Painting by Tom Carlton
Spartanburg, SC, offered every manner of culture shock for a Jewish kid from Brooklyn. But it also offered Mike Mayo a job.
Newly graduated from college and just months away from landing a job covering Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, Mayo was working the beat at his first full-time newspaper job. He covered University of South Carolina football and basketball for the local daily – which meant he covered the Gamecocks’ colorful, beloved head football coach, Joe Morrison.
Then the coach died of a heart attack after a Sunday racquetball game. He was 51, and it fell to the kid from New York to write about him.
Mayo wrote about the good – about the wins, about the players who loved him. But there were other things to write about as well. He wrote about the steroid scandal that had burst wide open just months before, thanks to a Sports Illustrated story. He also wrote about the more personal scandal, the child support lawsuit from a woman with whom the coach had a daughter.
Reaction, swift and loud, landed on the publisher’s desk. When Mayo was summoned to the publisher’s office, it seemed likely that if there was a woodshed nearby, he was going to be taken out behind it.
Instead he got some advice.
“Mike,” the publisher said, “you have a rare ability because you tell it like it is and you tell it like you see it. Don’t ever lose that.”
As nearly three decades worth of prominent South Floridians can attest, Mike Mayo never has lost that. His 28-year Sun-Sentinel career has veered between some of the newspaper’s most prominent, and most different, jobs – sportswriter and columnist, news columnist and most recently, food critic.
In many ways, he finds that last job the best job. He writes about six reviews a month plus restaurant news for the Sun-Sentinel and its arts-and-entertainment website, southflorida.com.
“It’s liberating to go into food,” he says. “I’m working three times as hard, but I’m having 10 times as much fun.”
He’s not kidding about the hard work. Food criticism isn’t just turning up at a restaurant and having a nice time. Mayo researches, visits each restaurant several times and tries to make sure his cover isn’t blown. With that last one, there are little tricks. He can’t just whip out a reporter’s notebook without the server figuring out something’s up. So if you ever notice that guy from the paper in a restaurant and he seems really rude – always sending text messages right there at the table – know that he’s really taking notes in his phone.
It’s work in other ways, too. Food reportage and criticism is a beat, and like any other newspaper beat, it’s done best with hard graft and shoe leather. Not that Mayo minds, you understand. And anyway, he says, “nobody wants to hear you complain about it, because it’s still a dream job.”
A dream job with responsibilities. A career spent in sports journalism and news opinion writing makes for a writer who knows how to thrust a knife, but Mayo demands of himself constructive writing that also lets the chefs’ and restaurateurs’ voices be heard. (Literally – his reviews always feature interviews with the people behind the restaurant he’s reviewing.) “It’s not like sports where they’re getting their million-dollar contracts no matter what,” he says.
“It’s not like politics where they know how the game is played and they’re waiting for the next election cycle. This is people’s livelihoods.”
From Stuyvesant to Shula
Mike Mayo has always appreciated good food and newspapers. It helps to grow up in New York. As a boy, he delivered the New York Post and read everything he could. He’d read the Times for serious news, sports in the tabloids and columnists such as legendarily cantankerous Dick Young or Jimmy Breslin, the New York journalism giant who died in March. “There were all these column voices that I liked, that really resonated with me,” he says. “I didn’t want to be Woodward and Bernstein; I wanted to be Dick Young and Jimmy Breslin.”
He was a smart kid. In high school, he’d take his Walkman on the three-hour round-trip commute – 25 minutes on the bus, then two trains – from Brooklyn to Stuyvesant High School, an elite, selective public school overlooking the Hudson in downtown Manhattan. After graduation he headed up to Boston, and Tufts University.
Tufts had no journalism school but two student papers, one of which was a daily. Mayo’s love of reading newspapers quickly turned into a love of writing for them. He went to work for the daily, covered conferences with the school president, delivered the paper himself and watched as people reading the paper in the cafeteria reacted to what he’d written. Interning and part-time gigs at the Boston Globe sealed it. Scores, agate, cops and 2 a.m. grunt work leading to maybe the opportunity to cover a high school game – he was a newspaper guy.
That was probably for the best, all things considered. With timing that was perhaps not the greatest in the mid-to-late 1980s, he majored in Soviet and Eastern European Studies. If nothing else, that gave him a punchline he’s been able to deploy over the years.
“All my knowledge of Kremlinology was rendered useless by the fall of the Soviet Union,” he says. “So I became a sportswriter.”
