Criss-crossing the country eating at America's best restaurants is the kind of too-good-to-be-true job that tends to be held by the main character in a romantic comedy, not real people. But as far as we can tell, there is one person for whom it's real life, and that's EATER's own roving critic, Bill Addison, who spends three weeks a month on the road, hitting everything from pizza in Phoenix to street food in Miami to decadent, dozen-course tasting menus in San Francisco, all in service of putting together an annual list of the most essential restaurants in America. In the eighth episode of the The Eater Upsell (transcript below), Eater's podcast hosted by Greg Morabito and Helen Rosner, Addison spills all on the real life of a full-time traveling dinner-eater, from the burdens of staying anonymous to figuring out the real purpose of a restaurant review to being really, really sick of octopus.
As always, you can get the Eater Upsell on iTunes, listen on Soundcloud, or subscribe via RSS or search your favorite podcast app. You can also get the entire archive of episodes — plus transcripts, behind-the-scenes photos, and more — right here on Eater.
Here's the transcript of our conversation in The Eater Upsell Episode 8: Bill Addison, edited to the main interview. For Greg's theory of the three fundamental lies inherent to every restaurant interaction, you'll just have to listen to the audio above.
Greg Morabito: So we have a very special guest in the Eater studio today. It's Bill Addison, Eater's restaurant editor. He has been traveling all over the place. He spent most of the last year on the road, writing about restaurants and compiling the first-ever National 38.
Helen Rosner: The National 38 is Eater's — I mean, you should know about this, but in case you don't — the National 38 is Eater's list of the most essential restaurants in America. And "essential" is a really interesting word, and maybe Bill can tell us a little bit more about that, but welcome, Bill.
Bill Addison: Hi there. Good to see you guys. It's good to be in New York, with the mothership.
Greg: Yeah, we always love when Bill Addison rolls into town.
Helen: So, Bill, tell us a little bit about this idea of the Essential 38.
Bill: Well, I took that word very seriously, that adjective, "essential." For me, the first year in the job, where a lot of critics are always looking for what's new, what's hot, what's buzzy, it was a pleasure for me, when most of us are looking right, as restaurants critics, to look left, to really look and see what's essential without being necessarily new or buzzy. Certainly, some fresh voices in food today popped up on that list — Rose's Luxury in Washington, D.C., is one that immediately comes to mind — but then there are other places, like Galatoire's in New Orleans, where I went, and I've been there many times over the years, but I feel like the kitchen is particularly strong right now, as maybe the best lunch I've ever had there, and I felt like that had a place. So, Essential was about thinking of the country as a whole, and how the collage all fit together to sort of create this map for people to eat in 2015. So I sort of thought of it as this map to lead people toward where they should eat in 2015.
Helen: So you have one of those sort of dream jobs where you literally are traveling the country constantly, in a different city pretty much every week, eating through the most interesting, the newest, the hippest, the oldest, the coolest, the most sort of superlative in one direction or another restaurant, and trying to home in on this notion of essentiality. Who are they essential to, though? Are you speaking to, like, a person in New York who wants to plan their trip to Portland, or are you speaking to someone who is coming from overseas, or just sort of someone who's interested in figuring out what the culinary story is in America?
Bill: Yeah, that's an interesting question. Part of what makes putting that map together so intricate is that I am trying to think about the broadest possible audience. So I guess for me it's the modern, informed diner, and however you want to take that. So I feel like a 25-year-old can find Prince's Hot Chicken in Nashville, or Cochon Butcher, and if they're looking for something that's not crazy expensive, then they can find that, and hopefully, digging into those places might lead them to other great places. Hopefully, that these restaurants that I chose were conversation-starters. You know, and then the opposite end is true. For a really special occasion, Blue Hill at Stone Barn really just speaks to me as the quintessential modern fine-dining experience, "experience" being the key word there, because it's so much more than just a meal.
Greg: Before you started this project, did you feel like you had a pretty good grasp of the landscape, the cities, the big food trends? Have you spent a lot of time traveling?
