servers and others, and still be able to navigate out without disturbing other guests.

Tom arrived; I was glad the scooter helped him identify me. His disguises in interviews (see links) would have made it impossible for me to figure out who he was, though the telltale sign of a newspaper under his arm, noted by someone else he once anonymously met, helped.

Tom asked if there were any foods to which I was allergic and/or foods I didn’t like. I like most everything and suggested he choose. I’d tell you what we had, but the menu print was so small (that needs to change!) that I couldn’t read it. It was all delicious, but then again it was a “ThinkFoodGroup”/José Andrés restaurant in Penn Quarter D.C.

We're Often More Alike Than We Expect!

As much as I was interested in food and reviews of food, I was also interested in learning about Tom. (You can read more at the links above and below).

I was surprised by the similarities of our upbringing:

  • We both grew up in the U.S. Midwest, he in a very small town, I in a mid-sized one.
  • Our parents had interests in learning and music.

And like me, Tom was exposed to people from many cultures. We both think that allows us to be open to experiences, people and foods that others may find less comfortable.

After our lunch, he wrote: “I didn’t tell you this at lunch, but I was an exchange student back in high school. I spent a year in Germany when I was 16. Best thing I ever did! That year abroad, living with four different guest families and seeing much of Europe, opened my eyes to the possibilities—of travel, of possibly getting paid to work overseas, etc.”

Though I didn’t study abroad, my parents were involved with our synagogue in having college students from outside the United States stay in Jewish homes on weekends. The families and students would all get together.

Our family had students from, among other countries, Kenya, Nigeria, Greece and Vietnam stay with us. The experiences these many years later have impacted me and certainly give me comfort when meeting people and eating food from other cultures.

The 'Glamour' of Being a Food Critic or Meeting Planner

When Tom told me that most think his job is glamorous, I laughed. You’re eating out or traveling and it’s all paid for, so it must be, eh? How many planners’ co-workers think the travel and eating out we do is glamorous? My guess is that hoteliers, DMO sales staff and others in hospitality are thought to similarly have glamorous jobs.

Right. It’s not glamorous. You’re working.

For us, it’s evaluating spaces, service and food. For Tom, it’s the same, and he’s often in disguise, though he was not the day we dined. (Nope, I’m not telling what he looks like).

I did ask Tom if he, when traveling, ever or often ate from the room service menu. He laughed and said rarely. He did say he does enjoy a good burger or Caesar salad when he does.

I was glad he had the experience of kicking back now and then. (Me? After a day of being around people, I love the quiet of room service and am sad hotels are moving to eliminate it, or are putting the food in paper bags and not even providing plates, just containers).

The perception of glamour is not the only thing our professions have in common. In the work planners and suppliers do, we often form relationships that lead to friendships.

Doing Business Ethically in the Restaurant and Hospitality Industries

I asked Tom, who at our lunch introduced me to someone with the restaurant, how he dealt with the relationships in the restaurant industry. He said:

“For the record, I have one actual friend in the local restaurant business—Mark Furstenberg, who owns a bakery-cafe in Washington (Bread Furst)—but I’ve known him since before I became the Post’s food critic in 2000. It would be strange to “unfriend” a friend, right?

“But whenever I mention his business, I feel compelled to tell readers that he’s a long-time friend. It’s the right thing to do. With everyone else, I try to be cordial while setting limits. I don’t socialize with anyone I cover, for instance.

“And if there are going to be a lot of chefs at an event—even a memorial—I tend not to go. It’s a challenge, because I admire so many people in the field, but I’d rather be a little distant than chummy. Chummy can get a critic into hot water.“

I thought it similar to my advice to planners: It’s okay to become friends, but when negotiating a contract, say, literally, “I’m taking my friend hat off and putting on my business hat.”

It also is prudent for planners to disclose to their employers or clients any relationships that might impact the negotiations.

