The critic who ate Baltimore

Sun restaurant critic

Thirty years ago a friend told me The Sun was looking for a restaurant critic. I was young and fearless, and I decided to try out for the job by writing a couple of columns. In my wildest dreams I never imagined I would still be writing about crab cakes and cheesecake well into the next millennium. My first column was published on March 30, 1973. It's a small coincidence that today is three decades later to the day, but it's started me thinking about the changes in the Baltimore food scene over the years -- and the changes in me as a restaurant critic.

In 30 years, I've been to more restaurants than I can count. A thousand? Fifteen hundred? When I started, no one served tuna rare or knew what tiramisu was. Waiters didn't introduce themselves. And the best French restaurant in town (Danny's) served cottage cheese, dill pickles and popovers as an hors d'oeuvre. I was told the reason Baltimore didn't have more good restaurants was that the people who would support them belonged to private eating clubs instead. Looking back at reviews from those first years, I see that they were awash with watery Maryland crab soup, mediocre shrimp cocktails, overcooked stuffed flounder, oversauced crab imperial and, of course, Mrs. Pose's cheesecake. Not many restaurants had respectable wine lists; if you didn't drink hard liquor, which I didn't, you were out of luck.

My first review appeared in the features section of the morning Sun. The column was called "Eater's Digest" and the restaurant was Danny's, one of the city's finest and certainly most expensive.

"It's the only restaurant I've ever been in where I overheard someone ask the price of a cup of coffee before he ordered it," I wrote.

The Sun paid me $50 -- a princely sum except that I had to pay for the meal out of it. There wasn't much left over after dinner for two at Danny's. (I eventually talked my boss into $35 plus expenses.)

You didn't need to know much about food to be a critic back then -- although I thought I did. You just had to have a good sense of the ridiculous. The problem from a writer's point of view is that these days eating in Baltimore is no longer a running joke.

"[The peas] had an odor so strange that when I pointed it out to the waitress, she said, 'I hope you won't be sick,' " I wrote in a 1973 review of the Oak Room, the dining room of the Lord Baltimore Hotel downtown.

Don't get me wrong. Being the paper's food critic is -- and was even then -- a lark of a job. Baltimore had some wonderful restaurants in the early '70s, just not enough of them. Not only that, but eating out wasn't the passion it is today, and my copy, to say the least, wasn't considered sacred. Sometimes half a review would simply disappear for space reasons. It was usually the positive half, of course, because negative comments are always more fun to read.

I was a freelancer who had a background in food and writing but was working for the Johns Hopkins University at the time. John Dorsey, The Sun's main, and highly respected, food critic wrote for the Sun Magazine. I was hired to help liven up the daily features section. Nobody knew who I was, but the rumor around the newsroom was that Elizabeth Large was the nom de plume of a reporter, Jeff Price (now editor of the Perspective section). That first year Baltimore Magazine awarded Elizabeth Large "worst pseudonym for a food critic" in its best and worst issue.

Variety in short supply

Meanwhile, I was working my way through sour beef and dumplings, hard shell crabs deep fried in thick batter, crab fluffs, and baked potatoes served in aluminum foil. I love traditional Maryland food as much as the next person, but if you're writing about it week after week, you appreciate a little variety -- something the city didn't get until the early '80s.

Baltimore had Danny's, the Chesapeake, Tio Pepe, Marconi's, Haussner's, Peerce's Plantation and the Pimlico Hotel. We had Little Italy (Velleggia's, Chiapparelli's and Sabatino's were stars) and our beloved crab houses. But there wasn't an Indian restaurant here until the Jai Hind opened in the early '70s. Tio Pepe's food was as much Continental as Spanish; Haussner's, as much Maryland seafood as German. "Ethnic" for the most part meant Greek or Cantonese Chinese. A Chinese restaurant was considered swanky if the waiters didn't wash down the Formica tabletops with the leftover tea.

Still, if you went to one of Baltimore's best restaurants, you were practically guaranteed a good meal. I started off one review saying, "Perhaps the greatest accolade I've ever heard for a restaurant was from a friend who told me she went into labor at the Prime Rib and refused to leave until she finished her meal." I ended up pretty much agreeing that this place served food worth putting off having a baby for.

