About Hungry in Hampton Roads

Here’s the deal:  I spent the last four years eating my way across Washington, D.C.

Being the somewhat obsessive person I am, this basically equated to me systematically working through my marked-up Zagat’s guide, checking off restaurants as I went along.  I followed chefs the way 16-year olds obsess over their favorite bands.  Without fail, the first section of Sunday’s Washington Post I turned to every week was Tom Sietsema’s merciless restaurant reviews (he once famously wrote, “At least the water was cold”).  “Eating out” became a bona fide hobby, and restaurant week might as well have been declared a federal weeklong holiday, as far as I was concerned.

By the end of the four years, I had eaten the painstakingly arranged tartare mosaic at Michel Richard’s Citronelle, as well as the “faux gras” at his newer bistro, Central.  I wolfed down the “artisanal” butters at Thomas Ziebold’s CityZen, gushed over the stir-fried lobster at TenPenh, tried to understand the “deconstructed” feija0 at Café Atlantico, and sipped Rosa Mexicano’s $16 margarita (grousing about the price and the restaurant’s nerve in refusing to bring me salsa unless I ordered their $15 guacamole the entire time).

I found religion one fall evening when, on a whim, I tried the  roasted brussels sprouts at Barton Seaver’s Saint Ex, and I found it again a few weeks later when I had his goat-cheese cheesecake.  When he left for the Georgetown restaurant Hook, I followed him there for high-end sashimi, and then to his third kitchen, Tackle Box, for decidedly more casual char-grilled trout and fries.  I would wring my hands over whether the moules mariniere were better at Belga Café or Dr. Granville Moore’s.  On misty overcast days, you could find me hovering over a steaming bowl of pho in Huong Viet.  Sunny days?  Well, those were perfect for handmade burgers and fries outside of Spike Mendelsohn’s Good Stuff on Pennsylvania Avenue.  My last lunch in the city called for glasses of wine and a pesto-slathered pizza on Sonoma’s patio in the shadow of the Library of Congress.

I was a Five Guys greasy-bag regular, and I ate way too many chili half smokes at Ben’s Chili Bowl (of course, a dietician would probably say one chili half smoke is too many).  I hunted out the knishes at the new ballpark and even had the fish sandwich at Horace and Dickie’s (for the uninitiated, it’s four pieces of fried fish in between two slices of Wonder Bread at a dumpy take-out shack).  I became a fan of tamales de alote when I realized all the Tex-Mex restaurants in D.C. are run by Salvadorans who really have no clue about how to cook Mexican food (but make killer Salvadoran fare).  I also ate a great number of mediocre (and outright lousy) meals in the city … often at some expense.

I could go on and on.  And I have, much to the amusement – and sometimes great irritation – of my friends.  My food fascination led me to ask them stupid questions like, “What kind of sauce did they serve with the salmon?”  And to total strangers:  “Oh, you live in D.C.?  Have you been to Morou’s new restaurant in Crystal City?  It just opened two days ago.”

So, moving to Hampton, Virginia?  Serious culture shock.  I mean, I knew I was leaving foodie heaven in the rearview mirror, I just didn’t expect to find a full-fledged embrace of … well … mediocrity.  I’m not saying that all the restaurants here are mediocre — far from it.  What is entirely mediocre (at best) is the critique of the restaurants, because every review I’ve read here has been nothing but a glowing endorsement of how completely flawless the dining experience was.  Every dining experience.  As in, each one.

Seriously?  Not one single inept waitress?  Not one overcooked filet?  No uninspired decor?  No unimaginative menus?  No unswept floors?  None?  Anywhere?  Ever?  Really?  Of course, the local paper recently featured a recipe for “crock pot tacos” and a horrifying recipe for an oyster burger (you basically make a burger, slather it with mayo, then smoosh an oyster into the mayo … no, I’m not kidding) which tells me they aren’t the most discerning bunch.

I get the whole “don’t bash the local business” thing, I really do, because I’ve seen the cries of “yellow journalism” that come out of it.  But I really don’t think you’re doing anyone any favors when it comes to restaurants.  All uncritical cheerleader reviews do is encourage restaurants to keep doing whatever it is they’re doing, good or bad.   They never force the managers or executive chefs to take a step back and say, “You know, we could do a lot better.”  Instead, they tell the restaurants:  “Don’t change a thing.  Not a single, solitary thing, because you are perfect.”  And if there’s a perfect restaurant in Hampton Roads … all I can say is I haven’t found it, yet.

So, the deal is this:  I’m going to eat at places around here and tell you what I think.  No flash, no pandering to the proprietors, just straight up honest assessments of my experiences.  If it’s good, I’ll write that.  If it’s lousy, you’ll read all about it.  What you won’t see are reviews of chain places.  Not because the food is bad, mind you, (and not because I don’t eat at these places, because I do) but because the soup from a bag at the Applebees in Hampton tastes exactly like the soup from a bag at every other Applebees across the country.  No matter what the bra size is of the Hooters “waitress,” the chicken wings just don’t vary from restaurant to restaurant.  The aptly named Cracker Barrel here has precisely the same junk for sale in the waiting area as every Cracker Barrel at every freeway exit everywhere.

Even though Chick-a-Sea has somehow become the number one restaurant in Hampton according to TripAdvisor (a pizza joint is #2, Cracker Barrel is#4, and I’m sure the recently opened Chipotle is rapidly climbing the ranks), there are far more worthwhile local businesses to visit, which is exactly what I plan to do.  Just don’t expect me to sugarcoat the experience …
UPDATE:  I moved.  It happens.  Problem is I moved just far enough away that it’s too much of a stretch to hop in the car and cruise down to Taphouse … no matter how good those chicken livers are.  But, traffic notwithstanding, if you happen to find yourself three or so hours north, let’s talk.  I’m hanging out over here these days.