HILLCREST HEIGHTS, Md. — Dining habits have changed a great deal during the pandemic. Restaurants have experienced turbulence and turmoil. Outdoor dining spaces have popped up throughout the city and surrounding suburbs.
Many restaurants that never counted on take-out as part of their bottom line were forced to quickly pivot and deliver that option to their customers.
Born from that and the fact that many small, niche restaurants don't get their due recognition, the Washington City Paper has hired a food critic whose job is exclusively tailored to scoping out restaurants where you just zip in and zip out.
"My specific twist for the Washington City Paper is that I'm not checking out restaurants where you dine-in I am strictly focusing on take-out," says food critic Crystal Fernanders who is celebrated in culinary food circles as the 'Skinni Food Whore."
"A lot of people are looking for places that are to-go. A lot of people still are not comfortable with dining in restaurants," said Fernanders.
In the course of doing a review, I caught up with Fernanders at Southern Peach BBQ and Soul Food in Hillcrest Heights, Maryland. We met just as I had settled into a January food detox following the gluttonous sins of December. So, I hit the pause button on that.
Unlike a food critic who might be reluctant to reveal their true identity as to taint the process, Fernanders relishes in her, so far, subtle anonymity.
"To make the experience more authentic, I rarely tell them that I'm showing up," she said.
Once she starts spraying photographs on her iPhone when the food is ready, the jig is generally up. That's when the restaurant folks start asking questions.
But at that point, since the food is done, Crystal doesn't mind fessing up and engaging the staff and ownership in conversation which typically adds some flavor to her reviews.
For example, the manager at Southern Peach who told us the key to a good night out drinking with friends was eating half of a loaded baked potato before leaving the house and eating the other half the next day.
Fernanders typically orders enough food to last a week so she can sample a few different menu items.
"I'll scan the menu and see if there's anything that stands out to me. I'll also ask the staff, hey, what is your top-selling item," she said.
On this day, Fernanders sampled a pulled pork bar-b-q sandwich, collard greens, mac and cheese, a loaded baked potato (we'll come back to that), Old Bay seasoned wings, a peach cobbler egg roll and sweet chili spiced cauliflower bites.
I noted a great deal of patience as she organized her order in a way to maximize its photo appeal. As she snapped away photos I wondered if that was the hardest part; gazing longingly at these steaming plates of food while not yet being able to devour any of it.
"I've definitely trained myself to just get over it," Fernanders said.
You can read Fernanders' review of Southern Peach HERE.
The Ninja Warrior Course in Prince William County was funded by a grant from the Department of Defense.