Elijah Knauer bounds into S'ghetti Eddie's as if on a mission, taking in the pinball, the family-style booths and — oh man — the spot on the menu that mentions the thing that begins with an "ice" and ends with a "cream."
"Oooooh, they have thick and creamy milkshakes," he enthuses. "Mommy, what's a malted?"
Eli is a restaurant critic, but he's also 10 years old, a recent graduate of the fourth grade at Baltimore County's Oakleigh Elementary. He's a so-called kid foodie — a "koodie" — with spunk, a budding palate and a review blog that to the amazement of even his own mother, is drawing worldwide attention.
He's made the papers in Africa, Australia, Brazil, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Netherlands.
The corporate folks at Red Robin begged him to sample one of their burgers.
Jimmy Kimmel's people phoned his parents about a possible appearance.
"It feels so cool," he says.
The spark to pursue food criticism lit in Eli last summer during a vacation at Niagara Falls. The family had been going out to eat every night, and on the drive up they made a point of stopping at a diner they'd seen profiled on one of their favorite Food Network shows. It was at a red-sauce Italian restaurant in the area's Little Italy neighborhood, over a meatball sandwich with provolone, that Eli made his pronouncement.
Though critics of cuisine boast access, prestige and of course the power to close a restaurant with little more than a printed pout — none of that attracted Eli.
Rather, it was a vision of bountiful ice cream — piled high in an all-you-can eat world where sweets weren't merely "allowed by mom," but were an on-the-job requirement.
"It sounds fantastic," he explains. "You can get the most delicious, expensive thing on the dessert menu and not have to pay for it."
Just like that, a dream was born. The blog, Adventures of a Koodie, came next because, as his mom told him, that's what food critics do. Eat and blog.
It should be no surprise then that when Eli's blog launched in August, Baltimore's food writers were among the first to embrace his reviews.
Baltimore Sun dining critic Richard Gorelick (who, like many critics, does pay his own way when dining out) took to his own blog right away to cheer on his mini-me. Last November he pointed readers to what has become something of a classic in Eli's oeuvre: his review of Thanksgiving dinner at Grandpa's house, a meal that he awarded a flaccid two stars for kid-friendliness.
"There where appetizers such as olives, cheese, peperoni, and over foods," Eli wrote. "[M]ost children wouldn't like the olives and I don't have any interest in the peperoni."
The butternut squash soup earned a "delicious," but the stuffing was too spicy and the mashed sweet potatoes marred with gratuitous onion-ing.
Dara Bunjon, a local food blogger who knows Eli's mom, Cheryl, wrote of the boy blogger months ago, as if gazing into a crystal ball: "He'll end up on 'Ellen' way before we will," she predicted, adding the other day, "See, I'm not far from it."
It was Bunjon who might have positioned Eli for his big break — a judging spot at a local grilled cheese cook-off. It was there that he charmed WJZ reporter Ron Matz, who aired a bit with him on the local news. The spot went national, earning a prime spot on the Yahoo! homepage.
When a reporter for a French wire service wrote about the American koodie, the story ran in papers across the globe.
A surge of readers found the blog — tens of thousands of hits overnight on a site that was lucky before to get a couple dozen. "It was completely crazy," says his mom.
Matz says he knew he was on to something as he watched Eli carefully contemplate the various grilled-cheese sandwiches — some of which were chef-made and quite sophisticated.
"I could tell he really loved food; he's really into it," Matz says. "And he seems to know what he's talking about — that's what kind of interested me."
The Knauers — mom Cheryl, dad Jason and Eli, along with his kid brother Owen, who's 6, and his 2-year-old sister Olivia — typically eat out once a week. Eli busies himself at Cub Scout camp, voraciously devouring Harry Potter books and playing Pokemon — even though he tells a journalist that his best friend told him that if he didn't give that up, he'd never get a girlfriend.
When he eats, he does it with gusto and curiosity. He'll want to know what sauteing means. And how a croissant is different from a regular roll. He's a boy with opinions, not afraid to call them as he sees them.
He declares his father's kebabs one of the worst things he's ever eaten. Lobster bisque at Phillips is "too spicy."
Hampden's Holy Frijoles made the mistake of putting lettuce on Eli's taco after he asked for lettuce-free.
So what did he do?
"I didn't do anything," he laments. "My dad said, 'Peel it off.'"
Then he went home and awarded the restaurant a stinging one star for food.
His sign-off of choice: "Well, that's all. Bye!"
As for S'ghetti Eddie's, Eli's impressed with the restaurant's kid-friendliness. The restaurant lost a point or two by not having a separate kid's menu, but he gave his spaghetti and meatballs dinner high marks, praising in particular the "big punch of flavor" in the sauce. As he bites into a breaded mozzarella stick, the gooey cheese trailing several inches from his mouth, he gestures with a triumphant upright thumb.
If Eli could dream up a meal, he'd tell you it would start with oozy cheese sticks just like that — "his favorite appetizer like ever." The entree, without hesitation, would be three-cheese bacon pizza with crisp bacon and a smooth sauce unadulterated by any "blah" tomato pieces.
Before he'd wake up, he'd work his way through a big bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream.
It annoys Eli's dad when people say — as they often do — that a 10-year-old's got no business reviewing restaurants geared for an adult palate. Considering his son didn't even speak until he was nearly 4 years old, he values Eli's words and his right to express himself.
"They'll start with something like, 'No insult to the little guy, but …'" Knauer says, getting ever-so-slightly worked up. "But he doesn't pretend to be a serious foodie. He's a kid. And that doesn't mean he can't like what he likes."
Adds Eli's mom: "He still has an opinion."
When the Knauers hit Clementine recently, for dad's birthday — and of course for an Eli review — owner Cristin Dadant immediately recognized the celebrity in her midst. As a restaurateur and a mom, she loves Adventures of a Koodie.
She was proud to later read Eli's enthusiastic assessment of Clementine's toy-stuffed playroom and its French toast casserole. "[G]uess what? It had whipped cream on top (not to mention the sugar on the plate!) ! It was delicious!" he wrote. "It was soggy (the good type of soggy [It was soggy from the maple syrup, which is also good])"
"I like reading about what kids like about restaurants, which is quite different than what adults like about restaurants," Dadant says, adding that Eli's stream-of-consciousness prose and his E.E. Cummings-esque creativity with grammar only add to the charm. "He's very from the heart. It's sweet."
Though he's been reviewing for nearly a year now, there's no sense that it's getting old for Eli. Sure it wasn't long ago that he was telling everyone he wanted to be Indiana Jones, but these days he's seeing a future filled with entree possibilities — probably more mozzarella sticks and maybe even free dessert.
He's hungry for more.
"There are plenty of restaurants," he says. "All around the world."