Restaurant Critic

May 23, 2013


By Raleigh-Elizabeth. Image via The Renshaw.

It’s a rare day that I get to taste the food I read about in restaurant reviews. From America’s most dazzling hot spots to small hole-in-the-walls where dinner for two costs my monthly diaper budget, I’m relegated to drooling over the words, not the plates.

And maybe that’s half the idea. Maybe restaurant critics write not just to sell us on the merit of a dish, chef, or fancy restaurant, but to let us have a taste of something they know we probably couldn’t enjoy without them.

That’s the truth Ruth Reichl discovered when she first started out as a restaurant critic for the New York Times. Newly returned to New York after a stint in California, she headed first to Le Cirque (among Manhattan’s fanciest fancy places) dressed not as herself, New York Times restaurant critic, but as the invented Molly Hollis, a Michiganer who wore pantyhose when it was hot out, got no special treatment, and was sat in the frozen tundra of the restaurant on a banquette she was forced to share with the menus and wine lists. When she started to peruse those wine lists (because her waiter had failed to give her one), it was unceremoniously demanded back because someone else – clearly, someone important – needed it. By contrast, when she appeared as herself, Ruth Reichl, Restaurant Critic, she was told — quite honestly — that the King of Spain would have to wait in the bar, but her table was ready.

I’ve been to Le Cirque. Once. My experience and Molly’s weren’t too terribly far apart, although Molly could afford far more of the menu than I could.

Ruth Reichl holds a special place in my heart. Not just for her Molly Hollis routine, or the many restaurants she gave voice to that were regularly overlooked by more highfalutin critics, but because she writes about food in her reviews like we talk about food to our friends. She writes about food that’s real, that sustains us, that makes us happy to be alive and be eating. She writes about real food that matters to real people. Also, in her memoir about “growing up at the table,” Tender at the Bone, she remembers the hands-down best recipe for homemade fried oysters you’ll ever try. The book’s also pretty great, too. You’ll love her forever for both.

Because I actually like our little life and was none-too-impressed with Le Cirque, I don’t hold out hope for getting to salivate over the plates of food described in the Times, Post, or the New Yorker‘s Tables for Two. I liked Ruth Reichl’s reality: she experienced one of those restaurants as the rest of us. All in all, it was nothing to write home about.

But out in here the real world, don’t we have plenty of restaurants we’d like to tell them about?

Like Daddy Mac’s, my favorite local restaurant. We live on the coast in North Carolina, directly across the Intracoastal Waterway from Topsail Island. Daddy Mac’s is a Topsail restaurant, right on the ocean, and it has a fantastic little patio overlooking the surf. It’s mostly a fish restaurant, and because I’m allergic I can’t tell you much about that, but they have a taco salad that’s what taco salads are meant to be, and their cajun fried oysters are fresh, local, and addictive. We only ever go at lunch, because we can’t really afford the price hike on the dinner menu, but it’s a perfect way to spend a Sunday after church. And chances are, if it’s between April and Halloween and you’re sitting outside, you’ll watch someone get married on the beach right in front of you. It’s like they know you’re going to want to stay so much longer than your meal – to watch the sea, smell the surf, maybe even wish your blessings upon the newlyweds – that they have a few Carolina wooden rocking chairs right there on the porch, facing the Atlantic, in case you can’t bring yourself to leave just yet.

Or Awash Ethiopian on Manhattan’s Morningside Heights (up by Columbia) where you’ll taste the origins of Southern soul food in the spicy chicken, tomatoes, and collard greens as you wrap your fingers around them with a piece of injira, the sourdough-like flatbread you use as your only utensil. I am enamored of Ethiopian cuisine on the whole, but Awash is my favorite. It tastes like comfort food, an exciting adventure, and an international journey all in one. Also, you can leave with your wallet still in tact. A good meal can come in under fifteen dollars.

