The Critic Who Ate Baltimore

Elizabeth Large began dishing about restaurants in this town three decades ago. A look back at how the courses -- and the critic-- have changed.

March 30, 2003|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,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; Hauss-ner'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.

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