DG MARTIN COLUMN: Writing about restaurants: NC or NYC?

What is so hard about writing a book or a series of articles about great restaurants in a particular city, state or region?

D.G. Martin

I have been trying to explain these difficulties recently as I talked about the newly revised edition of my book, “North Carolina’s Roadside Eateries,” published by UNC Press on April 1.

The first edition of “Roadside Eateries,” published in 2016, featured more than 100 of North Carolina’s great locally owned restaurants located near our interstates. It featured popular places where people could be found getting a good reasonably priced meal and an opportunity to visit with local people and get a dose of local color.

Revising this book was a challenge. COVID caused many closures, and the normal attrition of family-owned restaurants created a great challenge. The lost restaurants had to be replaced and all the restaurants had to be checked to be sure they were still good enough to recommend to my friends and readers.

Finding and describing the right restaurants was difficult. But my task was not as hard as the project undertaken by Pete Wells, a food critic for The New York Times, who was assigned to update his previous list of the 100 best restaurants in New York City.

Wells writes that his first reaction to the assignment to update his “The 100 Best Restaurants in New York City 2023” was a surprise.

“This was followed by the realization that I had a lot of eating to do.”

He explains, “Twenty-two places in this edition of ‘The 100 Best Restaurants in NYC’ are new.” With a couple of exceptions, Wells has eaten at all 100 in the past 12 months. For anyone who thinks he is just getting a lot of free meals, he explains, “I don’t accept free meals from restaurants I write about.”

How did he approach this project?

He explained that he would attempt to visit each of the 100 restaurants on his list. He had three months before the deadline, which worked out to about one meal a day.

“Or so I thought,” he wrote. “Restaurants that had thrilled me before didn’t live up to my memories, and I removed more restaurants from the list than I’d expected to. Replacing them sometimes took more than one meal at a new place.”

So, Wells started eating out twice a day to meet his goal of eating at all 100 of the restaurants he would place on his list.

“To a civilian,” he wrote, “my calendar might have looked scary. But I wasn’t scared until about two weeks in, on the day I woke up with no appetite. Usually, I’m hungry after my first cup of coffee. On this day, just thinking about breakfast made me clutch my stomach. I couldn’t imagine going out to the lunch I had scheduled, and dinner wasn’t much more appealing.

“I began skipping breakfast and gave up drinking almost entirely (unnecessary calories).”

Poor Pete Wells. But the result of his work for New Yorkers and visitors will be a valuable asset, an up-to-date guide for a rich and complicated food scene.

North Carolina is different, but it is tough. It is very hard to deliver an accurate and current report on the best local eateries near the interstate highways.

For instance, Backyard BBQ Pit in Durham, one of my favorites, closed last year. It has reopened, but too late to be included.

Wilbur’s in Goldsboro is the favorite barbecue stop for many North Carolinians. But it also closed and then opened back up. But, in the shuffle, it got removed from “Roadside Eateries.”

While I was finishing up this column, Edward Phifer, a friend from Morganton, wrote to advise that Allison’s, a popular restaurant in his hometown, was closing. It is, of course, way too late to remove it from the new edition of “Roadside Eateries.”
Keeping “Roadside Eateries” up-to-date is tough. Still, I would rather be me than Pete Wells. I do not have to stuff myself twice a day as he did, and I can pay for the reasonably priced North Carolina meals without going broke.

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”