And there are the old standbys. My favorite Ohio restaurant: Hunan Coventry, which is nothing short of a Cleveland institution and may be the only reason my brother Alex ever ate growing up. Or my go-to takeout place here in Baltimore: Asian Kitchen. It will never be featured in the Baltimore Sun, and it shares its stripmall home with a Quiznos and a Dunkin Donuts. Still, they make the best, most unadulterated pad thai I have ever had.

When you walk into these restaurants, the places where we really eat, you’ll never see the King of Spain. Or a restaurant critic. You’ll never be any less important than any other patron, and you can count on the waiter letting you keep your menu as long as you need it. You will see dads with kids after school, graduate students half-focusing on their meal while studying, young people on dates, and families just enjoying a special meal they didn’t have to make. These are real people with real jobs eating real food at real, really good restaurants. These are the unsung heroes of the restaurant world.

Food may be there for the wealthy and well-to-do who can frequent the Le Cirques of the world, sure, but it’s also there for the rest of us. It’s one of the few things in this world that can turn a regular day into the sublime.

And for most of us, that means an amazing grilled cheese from our local diner or a pagoda box picnic from our favorite chinese place. Nobody needs to tell Le Cirque, but it’s these every day foods and every day restaurants that make us feel as rich and fabulous as we know we actually are. No reservations required.

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Caddy May 23, 2013 at 8:40 am

Hear! Hear!


2 Raleigh-Elizabeth May 23, 2013 at 8:40 am



3 Sharon @ Discovering Blog May 23, 2013 at 8:43 am

What a great article! This post made me smile, because we don’t need to pretend that we eat at Le Cirque. What matters is the place we like to go to, as a family, to enjoy some food. Even if it’s in a strip mall :)


4 Raleigh-Elizabeth May 23, 2013 at 8:49 am

my stripmall asian place has helped me survive pregnancy (i’m not one of those women who glows. i’m one of those women who is hanging on to her tums and zofran like they are her lifeline. which, really, they are.) and anyplace that can do that wins in my book! it’s all about the real places we eat, right? isn’t that what makes food the most satisfying anyway? real food we can actually taste?


5 Nicole Devereux May 23, 2013 at 8:43 am

Such good points. My favorite local restaurants are the ones with fresh food, a friendly crew, and a great vibe — like Virtue Feed & Grain and Evening Star Cafe (both in Alexandria, VA). And don’t get me started on the crab cakes at Nickell’s & Scheffler; completely delicious and the place could not be more down to earth.


6 Raleigh-Elizabeth May 23, 2013 at 8:53 am

Nicole, thank you for the recs! I’m going to have to try both of these restos – Alexandria isn’t too far from Baltimore, and I’m up here until the baby comes! Thanks for the tips!


7 Carter Higgins May 23, 2013 at 9:25 am

Love this. My favorite place for a burger and fried pickles is Tin Horn Flats, a saloon complete with swinging doors. And it’s not to be kitschy, it’s just how it always was supposed to be.


8 Raleigh-Elizabeth May 23, 2013 at 9:28 am

i love that!


9 DaddyMacI'mComin'Back May 23, 2013 at 9:39 am

Daddy Mac’s! It’s worth planning a vacation to TopSail simply so you can eat Daddy Mac’s fried oysters day-in and day-out for as long as you have time to vacation in that neck of Carolina’s woods and beaches …

Do you remember Jessica Landy’s facial expression at the end of Driving Miss Daisy when she was fed ice cream by Hoke (the incomparable Morgan Freeman)? Well, her expression doesn’t begin to approximate yours once a Daddy Mac fried oyster comes to rest on your tongue.

I love that the writer holds a special place in her heart for local restaurants that surprise, delight, and hold us ever captive.


10 Raleigh-Elizabeth May 23, 2013 at 9:43 am

The writer is very flattered and loves to eat. : )


11 DaddyMacI'mComin'Back May 23, 2013 at 9:43 am

*Tandy (not Landy)


12 Heather May 23, 2013 at 10:34 am

There’s a little shack in Salter Path (about an hour away from Topsail…ok maybe a little more than an hour, but on an island) called The Big Oak Drive-In. It has the BEST shrimp burgers ever. And really great grilled cheese for my vegetarian husband. Don’t forget about the french fries and milkshakes…Yum!

