Wilted-Salad Days

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In the early days, I used to write about damn near everything for the Welcomat, the Philadelphia weekly where I got started. I wrote about books and movies and punk rock and bums. I also wrote about the gallery scene even though I knew nothing about art, and I wrote about modern classical music without knowing anything about that, either. I wrote about an awful lot of things I knew absolutely nothing about. That was okay–very few people ever called or questioned me on it.

It only made sense, then, that after a few months my editor, Derek, would ask me to write a restaurant column along with everything else. The paper, if I remember correctly, already had two restaurant critics, so I only had to turn something in every three weeks. That sounded fine. What sounded even better was the whole idea of getting paid to eat in fancypants places. I was scraping by at the time, and just barely, so the prospect of getting a decent meal–even just one every three weeks–sounded pretty damn good.

There was a little catch to the deal, though. Since the two critics already working there handled the hundreds of high-end eateries Philly had to offer, I was asked to write about the places where real people ate–the diners and lunch counters, the storefront cheese steak and fried fish operations, the red sauce joints in South Philly and the 24-hour places. To cover my expenses, I’d be given an extra $20 per review. (Derek had pushed for more, but the man who made the money decisions was hardly the most generous of souls.)

What the hell, I figured. At least once every couple weeks I’d still be eating better than I usually did, and if I played my cards right, I’d still have plenty left over from that $20.

I thought long and hard about where I might go first. Someplace that would at once allow me to establish my credibility among the fraternity of restaurant critics, allow me to explore a range of culinary delights and also allow me to be unusually, viciously cruel.

I was still in the midst of my "cruelty for cruelty’s sake" phase, see, protected by the knowledge that nobody in Philly–with the exception of a few friends–had any idea what I looked like. That offered me a tremendous amount of freedom when it came to pretending to be a critic of this or that.

Anyway, the first place I chose met all the above criteria. It was also open 24 hours (always a plus), had a "cocktail lounge" tucked away in the back, and was half a block from my apartment.

It was called the Midtown IV. I don’t know how many Midtowns there were in Philly, but there were a bunch, and each one was numbered (I think I saw a Midtown XI or XII at one point). Although the floor plans were different at each location, the menus were always exactly the same. Steaks, chops, chicken, sandwiches, salads–none of it terribly fancy, and none of it terribly good. The meat was rubbery, the chicken soggy, the salads usually little more than browning iceberg lettuce with some grainy tomato slices on top. But it was real cheap, I’ll grant them that. They catered mostly to an older, middle-class clientele from the neighborhood’s retirement complexes.

I loved the idea of the Midtowns. I just didn’t like eating there very much. Always left feeling a little queasy. Sadly, leaving queasy after every visit is no guarantee that I won’t keep going back to a place time and time again, if I like the idea of it. I still do that.

So I went to the Midtown at 3:30 a.m. on a Wednesday. A couple derelicts sat at the counter drinking coffee and eating eggs. I took a booth, ordered a carafe of wine and the veal. Veal, in general, is simply not something you want to eat at 3:30 in the morning. And at the Midtown, it was generally best to avoid the veal altogether.

I left about an hour later feeling queasy, returned to my apartment and typed up a story.

I made fun of the elderly, I made fun of the waitresses. I made fun of the decor. I wrote slanderous exaggerations about the food. Then I turned it in.

The review ran, and almost within minutes the angry letters started arriving. Most all of them called for an apology and my head.

As Derek told me later, "You can say what you want about politics, art, music, whatever and no one will blink an eye. But you insult someone’s favorite restaurant, look out."

The seething, hateful letters rolled in for weeks. Silly people. I was of an age and a mindset that I just took it all as encouragement. Two weeks later I went out to another restaurant and did exactly the same thing.

I knew nothing about food. I couldn’t tell wines apart. I was blind to the art of presentation. It didn’t matter. To my advantage, it didn’t matter much to the people who ran the places I was eating at, either–or their customers. The thing is, I didn’t even write well about food. My culinary vocabulary was extremely limited. I could say if something was good, and I could say when something tasted like cold shit, and that was about the extent of it. Subtlety wasn’t exactly my forte.

I wasn’t a complete asshole to every place I went. I liked Lee’s Fish and Steak–a little storefront, family-owned take-out joint across the street from my apartment. I loved Lee’s, actually. They fried everything there, and served it all up in Styrofoam containers. I made a point of noting when a pizza place that looked just like every other pizza place on the block had an unusually good crust (very important). If a place had something going for it, I wouldn’t besmirch them. Not too much, anyway.

Mostly, though, I was just mean–and to be honest, despite what counterintuitive common sense might say, most all these places were pretty crappy. But after a review, I would find out loud and clear that, despite their crappiness, plenty of people loved them.

I could ignore them most of the time, but did end up on the phone once with one restaurant owner. This was strange–I thought my review had been extremely mild. She felt differently, and informed me that I was "killing her children." Yeah, whatever. If you ask me, though, if she couldn’t get a liquor license, she had no right calling her place "Ouzo."

After about a year, I started to notice something about the restaurants I was reviewing. It was becoming more and more difficult, I was finding, to write anything new or interesting about these places. I finally figured out why while sitting in a dim little Greek diner nestled under a bridge in North Philly.

Philadelphia is home to a world-renowned restaurant school. The people who graduate very often go on to open up their own places right there in town. All of them are different, all of them have some unique style to them, all of them are very, very expensive and few of them last longer than a year or two. Often the places I was eating at–like that Greek diner–had been around for decades. Looking at the menu, I finally realized why.

In roughly 90 percent of the places I went to (and not just the Midtowns), the menus were exactly the same. I don’t just mean that they served hoagies, grinders, cheese steaks and chops–they did, but that’s beside the point. No, what I mean to say is, the menus themselves were exactly the same. The same fonts, the same layout and of course the same food and prices as well. All these places were working with a single menu. Probably a single supplier as well. Hell, even the plates and the silverware were of the same design.

Of course it would be difficult to write something new and interesting when, in essence, I was reviewing the same restaurant every single time.

There were plenty of places in town, especially in South Philly, that were known mob joints. The Melrose Diner, for instance. People were always getting shot in there. But sitting in that Greek place under the bridge, my dim brain had finally latched onto something.

It was clear, of course, that the Philly mob had their fingers in a lot of things around town, but I had no idea until then that they had such an iron grip on the low-end restaurant business. It made perfect sense–though these greasy spoons might not have been too profitable individually, if you have a stake in damn near every one of them (each with their own small but loyal clientele), it could add up. If you control the suppliers, and the menu printers and the flatware distributors, too, all the better.

Thinking back on it now, it becomes even more clear. I watched lots of places open up while I was there. Small restaurants with everything going for them: location, a unique menu, prices even cheaper than most. Yet inevitably they’d close down under mysterious circumstances within a matter of months, while places like the Midtowns would clearly be there forever.

Even after I came to realize this, I never worried about any kind of retribution. I’m pretty sure the mob had bigger things to worry about in those days. Plus, it seems like my nasty reviews were only working to solidify–even increase–neighborhood support for these salmonella factories.

After I moved up to Brooklyn, for obvious reasons, my days as a restaurant critic came to an end, and I must admit being awfully relieved.

This morning, just out of curiosity, I checked, and sure enough, the Midtown IV is still there on the 2000 block of Chestnut. If ever you’re in Philly, I suggest you stop in and give it a try.

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