After graduation and the 10-month South Carolina detour, he arrived in Fort Lauderdale. He reckoned he’d be here for about five years before moving on, maybe to one of the big East Coast papers.
The South Florida sports universe in 1989 was a significantly smaller one, with just a few big stars. The University of Miami football team was at the height of its powers, the Heat were brand new and consistently awful, and the first Marlins and Panthers games were still several years in the distance. Mayo’s first job took him to Joe Robbie’s new stadium near the Broward-Dade line and the single biggest name in South Florida sports.
The Sun-Sentinel’s lead Dolphins reporter was Charlie Bricker, a tough veteran who didn’t mind getting under people’s skin. Mayo was Bricker’s backup. Together, Mayo says, they changed the way the Dolphins were covered. In South Florida, Don Shula was revered – and the local press, Mayo says, tended to treat him with deference. But the team had fallen into mediocrity, and Mayo was more used to New York-style sports journalism.
“The glory days were over,” he says. “Between Bricker and me, our coverage was getting more aggressive and critical.” It didn’t necessarily make him friends around the Dolphins press office, but it earned him respect inside the newsroom. In time he was promoted to lead Dolphins reporter, then roving sports features writer and golf correspondent. This was around the time the Marlins and the Panthers started, and Mayo’s New York background helped.
“I was one of the few guys who knew about hockey,” he says, “so I did the first Panthers season.”
Eventually the paper made him the second sports columnist alongside Dave Hyde. It was a good gig. There was scope for a broad range of sports-related subjects, as well as travel. In September 2001, Mayo was in Tennessee, where the Dolphins opened their season with a Sept. 9 win over the Titans. After the game, he planned to head to a golf tournament.
Then, like so many other people’s, his plans changed.
"It changed perspective on everything"
In 2001, the Sun-Sentinel had several news columnists – including John Grogan, who would go on to become a bestselling author with Marley and Me – who had the ability to take on big news. But two details worked in favor of Mike Mayo becoming the Sun-Sentinel’s columnist in New York after 9/11. One, he was a native New Yorker. Two, all flights were cancelled and Tennessee is closer than Fort Lauderdale to New York. The editors told Mayo to get in his rental car and drive north.
He reached his hometown, put his head down and started filing copy. He wrote about the spot, a mile or so north of the towers, that became a meeting point for the people then called “the missing.”
He wrote about the man who grabbed him asking, “Have you seen my wife?”, about the smiling photos of people on vacation or at birthday parties now being taped onto lampposts. He wrote about a firehouse in the theater district that was receiving teddy bears and condolence notes from children for the firefighters it had lost. He wrote about the letter he found in the bushes in front of his parents house 10 miles away in Brooklyn. Singed around the edges but perfectly legible, it was a Standard and Poor’s financial document of a sort that would have been common in one of the big financial firms in the towers. The document sits in Mayo’s desk today.
“A single piece of paper,” he wrote, “never felt so heavy.”
After about a week, he went home. But something had shifted. “It changed perspective on everything,” he says. “I didn’t feel like going back to sports.”
Not long after, a metro columnist job came open. The managing editor asked him if he wanted it. He did. He had spent more than a decade covering sports in South Florida. Now he would spend more than a decade publicly having opinions on the news.
As a news columnist he brought a broadly left-leaning voice to a left-leaning area – although, he notes, he was an equal-opportunity combatant when it came to public officials. In two of the biggest local politics scandals to happen during his tenure as columnist, he directed his ire at prominent Broward Democrats. He went hard after Ken Jenne, the Broward sheriff who resigned over tax evasion and mail fraud allegations for which he later served prison time. Mayo also sided with Republican Jeb Bush when the then-governor removed Broward Supervisor of Elections Mariam Oliphant from her post after issues emerged of mismanagement and bungled work.
Sometimes, bits of life outside the newsroom made their way into his columns – an occasional mention of the parents back home in New York, or the ex-wife with whom he remained on good terms. There’s his daughter, Natalia, now 11, to whom he would write “letters” in the form of a column attempting to explain some confounding news of the day. (He stepped back into that role last year on Election Day, writing to his daughter and Sun-Sentinel readers that “[t]he level of rancor and anger are unsettling. It has led to Donald Trump, a man with no political experience and a man who has used fear, division and hatred, to land the nomination of the Republican Party and be on the doorstep of the presidency.
“I can’t believe the things I have heard this election season. I can’t believe the things you have heard.”)
