Food critic hazards

ONE OF THE HAZARDS of being a writer is that sometimes people take you literally when you’re just being metaphorical. Thus it was when I led off an article in Washington’s City Paper in 1987 with the following:

“Life in Washington’s slow lane is under siege. The culture of the more than a half-million residents who don’t subscribe to the Washingtonian, who think of game plans only on fall weekends, and who eat at the 537th best restaurant in town and honestly believe they have had a good meal is threatened by in intrusive, presumptuous, and pompous elite so insecure it must remind us every day in every way that it is in town.”

Soon after the article appeared, the phone rang. It was Phyllis Richman, the food editor of the Washington Post. “Which,” she demanded, “is the 537th best restaurant in town?” She apparently saw my comment as a swipe at her and her profession, especially since her own ratings stopped at 100.

I had learned not to trifle with food columnists. We had one at the DC Gazette, although she apparently never went to a restaurants, wrote interminably of the virtues of soy and bean sprouts, and once interrupted a phone conversation to say, accusingly, “Sam, you’re breathing through your mouth.”

I ran quickly through my most recent meals and finally, with as much casual certainty as I could muster, informed Phyllis that it was Hodge’s, a small carryout on New York Avenue.

She immediately went out and reviewed it. For a rush sound-bite I hadn’t done poorly on the ambiance side of the rating. Richman wrote, “Huddled between Lee’s Brake Service and Kim’s Auto Body Shop, Hodge’s is a self-service sandwich shop with a few shiny tables outside under the green plastic awning.” But the meal I had clearly underrated:

“If you’re sharp you’ll notice that nobody orders anything but the roast beef sandwich. And what a roast beef sandwich! A whole steamship round is being carved to order, in slices thick enough to leave some juices in them. And seeded Kaiser rolls are sliced – also to order – and quickly dipped in the pan juices ~ before they’re stuffed with the beef . . .

“537th? Hmmph. Even the City Paper voted this roast beef sandwich the best in Washington, says the framed certificate on the wall. And the coffee was better than at the lunch counter in my office, even when Hodge’s manager declined to charge for it because it wasn’t fresh enough . . .”

Which is why, these days, when I pick a metaphorical number out of the hat, I’m a bit more cautious that I once was.

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