John Mariani Comes Clean About Houston, and He Really Likes Lucille's

Categories: Food Fight

Mariani went on to explain his method for judging restaurants. First, he says, they must have opened between September and August of the year he's writing about. Second, they should be chef-driven and serve excellent food. Third, they should be distinctive in some way or be doing something that no other restaurant is doing. And finally, they should be able to stand up against the top-ranked restaurants in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Apparently, Mariani has eaten at The Pass, though, he says, "I wish I'd gone to the Provisions part. He said that he was able to get a reservation on short notice because the restaurant wasn't full on a Tuesday or Wednesday night. He dined with Teresa Byrne-Dodge of My Table magazine, and said of the experience:

"It was very subdued, and the people at the next table weren't saying anything to each other, while people on the next side of the wall (at Provisions) were having a grand time. I have admiration for what they're trying to do at Pass, but I thought that a lot of it was gimmickry that didn't add up to taste."

We asked Mariani where else he ate in Houston on that trip, and he said he had a wonderful time at Lucille's. He noted that if he'd had 25 or 30 slots to fill on his list of best new restaurants, Lucille's would probably be on there. He also mentioned again how much he loves what Underbelly is doing and that Tony's continues to be "as fine an Italian restaurant as you'll find in the U.S."

In February 2012, Mariani responded to a question posed by My Table magazine: "Is Houston the Next Great American Food City?"

On his blog, Virtual Gourmet, Mariani wrote, "On occasion, when asked what are America's best restaurant cities, I have sometimes surprised people by putting Houston just behind New York, Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans, and L.A., and ahead of Boston, DC, Miami, and its rival, Dallas."

He highlighted El Real, Quattro and Philippe as standouts during his visit back in 2012. He wrote that El Real is "the real deal," and that no other Tex-Mex restaurant in Houston "has the breadth and depth, not to mention Texas white-guy swagger, that El Real does."

Of Quattro, which Mariani again mentioned as being one of his favorites during our phone conversation, he wrote, "It's always hard not to order cotoletta of veal alla milanese when I see it on a menu, and Quattro's is first-rate, the breading crisp and buttery, the veal full of flavor, with bright salad and tomatoes on top. Nothing could improve on an impeccably cooked branzino alla piastra, grilled, with mixed vegetables."

Finally, in his blurb about Philippe, Mariani wrote, "Next time I go to Philippe's, I'll go early, sit down and order any of the French dishes, knowing that a chef of his background -- soon to be awarded the illustrious title of Maître de Cuisiniers de France -- will deliver all I crave of that kind of cooking."

These are all lovely comments about Houston food, but we couldn't let Mariani go without addressing the criticism that's followed him for years regarding the way he operates. Many people claim that he notifies restaurants that he'll be coming before he dines there, which most would agree is unethical for a critic.

But, says Mariani, he's not a critic.

"I do tell the restaurants that I'm coming for the simple reason that I'm not technically a daily city newspaper critic who pretends to be anonymous when everyone knows who they are," Mariani said. "I go as a feature writer. I want to talk to the chef, and I tell him to make me his best dish. But there's no pretense to that whatsoever."

"Let's say I was a movie critic," Mariani continued, "and I also interviewed actors and directors and wrote about the movie compared to their last movies. It's the same type of thing. If you look at my colleagues at GQ like Alan Richman, or Jeffrey Steingarten at Vogue...I don't think anywhere any of us is called a critic."

Whether you deem Mariani a critic or take issue with the way he does his job is up to you. But one thing's for sure: Mariani needs to get his ass back to Houston and try more of our top-notch food, stat. We suggested Chinatown to the intrepid diner, which he embraced.

"Chinatown it is next time I'm in town!"

Location Info

The Pass

807 Taft St., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Provisions

807 Taft, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

El Real Tex-Mex Cafe

1201 Westheimer, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Quattro

1300 Lamar St., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Philippe - CLOSED

1800 Post Oak Blvd., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Tony's Restaurant

3755 Richmond Ave., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Lucille's

5512 La Branch St., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Underbelly

1100 Westheimer Road, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

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26 comments
attyrose31
attyrose31

