THIS was originally posted just over one year ago. With the sudden attention gained from our “Pic Frank Twitter Contest” (due to a re-tweet by Mr. Gold and Mr. Bruni. And YES, we are flattered!), we thought it a good time to revisit our dinner with the food critic. This little post says quite a bit about how much respect and admiration we have for many of these talented writers.
Last summer, I enjoyed one of the most exciting lunch dates of my life.
Phyllis Richman, the esteemed food critic for the Washington Post for 20-plus years, agreed to meet me. A few months earlier, she contributed the most wonderful article in Gourmet magazine. I shot out a few emails to chef /friends in the DC area, and soon had Ms. Richman’s email contact in my address book. I sent along a little note, thanking her for sharing her story in Gourmet, and invited her to join me for dinner anytime she found herself in LA. Her very gracious response was almost immediate, but mentioned that she rarely travels anymore. By the end of the email, however, she added “But if you find yourself in the DC area, please let me know. Perhaps we could meet for lunch.”
She soon realized her mistake.
Three months later, I discovered myself returning to DC for an awards ceremony. I sent Ms. Richman an email, and a few short weeks later we were sitting together in a little French bistro on The Hill.
I recognized her the minute that she walked through the door. The memories of Phyllis Richman came flooding back from my DC restaurant days. Known in the restaurant world as “The Phyllis,” she was an extremely knowledgeable, and tough, food critic. And powerful. Very. Powerful. If Phyllis reviewed your dining room positively, you were destined for success. If not, you had best find a new job. Quick.
I opened three restaurants while living in DC in the mid-90′s, two of which Ms. Richman reviewed. As I described them to her, “One you loved and it is still going strong. The other, you suggested that the chef and the designer should have switched jobs. They closed a few months later.”
I recalled sitting at the bar of Cashion’s Eat Place in Adams Morgan with the staff for family meal, when I spotted her crossing the street. “IT’S PHYYYYYYYYLIS! GET THIS SHIT CLEANED UP!! AND WHERE IS THE CHEF?? SOMEONE CALL THE CHEF NOW!!’ Things went particularly well for this review. So well, in fact, that Ms. Richman offered a phone call to chef/owner Ann Cashion before the review was published, warning “It is a very good review. I am calling to ask you to please be prepared. Please do not let the restaurant become overwhelmed.”
Ann Cashion is one of those rare professional chefs, a superior intellect that could figure food costs in her head. She was a professor at Stanford. She hand wrote her menu daily, her afternoon cup of coffee always poised in the same position – just above her writing hand. Her script was beautiful, her food was delicious and very “personal.” She was originally from Mississippi. Anytime friends or family arrived, they did so with a bushel of crowder peas, or purple hulls. Her menu was always unique. Her flavors always simple, yet bold. One of my favorite restaurant designs ever, to this day Cashion’s boasts a wall full of old family photos, their “angels” watching and protecting them. Partners John Fulchino and Ann Cashion opened a new larger space on the hill and sold this restuarant to their longtime sous chef and manager, and the quality has not diminished one bit in the last decade. As usual, Ms. Richman’s review was spot on, and this tiny gem continues to hum along with happy diners.
Ms. Richman shared many stories of Cashions that I had never heard. We became so fascinated by each others’ stories – sort of a peek into a world neither of us could imagine - that our meal continued from lunch well into the dinner hour. Humorously, she could not remember the other restaurant that she reviewed poorly.
I, however, remembered every detail. Vividly.
This story you could file under “greatest restaurant nightmares!” Not only was Ms. Richman in the house that evening, so was the food critic from the Washingtonian. He was just as tough as Ms. Richman. And, rumor had it, they hated each other. The owner of the restaurant became so overwhelmed during their visit, the server finally screamed in frustration, ”I have the orders for two food critics in my hand. Either you go to the bar, drink a martini, and back off…or I walk out the door with both of these orders.” The owner quietly spun on his heels and headed for the bar. He drank several more after the reviews arrived.
My conversation with Phyllis ranged from food bloggers (not really very big or impactful in the DC area), to food trends, to gossip and laughter, to the most interesting stories of Bistro Bis, the very charming restaurant that had served as our host for the day. She recounted fascinating tales of Chef Buben, and how he had mentored many of the areas most dynamic young chefs. She had long been in search of a great story in which to include him.
The very fact that we were sitting in this restaurant, however, was dumb luck. Ms. Richman insisted that I choose the restaurant. I moved away from the area many years ago, and had no idea where to take her. I asked advice from many chefs. The best advice, however, was that ”Phyllis rides the metro everywhere, so pick a place close to a train station for her.” A little research later, and we were sitting in this dapper dining room. I had purposefully NOT read her review of the restaurant beforehand. When I walked in the front door, however, her review was blown up to poster size – a sure sign that the chef was proud of his review!
Recalling the stress of serving “The Phyllis,” I was happy that the young server had no idea who she was. We found oursleves with no silverware during one course. She looked at me, laughed and said “What would you do right now if you were a food critic?” I jumped up, grabbed the silverware, and tried to save the server. Ms. Richman laughed, we relaxed and allowed ourselves to enjoy the meal, the company, and the conversation. By the end of the meal, even though we were the only guests remaining in the restaurant, we clearly had not scratched the surface of our future conversations.
After our meeting, we hugged, exchanged contact information and sincerely thanked each other for a delightful day. I walked over to The Mall and strolled through the National Gallery of Art, soaking up one of our country’s greatest treasures – The Phyllis.
Note: Phyllis and I remain in contact on FaceBook! I refer to her as “My first food critic friend.” The next “FCF,” however, can’t be far behind!! Frank Bruni just retired as food critic for the New York Times. And, he has just accepted me as his FaceBook friend! AND, he arrives in Los Angeles next month. I suspect we, too, will become pals. Just like me and Phyllis!