But there were other restaurants so mediocre that periodically my husband had enough, and refused to serve as companion -- for months, sometimes even for years.

Freddie's Bar and Restaurant on Harford Road, which somebody had recommended, was the kind of place we ended up in all too often in those early days. I described the decor as "dingy -- no, dirty." It was so depressing my husband kept asking me if I was certain this was the right restaurant.

"When I assured him this had to be it, he remarked that he was glad he couldn't see in the kitchen and lapsed into a sullen silence. ... I managed to keep him pinned to his chair struggling until the food arrived." (As it turned out, the meal itself wasn't bad. )

Luckily, I had friends who were starry-eyed at the chance of free food -- until reality set in and they dropped by the wayside. For every Country Fare Inn (where Roland Jeannier of Jeannier's got his start locally), there were four like Shook's Restaurant and Lounge on Maiden Choice Lane (headline: "Shook's really needs help").

Shook's specialty was raw beef sandwiches.

Highlights, low lights

The highlight of that first year of reviewing, for me anyway, was a series on the city's hotels.

Mayor William Donald Schaefer had said earlier about promoting tourism, "We can't move forward if Baltimoreans ... are running down their own city," so The Sun had me review hotel restaurants while another reporter stayed overnight in the same hotels and wrote about her experiences.

As one letter to the editor put it, "Not satisfied with Elizabeth Large wielding her own deadly pen, the feature section had to have some other female mouthing nasty things."

Only in Baltimore in the '70s would you have a restaurant (the Holiday Inn's) revolving around in front of the Bromo-Seltzer clock, and no one but me seemed to find it funny.

Two years later, someone at the paper got the bright idea of sneaking me into the city's private eating clubs as a guest and having me do a series reviewing them. (The ethics of this didn't seem to worry anyone.) It would have been a better idea if most of the clubs' memberships hadn't been closed to women, African-Americans and Jews.

A good part of our readership was annoyed by the series; contrary to what the higher-ups at the paper thought, they hadn't been panting to know what they were missing. True, the traditional Maryland food was, on the whole, fine and the settings were Old Baltimore at its most stately; but the city was beginning to look forward to New Baltimore, which was a lot more fun.

Throughout the '70s, the bane of my existence was family restaurants. There were so many of them, and most of them were so ordinary, yet it seemed mean to criticize them. Then I had a child of my own and began to understand their value.

"When I was childless I always disliked so-called family restaurants," I wrote. "But now I have my revenge. She's 9 months old and when she wears a frilly dress she looks like a stevedore in drag. ... During a trip to the Eastern Shore I decided to unleash her on the White Hall Inn near the Bay Bridge as the supreme test of that self-designated family restaurant."

I realized that, while the soup was lukewarm and the spareribs fatty, it was nice to be eating in a place that didn't mind the chicken bones and wet Saltines on the floor. The waitresses were very nice about the mess. "What families with babies don't spend on drinks they make up for in tips," I concluded.

Something wonderful

At the end of the '70s and beginning of the '80s, something wonderful happened. The new Harborplace was part of it. A number of intriguing, globally inclined restaurants opened there with names like the Black Pearl, Tandoor, Taverna Athena and Jean-Claude's. The city started to get Indian, Thai, Japanese and Szechuan restaurants. Funky -- and good -- little places like the Soup Kitchen appeared. The Country Fare Inn franchise took off, which led to King's Contrivance, Fiori, the Brass Elephant and, eventually, the current incarnation of the Milton Inn.

Nouvelle cuisine arrived in Federal Hill with Stall 1043.

"The deep pink salmon filet ... was wrapped around a puff of salmon mousse and placed on a lightly paler pink Nantua sauce," I wrote ecstatically in my 1980 review of the new restaurant. "Draped oh so negligently across the filet was one succulent lobster claw (without its shell, of course). Several other chunks of lobster meat lingered nearby, as though the chef had only picked lobster because its elegant coral color complemented the salmon's pink."

I was so happy to have entertaining food to write about I downplayed my dismay at my first course: gelatinous slices of scallops arranged picturesquely in an intricate circle on cucumber puree -- a typical nouvelle dish. The decade of over-handled food had begun in Baltimore.

