I wrote recently that I would not engage in any restaurant criticism here. And I won’t. But an essential part of our research is figuring out where the restaurants—past and present—of our restaurant row fit within the complex New Orleans culinary universe. To that end, I have spent many hours lately digging around in old newspapers, magazines, guidebooks, newsletters, etc. to see how the restaurants have been evaluated over time.
Since the late 1960s, restaurant critics have played an important role in shaping discussions about restaurants and dining in New Orleans. For this project, I am looking mostly at material about our neighborhood, written and published locally. This is simply a way of making a very large amount of material more manageable. For another project, I am also looking into restaurant writing about New Orleans more generally, including some of the early efforts to legitimize the genre and the way it has changed over time, as the idea of culture, useful criticism, careers and other factors have come into focus.
Many people in New Orleans would agree that Richard Collin, author of the “New Orleans Underground Gourmet” (1970, Simon and Schuster), was the city’s first real restaurant critic. He was also a history professor at UNO, where his work in food writing was not terribly well respected, both because it was not really academic work and because it probably did not seem like appropriate behavior for a scholar. UNO would look on such things differently today. That said, there is a relatively clear relationship between art, film and literary criticism and scholarship in related fields, so that it does not seem unusual for professors to write analytic as well as critical pieces for both scholarly and popular publications. The ties between academe and restaurant criticism are less obvious, at least from a disciplinary standpoint. Especially for a historian such as Collin.
Collin stirred up quite a bit of controversy with his writing, in the various editions of “The New Orleans Underground Gourmet,” in his columns for New Orleans States-Item, and in a few other guidebooks about the city. His reviews were subject to protest at a meeting of New Orleans restaurateurs in 1975, with accusations that he lacked objectivity and, worse, that his wife, Rima Collin (also a UNO professor), had a professional interest in seeing some restaurants better rated than others. These kinds of accusations and debates go with the territory, as Frank Bruni, former New York Times restaurant critic, notes in his recent book “Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater” (2009, Penguin). But the tone of the original confrontation with Collin seems to suggest that in the early 1970s, restaurateurs had not yet figured out how to make sense—and use—of restaurant writing.
However, it is also true that Collin, along with other critics in the early years of restaurant writing, did not hesitate to dole out cruel commentary on restaurants. Although such commentary still exists, many restaurant writers in New Orleans tend these days to only write about restaurants they can say nice things about, ignoring the rest. The reasons behind this are not entirely clear. Perhaps they feel they can leave the harsh comments to blog writers, on-line discussion boards like Urban Spoon, Yelp, Chowhound, etc. Collin, however, left us with some very amusing evaluations of restaurants in our neighborhood. Some include restaurants that have since become veritable institutions in New Orleans, which suggests that despite restaurateurs fear, it is possible to survive and even thrive despite the critical barbs tossed out by food writers. Here are a few pithy comments about defunct restaurants in our neighborhood:
On Hazel’s Po-Boy, 208 N. Carrollton (where Taqueria Guerrero Mexico is today): “Hazel’s serves cheap poor boys that lack distinction, as well as luncheon specials on paper plates.” (“The New Orleans Underground Gourmet,” 1973, p. 132.)
On Mid City Kitchen, 303 N. Carrollton (near the corner of Bienville and N. Carrollton, on the site of a defunct strip mall, unreconstructed since Katrina): “On some days this is one of the great places in town. On most days it isn’t. Inconsistency mars the record of a brilliant Cajun burger, well seasoned hamburger poor boys, and excellent roast beef poor boys. On the bad days you wouldn’t recognize them.” (“The New Orleans Restaurant Guide,” 1976, with Rima Collin, p. 165.)
All, of course, is not negative. Collin waxed poetic about many restaurants. In 1976, he wrote about Mandina’s “This is what good old New Orleans neighborhood restaurants once looked like. Mandina’s still does. A joy to look at and a joy to eat in.” (“The New Orleans Restaurant Guide,” 1976, with Rima Collin, p. 108).
Some evaluations change over time. But one that stays remarkably consistent is Brocato’s, which Collin and every other critic I have come across has proclaimed magical. He writes that the cannoli “may well be the cheapest miracle in the world.” (“The New Orleans Restaurant Guide,” 1976, with Rima Collin, p. 72.) And despite my promise not to engage in any criticism myself, I will admit that I believe that this is still true, 34 years later.
Much can be learned from looking at the way restaurant writing has shaped our restaurants and our way of thinking about restaurants. Please let us know of any memories you have about restaurant writing, encounters with critics or ideas about how it should be done. Who are you favorite (and least favorite) critics? Tell us about them.