This will be my last column for No Reservations. By my count it will be my 66th. Food coverage in Hampshire Life will be taking a different direction so I am moving on. I’ve enjoyed writing No Reservations and I’ll miss the comments from readers.
I’ll also miss the chance to write about the restaurants I haven’t gotten to – Hattaporn’s Kitchen and Thai Blue Ginger in Greenfield, Blue Heron in Sunderland, Chez Albert and Fresh Side in Amherst, Latino Restaurant in South Amherst, Barstow’s Farm on Route 47 in Hadley, the Starlight Diner in Chicopee, the Federal in Agawam, and in Northampton, Lhasa Café, Osaka, Food on Green Street and the new tapas place set to open on Pearl Street. Don’t wait for someone else’s opinion. Give them a try.
My doctor, who reads No Reservations and regularly expresses concern over my triglycerides, might not give me the same advice. In fact, he will no doubt be pleased to learn that I’ll be eating out less frequently.
At a time when the economy is still grim for far too many people, the local dining scene remains vibrant. New restaurants appear as old ones disappear. The recent obituary of Onil Rodrigue, who ran the St. Regis Restaurant in Northampton with his family, prompted memories of the place, which was one of my frequent dining spots when I came to this area 30-odd years ago. The scene has been growing ever since.
The use of local ingredients, especially during the summer, is now pretty much a given. Dining out is now the evening’s entertainment and once-exotic foods like cilantro or arugula, kiwis and crème brulee, mussels and calamari, osso bucco and short ribs are common enough to be clichés. Now, if we could only raise enough local meat to regularly supply more restaurants than Local, the Northampton burger place …
One of No Reservations’ ground rules was that I wasn’t supposed to review a restaurant, but instead let readers know about what to expect in a restaurant, so they could decide for themselves whether they wanted to try a place.
People sometimes tell me that Northampton restaurants are overrated. Northampton is not New York City and it never will be. It lacks the broad access to ingredients, the large client base and the ready cash of a world-class city. But the Pioneer Valley has a large and healthy dining scene. There are white-tablecloth restaurants, ethnic restaurants, restaurants that aim to serve a decent meal at a good price, as well as some restaurants that just want to get people in and out fast.
I’ve met many of the area’s owners and chefs over the years. They are businesspeople, but their business is hospitality and it pleases them when customers like their food and enjoy their restaurants.
There isn’t much that I’d do differently when it comes to No Reservations. Except for the photograph in the logo. The paper wanted my photo, like all columnists had. Since I wasn’t doing reviews or assigning stars, I didn’t need to be a mystery diner. Originally, the photo was very dark and intentionally obscured my features. Someone decided that it was too dark and we took a clearer shot. I never liked it. We tried different ones over the years, but nothing came out well. When various restaurants posted my column in their windows I had to avert my eyes: I look like some deranged serial killer waiting for his fava beans.
If I can offer any advice to diners in the Valley, it is to find places you like and patronize them. Ask the server what’s good, but try things on your own. Order several appetizers rather than an entrée – the cost is usually the same and appetizers are often dishes in which the kitchen can shine. Compliment what you like; send your food back if it’s not cooked right, but be polite about it. Good restaurants will fix it if they can: One of the nicest phrases servers these days use is “Is everything to your liking?” Tip 20 percent unless the service really is bad. Take off your baseball cap when you’re eating in any place that has metal silverware.
My advice to budding food critics is to eat widely, read recipes, cook for yourself, spend your time describing the food rather than being witty, avoid the word delicious, and know the difference between something that isn’t to your taste and something that’s badly cooked. Also, match your expectations to the restaurant.
There is an image that I’ve saved to use in a column that I’d better use now. Picture a winter evening, around 6 P.M. The sidewalks are wet enough to reflect the neon signs and the smells of hot oil and hot food punctuate the cold air. You enter a restaurant, your glasses fogging in the sudden warmth. The room buzzes, dishes clink, someone laughs and someone else drops something. There’s a curl of steam as your server places something hot and sizzling in front of you. As you bend down for a taste, the world comes into focus and you are happy.
Orginally published in a somewhat different form in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, July 16, 2010.