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Jan 24, 2003 10:37 PM

San Diego - Eleanor Widmer

  • h

In response to my post about LJ/UC Chinese, said "Don't trust Eleanor Widmer". As you know she has been something of a food critic icon in SD for many years. I have no problem with deposing icons but have no info on this one. Do others feel the same as edotdot? Differently? Could be an interesting discussion.

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    1. re: Cristina

      Ed sent this reply in response to my questions about his critique of Eleanor Widmer and asked that I post it. So here it is (below). Quite informative and many thanks to Ed and the others who replied. That being said could I also ask for recommendations in the Convoy area? We like dim sung at Emerald, didn't like Dumpling (hope that there is no relation to the person who posts under that name, because her recommends are usually very good) and hear that Spice is good but haven't been there, thought Jasmine was so-so.

      We have had a couple Eleanor Widmer discussions
      already at Chowhound. Some of us have grown very
      suspicious of many of her recommendations, most
      particularly for ethnic restaurants or any type of
      cuisine involving hot spices. I remember going to a
      Chinese restaurant favorite of hers on Convoy (I
      forget its name), but it was the worst Chinese food
      I've ever had on that street. How she was able to find
      this mediocre place on a street with at least a dozen
      better Chinese restaurants is amazing. You may want to
      search for some of our past discussions for more
      examples of her mistakes. On several occasions while I
      was living in San Diego, she wrote things that were
      simply silly or misinformed. Also, she has been around
      for years and is well known among restrauteurs, so she
      may often receive special attention. And on one
      occasion she wrote a review praising a restaurant
      managed by an acquaintance of hers right after another
      reviewer for the same magazine had written a critical
      review, an action I view as highly unethical and

      In addition, I always felt that she rated decor and
      service over food, and she also seemed to prefer
      expensive european cuisine over vivid ethnic foods,
      both preferences that I do not share.

      Of course, she is a food resource, and 'hounds need to
      look at everything, but I would not trust her
      judgments. I certainly respect Buddha's, Dumpling's,
      and KirkK's views on our board much more than hers,
      particularly when it comes to something like Chinese


      --- San Diego Law Firm wrote:
      > Don't trust Eleanor Widmer?? Wow. That's VERY
      > interesting! Can you elaborate?

      1. re: hungrylawyer

        I hadn't really readied my notes to hungry lawyer for publication, and looking them over now, I realize that I left out Gayla, who we all know is the #1 food resource person in San Diego (mea culpa) whose posts should be taken as gospel. And I also meant no disrespect for other S.D. posters; I was just trying to list the most frequent sources on our boards for Chinese restaurants.

        As far as Chinese restaurants on convoy, I've recently had good meals at both the New Shanghai and Shanghai City. I also enjoyed the dim sum at Golden City and had a good meal at Spicy City. I also want to try the new Szechuan place--I think Kirk said it was called Dede's--right? And of course Convoy also hosts the best Korean and Vietnamese places in town. But now that I live in the (far) distant suburbs, I don't get to explore Convoy as much anymore.

        1. re: e.d.

          Jim, your post was beautifully written and very sensitive~thanks for taking the time. Ed, your thoughts are excellent and so true.

          Much as I love living where I do, there are some things I miss about San Diego; the vast opportunity to chowhound is a big one. *Sigh* Restaurants where I am are pretty much limited to mediocre and bad. But STREET food~now there's another story. Y'all come down here and I'll take you out for the best tacos in the world...40 cents each, and four will fill you up.

          1. re: Cristina

            Where are you located? Maybe we can get a group down there and try out these tacos. I like the al postor tacos, cabeza, lengua, etc.

            1. re: buddha

              I'm south of Guadalajara...only 1700 short miles from San Diego...

                1. re: Gayla

                  Oh Gayla, how I wish you would all come! We'd get Doña Mago, the taco lady, to cater for us...we'd all descend on Elba's AND Pachita's to take a vote for the best pozole ever...we'd take a day trip over to Tangancicuaro for carnitas to die for...*sigh*...a road trip for street food, what better thing to do.

