I was sitting last weekend with Robin Dorian and Nick Bumstead at the Pierogi Grill and Deli in Clearwater. We were enjoying a mess of pierogies, a plate of beef roll-ups and a bowl of Polish tripe soup amid the oddly matched ancient Egyptian décor.
The two were in town from New York City visiting her family, and I was giving her a mini-tour of delicious and kitschy places I love on that side of Tampa Bay.
That meant taking her to First Quality Sausage House in Safety Harbor, where we ate fried bacon and house-made head cheese. We finished at William Dean Chocolates in Belleair Bluffs.
Sandwiched in the middle was the delicious, hieroglyphic-covered oddity that is Pierogi Grill. Between bites of cheese-filled pierogi, Dorian asked me, “How do you find out about restaurants?”
The question cuts to the core of what she does.
The former Food Network host operates the site Find. Eat. Drink.(www.findeatdrink.com) with co-founder Bumstead. The site is dedicated to the purpose of asking chefs, bartenders, sommeliers and food purveyors to share their favorite places to fill your belly and make your taste buds happy in the process.
In January, she launched the concept as a searchable app for mobile devices.
Dorian got the idea in 2001 while hanging out with Tom Colicchio, who at that time was operating a restaurant called Craft. This was before his days as head judge on “Top Chef.”
Dorian was filming a show called “After Midnight” that documented where cooks and kitchen workers go after-hours when their restaurants close. All the cooks at Craft headed to a place in New York City's Meat Packing District called the Blue Ribbon.
“I wanted to know, 'How does everyone know where to show up?'?“ she said.
Not long after, she vacationed in Spain. She asked Food Network star Bobby Flay for suggestions. She also took along a guidebook.
“The only bad meal I had was from the guidebook,” she said.
It's not like going online helps much. Yelp, Urbanspoon and the like sadly have descended into MMA-style verbal punchfests. It seems everyone with an open mouth and two thumbs is trying to text their way to becoming the new millennium's R.W. Apple.
What Dorian knows is that people who work in food eat differently than you and I. They see restaurants without mystery or romance. Chefs can shred a menu in the blink of an eye. A cocktail that looks perfect to the average customer looks like a trashcan full of swill to a fellow bartender.
And because they don't frequently get to eat beyond the confines of their own kitchens, each meal and drink had better be worth the trip.
That doesn't mean they want to eat high-end food from places that serve only expensive dishes.
“More often than not, they're intrigued by something authentic,” Dorian said. “They want something that is almost like peasant food, no matter the ethnicity. For them, it's about the soulfulness behind what they're eating.”
So when a guy like Chad Johnson of SideBern's recommends on Find. Eat. Drink. that you should eat the oxtail at La Casa Sierra on North Howard Avenue because it's run by a Cuban family that makes you feel right at home, you might want to pay attention.
“Everything is great,” Johnson is quoted on the site as saying. “But it's the atmosphere and the welcome by the mother and father that keep me going back.”
It's that kind of soulfulness that prompts Dorian to rave about Hakata Tonton in New York City's West Village: Chef Koji Hagihara's “cult-like dedication to tonsoku (pigs' feet) could even convert the most staunch vegetarian.”
Closer to home, she and Bumstead love ABC Seafood on 54th Avenue North in St. Petersburg.
“The salt and pepper eel, if you can get it, is fantastic,” Dorian says. “The prawns with garlic are so delicious. You can really taste the freshness, and the garlic is not too overwhelming.”
During stone crab season, she digs Sam's Fresh Seafood in Dunedin.
“I don't know what the other food on the menu tastes like,” she says. “When he gets the crabs himself earlier that day, it's hard to order anything else.”
Dorian adores the hamburger and the Old Florida ambiance of Ted Peters Smoked Fish in South Pasadena. The selection at B-21 Wine Co. in Tarpon Springs earns raves, too. One of the most respected New York wine sommeliers turned her onto them.
“It's a great bonding thing for chefs and bartenders,” she says. “They love talking about their favorite spots more than talking about their own places. When they find something amazing, it drives them to be more passionate about what they do.”