Bill: So I’ve kicked around a little bit as a restaurant critic. I started my career in Atlanta, at the alternative newsweekly there, Creative Loafing, and then I spent time as a critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, and at the Dallas Morning News, and then wound my way back to Atlanta to work at Atlanta Magazine for the last five years before my job at Eater. Frankly, I travel all the time, and it's one reason why this is particularly a dream job for me. I'm not sure that everyone would be as thrilled about the travel schedule as I am. I'm on the road for three weeks out of every month, and I'm lucky that I have a personal life that allows me to have that freedom to wander and eat lots and lots and lots, but, you know, frankly, because I was in the South, because I'm very involved in the Southern Foodways Alliance, I get around the South a lot, and so that region I'm particularly knowledgeable about. Some cities — Minneapolis, did I know that place well? No, I lived there briefly in 1995, and the cold scared me away so quickly that I've never spent much time there again. So it's been fun because I kicked around the country a lot in my 20s. I am kind of familiar with America, and so it's been a real pleasure, professionally as well as personally, for me to show back up in these cities that I have known at some point in my life, and to be reacquainted with them. I was interested in food from an early age, but, let's say, in Phoenix, I could afford Pizzeria Bianco, and it's been great to be able to get back to try his pizza again 20 years later, and see that he's even evolved into beautiful pastas made with durum wheat grown in Arizona, and still making some of the finest pizza in America. And I went to college in Boston, so it was great to go back there and not eat like a college student.
Greg: Where'd you go to college?
Bill: I went to Berklee College of Music for vocal performance.
Helen: Not a food major.
Bill: Not a food major, and then I transferred to Emerson College, which is where I got my degree in acting.
Helen: Well, that's great for being an anonymous critic.
Helen: You have to adopt fake names and play this character.
Greg: Mask work, and —
Bill: I'm good, I'm comfortable with all of that, yes. Although I'm not claiming that I am a Ruth Reichl, ’90s-era disguise guy.
Helen: I don't know, that long, flowing wig you're wearing right now is pretty —
Greg: You look lovely, though.
Bill: I mean, you know, this is my Ruth wig, actually, so I've got a shorter, sassier Gael Greene one at home, too.
Greg: I feel like a lot of food writers that I meet have some sort of experience working in restaurants at some point in their lives, and maybe something that sparked their interest. Did you ever have any experience like that? How did you get into food? What was your "aha" moment?
Helen: Your gateway drug.
Bill: I have a younger brother — there are four of us in my family, and we all have such different personalities. And growing up, we all sort of would inhabit a different corner of the house, really. My father was gone a lot, working in real estate, and he's a politician. And when we would go out to a nice restaurant, it was really the one time as a family when our personalities meshed perfectly. And we all had a place at the table. You know, my brother was always the rough-and-tumble kid who was interested in ordering venison or elk. And my father liked his Veal Oscar or filet mignon, and a Grand Marnier soufflé for dessert. And my mother liked the fish, and it better come out hot, or she was going to send it back. And I was always the kid who could, even without looking at the prices, pick out the priciest thing on the menu and be like, "I’ll have the Lobster Mousseline, please." So I had that love at an early age. When I went to college, I was sad not to be able to experience that anymore, and so I began working in restaurants when I was trying to find my way as a singer and an actor, and long story short, never really found my way as a singer and an actor. And I've always had kind of a side interest in writing that grew more as I kicked around the country kinda a little aimlessly. It was my way to keep connected with myself, to have a sense of home while I was kicking around. And eventually I got a gig as a business writer, and when I was turning 30, I thought, you know, "I want to do something that I feel really passionate about." It was around the time that 9/11 happened as well, and so, like a lot of other people, I was sort of considering the fact that I have this one life, and what do I want to do with this. And I'd always been fascinated by restaurant critics. I was that guy who gave everyone else recommendations about where to eat, and so I stuck my toe in the water, and it took me about three months to get my break at the alt-weekly for a first freelance gig. And the editor liked what I did, and then, about nine months later, after I sort of became their weekly critic, she put in her notice and told the "This guy knows way more about food than I do, so hire him," and they did, and here I am.
