The dining critic: A taste for blogging

Elizabeth Large, who penned regular restaurant reviews for the Baltimore Sun, poses at <a href=""><b>Donna's Cross Keys restaurant</b></a>.
Elizabeth Large, who penned regular restaurant reviews for the Baltimore Sun, poses at Donna's Cross Keys restaurant. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun)

During 37 years as a feature writer, sometime editor and longtime restaurant critic at the Sun, I had many proud moments and even a few awards. But I don't think anything pleased me as much as being named The Sun's Best Blogger by the City Paper in the fall of 2007.

A few months before, my editor had told me I would be joining the digital age. I would write a food and restaurant blog, to be called Dining@Large.

I wasn't sure I knew what a blog was.

Being a restaurant critic was a fabulous job, but I'd done it for a long time. Suddenly I was given the chance to start something new, with the kind of freedom that reporters can only dream about. I could write my own headlines! Pick my own photos! Work without being edited! (That last only because successful bloggers post early and often, which I sometimes did in the middle of the night if I couldn't sleep.)

People were surprised that I thrived in the blogosphere because I'd been a print journalist so long. But my daughter always said I was the world's oldest teenager, loving pop culture and always out for a thrill. There is nothing more exciting than a new job you have to invent as you go along.

Newspaper blogging was just taking off, so I had no one to tell me what to do and few rules to follow. I quickly learned that the best aspect of blogging is twofold: the immediate feedback you get from readers and the community that develops within a blog because of their comments.

The first time I realized, "Wow! This is great! I don't have to do this all by myself!" was probably when I wrote about finding a bat in my kitchen. I described how I ran to the computer to Google "Bats, getting rid of."

A reader commented, "The Orioles have been doing that for years."

It still makes me laugh.

As that anecdote indicates, Dining@Large became a sort of free-form entity, sometimes only tangentially connected to food and restaurants. Readers seemed to like to know about my personal life — as much as I was willing to tell them.

When I visited my daughter on the West Coast, I posted a photo of her empty fridge to explain why we were eating out so much. It contained only a jar of Bonne Marman preserves and a few Bud Lights, and one reader commented that she had better taste in marmalade than she did in beer. (She was incensed. I was rolling on the floor laughing.)

The blog was a continual source of surprise for me and, I hope, for my readers. Who would have guessed, for instance, that several regulars, including a reader from Denver, would end up writing excellent weekly guest posts? Or that restaurant owners, chefs and servers would be willing to comment candidly on the blog?

During the three years of Dining@Large's existence, some commenters got to be virtual friends. They started a D@L Facebook page and met outside the blog — and still do. When one well-liked regular died unexpectedly, his virtual friends — most of whom had never met him personally — went to his memorial service.

Naturally there were downsides. One regular, I found out later, had used Dining@Large as a sort of dating service. Yuk. I had to learn not to be defensive when criticized, which was often. Commenters could be cruel to other commenters and about other Sun writers. And comments weren't always PG-13. There were amusing but abrasive local characters and nut cases who wandered in from some other universe to rant and rave in all caps.

On the whole, though, commenters made blogging the most fun thing I did as a writer for The Sun. I enjoyed it up to the moment I retired two years ago.

"So why don't you have your own blog now if it was so great?" someone asked me recently. The short answer is that blogging consumed me. Much as I loved it, it's nice not to be looking at everything in my life as a potential blog post, a sort of digital "Truman Show."

I can even eat a meal now without thinking, "Where's my camera phone?" and "How I can make this pasta dinner interesting for Dining@Large readers?"

But I do miss having a place to tell readers about my recent experience at a chic new restaurant downtown. I noticed another diner had slipped off one shoe and put her bare foot in her boyfriend's lap. He was massaging her toes under the table.

That post would have gotten a few comments.

Elizabeth Large started as a restaurant critic at the Sun in 1973. She retired in 2010 and now almost never eats out.