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.