                  1. re: Cristina

                    Sounds to good :-)). I love pozole. Many years ago I had the good fortune to live for 6 weeks with a Mexican family in Cuernavaca. They were fabulous cooks and really introduced me to the wonders of the Mexican table. My birthday happened to fall during the time I was with them and they insisted on making a fiesta for me. Pozole was served and they kept teasing me that the guest of honor was always served the eyeball. Trust me I checked out every bite cuz I'd already heard about that tradition. No eyeball thank goodness.

                    Looks like it will be Mexico City February 20-24 and Oaxaca March 1-8, and then August 3-10 in Michoacan, that's about as close to GDJ as I'm going to get this year, unless we invent a chow-bus and eat our way on down the coast.......................

          2. re: e.d.

            Oh my God e.d., I am hardly the #1 expert in food in San Diego!! I totally agree with your assessment about KirkK and Dumpling. They *always* post about interesting places. I'd add Phee to your list. I like her recs too. And you've got to give Buddha a lot of credit for taking on the often thankless task of organizing some Chowvents.

            I'm just trying to eat my way through S.D. and find out where the good food is. I've barely made a dent in the options so far. Unfortunately, my waistline and the bathroom scales dictate I proceed at a more leisurely pace ;-)

            1. re: Gayla

              coming from you, Gayla, that is a lovely compliment. thank you!

              1. re: Gayla

                Well I can truly say that I've learned so much since I "stumbled" across Chowhound.......
                Though I don't have quite the amount of fortitude as Ed who travels, what, 175 miles - a true Chowhound could not be had...travels all those miles for Chinese Food!!! Gayla's educated palate/mind is dependable, Buddha does all the "trench work", and I always depend on him for his honest and true opinions...phee's dependable posts, and Dumpling's and Terry's wonderful recommendations....
                Gayla - Your dedication and (possible)sacrifice (of your non-existent waistline) is such much appreciated.....Curt I heard that Boll Weevil's going to start serving micro-greens on their burgers soon, just kidding, though I still think Mr Peabody's got a better burger, though a Double King Fatburger on the Char..yummmmm

                Good Eating....

        2. Eleanor Widmer was for many years the restaurant critic for the San Diego Reader. At various times in her career, she was the*only* regularly published, independent critic in San Diego County. Later she also appeared on radio and TV, but for at least the last two years, I don't now *where* she is, or what she's up to. The Reader has continued to carry her by now much dated reviews of some restaurants, but as far as I can tell, she's not written anything for them in some time. I've tried Googling her, but found no updated info on her status. I'd really like to at least know if she's okay.

          As a restaurant critic, Eleanor could be pretty quirky. She actively disliked any hot food, so her reviews of Mexican or Thai places or even some of the places the have been doing some fusion things were somewhat suspect. To her credit, she did warn her readers of her prejudices. Perhaps even stranger in a food critic, Eleanor didn't drink at all, so she couldn't bring any first hand judgments on a restaurant's wine list or the quality of its bottled offerings. Finally, she sometimes let her personal relationships get in the way of her criticism. She never forgave the owners of Old Trieste for enforcing their "Gents must wear jackets" on her adult son who showed up there one evening in a leather jacket (but a very stylish one she told us). On her radio show, ostensibly about restaurants, she often seemed more interested in old movies or serenading her listeners with her interpretations of old songs.

          Now...Having said all that, I have a lot of affection for the lady. She was writing about restaurants in San Diego County -- and quite knowledgably -- in the days when a night on the town here was often highlighted by a trip to the Cotton Patch (ancestor of the Boll Weevil chain) for a steak, baked potato, and an iceberg lettuce wedge with a cherry tomato on the side. It was reading her reviews that first emboldened me to try Vietnamese food when it was practically unknown anywhere else in the US. And it was one of her reviews that got me and my wife to stop in at the little taco stand on Mission Bay Drive that Ralph Rubio and his dad had just opened to try some of those crazy fish(!) tacos. I learned a lot from her reviews, and she sparked my curiosity to learn more -- sometimes to the detriment of her own credibility (smile).

