City Desk

The Commissary Responds to Sietsema’s First Bites Review

The partners of EatWell DC, which own the Commissary on P Street NW, requested and got what they wanted following Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema's harsh early look at their new Logan Circle eatery: They got the Post to retract the First Bite article, which was originally published on Wednesday in the Food Section and is still available on Mediabistro.com. And they got this nice mea culpa in the Sunday paper:

Critic Tom Sietsema should have recused himself from reviewing the Commissary, a restaurant featured in the Oct. 29 Food section. He and one of the restaurant's owners had earlier had a personal relationship. The Washington Post regrets that he reviewed this restaurant, and will remove the review from its online archive.

When contacted on Monday, EatWell DC managing partner David Winer said he didn't want to comment any further on the matter. "I can't be party in the destruction of another human being," Winer said during our brief phone conversation. He said he had hoped to keep this ugly situation out of the media, which is why he didn't send me (or other members of the local food media) the letter that he e-mailed to the 5,000 members of the EatWell DC mailing list. I told him that I had received a copy of the letter and would run it. Winer agreed that, at this point, the letter was essentially a public document. It runs below the jump.

To our many supporters:

In last Wednesday's Washington Post Food Section, under Tom Sietsema's First Bites column, an article appeared about Commissary, our newest restaurant. Some of you may have read it and been as shocked as we were. It was not an objective, unbiased and informed article as it should have been. Instead it was a biased and vitriolic rampage. We believe Mr. Sietsema used his column as a missile launch for economic assassination against Commissary, as retribution for some perceived wrong against him.

Mr. Sietsema never disclosed, apparently including to his editors, a previous, very close personal relationship with one of our principals. A relationship that ended abruptly and seemingly left him bitter.

We challenged Mr. Sietsema on his grievously negative assertions, his lack of disclosure and the simple fact that the article should never have been written. We insisted that recusing himself was the only proper and ethical thing to have done. He apologized for not recusing himself, nothing more.

All this was then turned over to his editor, Tom Shroder of The Washington Post Magazine. Mr. Shroder, understanding the ramifications of Mr. Sietsema's actions offered a settlement; kill the story on the web immediately, print a retraction in Sunday's paper, and that neither Mr. Sietsema nor any member of The Washington Post food team would ever write about any Eatwell DC restaurant again. What they would not do is apologize for the harm caused by Sietsema's spurious comments. "The Washington Post doesn't apologize" but "we will say we regret".

In Sunday's Post, at the bottom of page two, under Editor's Note, the retraction appeared. The Editor's Note is copied below.

We at Eatwell DC stand behind the quality of the food and beverage in all our restaurants. We stand behind the many employees who prepare, serve and cleanup your meals. We stand behind the many investors who have placed their money and faith in our hands. Most importantly, we stand behind our customers and do our utmost to never let you down.

We thank you all for your past patronage and hope you'll allow us to serve you for many years to come.

Sincerely,

David Winer, Managing Member

Antonio Oquendo

Joshua Hahn

I asked Winer if the agreement worked out with the Post doesn't, in fact, hurt his restaurants. After all, the city's largest and most influential newspaper would no longer be reviewing his operations. "No," Winer responded, "because I feel potential retribution down the line exists. For all I know, there is a covey of restaurant food critics who have coffee together."

The agreement means, of course, that Post readers will have to look elsewhere for commentary on all of EatWell DC's restaurants, which include The Heights, Grillfish, and Logan Tavern.

Sietsema, when contacted for comment, e-mailed that, "As much as I would LOVE to share the details, I've been advised not to respond to media inquires, and I have to honor that."

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Comments

  1. #1

    i've eaten here, and i have to think that grudge or no, Sietsema's review was spot on. the atmosphere was fine, but the food was just awful. the shrimp stir-fry was too sweet and too salty, and my pal said that his veggie plate was the saltiest thing he'd ever eaten.

    we agreed that we'd go back and give it another shot, but haven't. it was really just bad.

  2. #2

    Fact: Washington Post removed the review from its site, offerend a mea culpa in return.

    The word on the street is that Tom was dumped after a couple dates. True or Not True, thats what everyone is saying. Just go to Halo, the gay Diner and you'll here it from many people.

    I think both parties should give it a rest. It's not that big of a deal. Go VOTE for christs sake.

  3. #3

    It is ok for a food critic to comment on a restaurant but not to try to destroy it which is what Sietsema seemed to want to do to Commissary.

    I grew up in NYC where there were diners on every corner and no one really cared how a food critic rated them. I think we need to get smart in DC and stop rating every new place that opens right away. If it is a fancy restaurant then OK but not a place like Commissary which clearly wants to be a neighborhood place.

    Two of my friends went there last night and talked about it this morning at coffee and told the rest of us to go. They were pleased with the food, service and prices. It is about time that Dupont/Logan has some options that weren't high priced but had some reasonable priced comfort food like burgers and the like. People going to Commissary know it won't be a gourmet restaurant and it shouldn't be reviewed like one.

    There are many young singles and couples in the area who eat out regularly and can't afford most of the DC restaurants in the area. Here is a place they can afford so let's not try to kill it.

    Maybe we should rather let the locals decide by their patronage whether it will last or not. Judging by my friends it will.

  4. #4

    If I were to write what I felt about eating at this restaurant, I would be sued. Suffice it to say I found Sietseman's review to be a flattering rave compared to the experience I had.