Greg: When you were getting started, did you have any favorite food writers, or favorite critics, or anybody?
Bill: I had a binder full of Ruth Reichl's reviews. There were clippings and there were pieces that I printed off the internet, and I would read it like I read a novel. And because of that, I sort of inherently, you know, when you're a careful reader, it helps you as a writer. And I had kind of absorbed the structure, and I loved Ruth's way with telling a story as part of her review; that appealed to me. It helped me develop an eye for other restaurant critics who are great storytellers: Jonathan Gold, of course; Alison Cook at the Houston Chronicle was an early favorite as well. So I definitely wanted to be someone who told a good story and not just recommend the turbot over the halibut.
Helen: I think that’s, in a lot of ways, the sort of secret of food criticism. You know, Greg and I are both food writers, but we're not professional eaters in quite the same way that you are. I mean, both of us at various points in our career have written critically about restaurants, but we're not anonymous restaurant critics. There are pictures of us all over the internet, and we don't go out and, like, pass sort of the official judgment on restaurants, but what you do is basically that. And people — I don't know about you, Greg, but whenever I tell people I work in food, the first thing they say is, "Oh, you review restaurants."
Greg: Oh yeah, I mean, there's still people, friends and family or whatever that I've talked to many times, and they're like, "Oh, so you got any new reviews coming out?"
Helen: It's like, "No, that's not what I do." But what you were saying, though, about structure and storytelling, I think is the key to that. When we talk about, you know, sort of shitty Yelp reviews, or we talk about citizen review blogs, I mean, sometimes they're quite wonderful and insightful, but more often than not, they're just these chronological rundowns of, like, "And then I had this, and here's what it tasted like; and then I had this, and here's what it tasted like." And What Ruth Reichl did that I found so transforming when I was, you know, a young food writer trying to find my way, and what you do, and what I think Jonathan Gold and Alison Cook and all of these incredible critics who are working today managed to do, is create this story, this context, and not just say, "The nut course follows the peach course follows the purple course."
Bill: Right, so that you can scan down a review and be like, "It's the fifth paragraph, now we're on to desserts." You know, to do that is boring, and I think the readers are smart these days. We're a food country now, and so people want the reviews to follow their own minds, in a way, to kind of follow the discourse and the conversation while having that critical edge, that informed, critical edge, so that, you know, there are ethics behind what we're doing, and there is a sense of fairness to how we're approaching what we're doing. And let me be clear, too, you know, all throughout my career, I've absolutely been one of those people who has gone to the restaurant two or three or four times, formed an opinion based on multiple experiences, and then written about that. What I'm doing for Eater now is a little different. Because I'm traveling the country, I often go to restaurants one time. And so I will report on a meal honestly in this job, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to — I'm not assigning stars like my colleagues in New York Ryan Sutton and Robert Sietsema are. I am giving more of an informed, contextual impression review, and that is, I think, you know, a new direction. I think I'm grateful to have the context, the experience under my belt of the dozen years I was doing this before, so I understand what good, solid restaurant criticism is, what it means to give good reader service. And that helps me do this kind of travelogue-review thing that I'm doing now.
Helen: It is really a travelogue. I read you religiously every week, but it never occurred to me, and you're absolutely right, that you are writing a great American road novel.
Greg: I mean, that's my favorite thing about what you do, is I feel like you always give a lot of context, and, I mean, not to just blow smoke up your ass or something, but reading the road to the 38, I get curious about cities and whole communities and restaurants that I just never knew anything about before.
Bill: Thank you, it's good to hear you say that. I'm always hopeful. You know, when I'm so entrenched in things, I worry sometimes. Like, does everyone know how great Chris Bianco is, and that he has four restaurants now? It's always refreshing to hear that kind of feedback, that, "No, you know, I thought he was still that guy shoveling pizza in that one small joint that kind of made him famous." So things change, and I feel like that's an important part of journalism that often gets overlooked, kind of revisiting things and keeping in touch with these important places that are percolating in their regions.
