What does it mean to be a restaurant critic for fifty years? I recently attended a dinner in honor of Tom Fitzmorris, who wrote his first restaurant review for the student newspaper at the University of New Orleans in September 1972. Since then, he created a place for himself in the world of New Orleans food and restaurants, anchored by a decades-long gig on commercial talk radio and a long-running newsletter. The dinner took place at Andrea’s, a restaurant whose owner has a long-term relationship with Tom’s radio show. There must have been at least 200 people at the dinner, including an older generation of chefs and many friends, classmates, and fans of Tom’s radio show. For a long time, Tom Fitzmorris was an essential part of New Orleans foodscape. He served as an advocate of the city’s historic Creole restaurants, as well as for its neighborhood plate lunches and po-boy shops. He was a sort of walking and talking encyclopedia of New Orleans food history. And now, dealing with illness, Tom has mostly vanished from the food scene. With him, it seems that a certain way of thinking about food in New Orleans is also disappearing. His distinctive career and niche also raise some interesting questions about the changing roles of restaurant critics in general.
Tom’s radio show long served to introduce people—newcomers and natives alike—to New Orleans culinary culture. In her book “Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table,” former restaurant critic Sara Roahen devotes a chapter to Tom’s place in that culture, noting that the existence of a daily 3-hour commercial radio show about food—during drive time and on a station otherwise featuring sports-talk or political call-in shows—indicated something important about the place of food in the city. I long had my own relationship with Tom’s show, listening to him often enough to get a sense of his regular callers and oft-repeated anecdotes. I may have even called in once or twice and recall getting a gruff response to questions I may have naively raised about traditional New Orleans French bread (I swear, Tom, if you read this, I love the stuff now). The regular callers were a colorful group, as were advertisers. Andrea Apuzzo, the host of the dinner noted above, often called in incredibly long, frenetic and colorful advertisements for his restaurant, recounted in a distinctly Italian accent. Tom had close relationships with many chefs and restaurateurs around the city and suburbs, a fact that may have raised suspicions about his objectivity as a reviewer, but that also helped him maintain insights into the industry that proved useful over the years.
Tom regularly spoke of a particular range of restaurants that seem, now, to represent a kind of framework for thinking about New Orleans food as it evolved in the late twentieth century. There were, of course, the Creole “grande dames,” restaurants like Galatoire’s and Antoine’s (Tom was a regular at Antoine’s). He also often referred to the advent of the Creole bistros, like Mr. B’s, that led to a more relaxed style of dining in the city. He had a constellation of Italian restaurants that he loved, perhaps most notably Pascal’s Manale, famous for inventing “barbecue shrimp.” Like any food critic, he had certain dishes that he always seemed to order, including pretty much any kind of baked oyster dish he could find. Tom had a deep love for roast beef po’boys, which he persisted in calling “poor boys,” much to the consternation of those who preferred “po’boy.” And he preferred his muffulettas at room temperature (as opposed to toasted), a controversial position that I share.
Tom was as interested in educating people about how to eat in restaurants as he was in talking about where or what to eat. I think that most big city restaurant critics are anxious to review new and trendy places. Tom insisted that he would prefer to not darken the door of a new restaurant for the first six months, giving them time to settle into routines. He often instructed listeners to avoid dining out on certain days of the year—most notably Mother’s Day—when restaurants would be full of “amateur” diners. In an age of increasing informality, Tom dined out most of the time in a jacket and tie, no matter what restaurant he was visiting. He lamented the fact that others did not do the same and often commented with regret on the growing informality of public dining.
Tom was a public figure, eschewing the role of anonymous food critic and embracing an image of a man-about-town. This is partially why everyone refers to him by his first name. He regularly participated in television shows on the New Orleans social scene, turned up at food-related charity events, and served as a celebrity judge at local food festivals. He annually narrated Mardi Gras day parades on the radio from a perch in an historic building on St. Charles Avenue and followed that up with a public “farewell to beef” (rooted in the meaning of the word “Carnival,” which is followed by Lent) dinner at the Crescent City Steakhouse, a restaurant that seems unchanged since its creation in 1934. He organized regular “Eat Club” dinners, where he and his radio fans could gather at a local restaurant and enjoy an often-elaborate meal for a fixed price. In these and other ways, Tom was far more than a critic. Indeed, he embodied his place in New Orleans in a way that suggested that he could not have been a food writer anywhere else. His topic was New Orleans almost as much as it was food and restaurants.
The 2005 hurricane and subsequent floods shut down all the restaurants in New Orleans and Tom and his family evacuated to Washington DC, where he initially tried to keep up with New Orleans restaurant news from afar. I was also in DC, so I reached out and we ended up having lunch together at a fancy Italian restaurant. Tom recounts this anecdote in his book “Hungry Town: A Culinary History of New Orleans,” pointing out that we spent at least 2 hours drinking, eating, and discussing the fate of New Orleans restaurants. This odd behavior led our waiter to ask where we were from, noting that people in DC might spend 2 hours discussing politics over lunch, but not food. When he returned to New Orleans and to the airwaves, Tom started telling everyone that the restaurant scene—and with it, the city—would recover rapidly and maybe would be better than ever. He developed the New Orleans Menu Restaurant Index, tracking the number of restaurants open, eventually establishing that there were, by 2009, more restaurants in New Orleans than there had been before the floods. As long as the restaurant scene thrived, Tom was bullish about the city’s future.
Tom is certainly not alone in thinking that the city’s future is somehow indexed by the status of the restaurant industry. His own career is a testament to the local obsession with food and restaurants. It is hard to imagine how he could have had a similar career anywhere else in the U.S. It is also hard to imagine anyone having a similar career in the future. Tom’s vision of restaurants focused mostly on fine dining in formal settings and encouraged a kind of elite and knowing approach to food. From time to time he acknowledged the role of Black chefs in New Orleans, but his main focus was on the elite white (and often European) chefs and restaurateurs in the city. This was certainly the image projected by the crowd that gathered at Andrea’s to honor him, which was overwhelmingly white and of a certain age. It seemed in some ways like a gathering of people from a version of New Orleans that no longer really exists, or, if it does, is no longer the dominant vision of the city. The city’s restaurants are moving rapidly beyond a point where simply acknowledging the presence of people of color is sufficient. The dining scene is too diverse now, with different people, cuisines, pop-ups, food trucks, and experiments in fine dining that do not easily fit within the formal models of the past. There no longer seems to be a dominant culinary discourse that can be embodied by one food critic. Maybe there really never was such a thing.
In the past few years, there has been a changing of the guard among restaurant critics across the country and a changing idea of what restaurant critics should do. Many restaurant writers with long careers (none as long as Tom’s) have retired. There are many new voices, often representing groups and communities that were rarely part of food media in the past. There have also been a number of controversies and fights in the media around who should speak and write about food and culture. Although, Tom Fitzmorris was never the only person writing and speaking about food in New Orleans, his work was an essential part of the making of the idea that it was important to acknowledge the city’s distinct food culture. Yet the ideas that he (along with many others) promoted were never the only way to think about that food culture. And today it seems more important than ever to acknowledge and embrace a broader range of foods, people, and approaches to dining. It also seems important for restaurant writers to attend to and report on the industry’s many issues, including wages, immigration, sexual misconduct, and much more. None of these are things that Tom was especially interested in discussing. The city would not have been the same without Tom’s mellifluous radio voice providing insights into and shaping the restaurants and food culture over the last 50 years. It is very unlikely that any one person will ever take up that kind of space again. As much as Tom will be missed, that is probably a good thing.