When I’m helping a client decide on a hotel for a meeting, I am always uncomfortable telling a hotel why they weren’t selected, especially if it’s about the facility and service vs. cost.

For me, it’s like going to someone’s home and saying it’s not attractive, or that the dinner they prepared wasn’t good.

When the Food Critic Comes Over for Dinner

I asked Tom about his experiences and think we can take cues from him on how to nicely explain why we aren’t selecting a property.

“People are reluctant to have critics [over] for a meal, and I can understand that. I’m always happy to be invited to someone’s home, however, and would never critique a host’s cooking.

“If someone makes a joke at the table about the situation, I always say, ‘I’m off duty tonight.’ Or something similar.

“At the very least, I can honestly say I’ve appreciated the company. “What a night! Thank you for bringing us together” works.” 

Meeting planners work long hours, and for many years. I was curious if there were “term limits” for food critics. Tom wrote, in response, after our lunch:

“My predecessor [Phyllis Richman] was in the job almost 24 years. I’m about to celebrate my 20th anniversary as a food critic. There are no term limits, at least at The Washington Post.

“Critics at The New York Times tend to stay on the beat five or so years, although Bryan Miller was there for nine, I think.

“But the cool thing is, they often go on to other impressive gigs: Ruth Reichl became editor of Gourmet, Frank Bruni is now an opinion columnist, etc. The trick for anyone, I think, is staying fresh over time—and interested and engaged in the job.

“I still love what I do. Tenure isn’t always dictated by what a writer feels is right, though. A lot of publications have simply closed over the years, unfortunately. My job is a rare one, I realize.

“The subject helps me stay engaged. Washington is a fabulous food scene. And since it doesn’t matter who I dine out with, I surround myself with interesting companions. I tend to invite non-food people to reviews. I’d rather talk about anything else but what I do, you know?”

Bonding Over Fried Chicken

During the course of our conversation, Tom mentioned more than once that when he’s with friends and dining out, he has a favorite: fried chicken.

Having grown up in a poultry-selling family, it’s mine, too. In fact, some of the best I had recently, from room service, was at The Inn at Opryland in Nashville, Tennessee.

Tom’s favorite fried chicken in D.C. is at Unconventional Diner, “which serves its bird with ‘granny gravy.’” His favorite fast food? Popeye’s!

Industry Takeaways From My Lunch With Tom Sietsema

When lunch was over and in our follow-up messaging, I was so grateful to have had an opportunity to have met Tom Sietsema and to have had the opportunity to influence how DC area restaurants are now reviewed.

My hope is that all the restaurant reviews in the Post, and other print and digital newspapers, or by the restaurants themselves, contain accessibility information and how they accommodate people who are hard of hearing or deaf, blind or with low vision.

And if they have menus that cater to vegans and others.

I also hope that all restaurant staff are or become trained in how to communicate with customers of all kinds, including those with varying abilities, and that this too, is noted.

Please, let’s make this an agenda item, if it’s not yet been, Association of Food Journalists. And that also applies to facilities listed by DMOs. It’s a tall order, I understand.

So maybe it’s the restaurants themselves, like Harris Rosen’s hotels, that can include specific tabs for accessibility and provide more specifics.

We’d all prefer arriving knowing what we will experience, rather than a disappointing surprise.

For more on this issue, please read this review from Hanna Raskin, president of AFJ, and presented with gratitude for AFJ’s information to me.

Thanks, Tom. It was delightful to break bread with you. I am grateful for the time and lunch.

Additional reading and viewing:

Related Content From the August 2019 Edition of Friday With Joan

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About the author
Joan Eisenstodt | Contributing Blogger, Friday With Joan Author and Industry Expert

Joan Eisenstodt, a meetings entrepreneur since 1981, has been honored by multiple hospitality and meetings organizations for her educational work in and for the industry. Her passion for helping bring people together meaningfully, safely and ethically is the focus of her writing and teaching.