Helen: But a critic like you, who is taking what is essentially the long view, both of the entirety of the United States but also of the cities that you visit, gives you that additional perspective. Like, I think that a New York–based critic or a Minneapolis-based critic or a Phoenix-based critic would visit a restaurant and pass judgment on the restaurant and be very specific. But I was really fascinated by the piece you wrote about Miami, for example. I have been on the record historically, in fact, on the pages of Eater.com, saying that I think that Miami is the most disappointing food city in America. And I've probably got some haters for that, but I think also, whenever I've said that, there've been a lot of people who have been like, "Yes, it's so fricking awful." Like, Miami has so much potential, and then it fizzles out. And I thought you took a perspective on that city, like a long-view, stepped-back take on what I think is the worst food city in America, and you made me really excited to go visit it again.
Bill: Well, straight up, Miami is a hard restaurant town, that's just the way it is. It's a lot of restaurants imported from other parts of the country, from successful chefs who are in empire-building mode. And, you know, last year was about me traveling and kind of cranking out one single sort of impression review after another. And Amanda Kludt, our editor-in-chief, and I talked about doing stories this year that build more of a narrative about the cities that I'm in. And so we kicked it off with Miami, kind of trying to find, where do you enter the culinary scene of Miami to have a satisfying experience there. And I really thought looking for the Latin flavors, which has become such a huge cultural influence so much beyond the Cuban culture that has been entrenched there since the 1950s, could give readers kind of a fresh way in that might help them have a better experience there.
Helen: So, how did you find those restaurants? You land in Miami, and what's the process? Tell us. It doesn't have to be Miami if that was an outlier.
Bill: No, no, that's a great — that’s a good one. So, I mean, straight up, I have friendships, the food-writing community, the restaurant community is pretty small. And so I ask the local restaurant critics for recommendations, and a lot of the cities that I go to, we have our local Eater editors on the ground, and so I ask them very specific questions. I read a lot on the internet, I read through blogs, I drive through streets sometimes looking for interesting things going on, things that look fresh, or things that look the opposite of fresh that might have potential. And I'm just trying to put together this working montage of the idea I have in my head, so I usually go in with the hypothesis, like, "Okay, I went to Miami last year, and Michelle Bernstein was about to close her flagship restaurant, and I smelled the death in the air at that restaurant, and so that wasn’t a great, you know, I didn't have the greatest meal there." And it was very disjointed. There was, you know, a good Thai restaurant on Miami Beach, but that's not always what you're looking for in Miami, right? So, this time I wanted to come back and dig in and say, "What can you come here and really find that feeds the local culture, but that would also be satisfying for a visitor?"
Greg: How do you process, you know, when you go to a restaurant and it just sucks, you don't like it? That's something I've heard from other critics, is that it's hard because you go to all these places and sometimes there's just nothing to get out of it.
Bill: Yeah, for me it's the places that don't make an impression that are the hardest. And that, frankly, sometimes I'll skip reporting on altogether because it's not in service to what I'm doing. If you're traveling to Miami, do you need to know that this restaurant felt neither here nor there to me? You know, I had an interesting experience in Miami where I went to a very upscale restaurant from a Colombian chef that was very new, and I was explicit that it was very new. But he was doing some molecular gastronomy shenanigans that felt very 2004 to me, and I called that out. You know, sometimes I just have to call it like I see it, and not be bitchy or angry about it but just kind of lay it out. Because if I'm showing up and I have a one-time experience like that, I assume other readers are going to be showing up curious about this new Colombian hot chef that they've heard about.
Greg: Who was the chef? What was the restaurant?
Helen: I think Bill is too diplomatic to say that.
Bill: Actually, it's not that I'm too diplomatic to say it, I don't remember the name of it right off the top of my head.
