You won’t see any photos of Robin Garr with this blog because his anonymity helps prevent special treatment for him at the restaurants he reviews.
Robin Garr, who lives in one of Episcopal Church Home’s Dudley Square independent-living patio homes, has one of the region’s most appetizing jobs: He reviews restaurants for his own website, LouisvilleHotBytes.com, and for the alternative Louisville newspaper, LEO Weekly.
If that self-assigned gig weren’t tantalizing enough, he also writes a wine newsletter, sending comments about wines to 25,000 subscribers every two weeks.
But being a restaurant critic has some slight negatives, Garr told us. Don’t get us wrong: He wasn’t complaining. We asked what some of the surprising pluses and minuses of the job are for those of us who would like a vicarious taste of his world. And he kindly obliged us.
He also shared with us three of his favorite recent restaurant dishes. To whet your appetite for that, we’ll tell you one of them was an appetizer that was so good; his party ordered seconds!
Garr also urges dining patrons to eat out and to be especially kind and patient with waitstaff and restaurants in general because they’re still going through tough times.
Finally, Garr shares why he and his wife, Mary Woodford Johnson, enjoy living independently and purposefully on the Episcopal Church Home campus.
A long, interesting journalism ride
Garr and his wife, Mary Woodford Johnson, have lived a long time in Louisville and four years in the Dudley Square homes, where they live purposeful and enjoyable life filled with good taste on the Episcopal Church Home campus.
Garr studied English at the University of Louisville and had no particular desire to be a journalist. Instead, he figured he’d become a famous novelist or poet.
“Not a practical life plan, actually, so I found my way into journalism as an Air Force news reporter/editor for four Vietnam-era years,” he said.
He returned to civilian life in the Los Angeles area in the 1970s and worked for the Glendale-Pasadena Ledger-Independent, in the foothills area on LA’s north side. Among the things he covered was the destructive 1971 Sylmar earthquake that killed 64.
Shortly after that, but only coincidentally, he moved back to Louisville and took a job as a reporter at the former Voice of St. Matthews, which at the time was seeking to become a serious voice for Louisville’s East End. He soon after became the managing editor there. In 1976, Garr became a general news reporter for The Courier-Journal. He stayed there through the merger of The Louisville Times into The Courier-Journal and the sale of the newspapers to Gannett Corp. in 1986.
In 1982, he became the newspaper’s first and only wine-tasting columnist. And in 1984, he also was invited to take on the restaurant review column. All the while, he covered most of the major breaking-news stories from 1976 to 1990, including the day the K&I bridge was shut down after an overweighted dump truck caused part of it to sag about a foot. He also reported the morning Louisville’s sewers exploded, destroying 13 miles of sewer lines, and the fiery 1988 school-bus crash on Interstate 71 near Carrollton, Ky., when a drunken driver’s pickup truck hit a bus filled with children. The collision killed 27 of the 67 people aboard the bus. The Courier-Journal staff, sadly, won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for General News Reporting its coverage.
Ceviche is a popular Latin American dish made by macerating raw fish and seafood in an acidic liquid like citrus juice, along with ingredients such as chiles, onions, and herbs.
Restaurant reviews were a part-time gig
Although his restaurant reviews and wine columns earned him a lot of visibility, his daily news reporting was his main job. The restaurant and wine reviews “were very much part-time,” he said. “I was considered a freelancer for those jobs, the pay was nominal, and I had to do it on my own time,” Garr said. “Still, did I mention it was fun?”
But after the 1987 closure of the Times, budget- and staff cuts were taking a toll on the Courier-Journal, “and the job was no longer fun,” he said. So he left in 1990, accepting a job with World Hunger Year (WHY) in New York City.
WHY was an international non-profit organization founded by the singer-songwriter Harry Chapin, and Garr created a new program there called Reinvesting in America. Across four years, he traveled to all 50 states, finding creative and innovative grassroots groups that were fighting hunger and poverty. Garr interviewed officials and program recipients, gathered the information into a database, and produced a book, “Reinvesting in America,” which Addison-Wesley published in 1995.
At the same time, he continued freelance writing about food, wine, and travel for publications ranging from The New York Times to airline magazines. He also was an early user of social media, helping to operate a wine and food forum on the former CompuServe Information Service.
He also appeared as “The Classical Connoisseur” on National Public Radio’s Radio Catskill as a regular food-and-wine commentator.
Writing on the then-new Internet
In 1995, Garr returned to Louisville, bought a house, and started a small business that created websites for himself and others.
“Much to my surprise, perhaps because the World Wide Web was still so new and open, we did pretty well and managed to support ourselves with this creative work,” he said.
He built WineLoversPage.com to house his ongoing wine writing efforts, and seeing a lack of quality restaurant reviews in Greater Louisville, “(I) decided to try to compete in that market with LouisvilleHotBytes.com,” he said.
He later received his Master of Divinity degree at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary and created another website that houses his commentary on weekly Revised Common Lectionary readings.
“My wife, Mary Woodford Johnson, built quite a few websites and managed them for other clients, mostly non-profits, but one or two wine-related,” Garr said.
About 29 years later, “our food and wine sites are still going fairly strong,” he said. “I just sent out my biweekly wine e-letter to 25,000 subscribers this morning, and our partner, Louisville’s alt-weekly newspaper, LEO Weekly, has been republishing my food reviews since 2006.”
His food reviews run weekly, but to coordinate with LEO Weekly’s biweekly publishing schedule, he writes a formal review every other Wednesday, sharing it with their print edition.
