Donovan Kelly, ‘Crummy but Good’ restaurant critic, dies at 71

Donovan Kelly, a former chief spokesman for the U.S. Geological Survey who found acclaim in his second career, moonlighting as a critic of “crummy-but-good” restaurants for The Washington Post, died May 2 of a heart attack at his home in Loudoun County community of Hamilton. He was 71.

The death was confirmed by his son, Donovan “Mike” Kelly.

(Family photo) - Dononvan Kelly, who used to write a series of restaurant reviews for The Post called "Crummy but Good" about places that looked terrible from the outside but had great food, died May 2 at age 81.

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From 1997 to 1999, Mr. Kelly penned more than 50 reviews for his “Crummy but Good” series in The Post, in which he humorously reviewed local, hole-in-the-wall, down-home restaurants that offered good eats and company despite their shabby exteriors.

“ ‘Crummy’ means a place that looks so bad from the outside that you would hesitate to take your mother inside, especially if she were wearing her good dress,” Mr. Kelly wrote in 1997. “ ‘But Good’ means that, once inside, you find a combination of a good menu, good food, relaxing atmosphere, friendly people and reasonable prices.”

The first restaurant anointed “Crummy but Good” was Planet Wayside, a now-defunct Loudoun County restaurant on Route 7. He described the joint as “crummy-looking,” but applauded its home-cooked, hickory-smoked chicken and barbecue and described its “off-the-wall humor” as “plentiful.”

Planet Wayside’s owners, though initially angered by the “crummy” review, which compared the establishment’s building to “a condemned chicken coop,” ultimately befriended Mr. Kelly after business grew 25 percent following the review’s publication.

His wry humor was a common thread in every review.

“I can’t say ‘no’ to a real silver-sided metal diner that says, ‘I’m really the Depression, World War II, and I’ve been here 60 years,’” he wrote in a 1997 review of a Silver Spring staple, the Tastee Diner. “And when the waitress pulled my pat of butter out of her apron pocket, I knew I was home.”

Mr. Kelly published a book of his reviews, “Quest for the Holy Grill: 50 Crummy but Good Restaurants within Rambling Range of Washington, D.C.,” in 2002 and occasionally contributed reviews to Washington’s WAMU-FM until the late 2000s.

“He writes knowledgeably about the food, the place, the owners, the atmosphere,” Gale Waldron wrote for The Post’s Loudoun Extra in 2002, “and he does it all with a jumbo side order of humor and an extra serving of admiration for these one-of-a-kind restaurateurs.”

Donovan Blaise Kelly was born Dec. 12, 1941, in Erie, Pa. He was a 1963 geology graduate of Pennsylvania State University and received a master’s degree in technical writing from New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1966. After graduation, he joined the Geological Survey as a report specialist in New York.

In 1969, he was assigned to the public affairs office at USGS national headquarters in Reston, and he was promoted to chief spokesperson in 1980. He handled media inquiries on a range of topics, including droughts, floods and earthquakes. He received a USGS meritorious service award in 1987 and retired 10 years later.

Mr. Kelly also contributed humor and poetry pieces to élan magazine, a Great Falls publication, and the Loudoun Times-Mirror.

Survivors include his wife of 48 years, Rita Panameroff Kelly of Hamilton; his mother, Esther Kelly of Cambridge Springs, Pa.; two children, Donovan M. “Mike” Kelly of Yellow Springs, Ohio, and Kathleen Kelly of Summit Point, W.Va; two brothers; a sister; and three grandchildren.

Mr. Kelly encouraged readers and fellow restaurant-goers to nominate their favorite, worst-looking mom-and-pop joints, and they enthusiastically responded, banding together to form what he called the “Crummy but Good scouts.”

“Crummy but Good scouts are loyal to their favorite places, which have become a haven and home turf,” Mr. Kelly said in 2002. They were, he noted, the “loyal patrons who have earned the right to be greeted extra warmly and to be asked the big-badge question of membership: ‘Do you want your usual?’ ”