Sean Robins has a long list of foods he doesn’t eat. “No beef, no pork, no lamb, no veal, no mushrooms, no cold cheese, no white sauces. That means no sour cream, no cottage cheese, no mayonnaise, no milk, no eggs. It’s not allergies - all preferences.”
Nonetheless, a picky palate didn't impede Robins from dining at every one of the over 2,000 restaurants listed in the 2011 Los Angeles Zagat Restaurants Survey.
This particular date was going so well that Robins began naming their future children - right before he fell asleep at the table. Run down and exhausted from his job, he decided to quit, make several life changes, and take up a new challenge: eating his way through the Zagat guide.
It’s a daunting task, eating at every restaurant in the second largest city in the United States. Los Angeles is larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined and has a population of almost 10 million people. The highways and byways of the city are notorious for congestion, and driving is something Angelenos don’t undertake lightly.
But the journey is what will “Feed the Monster,” Robins' self proclaimed name and the title of his food blog.
“I think first and foremost you learn patience," says Robins. "You drive an hour and a half away and you put expectations on things that might not be met. And sometimes the best part of the experience isn’t the lunch or the dinner but the people you meet along the way. Or the fact that you’re in Alhambra and you never would have been.”
Rather than tabulate how much he’s spent in his pursuit, a question he’s often asked, Robins says he’d rather tally up the miles he’s driven. He wonders if it would be the equivalent of traveling to the moon.
His 14 year journey has been filled with slavish record keeping. Each time a new Zagat edition came out, Robins would note which restaurants had been added or deleted or had closed. His goal was a moving target - one that almost broke him when Zagat decided to add Catalina Island, Ventura and Ojai.
“I actually thought they found out what I was doing and they were f***ing with me” laughs Robins.
Catalina wasn’t his only potential breaking point. When the new guide was released, Robins was just 44 restaurants away from hitting his goal. Suddenly, the distance ballooned to 103.
He recalled, “I remember sitting in a Barnes and Noble and I called Angela, my wife, and said 'I don’t want to do this anymore, this is ridiculous, what am I doing?' And then the next day I was in a new restaurant.”
In 2003, Robins’ mission took a very personal turn. “My mother called me and said, 'Your father has stage four cancer, he has a week to live and you need to come home.' I remember sitting there and thinking how life changes.”
He traveled back to Ohio wondering if it would be the last time he’d ever see his father, an alcohol distributor whose very career had instilled in his son a love of good food and wine. His father survived the cancer, but can no longer eat or drink anything, other than a little Scotch.
Robins decided his future eating endeavors would honor his father, a man who still appreciates a good restaurant. To him, it’s about the camaraderie, the people and the atmosphere, even more than the food.
For nine of the 14 years, Robins’ wife Angela has accompanied him. They pick a destination and tackle as many as seven restaurants in a day, splitting an appetizer at one, ordering entrees at another, working their way through the list.
“There were times when I’d say what am I doing? Should I continue this? There are better uses of my time. Then I’d look at her, we’d be somewhere far flung and it would validate that this was exciting, it was a way to learn about our city and learn about ourselves. It’s been invaluable.”
Robins adds, “The breadth of restaurants in this city especially with different ethnicities is unbelievable. What I love about Los Angeles is you drive and see a sign that says Koreatown and yet all signs are in Spanish and that to me is fantastic. Or my favorite Greek restaurant, Papa Cristos, is in Koreatown.”
After nearly 2000 restaurants, just figuring out where to eat his “last meal” was a challenge. Robins knew it had to be a place that would be around for years. He finally decided on Pink's, an iconic hot dog stand with lines of customers wrapping around the restaurant at almost every hour of the day.
Robins says it reminds him of places in Ohio, because in those lines you can find “a millionaire, doctor and a policeman all side by side because they want to be there." He reasoned, "It’s a democratizing experience for me that was the perfect and fitting ending to this.”
On August 13, Robins and 50 friends gathered at Pink's and avoided the line. “We had table service, table cloths and pink roses. Gloria Pink was unbelievably kind in allowing us to take over part of her restaurant.”
The meal had a charity component, Robins wanted to give back to the hospital where his dad had the surgery. Over the course of his last month of eating, Robins says he raised $7000 for the James Cancer Hospital.
Robins isn’t quite finished though, the new Zagat survey was released this month, leaving him with 40-50 restaurants he hasn’t visited yet. He plans to keep eating and wants to raise funds for a different charity each year.
Feeding the homeless is his next mission, and Robins says he feels compelled. “How lucky am I to be able to do this. It’s been a lot of fun.”
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