“I do some other kind of article, about a trend or development or whatnot, on alternate Wednesdays, which LEO Weekly shares online.”
His wine column runs alternate Fridays, and his Revised Common Lectionary observations appear every Monday. Things he writes for the column come out when needed, “but I try to move those through and get them off my desk pronto.”
Fascinating work as a foodie and wine aficionado
Some more background on Garr’s career:
- As he always has through the years, he works entirely at his own expense and observes the strict rules against conflicts of interest that The Louisville Times’ owners, the Bingham family, require; he accepts no “freebies” and bases all his reports on unannounced visits, so there is no favoritism shown to him. By the way, you won’t see any photos of him with this blog because having his image be unknown helps prevent special treatment for him at restaurants he reviews.
- He also is the host of WineLoversPage.com, where he hosts the WineLoversDiscussion Group forums and publishes a popular eLetter, The 30 Second Wine Advisor. He reviews wines with and without food accompaniment. As with his restaurant reviews, he pays for all the wines he reviews, and he writes, he says, in “simple, straightforward terms without snobbery or ‘winespeak,’ adhering to the basic principle, ‘Straight talk in plain English about fine wine.’”
This tasty grilled Roman artichoke appetizer at Anoosh Bistro a while back was so good that Robin and his guests ordered seconds.
Ups/downs of his gigs and his favorite dishes…
There were some things we had to know about his wine- and restaurant-reviewing career, and he generously answered our questions. Here are some of them:
Question: For those of us who would like to live vicariously, what are the best and worst things about being a restaurant reviewer?
Answer: The good news is that I get to eat out a lot and get to try most of the interesting new places. The bad news is that I can't frequently get back to the places I really love because I need to get to someplace new. The good news is that I get to eat a lot of delicious food. The bad news is that I have to exercise strict portion control and exercise a lot (to avoid gaining too much weight).
But really, the best thing is the same thing that I bring to all my writing and have done as a food and drink reporter, a newspaper reporter, and a generalist: I like to use my gifts as a writer to inform people, give them the information they can use, and make them happy.
We’re not ready for assisted living or “life enrichment” or other points along that spectrum, but happy to know that we’re able to move into that ecosystem if and when we need it. Many years away, I hope, but there’s security in knowing it’s available.
Q: What trends have you noticed about dining and restaurants in the Louisville area in recent years, and which do you enjoy most?
A: Louisville has been a restaurant-loving city since before the Civil War, not least because it’s a fairly free and open riverfront city surrounded by very conservative rural areas. Whenever Farmer John wanted to misbehave, he’d head for Louisville to eat, drink, bet, and commit whatever particular sins amused him. I’m joking, but only a little. I’d say that since I started writing about this stuff in the ’80s, Louisville has ridden the national trend toward more fine dining opportunities, more creative dining, and – perhaps most notably for the Ohio Valley – a widely more varied collection of immigrant-run restaurants from many parts of the world. I actually try to give priority to those, with the more pricey eateries in second place. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated issues with labor, supplies, and both wage and food-price inflation have been tough.
Q. How long have you lived in ECH’s Dudley Square neighborhood, and how do you like it? What do you enjoy most about it?
A. We moved here in March 2019, downsizing from our lovable but 105-year-old bungalow in Louisville’s Crescent Hill neighborhood. We like it just fine and enjoy our neighbors and the excellent quality of our house. We like the fact that it’s independent living. Like many of our neighbors here, we’re not ready for assisted living or “life enrichment” or other points along that spectrum, but happy to know that we’re able to move into that ecosystem if and when we need it. Many years away, I hope, but there’s security in knowing it’s available.
Q. Any advice for people who go to restaurants these days to make their experience better?
A. Be kind. And support your favorite restaurants – your favorite independent, locally owned restaurants, please – by supporting them with your dollars. We’ve had a lot of closings, and many of the fancier places that fell have been replaced by more casual eateries or, in some instances, franchise chains. I worry that Louisville’s famously exciting restaurant scene stays that way. So eat out, and if one server is trying to handle an entire dining room because they’re the only server on duty that night, give them some slack and tip them well anyway.
Q. What are some of your favorite recent dishes in Greater Louisville lately?
A. (He listed three):
- A grilled Roman artichoke appetizer at Anoosh Bistro a while back was so good that we ordered seconds.
- Seviche Restaurant's trademark dish, sustainably caught ahi tuna seviche, is a must-try.
- A fillet of Idaho Snake River farm-raised Riverence trout made a delicious entree at the elegant farm-to-table restaurant Barn 8 in Goshen, Ky.
The dining experience at ECH is truly outstanding. And it’s not just about delicious meals and fancy desserts. The dining staff understands the role of good nutrition in living well.
Excellent Dining Options at Episcopal Church Home
For people with discerning tastes, Chef Tim Knight, director of dining services at Episcopal Church Home, also prepares fine meals for residents, including at Grille 75, and it’s much less of a trip than some of Louisville’s other eateries.
"We care about every detail because we have the vision of serving really good food, and that’s what we want for our residents,” says Chef Tim.
Chef Tim prepares special meals for regular evenings at the ECH Clubhouse and other events, and his meals win high praise from residents and visitors alike.
Grille 75 also offers private dining options along with convenient catering services for private parties or events.
When you come for a tour, take a look at our new Grille 75. We would love to give you a tour of one of the new patio homes, and you’ll understand why so many consider dining at Episcopal Church Home a favorite part of their day. For more information about Independent Living at Dudley Square, please contact Elizabeth Pace at (502) 736-8050 or email her at email@example.com.