Their t-shirt reads, something I probably shouldn’t write here….but it’s funny.


13 Raleigh-Elizabeth May 23, 2013 at 10:35 am

That’s just up Emerald Isle! We’ll have to take a field trip up there! My hubby can do the shrimp burger and I, sad and allergic, will enjoy your hubby’s choice grilled cheese.

YUM! And amen for the little restos that make us so happy!


14 Rebecca S. May 23, 2013 at 11:06 am

I loved this piece–what terrific writing! Thanks so much–this was a bright spot in my morning.


15 Raleigh-Elizabeth May 23, 2013 at 11:11 am

thank you for taking the time to read it!


16 Jenny May 23, 2013 at 12:57 pm

I love Ruth Reichl! Im so glad you mentioned her. How she talks about food in tender at the bone was a game changer for me. Garlic and sapphires was really fun to read about all her alter food egos and how it affected her but Tender at the Bone will always be my favorite.

I think I could eat spam at a beachside restaurant and love it. Food just tastes better there.


17 Raleigh-Elizabeth May 23, 2013 at 1:00 pm

Hooray! I love both of those, and also Comfort Me With Apples. I love her. And I completely agree about the beach… but I have to say. The oysters at Daddy Mac’s really are worth the trip.


18 Design Mom May 23, 2013 at 1:10 pm

Oh Raleigh-Elizabeth. I wasn’t expecting to get emotional when I read this. You are such a good writer!


19 Raleigh-Elizabeth May 23, 2013 at 1:11 pm

blush blush blush. thank you!


20 aimee @ smiling mama May 23, 2013 at 2:02 pm

Oh I love this! And, I’m especially excited because we’ll be in Topsail for a week this summer so off to Daddy Mac’s we’ll go!


21 Raleigh-Elizabeth May 23, 2013 at 2:04 pm

oh hooray!!! let me know if you need any other tips for the area!


22 Pearl May 23, 2013 at 5:06 pm

Raleigh-Elizabeth, I too am from Baltimore. I have a few recommendations for you, if you are interested. Try Ze Mean Bean Café in Fells Point for the best homemade pierogi meal you can eat. The place has a Hungarian menu and is definitely worth a try. If you are in the Fells Point area and want a delicious slice of pizza, head over to BOP (Brick Oven Pizza). In the burbs, try Café Spice in Cockeysville for the best Indian food in town. Delicious, and very moderately priced. It’s in a strip mall next to a Starbucks and a pizza joint. Green Leaf in Hunt Valley, in a shopping center with a Giant and Rita’s, has great Chinese and Japanese at very reasonable prices. Enjoy!


23 Raleigh-Elizabeth May 24, 2013 at 10:57 am

I can’t wait to try these!! I’m here until our little baby arrives… and until then, I will continue to eat my way through Baltimore. Thank you for the awesome recs!!!


24 Erin May 23, 2013 at 7:02 pm

Well said, great post!


25 Dee Wilcox May 24, 2013 at 6:44 am

I couldn’t agree with you more! I don’t mind paying for a really great meal on date night with my husband, but more often than not, we opt for a tried and true local place — like the fantastic hole-in-the-wall sushi place we discovered just this week. Great sushi for under $25 for the two of us — total score.


26 Amy3 May 24, 2013 at 10:56 am

Awash is my hands down, total favorite restaurant in the whole entire world! So excited to see you mention it. :)


27 Raleigh-Elizabeth May 24, 2013 at 10:57 am



28 Laura May 24, 2013 at 9:03 pm

Excellent post! I feel like we should be chatting over a meal over this “conversation.” :)


29 Tove May 30, 2013 at 3:26 pm

Yes, yes, yes to all of this! Your beautiful description of Topsail life has me homesick for North Carolina. We never made it to Daddy Mac’s though it’s now on my list of places to try next time we’re back in the states. We just had friends visit us here in England and the majority of their visit centered around introducing them to our new favorite restaurants. A great meal really can make you feel rich and fabulous!


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