Ithink one thing that Mr. Mariani's articile and follow up comments highlight better than anything about the city of Houston is that it does far too little to promote itself as the extremely cosmopolitan, international center that it for all things of a cultural nature, food included.  Houston is overlooked in virtually every national article like Mr. Mariani's, regardless of what the "top ten" is focused on.  This is a failure of our city government that is so lackluster that in all likelihood I bet there are not a hundred readers of this paper who could name their own city councilperson much less the head of the school board, the name of the county judge or anyone else who should be thought of as a "leader". The local media is also to blame for much of this.  There was a time when Houston was full of cultural superstars, be it the opera, ballet, museums, etc. or individuals like Joann Herring, Carolyn Farb, Lynn Wyatt, Maxine Messinger, Marge Crumbaker and Betty Ewing  because everything about Houston had a bigger than life personality.  Today, while there must be civic leaders like the named women or institutions, if there is no media that makes there names known and there activities true events that make the reader what to know them and be part of the action.         

jbritta
jbritta

HERES THE PROBLEM   

""  ""  they should be able to stand up against the top-ranked restaurants in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.  ""   

?? 

why d they have to stand against these three cities ?  Rediculaous to think that anything INSIDE these city confines gets a pass, and anything outside has a hurdle to somehow ovecome.   

attyrose31
attyrose31

When a guy hooks up with a publicist for restaurants to tour Houston's restaurant scene one wonders about his legitimacy.  Teresa Byrne-Dodge used to write restaurant "reviews" for the old Houston Post that had, in tiny print about the "column" the word advertisement.  This was done only after the public learned that she was a restaurant flak.  There is nothing wrong with being a flak for restaurants but if Mr. Mariani's source of information about Houston restaurants starts with a flak, it is going to probably be pretty limited to the restaurants she flaks for and to the handful of other places that can afford flaks to push their places.  If one reads Mr. Mariani's list of notable places in Houston, it is limited to the same half a dozen places that are always mentioned by national writers who do not have enough sense to get in their car and drive around town looking for the great food that Houston has to offer.   It is not necessary to go to Underbelly to have a dish inspired by an authentic ethnic cuisine when the chef at Underbelly drove about ten miles to learn how to prepare the dish from a master at making it.  Why  not just go to the source.  In Houston there are many sources that far outdo their higher priced far more pretentious ripoffs.      

hummingford
hummingford

Meh. He's welcome to the cuisine in those other cities. His reasoning for not mentioning Houston is his own, and he can have it, but WE (Houstonians) know the truth.

MGenscher
MGenscher

Interesting follow-up, really glad you reached out to him with curiosity instead of just dismissing his piece with a supremely smug confidence as some others did. 

I really like how he skirts the critcism though. 'Hey I'm not anonymous because I'm not a critic, just a feature writer about food and restaurants'. That's a strawman. The criticism is that his staff calls the restaurant, asking them to host (meaning pay for) a dinner with John Mariani, and if they decline they get no coverage. Second, that he accepts other gifts from the subjects he is writing about. This pay for play way of approaching your subject would prompt one to question how objective his pieces are, at the very least.

DDyson
DDyson

@attyrose31  

Agree with the lackluster image part...I think maybe it's more the fault of the city and its poor marketing rather than the local media. After all, we have scores of media like CultureMap, PaperCity, Houston Modern Luxury and Houstonia, whose raison d'etre seems to be to celebrate and create minor superstars and cover their every doing with bated breath.

james.brock
james.brock

@jbritta In Mr. Mariani's defense, he states that his best new selections must be able to stand up against the "top" restaurants in those cities. And I don't think any credible critic gives any resto a pass, no matter the city in which it happens to be located.


MGenscher
MGenscher

@attyrose31  

Whoa! That's news about Teresa  Byrne-Dodge, I vaguely remember those columns and forgot that they were called on it, but I always thought there was something askew about Teresa's image of virtuous dining doyenne, friend to restaurateur big and small. I noticed an especially smarmy business relationship between her publication and Patterson & Murphy PR.

KaitlinS
KaitlinS topcommenter

@attyrose31 I did tell Mr. Mariani that next time he's in Houston, he really needs to go to Chinatown. He promised he would!

KaitlinS
KaitlinS topcommenter

@MGenscher Mariani did offer to send me receipts from the places he's most recently dined as proof that Esquire pays for it, not the restaurants. I'm not defending him, just adding that. 

kayla72
kayla72

@MGenscher  

Ha! Like your smug dismissal reference. I read Eric's response to this piece at CultureMap and blew coffee through my nose, him calling Mariani an 'overblown restaurant critic', and sounding like a child who is stomping his foot and taking home his toys.

