Two years ago, a food writer from the Grand Forks Herald became an overnight media sensation after her positive review of a new Olive Garden restaurant went viral.
Snarky epicures chided Marilyn Hagerty for gushing over such a pedestrian venue but the 85-year-old columnist had the last laugh. Not only did the New York Times fly Hagerty to Manhattan for a taste-tour of that burg's toniest spots but renowned chef Anthony Bourdain penned the foreward for Grand Forks: A History of American Dining in 128 Reviews -- a compilation of Hagerty's best work. (In addition to her piece on Olive Garden, the book also includes the North Dakotan's takes on Quiznos, Taco Bell and McDonald's.)
Closer to home, a group of Winnipeg food lovers who hook up for dinner two or three times a month have never let a little thing like all-you-can-eat bread sticks halt them from enjoying a night on the town.
"Olive Garden is fantastic; I love the unlimited salad. And their pasta soup -- incredible," says Mary Ann Layton, organizer for the Winnipeg Foodies, a 280-person club whose members have chowed down at close to 100 different locales thus far.
"We've been to a lot of the so-called best restaurants in town but we've also been to places like Applebee's, too," Layton continues. "There have been people who left the Foodies because of some of my picks, but that doesn't bother me. To tell the truth I think it's kind of small."
Gus Mauro is the first person to arrive for a Winnipeg Foodies, Wednesday night get-together at Magic Thailand. Mauro wanted to give himself plenty of time to peruse the menu because a) he's never been to the Logan Avenue gem before and b) he's never eaten Thai food before, period.
"But that's one of the main reasons I joined this group -- to discover new places and try different things," says Mauro, announcing he has narrowed his dinner choice to two selections: the pad Thai or the massaman curry.
Within minutes, Mauro is joined by Allison Campbell. Campbell has never visited Magic Thailand before either but every online review she read was "super-positive" so she nabbed one of the 12 available spots as soon as Layton posted the particulars on the club's website.
"I do have a separate budget just for this group but it's not only about the food," Campbell says as she takes a seat to Mauro's right. "To me, it's more about getting out of the house, meeting new people and if I get a great meal out of the deal -- bonus."
Ian Martens founded Winnipeg Foodies in February 2013. He came up with the idea a few months prior to that, he says, but he was unsure whether a club devoted to restaurants would be received with open arms/mouths or not.
"But we are a multicultural city with a plethora of places to try and it didn't take long before our numbers skyrocketed," Martens says. "Not many people like going to restaurants alone so Winnipeg Foodies was started to give everyone a chance to get involved in the culinary tour-de-force that is Winnipeg. It has been amazing to taste foods from all over and meet great people along the way."
Martens teaches school in Shamattawa, so the only event he was able to attend this year was a spring break get-together at IGI BBQ and Sushi Bistro on Pembina Highway.
"Great question," Martens says when he is asked if there is one hometown dish he misses in particular, while he's working up north. "I think the meal I crave most is a Skinner's foot-long and home fries."
In Martens' absence, Layton is responsible for picking restaurants and making bookings. She finds it somewhat ironic she's in charge of a group of gourmands given that she can't recall going out for a meal when she was a youngster, even on special occasions.
"We were kind of poor and I guess my dad thought eating in restaurants was a waste of money," says Layton, who grew up in the North End. "We never got steak, we never got seafood -- I didn't even know what that was. Now I love things like lobster and dim sum; I was iffy on sushi for the longest time but I had it for the first time last summer at Kenko (Sushi) on Corydon and it was exquisite."
Nowadays, Layton goes out of her way to make first-timers feel welcome. She admits that wasn't always the case when she first signed up, back when she was more interested in enjoying five-star meals she'd read about but never treated herself to.
But all of that changed after an incident late last year.
In October 2013, the Winnipeg Foodies met for supper at Stella's Café & Bakery's Sherbrook Street location. About 30 minutes in, Layton noticed a woman at the other end of the table picking at her fare, which Layton remembers as "a little bowl of soup and a single piece of dry toast."
Layton felt guilty. After all, Stella's was her choice and she figured the lady -- a first-timer -- wasn't enjoying her meal. Layton smiled and waved in the woman's direction then continued chatting with the people she was seated next to.
Four days later, Layton got a phone call from another person who'd been to Stella's. She told Layton she'd read an obituary about a woman who had committed suicide the day after the get-together -- and that the picture in the paper looked just like the woman who'd been out with the Foodies, earlier that week.
"I thought, 'Nah, it can't be the same person,' but sure enough it was," Layton says. "Both of us went to her funeral; it turned out she'd had a wonderful life... But it impacted me so much that I had a new focus: to make sure everyone new to the group feels welcome and accepted and appreciated."
Meanwhile, back at Magic Thailand, Mauro is mopping up the last bit of his dinner. In the end, he and two seatmates decided to split three orders among themselves: the pad Thai, the massaman and a green curry soup with shrimp.
The verdict? "Everything is really, really good."
And with that, Mauro excuses himself to return to his 10-way conversation, which is centred a little bit on the weather (of course) and a lot on where the group should assemble next.
Layton says the Foodies have never visited a true-blue, burger joint before so perhaps an excursion to Mrs. Mike's is in order.
"Or if we're looking for something a little more up-scale, how about Café Dario?" she says. "I've heard nothing but good things about it."
"Or In Ferno's on des Meurons," pipes up another member.
"Or Santa Ana's on St. Mary's."
Or, or, or...
For more information on Winnipeg Foodies -- and to find out where they're noshing next -- visit www.meetup.com/Winnipeg-Foodies.