Helen: It was that boring.
Bill: Yep. I do not — Let’s, can we look it up and, like, paste this in? Sorry, guys.
Helen: I actually think it's more interesting that you don't remember.
Greg: You wrote about it, or it didn't —
Bill: Oh, I wrote about it.
Greg: You wrote about it.
Bill: It is. I have —
Greg: I remember reading this.
Bill: Yep. Since then, I have been to San Diego, Tijuana, Ensenada, Tucson, Phoenix, Charleston, Atlanta, New York. I do not remember the name of that restaurant. It did not stick with me.
Helen: But that's very telling. You know, I mean, look, I think if you'd had a super-memorable meal, you would have been like, "Who is this dude? I'm searing this into my brain. He's one to watch."
Helen: But, you know, reader service is interesting because criticism is — I mean, there's a constant, never-ending conversation, I think, this meta-media world about what is criticism. What's the critic's responsibility, especially in the — and I'm putting scare quotes and fake capital letters around this — "The Age of the Internet," where, like, what does it mean that we're all critics now and everybody has Yelp and everybody has Instagram. Reader service really is everything. I think you have to be smart, you have to know about the food, you have to know about the context, but ultimately, is the — do you — maybe I'm wrong. Maybe you disagree. The purpose of a review is saying, "Here's where you should spend your money, and here's how you should spend it best."
Bill: Yeah, I think restaurant critics are more vital than ever. I think all the death knells about restaurant criticism are cyclical, and I think they never stick. For a minute it was, "Ooh, look. The readers comment on restaurant reviews online. Let's have readers do restaurant reviews." You know, some newspapers took that tactic, and then the age of Yelp, where everyone's a critic, but I mean, now that Yelp is so entrenched, like, you flip through that stuff and it doesn't mean anything. It has no context, going back to what we talked about before. So a critic can bring the whole picture alive and tell a good story while you're doing that. And that seems to be the most vital thing in a restaurant review. So I feel like restaurant criticism is alive and well. And if people read it online, if people read it in print, as long as it's from a good writer who is as careful about their facts as they are about their word choices, we're going to be around for a long time to come.
Greg: Amen. What are you sick of after a year on the road? Can you think of any dishes or trends or things you just saw popping up across the country?
Helen: Korean tacos everywhere?
Bill:Yeah, I — it's funny. I guess I just end up avoiding those things that I'm sick of. You know what I mean? There's always something else.
Greg: Because you're smart, yeah.
Bill: But even I keep getting tripped up in that, too. Like, even I'm so sick of octopus and I don't want to order it anymore, but then as soon as I say I'm sick of octopus, then I'll go to a beautiful restaurant, like Corazón de Tierra in Ensenada's wine valley, where they did such a beautiful, simple, braised and grilled octopus with salsa verde splotted around the plate, and I just loved it all over again. So if something is done beautifully, I'm happy to eat it, but I am pretty sick of octopus. I will never put another spoonful of crème brûlée in my mouth again. I will never eat another molten chocolate cake. You know, I worked as a pastry chef, so I'm really picky about desserts, and pretty angry when they're afterthoughts.
Greg: Do you think there's some good work being done in desserts in general? I mean, I always feel like I actually order dessert. I'm not a sweets person, but I actually order dessert because I feel like I have to support the pastry chef.
Helen: Like, the industry of the pastry chef?
Greg: Yeah, just like —
Bill: Thank you.
Greg: So many restaurants are like, cuttin’ ’em —
Helen: Yeah, I know. It's like, a scoop of ice cream, or, like, cookies that they baked, you know, three days before and they throw in the microwave before they bring it to the table.
Bill: Right, and when I see dessert menus like that, when it is tiramisu and molten chocolate cake and crème brûlée and apple crisp, I just don't order dessert. It’s — it'll be too depressing for me, but then when I know the opposite, then I'll happily over-order desserts, ’cause I'm so excited that somebody is thinking bigger thoughts about a beautiful caramelized-milk cake with blueberries and Earl Grey ice cream or whatever.
