By Hope Katz Gibbs
Editor and Publisher
Be Inkandescent Magazine
For nearly three decades, most Washingtonians wouldn’t have recognized Washington Post restaurant critic Phyllis Richman, even if she was sitting at the next table at their favorite restaurant.
She kept a low profile, was rarely photographed, and often wore a silk scarf over the bottom of her face when she went out in public. Since retiring in 2000, the woman who could make or break a restaurant’s reputation is no longer hiding.
In May, she was awarded the 2010 Productive Aging Award from the Washington, DC Jewish Council for the Aging. She stood front and center before a ballroom packed with fans. Her daughter, film producer Libby Richman, created a documentary about her mother’s life for the event, where she interviewed some of DC’s most prestigious chefs — all who admitted to quaking in their boots at the mere appearance of Phyllis.
“Once the sous chef came running into the kitchen to tell us that she saw Phyllis driving by the restaurant,” said Patrick O’Connell of the Inn at Little Washington. “I said, she’s here? The woman said, ‘well, I saw her elbow poking out of a car window. I think she’s definitely on her way.’”
Indeed, Phyllis’ reviews could make or break an establishment. But during a recent meal that I was honored to share with her, the famed critic told me a trade secret.
“If I said they were a bad restaurant, they probably were. It had nothing to do with me, because you can’t fake good food and good service. But if they were good, well, it was my privilege to tell the world.”
Read on to learn more.
Lunch with Phyllis
Phyllis Richman will have the sorrel soup, please. And the grilled squid. And, if possible, one perfect oyster. “Thank you, Madam,” says the gracious, white-shirted waiter at the elegant P Street seafood bistro, Johnny’s Half Shell. “Thank you,” replies Phyllis, with a grin that indicates she is happy to be ordering exactly what she wants for lunch—and not sampling the entire menu, as was her mission for two decades as the Washington Post’s award-winning restaurant critic.
Readers often awaited her opinion before trying a new dining spot. Indeed, the success of a restaurant sometimes depended on her opinion. It was a serious responsibility, she realizes. “I often said mine was the world’s most wonderful job,” Phyllis says today. “Still, every job has its drawbacks.”
Eating Out for a Living
On her list of the downsides to her job, were the years of evenings spent away from home, leaving her three children behind to try a new establishment for dinner after feeding them first. And, she admits, it wasn’t always easy to stay objective.
“You always have to be out, on, and alert,” Phyllis explains. “I constantly worried that I was getting into a rut. I wanted to be fair and impartial, and I felt the need to cover every new restaurant. It wasn’t always easy.”
But this, she admits, was just part of the job—one she never dreamed she’d have. Early in her career, in fact, her goal was to be a city planner. After earning a BA from Brandeis University, she started graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, but realized she’d rather study sociology and moved to Indiana to attend Purdue.
Just as she was about to start her master’s thesis, her thesis advisor invited her to a dinner party in Greenbelt, MD. Over hors d’oeuvres, she learned that his brother-in-law had taken over as publisher of the Baltimore Jewish Times and was in the market for a food critic. By dessert, Phyllis had landed the job.
In the next two years, due to the patience and support of her husband and three children, Phyllis travelled weekly to Baltimore to sample restaurants. She also wrote a cooking column, and began freelancing for Washingtonian magazine and the Washington Post.
“Being able to freelance while you are raising young children is the perfect balance,” Phyllis says, noting that in 1976, the year her daughter entered kindergarten, Phyllis was offered a full-time position at the Washington Post. “It was scary to go back to work because I wanted to be with my kids as much as possible. So I’d drive them to school in the morning and rush home to be with them after school. Then I’d dash out to do a restaurant review, but by the time I’d get home they were asleep. It was tough.”
In 1980, she added to her roster the job of food editor, while still writing her column. “I found out pretty quickly that I didn’t like managing others as much as I liked writing,” she admits, and for the next decade did what she loved best—reviewing new DC restaurants. By 1995, she was ready for another challenge.
The Butter Did It
Writing a book is a natural progression for most journalists, and the idea of being a novelist always appealed to Phyllis. In 1997, she debuted the first of three works of fiction published by Harper-Collins: The Butter Did It: A Gastronomic Tale of Love and Murder.
It received rave reviews from Publishers Weekly, which said: “Phyllis’s prose is as smooth and easy to swallow as premium ice cream. She brings a welcome angle and authenticity to the expanding menu of culinary mysteries.”
Her protagonist was Chas Wheatley, a restaurant reviewer herself. In The Butter Did It, Chas grows suspicious when a DC chef named Laurence Lavain collapses the night before he is to prepare the meal for a star-studded black-tie benefit dinner. Police and beat reporters blamed his death on years of indulging in foie gras. Chas, who had an affair years before with Levain, has her doubts and uses her experience in the food biz to uncover the truth.
In the sequel, Murder on the Gravy Train (1999), Chas discovers that something is rotten at Washington’s most popular new restaurant, when the head chef is discovered missing. When dead bodies start appearing around the nation’s capital, she sets out on the trail to find the killer.
In the third book of the trilogy, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Ham (2001), Phyllis introduces readers to her newsroom nemesis Ringo Laurenge. His propensity to steal story ideas from other reporters makes him less than popular, and when he turns up dead, Chas finds she has a new mystery to solve.
Of course, it’s clear to readers, as well as reviewers, that Chas bears a striking resemblance to Phyllis—something the Washington Times reviewer found to be a positive trait when he wrote: “A tip of the hat to Phyllis Richman, who has followed the cardinal rule to write what you know.”
Phyllis simply says: “Of course, Chas isn’t me and the events in the books aren’t real. But the books did grow out of my personal experiences, so while the events are fictionalized, everything is true in the sense that it did or could happen.”
On a Personal Note
The one thing that did ring true was Chas’ boyfriend, Dave, who is based on Phyllis’s real life love. She met him in 1985, two years after she divorced her first husband. “In the book, Dave can’t wait to marry Chas, but she is reluctant,” Phyllis shares. “The truth is that we were both happy to keep our commitment quiet for years.”
In 2000, however, Phyllis was ready to make a big decision public. In May, she officially retired from the Washington Post.
“I was ready to spend more time with my boyfriend, my children, read, and take long walks around the city,” she says. “I never believed retirees when they said they were busier now than when they were working—but it’s true. What has changed most, though, is that I’m multi-tasking less and enjoying my life more. I take my time, and it’s a pleasure.”
Of course, she does have another idea for new book. “I think maybe I’ll get to work on that next week,” she teases.