attyrose31
attyrose31

@DDyson  

Perhaps the problem is that the minor superstars are just not as dynamic and special to ever be real superstars because they are just not that special.  Carolyn Farb, Lynn Wyatt, Joann Herring, Dominique deMenil, and a handful of other women have/had personalities that filled a room and made others open their bank accounts to build the cultural institutions into internationally recognized things that brought travelers here from everywhere.  It was not only cultural institutions, but many  years ago Carolyn Farb mounted a campaign to promote a cancer treatment center at MD Anderson and raised what was then an enormous amount in one night that attracted attention from everywhere.  Joann Herring apparently moved Congress to fund the Taliban to fight the Russians in Afghanistan when the Taliban were on our side.  I do not think it is the media to is wholly to blame but there is no media at work in Houston today that actually does any investigative reporting as there was twenty years ago.  Many things happen here that have worldwide implications  that one does not hear about because of a lackluster media and a very poorly operated city hall that fails to promote the activities of what happens here.  It is a combination of both the failure of media and city hall that leaves Houston in the shadows even as it continues to be in a boom period of growth right now that will most likely come to a pretty screeching halt comes in a year or a year and a half, as the natural course of our longstanding boom/ bust behavior should be entering into a bust period when there will be more CityCenter type developments than we could need and more $1500/mo 650 sq foot apartments than there young people saddled with student and BMW loans  to fill them.         

jbritta
jbritta

@james.brock @jbritta I'm just saying, aren't we past the days where the hicks are just trying to be as good as the big city folk ??  

kimbrp
kimbrp

@MGenscher @attyrose31  

she's running the same scam as at the Post, only instead of a column, now she has a magazine, My Table, that is sent free to restaurants. murphy, the pr person, comes in explaining she can get them good coverage in, among other places, my table, and surprise! the reviews in my table are glowing. for this, murphy collects the pr fees from the restaurant, My Table gets the advertising dollars, and it's a win-win for byrne-dodge and murphy. restaurants feel like they are getting exposure but it's mostly among their comrades in the business, who aren't customers on any scale. only difference between her and mariani is that her operation is small time and uses a middleman to collect the perks. but it all comes back to them in the end, and probably does lots less for the restaurant than mariani's nat'l exposure.

MGenscher
MGenscher

@KaitlinS @MGenscher 

Well he would, wouldn't he? Maybe the maestro has repented after being so widely celebrated as a scheister.


MGenscher
MGenscher

@kayla72 @MGenscher 

Right, funny, I thought 'overblown' was an unfortunate word choice coming from Eric. He could have chosen 'vaunted' like his outfit used in announcing his arrival; I might note that they never called him a critic, for which I credit them. I wonder if Eric considers himself a critic, or conversely whether he considers Mariani just a fellow food writer, although he calls him a 'critic' in the headline. 

attyrose31
attyrose31

@DDyson I have had the occasion to deal with both of the leading candidates for mayor.  They are proof perfect that if one avoids taking any controversial positions on anything that might challenge the power brokers in this city, they can climb heights that prove the Peter Principle.  Annise Parker is our bookkeeper-in-chief.  She and the girlfriend must be very good bookkeepers because on a government salary and the income of a bookkeeper they certainly have a very fancy house on the only smoothly paved street in Montrose. So smooth in fact you would think you were driving in River Oaks.   Based on my professional dealings with her, well I have nothing nice to say so I will just won't say anything.

All I can say about Ben Hall is that in the 1990s he did not allow attorneys in his office to have anything on their desks except the file that they were working on at that moment.  The atmosphere was suffocating and the representation uninspired. On his desk, there was nothing. Out of his mouth, came nothing. 

DDyson
DDyson

@attyrose31 @DDyson  

Interesting point, watching the recent mayoral debate certainly makes one seriously consider your suggestion about a personal dynamism deficit in Houston.

Mark
Mark

@kimbrp @MGenscher @attyrose31 

Funny you draw a parallel between John Mariani and Teresa Byrne-Dodge. Who features prominently on the My Table website endorsing the magazine as a fun read? Yep, John Mariani himself. Birds of a feather....

MGenscher
MGenscher

@KaitlinS @MGenscher 

Whatever he is, and has been, can be debated, but he seems much beloved by many, especially among publicists. Regardless, nice job following up and not merely pouting.

KaitlinS
KaitlinS topcommenter

@MGenscher @KaitlinS Perhaps. I honestly can't speak to his business practices, but I will say he was a really nice, forthcoming guy, and he reached out to us about chatting! So that was cool. It's clear he likes Houston a lot, it just didn't make the cut this year.

MGenscher
MGenscher

@Kylejack @MGenscher @kayla72 

I can understand then why the headlines seem so often disjointed from the stories they introduce; I'm saving a list for Letterman. You'd think an editor familiar with Eric's amplitude might be sensitive, unless it was done in jest.

Kylejack
Kylejack topcommenter

@MGenscher @kayla72 Eric didn't call him overblown. Editors write headlines, especially true at CultureMap.

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