  5. #5

    I found Sietsema’s review to be on the mark - Mr. angry restaurateur (aka Mr Winer) – how can you say you were shocked - weren’t you interviewed by Mr. Sietsema before he published the article. If you felt that he shouldn’t have critiqued your establishment than you should have spoken up. The question that comes to my mind is: What were you really looking for? Do you really think that your food and service is good enough for a star rating? As someone who has eaten at ALL of your establishments, the food and the service are not that good and it’s not worth all this attention. Like the last guy stated – If I really voiced my opinion I would be facing a law suit too.

  6. #6

    I've found Tom's reviews to be mostly right on the mark in the past, and I agree 100% with this review. And I didn't have a 'personal relationship' with anyone there - not that it matters one bit. Let's all grow up and admint our faults..

  7. #7

    Wait a minute. In response to a complaint, the Washington Post editors promised to NEVER write a review of a restaurant owned by EatWell DC? Even if one of EatWell's restaurants becomes the hottest place in town (or a danger to the health and safety of the dining public)? How on earth can they ethically justify that decision. Have they made that promise to other restaurants (or to developers or to politicians)? Any newspaper that lets complaints from local business owners rule out future coverage of that business is abdicating its responsibility to us, its readers.

  8. #8

    The Post will likely hire freelance writers to cover EatWell restaurants as the need arises. Problem solved.

  9. #9

    This restaurant is an over-priced dump, as are the others owned by Mr Whiner. Good for Tom S to expose this punk.
    As for no reviews from the Post, great. Anyone in the restaurant business knows that business spikes for weeks after a review appears in the Post.

  10. #10

    I very seriously doubt that the Post agreed never to review another EatWell restaurant. Why would it? There was no legal issue here, no serious threat of a lawsuit. Just, at least in perception, a biased reporter.

  11. #11

    So much anger? It's only a meal. We all eat them 3 times a day.This is only a little neighborhood spot, not Citronel.
    The question here is not about the food, who's wrong or right; it's about ethics and integrity. If Sietsema were caught taking a bribe, none of you would defend your friend. You'd be certain his opinion was slanted. He got caught. The reveiew should not have been written, that's clear. Winer pointed it out. Sietsema agreed; he apologized for not recusing and his bosses and editor's agreed, "we regret". Instead of defending the man, you should be sdmonishing him. How have our societal standards dropped so low that we believe in defending a, self admitted, guilty party to the point of exoneration?

    Sietsema acted like a bully, he was wrong to write the story, his bosses agreed and so should all of you.

  12. Eleonora D'Arborea
    #12

    1. The review was not vitriolic. He didn't make personal attacks or use inappropriate language. He basically said the food at Commissary is bad.

    2. Neighborhood place or not, many if not most people who read restaurant reviews do so because they are deciding where to 'invest' their dining dollars. Before I drop $30 or whatever at a neighborhood place (whatever that means - Komi is in the same neighborhood, as is Popeyes) I appreciate someone who tells me that the chef goes heavy on the salt or tends to make sauces too sweet or that my money would be better spent elsewhere.

    Megan, in case you didn't notice - its not "only a meal." Its a meal you spend money on, money you might have spent elsewhere, perhaps at a competing neighborhood place that puts more effort into getting food right. And it should be needless to say, but - since Sietsema was not caught taking a bribe, there is no reason to act as though he had taken a bribe.

  13. #13

    City Desk: Feel free to run the above website...advise all to click onto the HOME page, then a second click on to ETHICS under the general topic of TOPICS.
    http://www.grumpygourmetusa.com

    All of my editors at The Columbus Dispatch had one firm golden rule: Memorize the decision of Sullivan vs New York Times. When I reviewed an eatery owned by one Mark Pi, I offended him by inferring he was serving "instant Peking duck" because I didn't have to wait 24 hours. Pi than approached my editor du jour to have me replaced. Editor Luke Feck left this writ-by-pencil note in my mail box: Pi are not square; Pi are pissed.

    Regardless of how one reads that, his message to me was to pass on any future reviews of Pi-owned restaurants.
    I managed to spend more than 25 years following his advice.

  14. #14

    City Desk: Feel free to run my website as it directly relates to the Sietsema issue. For starters the Post must not have an ink-on-pulp policy specifically for restaurant critics. In my life and career the Post's Phyllis Richman would never be involved in such a circumstance.

    My editors at The Columbus Dispatch merely had to tell me one time: Memorize the decision in Sullivan vs New York Times. That lesson came home to me when I reviewed an eatery owned by one Mark Pi. He became upset when in an otherwise favorable review I dared to note that he was serving "instant Peking duck" because it was ready, as my server advised, in "twenty minute, twenty minute." Pi wanted me replaced. The then editor Luke Feck penciled a note to me and placed it in my then cloak room mailbox:

    "Pi are not square;
    Pi are pissed."

    Message loud and clear. I managed over the next 25 years to find soy solace elsewhere.

  15. #15

    I heard tom was short in a certain department

  16. #16

    looking at the tenor of the responses here, it seems to me that sietsema rallied his friends to come to his defense...when no defense is warranted. in my view, his failures to pass on reviewing the restaurant and disclose to his editors a close personal relationship with an owner (whether ending well or not) brings into serious question his judgment and journalistic integrity and thus the ability of readers to trust his work. when a journalist loses the trust of readers, the publication for which he/she works should look very closely at how that reflects on its overall reputation and do what it takes to protect it. is deleting the column from the the post's web site really enough to regain the trust of readers? i don't think so.

  17. #17

    I liked the post and your writing style. I'm adding you to my RSS reader.

  18. #18

    Nice post! This is also my biggest earning area. However, it

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