Dining A La King: 15 stories from 15 years of food writing
On April 24, 2000, the first Dining A La King column appeared announcing that we’d start writing about restaurants in pages of The Elkhart Truth.
Thousands of meals and more than 700 columns later, here we are, still eating together.
Here are 15 memories or stories from the last 15 years of Dining A La King:
1. On May 1, 2000, the first restaurant to appear in the column was Love ’Dem Ribs, which Roger Love had opened at 901 Goshen Ave., Elkhart, with the help of his son Kelby.
That was before the editors of the paper allowed me to eat at restaurants, so it was a pretty basic story about that restaurant and Bill’s Bar-B-Que. It was a start, but if you look in the Truth archive online, the story says, “Author unknown.” Thankfully, that changed. Eventually.
2. In 2003, editor Bill Wilson sent me on a search for the best pie in Elkhart County. More than 100 pieces of pie later, we had a winner at South Side Soda Shop. The lemon meringue is as good today as it was then.
During that search, I also judged a couple pie contests. During one with Chef Greg Beachey, he referenced his mother’s pie. I thought the quote was on the record. He didn’t. When it appeared, his mother heard about it through the Mennonite grapevine and he got a call within a few hours about how he’d referred to her pie.
3. As far as I know, I’ve gotten food poisoning once from doing this job. I ate at a Mexican restaurant on the east side of Elkhart, which has long since closed, and got pretty sick.
The Elkhart County Health Department didn’t officially confirm the case, but when the health department visited based on that and a few other complaints, inspectors found a number of critical violations, including food sitting at room temperature.
4. One encounter in 2004 changed how I look at food writing. During Pizza Quest that year, the search after Pie Quest, friends joked about the risk I was putting myself in judging a food which makers and eaters are so passionate about.
On a hot July day, Fritz Campanello had a few words for me. The owner of Volcano’s Pizza said I was writing about their livelihood. He made it clear that what I wrote had a connection to his business.
It changed how I look at food writing and restaurant reviewing. Expressing an opinion is fine, as long as it’s fair and given context.
5. Somewhere along the way, I started giving restaurants 30 days to get acclimated after they opened. Part of the reason that “rule” emerged was a piece on Oct. 1, 2001, announcing that A Taste of Italy had opened five days earlier on the west side of Elkhart.
By the time the column appeared that Monday, the restaurant had closed due to family issues. After that, I would report that an owner was intending to open or had opened, but gave places more time before diving deep.
6. One column closed a restaurant the same day the piece appeared. In May 2010, Dining A La King featured Mondays at Il Forno, a cooperative effort by several people to use Il Forno in Goshen on Mondays when it wasn’t open. The day the column appeared, the health department shut down the effort because it wasn’t licensed properly.
Health department officials should have been more accommodating to get the operators in compliance, but the end result is a win for all of us. Eric Kanagy, Troy Pippenger and Justin Venturi found another property and opened Pizzeria Venturi, which has become one of Goshen’s best restaurants.
7. Several restaurant owners have threatened to sue over something I’ve written, but there’s only been one letter from a lawyer and no lawsuits. Marc Lancaster, who owned Sauk Trail Bar & Grill, had a letter drafted urging me to not mention that a former employee had worked at that restaurant. It was silly and there was no legal basis for it.
When I later asked Lancaster about it, he apologized and said he was under a lot of stress at the time.
8. I was hurt once during breakfast and once on a food trip. Years ago, when eating at a local pancake house, I tried to help the waitress refilling my coffee by lifting my cup. She was lowering a full glass pot of coffee. The two met and I got a bit burned. The owner apologized, paid for dry cleaning and a can of burn spray. All good.
The other accident was in October 2014, while I was standing at the front of a bus talking to a tour group on a trip to Traverse City. I lost my balance and stumbled backwards into the windshield, which then cracked. Cardinal Bus replaced the bus and I got over the bruises. Could have been far worse.
