Longtime reviewer the Grumpy Gourmet turned 90 this year. We enticed him to spill the beans about what he's been up to since putting down his pen and fork.

Longtime reviewer the Grumpy Gourmet turned 90 this year. We enticed him to spill the beans about what he's been up to since putting down his pen and fork.

Story by Jill Moorhead // Photo by Will Shilling

He got his start as a professional meddler with his Tattle Tales column in the city's first tabloid, the Columbus Star. For 25 years, he reviewed restaurants for the Columbus Dispatch as the Grumpy Gourmet. Yes, the man has a healthy respect for gossip. So much so, he's the owner and editor of the website gossipisgood.com.

I've swapped stories with the Grump for almost a decade, being sure to abide by his two rules: Do not call him before noon. Do not ask how he is. (He will tell you, and chances are, he'll mention his urologist.)

To have a conversation with the Grump is to have a front-row seat to some of Columbus' best behind-the-scenes restaurant stories and a glimpse of our city's history as recorded in the pages of at least three newspapers. The longtime restaurant critic turned 90 this year and is as much a Columbus classic as White Castle, Johnny Marzetti, the Clarmont and Katzinger's.

Although his column is retired, his work is far from complete. His current project, foodreportingsyllabus.com, is a culmination of a lifetime of writing, designed to be a "no-note, no-tuition graduate course in restaurant food writing."

I recently bribed him with a jar of pepper jelly to learn a little about his career as a critic and get his take on the current state of the Columbus restaurant scene.

Your first Columbus paper was the Columbus Citizen Journal in the 1950s, and you eventually worked for the Columbus Star, a somewhat trashy and scandalous tabloid. Did you start out reviewing food?
I was covering odd beats for the Citizen Journal. One day the editor stuck his hand up and yelled, "Is there an atheist in the house?" The assistant city editor pointed at me. I went over there and he said, "How would you like to earn an extra $25 on a Sunday?" I said, "I'll take it."

"What do you think of this? Go to a different church every Sunday and cover the services like you're covering a movie. I don't want any opinion. I just want you to do a review."

This has always stuck with me. There's a difference between reporter, reviewer and critic. And he wanted me to review church services. And I did that. It was a fun beat.

How did you start working for the Star?
I'm sitting there on a Sunday night writing my "reporter goes to church" column. I'd become bored with it. And "Paul Pry," the gossip columnist for the Star, couldn't produce. The editor, Danny Flavin, a friend of mine, said if I had some items for this Tattle Tales column to let him know. I'd give him a take and he'd slip me a $20 bill.

I wasn't on the payroll for the Star, but I was passing this stuff on. I'm sitting in the lobby one day, reading the paper. Along comes the editor and Eddie Wolfe, the associate publisher. They come over and say, "You got anything else we can use?"

I said, "The rector of this church down here, every afternoon at 4 p.m. is going down to Pale Eddies (where the Dispatch parking lot is now). He goes with his secretary and they sit there and drink Manhattans out of coffee cups."

Eddie Wolfe says, "No kidding." I said, "Go check it out yourself."

It may have been that afternoon that those two guys haul ass down to Pale Eddies, and sure enough, those two were sitting there with dark libations in a coffee cup. Danny wrote this on Tuesday. Hits the paper on Wednesday. It was the lead item. On Thursday, the rector was gone. That sealed my credentials with the Wolfes and Danny.

Did your time at the Star teach you how to gossip about the restaurant industry?
Oh yeah, it had to. You didn't gossip about the restaurants. You gossiped about humanity.

In your writing, you've done a lot to educate the public about what they're eating. Do you think that's what your life's work has been about, or is it more in helping to teach future journalists--readers of your Food Reporting Syllabus--to follow in your footsteps?
I don't care if they follow in my footsteps, but I want them to know what my path was. I think that I have accomplished something in my food writing.

If nothing else, the biggest thing, the biggest battle was the matter of ethics. You just violated my ethical standards tonight by bringing me that Rothschild dip which I like. But since it's 10 years since I wrote an opinion column, I'll accept it. Ethics is a constant fight.

We've lost several fine dining establishments recently. Handke's, Bexley's Monk...
We didn't lose Handke's because of problems. He's 65 years old. He'd been on his feet since he was 15. He sold it three years ago, got the money and went away with it. He had the best restaurant in the worst location in the city. He is America's master chef, and he was never promoted by the city. They didn't brag on him.

Today they brag on the Short North, but they don't brag on the best chef up there: Kent Rigsby. Absolutely. The most innovative, hard-working guy.

What do you think creates longevity in a restaurant, especially in the current economic situation?
Today? Quality of food, I think. Which also has to be huckstered. You can have the best food in town, but if you don't huckster it, it's going to flop. One of the nicest menus in this town is L'Antibes. He ought to be serving 88 to 100 every night. But he can't do it. You can have the best food in the world, but if no one knows about it...

There's an entire culture of "foodies" now, which exists, in part, due to television shows about food. You've written that Julia Child increased Americans' knowledge of food more than anyone in her time. Who, in the past 50 years, has had the most impact on how we view food?
Rachael Ray. She's made it fun. She says, "I'm not a chef." She's very knowledgeable of food. She low-rents herself, but I think she's great. She's not up there bam-bamming.

I have objections to her. She needs a hairnet. And she used to wipe her mouth on her sleeve. But that's OK.

You recently turned 90. What did you do for your birthday?
Do you know Geoff Hetrick? Director of the Ohio Restaurant Association? He brought me 90 oatmeal cookies. Ninety.

Did you eat all of them?
I worked on it. What did I do for my 90th? That's all. I don't celebrate birthdays, holidays or Sundays.

1. Handke's Day-After-Thanksgiving
Luncheon, 2006

"One of the best meals ever in my 6,000-plus meals [mostly] in Columbus was at Handke's. Chunky lobster stew, roasted whole foie gras, braised Kobe beef short ribs, sauteed venison loin, a pear-almond torte and a port wine-poached pear."

2. D'Angelo at Rigsby's Kitchen
"It used to make [Kent Rigsby] mad. When I wanted to read my mail in the afternoon, I'd take it over to the big round table at Rigsby's and order the D'Angelo. The dish is still on the menu. It's nothing in the world but a buttered spaghetti with scallions and things like that. It's a pasta dish. Rigsby kind of grumbled, 'That's all you have. Every time you come here, you have to have that.'

'Well,' I said, 'I'm not reviewing. I'm just sitting here drinking wine, reading my mail.'"

3. Orange Chicken at Sun Tong Luck
"I hate to low-rent you, but I like the Orange Chicken. It's equal to their pad Thai. I just like the meals at that little place."

1. "Subway's meatball sub loaded with black olives"
2. "Anything at Katzinger's"
3. "My favorite right now is Piada, which is going to be a chain. I do the pasta and the chicken. I've told Chris Doody that when he goes public, I want to buy the first unit."