Grazing: Speaking freely

Vomiting babies, mariachi, lax service all part of the experience

I've been reading you for years, even though I don't live in Atlanta anymore, writes online reader Elsie, of Greenwhich, Conn., of all places. "I just read your column on horrible Highlands and laughed out loud. But it made me aware that you don't write as broadly as you used to. I miss it." One of my primary criticisms in this column since I began writing it nearly 10 years ago has been directed to dining criticism itself. No matter how much critics would like to speak authoritatively, a review is never more than an account of an experience within a very limited period of time. A restaurant's quality can change subtly or dramatically in a brief period on account of numerous objective and subjectively experienced phenomena.

My way of dealing with this fact from the beginning has been to refuse to take reviewing very seriously, and I came under a great deal of criticism for trying to destabilize the usual contexts and contents of reviewing. I went to funerals and reviewed covered-dish food. I went to a child's birthday party and reviewed manners and birthday cake. I introduced characters, my dining companions, in my column for the express purpose of sabotaging my own temptation to become too authoritative. A few morons thought it had more to do with wanting to promote my social life.

I believe that dining cannot — should not — be regarded separate from its inherent commentary on the state of society. This can take the form of observing how "fusion cuisine" or the popularity of ethnic dining reflects, in specific ways, the changing character of Americans. Too, it is at the table that most of us, as children, learn manners and conversation. All of this is important in the consideration of dining. I recall one critic haughtily announcing to me in public: "I review food. I do not review experience." I commended her for her ability to detach eating from her experience.

In the last few years, partly because of limited space here and partly because of my own keener interest in food per se, I've not painted as broadly, feeling I had to limit myself more to usual restaurant reviews. I receive comments like Elsie's frequently, so I am herewith giving myself some freedom to loosen things up. Watch out....

I have received at least six disputes about my recent review of Marisqueria 7 Mares. Why, even my constant companion Rose D'Agostino reported overcooked fish and two mariachi bands brawling in her delicate ears.

Dr. Steven Bondell had a worse experience: "My wife, 11-year-old son and I came on a Saturday at 4 p.m., which is a busy Latin dining hour, but there were many tables available in this large restaurant. The hostess who seated us told us in English that someone would come back to take our order. Chips and salsa came quickly but it ended there. No one would take our order even though four tables around us, all of whom were seated well after us (one almost 40 minutes after), were all served their food, while we still could not place an order."

I have no explanation. I had three very good meals there with great service. Like I said at the outset of this column: Things change quickly.

I continue to receive mail about the recent report here of a diner's experience of watching an infant vomit copiously at Bacchanalia. I'm afraid the mail definitely runs against the kids. Amity Oslo's e-mail is typical:

"I really don't care one way or the other regarding small children in restaurants; however, I expect anyone there not to spit, scream, throw food on the floor, bang a spoon rhythmically against a plate, run aimlessly around the restaurant getting in everyone's way, or participate in any sort of exchange or display of bodily fluids. If parents find that their children cannot be trusted to behave like adults when they are in an adult context, then other plans should be arranged."

Tell us how you really feel, Amity.

A chef requesting anonymity wrote this: "In response to your item on the vomiting baby at Bacchanalia — I was appalled! For such a thing to happen at a restaurant of such high quality should be unheard of. Surely if you're going out for a special evening and spending that much money, can't you afford a sitter for a couple of hours? I think this is true in any restaurant. Who wants to sit next to that or a screaming child? It's gone on for too long and owner/chefs need to take note. If anything close to this happens and I'm there, the restaurant will be left with the tab."

I have really mixed feelings about this. Infants are one concern but I would hate for any restaurant to forbid children as a matter of policy. Such policies would have meant missing some of the great adventures of my childhood. Moreover, I think it's important that parents civilize their children in this way. But once you admit children to the dining room, who is going to decide when a child's behavior becomes unacceptable? The restaurant can't banish the whole family or install a day care center off the foyer. And I certainly don't want to see Bacchanalia hire a balloon-twisting clown to quiet the bored tykes.

Some quick notes: Mumbo Jumbo has changed hands and early reports from gourmands are not good at all. ... Wonderful Fusebox has closed. ... Fritti, the pizzeria next to Sotto Sotto, is having difficulty opening because of stubborn opposition from Inman Park folks. ... Foodz 2 Go has been offering a crab-cake sandwich that is the best I've ever tasted. ... La Tavola, which I will report on next week, has improved significantly. ... What's the Scoop? has bought some furniture for outdoor gelato-lickers.

Finally, despite the Food Network's clever editing of my piece with them, I don't think all the food at Gladys Knight's Chicken and Waffles is good. The network took one positive comment about the chicken and made it seem as though I were referring to the entire cuisine, much of which I find sadly out of touch with its original, soulful inspiration.

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