Stall 1043 lasted only a few years, but it was long enough to put Federal Hill on the map as a neighborhood with intriguing places to eat. Fells Point was to follow with the opening of Savannah in the Admiral Fell Inn, which later moved and became Charleston, and M. Gettier's, which later moved to Towson. This was the era of Baltimore's celebrity chefs, the likes of Mark Henry, who revived the Milton Inn, Nancy Longo of Pierpoint, Rudy Speckamp of Rudys' 2900 and Michael Rork at the Harbor Court Hotel.

My audience was changing, and I was changing as a critic. People had always loved their favorite restaurants, but now if I said something negative you would think I had drowned their first born. I could understand restaurant owners taking my criticism personally, but I was amazed at how outraged readers got.

What's more, people started to want to describe their meals to me. In excruciating detail. (Hey, only I get to do that.) If I met people at a party they might ask me what my favorite restaurants were, but I quickly realized what they really wanted to do was tell me what their favorites were. It was easier just to counter with "What's yours?" No one has ever hesitated to tell me -- or repeated their question about mine.

I also found that owners were more reactive to reviews than they had been -- maybe because they realized people were paying more attention to restaurant critics. They would go back and find my check from the description of the meal and figure out who the staff was that night. One waiter called in tears to say he'd been fired because he had told me he didn't recommend the special that evening, and I had printed his remark. I started to be more careful.

I've also had to be more careful about staying anonymous as the years passed. I don't wear a disguise, but I do use a credit card in another name, and I only get back to the same restaurant every five or six years unless there are drastic changes. I'm probably recognized sometimes, but what are they going to do? Run out and buy a better cut of steak?

I've always thought of myself as the readers' advocate, and I've tried to stay as far away from the owners and chefs as possible. But as customers have gotten more assertive in their own right, I've lost some of my sense of outrage at bad food and worse service. I've seen how often it's out of the owner's hands if the steak is overcooked or a staffer rude. I'm continually amazed that anyone takes on the Sisyphean struggle of opening a restaurant. Why do they do it? (Unless it's a cash cow like the Outback Steakhouse, but that's another story.)

Explosion of the new

But open them they do, thank goodness, and open them they did one after another in the '90s. Globalization took off, and Baltimore's restaurant scene really came into its own. People stopped going to D.C. just because they wanted an authentic ethnic meal -- or a good haute cuisine French meal, for that matter. We lost the Chesapeake, Danny's and Haussner's; but Tio Pepe, the Prime Rib and Marconi's are still going strong. They've just made room for the Bicycle, Charleston, Spike & Charlie's, Donna's, the Helmand, the Black Olive, Red Tapas, Red Coral, Red Maple -- you get the idea. Anyone who was lucky enough to be a critic during this explosion of new restaurants, namely me, had great on-the-job training.

At the same time, of course, I learned that the more things change ...

I still needed, as Sun food columnist Rob Kasper once said, 9,000 ways to say mediocre. I endured trends: Tall food. Fussed-with food. Herbs used as decoration that had nothing to do with the dish. (OK, it's an improvement on the spiced apple ring.) Olive oil served with bread when butter would be more appropriate. Balsamic everything. Flavored tea bags presented in enormous wooden chests. Tiramisu. And now, creme brulee.

When I got tired of writing about food I took time off, but not often. In my 30 years on the job, I've had as many as two columns a week (one for the Sun Magazine and one casual eats column for the weekly section called Live). For several years when I was editor of the magazine, I didn't have a regular column but continued to review for the twice-yearly dining guides.

Thirty years ago, I never would have guessed we would be where we are now: With noise probably the No. 1 complaint diners have about eating out in Baltimore. With a moderate meal costing $30 to $60 for two. With fusion cuisine so common we don't even think about it as fusion anymore. With sushi as popular as pizza. (Well, almost.) With excellent breads the rule, not the exception, and more wines by the glass than most places used to have bottles on their wine lists. And yet with two of Baltimore's top three most popular restaurants, according to the latest Zagat survey, still Tio Pepe and the Prime Rib.

I never was much good at prophesying. Here's what I said about Connolly's seafood restaurant, now long gone, in 1982:

"When finally the weeds are pushing their way through the Chart House's foundations and the lizards are sunning themselves on Harborplace's abandoned terraces, I have the feeling Connolly's will still be dishing out crab cakes and fried oysters on Pratt Street at Pier 5."

Nope. Not by a long shot.

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