          I guess I feel toward Eleanor Widmer as I would toward a sort of wacky aunt -- the one who wore funny old hats and let us smoke when our folks weren't around. Yeah, she's no longer in style, but she deserves a lot more respect than she usually gets these days. She was a pioneer, and some of the bashing she gets seems tantamount to criticizing Daniel Boone for wearing that hokey coonskin cap. May she have a long and happy life filled with those early-bird specials she's so fond of. Happy eating, everyone.
          . . jim strain

          3 Replies
          1. re: Jim Strain

            Thank you Jim for a very thoughtful note.

            1. re: Jim Strain

              Thank you for the enjoyable and sensitive post. I came to San Diego in the late 90s, and by then she seemed old fashioned and not well informed. When I read her column that said that Pecorino was a cheese something like Romano, I couldn't believe they let her write about food. Clearly I missed her in her prime. Perhaps some of the animus in my posts toward her reflect the fact that I was dining on a very limited income in those days, and I felt like she cost me some good dining opportunities.

              1. re: Jim Strain
                Gilberto Mendoza Jr

                Hi all, I was just wondering if any one knows of anyone or someplace that may have Cotton Patch (San Diego) memoribilia? I want to get my Dad something special for Xmas.He used to work there in the 50's I already found a match book. I was hoping to find a menu. Any help would be appreciated.
                Gilberto Mendoza Jr

              2. I googled her, and found that apparently she passed on late last year.


                1 Reply
                1. re: mike g.

                  Eleanor Widmer, San Diego's first (and for a long time only) restaurant critic, died on November 8, 2004, at the age of 80. Here's a couple of lines from her obituary in the San Diego Union-Tribune:

                  When her then-husband received a teaching appointment at San Diego State College in 1956, the couple moved to La Jolla and rented a home for $60. Two years later, they bought a house in the neighborhood.

                  But when the real estate agent asked to rescind the agreement because Dr. Widmer was Jewish (her husband was of Swiss and English descent), the Widmers threatened to sue.

                  "We ended up keeping the house," Kingsley Widmer said.
                  # # # End quoted material

                  . . . jim strain in san diego.

                2. I have lived in San Diego off & on since 1972. During my last stay (around 1998) I ran across Eleanor Widmer on PBS Radio when I was trying to find Garrison Keilor. Since I was new (again) in town & sometimes bored on Sundays, I enjoyed listening to her sometimes humorous reviews & distinctive voice. I think I may have seen her a time or two on television as well. Tho I didn't take her reviews very seriously (she seemed more of an "erudite socialite" than a real food connoisseur), I found her entertaining. I tried to look her up online to see if she was still on air & found a novel under her name (seems she published at least 2), then found this website which mentioned her. Later found her Obituary from Nov 2004; I believe she was 80 & her last novel was published posthumously. I was sorry to learn that.
                  However, I am grateful to find THIS site, & anxious to learn more about your approach to food, & especially, recommendations on "things San Diego".
                  Thank you.

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: Uncle2Son

                    Here is a link to a very perceptive analysis of Eleanor Widmer's life and times published in the San Diego Reader:

                    1. re: Gypsy Jan

                      Thanks for that link. I had read the article in the past, and it let me meet the real Eleanor Widmer. As I am growing older, I become aware that a lot of us slowly become caricatures of ourselves, as we become familiar playing the roles that we've been playing for decades. In a way that's what happened to her, and that linked article is a great way to learn about what a wild and interesting existence she had and how much she did contribute to SD and the SD dining scene.

                      1. re: Ed Dibble

                        I particularly like the closing sentence in the article, "Her plaque provides the dates of neither her birth nor her death, nor does it mention her motherhood. In accordance with her instructions, it says: Eleanor Rackow Widmer -- Writer."

                        1. re: Gypsy Jan

                          I used to listen to her KPBS show religiously every weekend, and seek out The Reader each week JUST to read her restaurant reviews. Quirks notwithstanding, she was incredibly entertaining and really knew her stuff. I miss her.

                          1. re: bizzwriter

                            Yes, I miss her too; she vigouruously expressed her unvarnished attitude about what the restaraunt experience should be - food, service and presentation (decor and the plating).

                            I really like that her last instructions were to inscribe her tombstone with just her name (no dates) and one word underneath, "Writer".