Critic's last course

Sun Restaurant Critic

In 1973 a brash young critic had dinner at Danny's, the most acclaimed restaurant in Baltimore. She ate steak Diane flambe and escalopes de veau a la francaise, and wrote that the restaurant "never quite lives up to its pretensions."

It was the start of a most amazing career -- mine, as a restaurant critic of The Baltimore Sun. After almost 37 years on the job, I'm retiring with this column.

A couple of weeks ago, I had my last meal on The Sun, a large bowl of pho dac biet with round steak, flank, brisket, beef tendon and tripe at Pho Dat Thanh in Towson. I enjoyed it every bit as much as I remember enjoying the steak Diane flamed at table side by the owner of Danny's himself.

Thirty-seven years ago, of course, I had never heard of pho. Nor had most Baltimoreans. I had been to only one Vietnamese restaurant, in Amsterdam on my honeymoon a few years before.

That in 2010 the fine-dining critic of The Sun would be reviewing what is basically a Vietnamese noodle bar (and that no one was surprised) shows just how much Baltimore's food scene has changed.

In 1973, fine dining meant French or Continental. And, of course, there was only one continent when it came to food.

Now it means everything from -- I can't even begin to list how many different kinds of cuisine it means. I review just about anything but neighborhood bars, and I've done some of them when their food warranted it. (I'm looking at you, Hamilton Tavern and Peter's Inn.)

On the date of my 30th anniversary, I wrote at length about the changes in the local dining out scene over the years and in myself as a critic. I've spent a lot of my time since then talking about how the recession has affected restaurants (and how many have closed), but otherwise I could have used the story for this column. (If you're interested, you can find it at

I had no idea when I wrote my 30th anniversary piece that I would stick around for seven more years. I was beginning to realize that even a dream job can get tiring after a very long while.

I sometimes think people are more awed by my longevity than any other part of my career. And 37 years is a long time to be writing about restaurants in one city (with occasional trips to Annapolis, the Eastern Shore and Frederick).

When the Tribune Company offered buyouts three years ago, I would have taken them up on the offer except for one thing: The Sun had entered the digital age, and swept me along with it.

I, who didn't know what a blog was, had been told to start a restaurant blog, Dining@Large, that April. I had no idea that in a very short time it would become the consuming passion of my work life, getting an average of 60,000 page views a week toward the end.

I was willing to stop eating in fancy restaurants and writing about them when the buyouts were offered; I wasn't ready to stop blogging. I loved the short, breezy, personal-journal format and the personal interaction it gave me with readers.

Three years, 3,555 blog posts by me, 69,766 comments by readers, and more Top 10 lists than I care to count later, I still don't want to give up my baby -- er, blog. But I have to admit that I've probably said all I have to say about Baltimore restaurants, dining trends and my daughter's refrigerator (to give you a quick idea of what I've been writing about online).

It's time to step away from the keyboard.

Dining@Large is the reason I've continued to love my job the last three years, but I attribute my longevity as a restaurant critic to a couple of other factors as well.

First, The Sun has been great over the years about not insisting I write just about restaurants and food. While I've been reviewing restaurants all along -- sometimes as often as twice a week, sometimes just keeping my hand in with dining guide mini-reviews while others did the heavy lifting -- I've also had the privilege of working as a home writer, as the home and food editor when we had two food sections and two home and garden sections a week, as the Sun Magazine editor, and as a lifestyle reporter.

I've written about fitness, health, fashion and beauty; profiles of people like Dorothy Hamill and Katie O'Malley; and stories on everything else from the science of happiness to the Y generation. It's been a fun ride.

I've also been able to stick around for as long as I have because reviewing has never had an adverse effect on my health.

I know you've been dying to ask: I pretty much weigh the same as when I started, and I actually eat healthier now than I did when I started reviewing. I'm lucky because while I love food, I don't need quantities of food to be happy. When people ask why I don't live up to my last name, I say no one told me I had to clean my plate. Still, as I've gotten older I've become more conscious of how important eating healthful foods is, and I enjoy fresh, simple, vegetable-heavy meals more than any other kind these days. That's had at least a small part in my decision to give up this lark of a job.

Besides my weight, is there anything else you'd like to know? Last week when I announced my retirement on my blog, I asked readers to post any questions they might have for me before I leave. This seems as good a place as any to answer some of them. No, I'm not going to write a book once I retire, become a restaurant consultant or take Dining@Large private. (The Sun will continue to have a restaurant blog, probably under another name). I was thinking of maybe doing something exciting like getting the basement cleaned up.

What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started out?

Just how difficult the restaurant business is. Also how popular sushi would become. I would have quit my job and opened a sushi bar just ahead of the boom.

What is your favorite restaurant and what is the best thing you've eaten at any restaurant in Baltimore?

When The Sun isn't paying, my husband and I often end up at Petit Louis in Roland Park, the Ambassador near the Homewood Campus or Donna's in Charles Village. That's partly because of our busy lives and their convenient locations, though. It will be interesting to see how we branch out when we aren't eating at a variety of places for the paper.

As for the best thing I've eaten, that's a tough call because I've eaten so many restaurant meals over the years -- maybe 1,500?

Are you going to publish a photo of yourself now that you're retiring?

Nope. When I became the magazine editor I thought I would never be a restaurant critic again, so my photo (complete with Farrah Fawcett hair) appeared every week with the Editor's Note. Needless to say, you wouldn't recognize me from it now. I didn't realize how quickly Sunday magazines would die and I would become a writer again, so I'm not going to say "never again" this time. That is my hand in the picture above, though.

What was the most surprising service gaffe you ever experienced? In the same light, what was the most pleasant surprise? Someone going above and beyond the call of duty?

A waiter at the now-closed Chart House in the Inner Harbor once spilled a bowl of bisque into the lap of one of my companions. As I remember, she was wearing a beautiful silk suit. Now that was a surprise.

As for the best, I've had all-round wonderful service at places like the now-closed Hampton's and the Prime Rib; but that was expected. At Tark's Grill in Green Spring Station, the waitress noticed one of us hadn't eaten his expensive entree and asked if he wanted something else. He said no, and without saying anything more, she told the manager, who took it off the check, again without our asking and without a fuss. I was impressed because it could have lessened her tip. (It didn't.)

What am I supposed to do? I'm sad and I'm sad enough already. I'm new here and you answered my emails and even said I cheered you up. I think a party would be in order, don't you?

Parties are always in order.

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