Helen: Well, so, you've been on the background here. Let's break down a little bit the difference between these two different kinds of dessert menus, because I think that it's not always obvious that, you know, if there's an apple crumble on the menu, or if there's a scoop of ice cream, or if there's a cookie plate, to the diner, that sort of plays right into your comfort-food brain stem, kind of, "Oh my God, I love this. This is nourishing in an emotional way." But the other communication that's happening there is, "We don't have a pastry chef working in the kitchen. We're scooping ice cream onto a plate, or somebody came in this morning and made fourteen hotel pans of apple crumble." So there are two very different ways that restaurants can approach their programs, and it's not always apparent, I think, unless you know what to look for, that you're contributing or not contributing to the death of pastry.
Bill: Right. I guess I'm always sad when I see a list of five or six desserts that look like nobody cares about them. Just put two desserts on, and make them really good. And it is not that hard to make a dessert that is going to be universally loved, and that has that extra edge of appreciation of it, too. You know, you thought to put a smidge of cardamom in the streusel for the apple crumble, you know, whatever, just something to give it like you're not going through the motions, you're not hostile about your dessert menu.
Helen: Well, you and I, Bill, were out to lunch right before we recorded this podcast, and I noticed that when the server was talking to us about the dessert menu, he focused in on a particular cake, and he said, "We make it in-house." And for me, that was like, "Wait. I assumed you made everything in-house. Now you've cast everything under a shadow."
Bill: See, it's interesting to me, ’cause I heard that and I thought, "You're especially selling that because cakes are the one thing that are often, you know, are brought in so often," so I thought you were just reinforcing — I thought that server was just reinforcing the fact that, "We did, in fact, make this in-house."
Helen: You're so much more generous than I am.
Bill: I suppose. I don't know. I have to stay optimistic to keep doing this for years and years.
Greg: It could be one of those weird selling techniques, you know what I mean?
Helen: Yeah. Well, you must have so much expertise in service styles now. Like, you've eaten in uncountable hundreds of restaurants over the last year.
Helen: You know these upsell techniques, the Eater Upsell—
Bill: You know, and it's hard. Upselling is one thing that's hard for me to notice because — I suppose wine up-sale really pisses me off. Most sommeliers are so happy when you come in and say, "Listen, I don't want to spend more than $60, but I'm really open-minded." Like, "What do you got that you're really loving right now?" It's the ones that don't listen to me, or the servers that want to tell me that the $220 bottle of, you know, white Burgundy is just the bomb-diggity. No shit, it's the bomb-diggity, but I'm not blowing that, dude. I have noticed a lot of people — hold on, let me think for a minute. I've actually not had some great service experiences here in New York.
Greg: Welcome to the club.
Bill: I was actually a little surprised. I thought, "Here we are, in the center of the dining universe." One dude last night kinda came on strong and really confident, and then just ignored us for the rest of the night. And when we had placed our order and we were handing our menus back to him, and I wanted to hang onto it for a minute — frankly, to photograph it — he was making, like, the "Gimme, gimme, gimme" hand motion without even speaking up, and I was looking down at it, and one of my tablemates had to be like, "He's going to hold onto it for a minute." He was like, "Oh, I'm sorry. Am I inconveniencing you?"
Greg: See, I find this really interesting because in the past few years I feel like there have been a lot of critics, food writers, talking about, like, the death of service and stuff, and how everything's gotten so casual for some reason, and —
Helen: Like the backless chairs designed to get you out as soon as possible.
Greg: Oh yeah, and just, you know, it's just all about the food and the kitchen and whatever the chef wants, the food's going to come out whenever it comes out because, you know, the chef just cooked it, so it's hot.
Helen: Right, it's like the diner is the least-important person in the decision.
Greg: Well, thank you.