9. Customer service matters and people often get it right. We all mess up and so do restaurants, but responding quickly and making things right can create an impression. Soon after b on the River opened, I visited at lunch and the restaurant messed up my order a bit. I was later told that when the employee learned who I was after I left, she broke into tears, fearing I’d write something bad about the visit.
The restaurant delivered the correct food to our office and I’ve never forgotten how far they went to make something right.
10. I have won one competitive eating contest, which is exactly one more than my wife wanted me to participate in. In 2003, the Elkhart County 4-H Fair had a contest with a couple of us to see who could eat the most of a new food item in three minutes.
According to the story I wrote about it, I ate five deep-fried Twinkies, though the next competitor didn’t even finish two. I wanted to see how many I could finish — but I didn’t feel very good afterwards.
11. In 2013, a group of Dining a La King readers went to Napa and Sonoma to enjoy the flavors. On the last day of the tour, we visited Amphora Winery, where owner Rick Hutchinson had gotten 70 pounds of fresh crab. We sat around tables in his winery eating salad, bread, clam chowder and crab.
The crab was stunningly good and it was so amazing to have it paired with wines made where we were sitting. When we were full, we went out and played bocce ball in the California sunshine. A group of friends enjoyed a fine meal and made memories.
12. Restaurant closings are often sad and often catch people by surprise, but the drama that unfolded around Elkhart’s 17 Cuisine in 2012 was simply remarkable. Darren and Becca Cornell tried to open the place after closing D.C.’s Pizza, but it was far from a success.
Their version of events didn’t match what others said and along the way there were threats and social media blowups. They eventually left Elkhart County and aren’t likely to ever have a restaurant here again.
13. I do love to cook and occasionally end up in the kitchen in an official capacity. In Ireland, when eating at a bed and breakfast with our Dining A La King tour group in 2007, I was asked to carve the lamb for dinner.
I hacked and did a horrible job with this fresh, tender lamb. The hosts were gracious, but dubious, as they figured out how to get their farm animalon to our plates despite my efforts.
14. Writing about food has put me in touch with plenty of people who are smarter about how it’s done, and a few famous folks. Meeting Jane and Michael Stern of Roadfood fame, Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s, Chef Rick Bayless of Chicago and Chef Wolfgang Puck were all thrills.
But I have to say that I had the most fun talking to Alton Brown, the former “Good Eats” and longtime Food Network star, in 2008 and 2014. He’s so smart, passionate and centered. And I’ve yet to come across a recipe of his that didn’t work.
- RELATED: Alton Brown takes his show on the road, aiming to teach and entertain, Oct. 27, 2014
15. If I’m asked about the best meal that’s happened because of the column, it’s easy to think of at least five. Yet the one that still tops the list happened in 2007 in Italy. That first food trip included 36 people going to the World Pizza Championships with Paul and Bruno Cataldo and Donn Yoder, who worked for Bruno.
Bruno, owner of Bruno’s Pizza and Per Bacco, said he had some friends in the town of Biella outside Milan and wanted to go visit them. The whole group ended up going, but it meant taking a train two hours from Milan and then riding in cars to the Antoniminesi, the restaurant owned by Cataldo’s friends.
We spent several hours eating, drinking and dancing. The restaurant, which isn’t officially open on Sundays, set the table for our entire group and showed immense hospitality. It was all a surprise addition to the itinerary. That day gave us memories for a lifetime.
THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES
I’m so grateful to get to do this. I’m grateful that readers relish reading Dining a La King as much as I do writing it. Thanks for reading all these years.
The others involved with Flavor 574 mean that we can do even more on food in our community.
But if there’s one thing this column has taught me, you don’t have to travel far to get a good meal. The food in northern Indiana and southwestern Michigan just keeps getting better and better.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said Elkhart’s 17 Cuisine closed in 2010. It was in 2012. The story has been updated and Flavor 574 regrets the error.