One fine day in the Big Apple, a restaurateur recognized New York Times food critic Eric Asimov scanning a menu. It was, in food-service industry terms, the equivalent of the moment before the landing craft hits the beach at Normandy--a brief and terrifying span between innocence and the unknown. In this case, however, all of the drama piled up into an anticlimactic mess.
"The waiter spilled soup on my new shearling coat," Asimov recalls. "I guess he was nervous."
The presence of a reviewer is enough to make even the most reasonable restaurateur cringe. "We have good reviewers in town; they know what they're doing, and they can make you or break you," says Al Biernat of--naturally--Al Biernat's, revealing a twinge of fear even as he praises local critics. And why not? The National Restaurant Association reports that 40 percent of all Americans base their dining decisions on restaurant reviews--second only to word-of-mouth endorsements--and almost 60 percent of people earning more than $50,000 a year rely on food critics. That's a lot of money riding on a few choice words. And yes, sometimes the reviewers themselves feel the wrath of a smitten chef or restaurant owner.
"I know one in town who wants me dead and one who wants me wounded," claims Nancy Nichols, senior editor of D magazine.
Of course, the battle of wits between reviewers and reviewed does not always erupt into death threats and soiled clothing. Yet restaurateurs are the critics' worst critics. "We got a good review the first time, and it really did great things," says James Slaughter, owner of the Firehouse. His establishment earned three and a half stars from The Dallas Morning News shortly after opening. Later, however, the paper lopped off that half-star. "I was disappointed that it came down because I thought the food had improved, the service had gotten better, and we were doing a better job all around," Slaughter contends. "Sometimes it's disconcerting," Gilbert Garza, chef-owner of Suze, agrees. "There are so many incongruities in the reviews."
The disagreement rests on a fragile edge of ego, preference and method. A bad or mediocre review strikes overwrought egos rather hard, often leading to death wishes and lawsuits. But more reasonable chefs and owners know that each person's tastes vary, and this applies to reviewers.
"There seems to be a volleying of reviews between publications," Garza says. "The Riviera is a case in point. The Dallas Morning News loved it. D magazine hated it." James Neel at Tramontana also earned mixed reviews--four stars from Dotty Griffith of the Morning News and an outright thrashing by the Dallas Observer's Mark Stuertz. "Mark is known to be more critical," explains Neel with an air of resignation. "I knew not to smile for the Observer photograph."
Yet reviewers point out that they never set out to destroy a reputation. "It's not that I didn't like the Riviera," Nichols explains of the lackluster review. "I was disappointed. It wasn't up to the Riviera's standards." Or price, for that matter. Food critics see their role as akin to that of a film critic--marred perhaps by personal likes and dislikes, but honest and effective. "If you've been doing this job for a while," Asimov says, "the public gets a sense of your particular taste. Anyway, people don't always listen to the reviewer." Jim White, host of the KRLD Restaurant Show and proprietor of EatsandDrinks.com, tries to explain his preferences to listeners. "I will often note that 'while I am not a big fan of such and such, I recognize the dish served to us was prepared with the highest quality.'"
Garza's mention of incongruities, however, exposes more than divergent taste buds. Reviewers present their information to the consumer in different formats. The Observer and D magazine, for example, present lengthy explanations. The Morning News hands out ratings on a five-star scale. Garza's restaurant--a favorite of Stuertz--ranks just above the DMN version of baseball's Mendoza Line, earning three and a half stars. (For the baseball illiterate, the Mendoza Line is the mythical batting average that divides struggling hitters from merely mediocre hitters.) Of 1,239 restaurants listed in the DMN Guide one recent Friday, 59.5 percent rated three or more stars, including the Waffle House. (Call it the Waffle House Line; you don't want to sink below three stars.)
So imagine the bitterness of Phil Willis, operating partner of Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, when his spot failed to crack the Waffle House Line. "The Dallas Morning News review said the steaks and chops were comparable to other steakhouses," Willis points out. "That night, they [Dotty Griffith and crew] said, 'These are the best onion rings we've ever tasted.' Why didn't they mention that in the review?" For the record, the article noted that the rings were "crisp and mildly spicy." Griffith did not answer a request to confirm the "best" comment. Willis contends that the review--three and a half stars for atmosphere, three and a half for service, two and a half for food--averages out above the Waffle House Line, and many critics sympathize.
"Stars take away from the words," Nichols says, describing a thoroughly mediocre DMN review of Silver Fox that ended in three stars. "They basically give three stars to anything."
Yet the real fun lies not in the end result, but in the cat-and-mouse game between restaurants and reviewers. Most reviewers--especially in the past--adhere to strict rules of anonymity. Ruth Reichl, former restaurant critic of The New York Times and current editor of Gourmet, often donned disguises, including wigs, before entering an establishment. "I've seen reviewers show up in old clothes to see if they are treated differently," says White. Most use fake names, as well. "It's not easy to stay anonymous," Asimov admits. "I don't resort to disguises--that calls attention to yourself--but I don't allow my photo to be taken." Neel trained his staff to recognize Dotty Griffith, a well-known person on the Dallas restaurant landscape. "I want a picture of Mark Stuertz," he adds.
"It's obvious that certain people recognize reviewers, and that impacts the reviews," Garza complains. When restaurant staff pick out a critic, they often provide stellar service. When critics counter by observing service offered to other guests, restaurateurs tell waitstaff at tables around the critic to step it up a notch. "The concept of a restaurant reviewer maintaining anonymity is dated," contends Paul Rodriguez of Mia's. "You know that they know that you know that they know. The only person left out is the reader."
Critics agree--somewhat--with Rodriguez. "Sometimes it doesn't matter if they recognize you," Nichols says. "When I'm spotted, I always say it in the review, then judge the food, not the service." According to Asimov, smart managers step up the service, but otherwise ignore the presence of critics. "They know it makes critics uncomfortable," he says. Others try to anticipate a reviewer's visit. "You try to read their articles and learn what they like and don't like," Biernat says.
Typically critics visit a restaurant two to three times before completing their reviews. The most nerve-racking time, at least for the chef and owner, is the period just after opening a new restaurant. It takes restaurants months to work out all the flaws, and restaurateurs understand that the first review can devastate a place. "When you open, they give you about three weeks, and then they're on you," Biernat says. "Whatever review you get, it's two years or more until the next review. You just gotta live with it." Biernat lives well: four stars from DMN and a Top 10 ranking in Playboy, among other accolades.
Others, however, rile at the mention of the first review. "You shouldn't review a restaurant until it's been open eight months," an anonymous chef said with a smash of his fist against a table. He was victim of two nasty opening reviews.
"That's bullshit," Asimov counters. "If you need to wait eight months, then you should discount your prices for eight months." And that's the credo of the reviewer. "My role is that of a canary in a coal mine," Asimov says. "It's to steer people toward the oxygen, to send them in the right direction."
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