Then there was his oldest brother. David Mayo died of cancer in 2009 after struggling for decades with schizophrenia. Mike Mayo wrote openly, honestly and personally about his brother - but he also wrote with the eye and the aim of a newspaperman who wants his personal story to help change perceptions and policy. He wrote of the problems with institutionalized care, of what the wider world gets wrong when trying to understand mental illness, about what lawmakers and citizens could do to make things better.
And he told the story of a life.
“David taught me that life isn’t fair, but he also taught me to take what’s given,” Mayo wrote in one column. “He enjoyed the simpler things. A Marlboro cigarette. A corned-beef sandwich. A hot-fudge sundae from Carvel.
“He didn’t complain, not even when his cancer prevented him from keeping food down.
“My parents were devoted to him. They visited him every day in his final months, as he withered away to 93 pounds.
“Their love didn’t run.”
That column ran a week after David’s death.
The Old School
When the Sun-Sentinel’s food critic, John Tanasychuk, left the paper in 2015, the plan was for other writers to do food reviews on a rotation. Mayo, still filing copy as a news columnist, volunteered and got into the mix. Pretty soon though, the need for a full-time food writer became apparent.
“At some point we decided we really needed someone to concentrate on this great, hot, important beat,” says Gretchen Day-Bryant, the Sun-Sentinel assistant managing editor who oversees the features department. “Mike immediately came to mind. It was one of those crazy ideas (since) Mike is so important as the metro columnist.”
But the editors talked it out, discussed it with Mayo and a decision was made; Mayo’s job title was getting another massive redesign.
Mayo’s food reviews are hybrids; he writes them partially as straight review and partially as interview. Once he’s been to a place unannounced several times, he gets in touch to talk to the chef or restaurateur behind the place. He also writes food news, both in his regular Eat Beat features and in straight news stories when there’s breaking news on the food beat.
Like much in journalism, food writing and criticism is in flux. Food bloggers, social media personalities, people whose Instagram food posts get thousands of views, regular diners who now have the power of websites such as Yelp – the food media universe is huge, diverse and constantly changing. For somebody who says he only got rid of his flipphone a couple years ago, Mayo inhabits the new world comfortably. He’s got an Instagram account (mikemayoeats) that will make you hungry and a Twitter account (@heymikemayo) where he chats about food and plenty of other things. A print journalist in 2017 can’t just work in ink and dead trees, and Mayo doesn’t.
“We try to serve all different kinds of readers,” Day-Bryant says, “and Mike is really integral to that.” But if he uses new-school tools, Mayo also abides by some old-school guidelines.
“I still operate by some ground rules,” he says. “You wait until a restaurant’s been open three months before you go and review it.”
But of course, Yelp et al. is there from day one.
“That’s the world we live in now,” Mayo says. “I still try to cling to some of the old, traditional things.”
His reviews cover all sorts of places, from high-profile Las Olas restaurants to little mom-and-pop spots out by State Road 7. He can also claim plenty in mileage expenses; his coverage area extends roughly from Boynton Beach to Coral Gables. (The Sun-Sentinel covers Broward and Palm Beach counties, but southflorida.com covers Miami-Dade as well. A second reviewer lives in Palm Beach County and covers much of that area.) Recent Fort Lauderdale reviews include upmarket oceanfront 3030 Ocean (“I’ve had more satisfying pork chops at Waffle House”), trendy Las Olas spot B Square Burgers & Booze (“… too many head-scratchers, over-the-top toppings, and service stumbles for me to understand the hype”) and adventurous Federal Highway restaurant One Door East (“…culinarily exciting, and with more than 30 items on its constantly rotating menu, the restaurant can also be a minefield. Or as a busboy said when he came to clear dishes and we told him we were up to dessert: ‘Choose wisely.’”)
With those and every review there are also quotes from chefs or restaurant owners explaining – and in some cases, defending – what they do. Mayo’s reviews aren’t always going to be nice, but he wants them to be fair. The advice he got nearly 30 years ago from a newspaper publisher in South Carolina remains something he tries to bring to his work today: He tells it like he sees it.
“Everybody gets passionate about food,” he says. “I’m passionate about it too, and I hope it shows.”
Of all the subjects he’s written about for the Sun-Sentinel – all the Dolphins games and city council agenda items, golf tournaments and election days - he reckons his current beat is the most universal. “It’s a social experience,” he says of dining out. “It’s a local experience. It’s a connected experience.
“I know people who go without voting for four years. But I don’t know anyone who goes without eating for four years.”