Bill: ’Cause that’s exactly — I have encountered that in nearly every restaurant I've eaten in New York and on this trip, where I have this habit, like, you know, you're sitting down and you're looking at the cocktail list, and the beverage component is, you know, important to the menu in some ways these days. And so I want to order one appetizer and sort of look at the menu for a minute. And in every case, everyone has a variation of, "Ooh, I'm sorry, the chef requests that you order the whole meal at once," and I'm just like, "Come on." You know, and then it's not even that well-paced. It's not like you've done me this extravagant service of pacing my menu so gloriously that the appetizers and the entrées and the desserts arrive, you know, at exactly the moment I want them. I even felt like, at lunch today, it took about eight minutes longer to receive our entrées than I would have liked.
Greg: So that's something that you notice more in New York than in other parts of the country?
Bill: I — nowhere else do I notice this thing where it's like, "You've got to order your whole meal right now."
Helen: New York is the land of assholes.
Greg: Well, we're just cooking it, eating it, serving it.
Bill: Yeah, we're there at the chef's pleasure, and I’m — that's not how it rolls in the rest of the country.
Helen: But that is changing a little bit, I think. I have felt like the chefs that were the pioneers of this kind of anti-diner way of cooking and way of decorating their restaurants, not that they would ever want to be described that way, but I'm thinking, you know, David Chang in particular, who sort of was the king of the uncomfortable, backless wooden stools with poky corners that —
Greg: Made it desirable, yeah.
Helen: Yeah, like, suffer-for-the-art kind of thing for the diner. I mean, even David Chang has been speaking up lately about how he's been falling in love again with the kind of classical, Continental French cuisine of La Grenouille and Daniel. And he’s sort of moving back towards this idea of service and opulence and subtlety, as opposed to this kind of, like, "Fuck you, eat a pork cheek," you know, kind of way of cooking.
Greg: You're in a loud box on a stool, go, eat.
Greg: The food comes out.
Helen: Eat the goddamn food.
Greg: Get out.
Helen: Here's a poster of John McEnroe.
Bill: Well, I hope that, with this interest that Mr. Chang has taken in Continental cuisine, that a grander style of service returns as well. I mean, and Continental restaurants, let's be very clear, died for, you know, good cause, but there were some good ideas in there, the sense of subtlety in the food, the graciousness behind the service, an attentiveness, a human kindness: All those things I would love to see more of in restaurants again.
Greg: Wow. Off the top of your head, where did you have the most, best service on the road?
Bill: I would say Blue Hill Stone Barns. It's Dan Barber’s restaurant, it's about 40 minutes outside of New York City, on an estate that was previously a dairy farm in the Rockefeller family. And the concept there is that, first of all, the food is very close to the land, and the vegetables are absolutely as important as the meats there, and it's all super-seasonal in a world that uses that word too much. You know, this is the one where you go, "I get it, this came out of the ground this morning." And so the service works with you to develop your own menu. It's a tasting-menu format, but they ask you how hungry or not you are, how long you want to eat for this evening. And they really communicate with the kitchen throughout the meal; it's quietly revolutionary, really. And there's one lovely moment, usually during the evening, where you get up and they escort you to another part of the building or the property. When Amanda Kludt and I went, we sat in a former compost shed and had, you know, DIY tacos, where instead of tortillas we had big, thin slices of kohlrabi. And it was all, it just—
Helen: You have a dreamy look on your face.
Bill: Yeah, it was dreamy. It was, that's exactly — thank you for finding my adjective.
Greg: Was that your—
Helen: Well, no, I could see you sort of getting lost into this beautiful reverie. I mean, and I love that restaurant, I mean, it's one of my favorites of all time. I totally, I feel very validated that your opinion lines up with mine.
Greg: Was that your favorite-favorite of the journey?
