Media Dish

Some deep dish from former Dallas restaurant critic Nancy Nichols

Some deep dish from former Dallas restaurant critic Nancy Nichols

Nancy Nichols in Cuba
Nancy Nichols (left) with friends from Cuba. Photo courtesy of Nancy Nichols

For 22 years, Nancy Nichols was the dining critic and travel editor at D Magazine. She wrote monthly restaurant reviews, penned exposes, hatched cover stories, and even hosted chef dinners where she would attend in over-the-top costumes.

One lasting bit of legacy included her role as soothsayer of SideDish, the magazine's gossipy food blog, a trailblazing site that became a daily stop not only for those in the food and beverage industry but for anyone who enjoyed her no-holds-barred style.

Nancy left the magazine at the end of 2017 without even a goodbye column. It's time to find out what she's up to.

How's life on the outside?
It took me a long time to adjust to life on the outside. I had to reprogram my brain from regularly checking social media, emails, press releases, and news sites to learning how to read and relax. My fingers still switch to typing mode when I run across a new restaurant or hear a good news scoop.

Expanding from monthly magazine writer to blog reporter was a steep curve. The first years of blogging when comments were still anonymous almost fried my brain. We took some nasty hits from people who considered themselves authorities. You were there. [I worked with Nancy at D from 2004-2012.] Today it's a way of life, but we were pioneers who survived the first tsunami.

How would you sum up your time as a critic?
I was what is now considered an old-fashioned critic. I wore disguises, used fake names, dined with different people, and paid for everything. I still believe in that method. I know critics in other cities feel differently. When I visit them, they are chatting up the chef during a review and I feel like hiding under the table. I considered a review to not just be a critique of the food and service, I strived to understand the business model and mission of the restaurant and incorporate my thoughts on how they were living up to their goals.

What do you think about the Dallas Morning News hiring Leslie Brenner's BFF and former boss Michalene Busico?
I read the job description the DMN posted for the position. It was lengthy and contained magazine work, newspaper reporting, and a lot of social media responsibility. I know how difficult a task that is, because once you add daily blogging and other social media accounts to a food critic's job, you are looking at a 24/7 focus from one person. I'm surprised they chose someone with such a low profile on social media.

The fact that it took them almost a year to fill the post was a disservice to the DMN readers. So many high-profile restaurants went unreviewed. Yeah, it's a little stinky they hired a friend of Leslie's. I guess they needed an ambassador to vouch for the position. My guess would be she'd have to rely on Leslie to fill her in on the layout of the land which is awkward since she now works as a restaurant consultant.

It makes me sad they hired another out-of-towner. The Dallas restaurant business is full of good stories and bad people. It needs to be covered by someone with a sense of history and investigative reporting.

What are you doing these days?
Five years ago, I traveled all over Cuba and lived with families. They taught me to cook. They took me to local markets, farms, and restaurants. I got hooked on the country. Once the travel restrictions to Cuba were lifted, I started taking friends down to show them my discoveries.

After I left the magazine, I started a Facebook page for Eat, Drink, Think Cuba Culinary Travel. I do four small groups a year, mostly geared to the culinary and agribusiness around Havana with day trips to farms. I’ve gotten to know many of the locals who create special opportunities for my groups. I usually don't like group travel, but Cuba lends itself to small groups as it is difficult to get behind the tourist attractions without a local connection. Chef Joanne Bondy and I have made three trips together.

I recently designed an itinerary for Nick Badovinus that includes a cigar factory tour, private rum tastings, and a behind-the-scenes look at the classic car industry which is fascinating. I’ve made friends with Perfecto Romero, Che Guevara's photographer during the revolution. He invites my groups into his home for discussions. Next spring, I'm expanding into the art, photography, and music scenes.

What do you recall as your best meal in Dallas?
This is a hard question. I could answer with a Greek cheeseburger at Little Gus' (RIP) or my last meal at Bullion. Dining critics eat a lot of mediocre food. I’d say 80 percent of it is average. The meals that stand out fall to the top or bottom. The best part of being on the outside is I eat for pleasure, not good copy.

Eat, Drink, Think, Cuba Culinary travel with Nick Badovinus is October 29 to November 4, 2018. Meet Nick and Nancy at a sign-up party at Town Hearth on Wednesday at 5 pm.