Dara departs, and leaves a memoir in her wake

Soon enough I was one of the contributors to something called Page Three, City Pages' attempt to be something halfway between Spy and the New Yorker's Talk of the Town. Unfortunately, when the writers for those publications wrote about who and what they knew, it was of earth-shattering significance; when I wrote about what I knew, it was mainly about how to subsist on a $40-a-month grocery budget, which is a notably short story of limited appeal. So, I kept the details of living exclusively on dried beans to myself, and instead immersed myself in microfilm at the Minnesota History Center and the Minneapolis public library looking for material for "this day in history"-type stories. I remember finding a 19th-century notice in a St. Paul paper that ran something like: "City fathers demand that the citizens of Minneapolis stop throwing newborn babies into the Mississippi River which distressingly wash up on the shores of our fair city."

Time went on, and the City Pages restaurant critic announced she was moving to California, so they offered the job to me. (One of my freelance jobs had been writing short restaurant reviews for a Microsoft Sidewalk city guide.) I was ambivalent about it. It wasn't a salaried job or anything, just a $150-a-week freelance gig. It paid less than almost every other kind of writing and had no prestige in the newsroom; generally, it was considered drudgework that you took for the team. It's hard to remember that now, but this was long before the days of celebrity chefs and the Food Network, and food writing had the same prestige as obituary, pet, or cute-kid writing, which is to say not much. It was largely a pink-collar ghetto of zucchini-bread recipe editing where ambitious women tried not to end up. However, I had a long history of cleaning out walk-ins and sleeping on couch cushions on the floor, and the romance of having my byline more regularly in a paper I was still in awe of swayed me. I said yes.

That night they fired me and gave the job to Rick Nelson.

Check, please: Dara has eaten her last meal for City Pages
Bill Kelley
Check, please: Dara has eaten her last meal for City Pages

City Pages had been bought by Village Voice Media, which had also bought and closed the Twin Cities Reader, where Rick worked, and they needed the job for him. But Rick, now lead critic for the Star Tribune, didn't want the job, as he had just been recruited by the Pioneer Press. I still remember editor Steve Perry's phone call offering me the job for the second time in 36 hours: "Listen, I don't even know what to say...."

Overnight I had crafted a bargaining strategy. "Look," I said, "I don't want to get stuck with all these expenses on my own credit card. I want a City Pages credit card."

"Yeah, that's never going to happen," he said.

I took the job.

And that's how you got stuck with me. Almost 11 years ago. Oh, I feel so misty and nostalgic about it all. A lot happens in almost 11 years. When I look at my first restaurant reviews from 1997 I cringe. The inevitable lutefisk story. Clueless praise of the mediocre (the Alamo Grill! It's like looking at junior prom pictures—I'm just mortified). And the one story that ranks as the single worst idea in my whole food-writing career: a roundup of gyros. Yeah. Seriously. I think I ate 20 in a week. The takeaway: Guess what, all the gyros meat comes from the same damn place, and the pita breads usually come with them. It was like doing a roundup of Cool Ranch Doritos: How do the Cool Ranch Doritos at the Super America on 22nd and Lyndale compare to the Cool Ranch Doritos at the Maplewood Cub Foods?

After a few months, however, the job changes you. For one thing, it beats polite hospitality out of your body, which is crucial. I mean, for nice, normal people the response to anybody providing you with hospitality is to be nice back. So what if the pasta is soggy, they gave you something, and when someone gives you something you smile and say thank you. That's manners. It's also no way to be a critic who is useful to the public.

After about six months I had been to enough restaurants to get a sense of what good service was in this town, what good food was, what pricing was. (All of these things are local. Better-than-average food in Minneapolis is not the same as better-than-average food in Aix-en-Provence or Minot, North Dakota.)

And then in October 1997, I wrote my first slam, of MPLS. Cafe, a restaurant I still dislike, years after it closed. "It had been a long hour since I placed an appetizer order," I wrote, "and I might as well have been waiting for a bus for all the fine dining I was doing. I felt like Pamela Anderson at a NAMBLA convention."

I didn't think too much about the review when I wrote it; it just seemed like the truth. But the response sure got my attention: My home phone rang off the hook. This was unexpected. Cooks, servers, and even one server's mother were all leaving messages on my home phone weeping, calling me a liar, and worse. I heard later someone had posted my phone number in the kitchen. I got an unlisted phone number that day.

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