Bill: Yeah, people like to ask me this question. I will give you three favorites. Stone Barns was absolutely one of them. Zahav in Philadelphia, I'm super-obsessed with Middle Eastern food right now, and partly obsessed with Middle Eastern food because of my meal at Zahav. It sort of sent me on this journey of inquiry where I'm fascinated by all the countries there and how they play into the cuisine, the changing cuisine of Israel, which is what Michael Solomonov does there, so I love Zahav, and then Benu in San Francisco is the other one. Corey Lee was the chef de cuisine at the French Laundry. He worked with that company for almost a decade, and now he does these beautiful tasting menus that really bring in the flavors of Korea and China. He's Korean by birth, and some beautiful, wonderful, weird things, sea cucumber and tofu for dessert, and all these things that don't seem like it would all work, but it does.
Helen: All three of those restaurants are places that I think bring a kind of formality and reverence to something that isn't traditional tasting-menu cuisine. You're on a literal farm at Stone Barns, and you're traveling around the Middle East at Zahav, and you're thinking about the interplay of kind of Korean identity and American identity at Benu.
Bill: I guess I do like these places where the food is definitely forging new territory, but the hospitality brings in an aspect of tradition, of real warmth and welcome.
Greg: Well, we've got some lightning-round questions for ya.
Helen: So just say the first thing that comes to your mind.
Bill: Okay, let's do it.
Helen: We're not going to edit this.
Bill: All right.
Greg: What is your airport vice?
Bill: Popeye's Fried Chicken.
Greg: Oh man, that's not even a vice, that's just straight-up delicious.
Bill:Oh, it's either that or nothing.
Helen: Also, what airport has Popeye's? I want to go to that airport.
Bill: Atlanta Airport has Popeye's Fried Chicken.
Helen: Atlanta Airport's the best airport.
Bill: It is.
Helen: Okay. What would your last meal be?
Bill: A salad of blood oranges and avocado, crab cakes from somewhere in Baltimore — I'm from Baltimore — and then a peach crisp for dessert, with bourbon-vanilla-bean ice cream.
Greg: Sounds amazing. So, what is your favorite social media platform — do you have one?
Greg: You're good at it, man.
Bill: Well, ’cause I've had to learn how to take pictures in the last year. So, no, it was a part of journalism that I never really embraced, and there are some publications that I work for where I think the photographers probably hated me, and now I get it. I get how important that is, and it's been really fun to embrace photography and Instagram.
Helen: What's your Instagram handle?
Bill: Bill_Addison, A-D-D-I-S-O-N.
Helen: All right, what is your go-to drink order when you're at a bar you've never been to before?
Helen: What's your favorite TV show?
Bill: The Americans, and Looking, I'll say that. It's a tie.
Greg: If you weren't a food writer, what would you be?
Bill: A spy for the CIA, or a wine buyer.
Helen: Is this because you're watching The Americans that you want to be a spy?
Bill: I wanted to be a spy when I was a kid. Now, in a sense, I am.
Helen: What’s the album that you always blast on a road trip?
Bill: Blue, by Joni Mitchell.
Helen: Do you sing along?
Helen: Can you sing us a line?
Bill: I am on a lonely road and I am traveling, traveling, traveling —
Helen: That was amazing.
Greg: Among your many hidden talents, I didn't know you were so good at doing a Joni Mitchell.
Bill: There you go.
Helen: What's your go-to recipe when you're cooking for yourself at home?
Bill: I’m pausing because I so rarely cook at home, sadly. It's pasta with, like, smooshed broccoli and Parmesan. A Joyce Goldstein recipe.
Greg: And finally, what is your favorite dessert?
Bill: Blood-orange-caramel ice cream, which is something that I came up with when I was a pastry chef, and I love that.
Helen: You made it up? You made up blood-orange-caramel ice cream?
Greg: I can't even really quite imagine what that tastes like, although those things are delicious.
Bill: I'll make it for you, Greg.
Greg: Ah, yes.
Helen: We're going to hold you to that. Thanks for being with us, Bill. Bill Addison is Eater's roving restaurant critic traveling the entire country. If you are careful, you might see him in a city near you, but you probably won't because he's anonymous. Thanks for being with us, Bill.
Bill: Thanks so much for having me.