Like everyone else in town, we've told you already about Leslie Brenner's recent visit to Proof + Pantry. The dining critic at the Dallas Morning News visited the restaurant last Thursday in preparation for a review, and the meal went as most meals do until owner Michael Martensen raised a stink rivaling the sulfurous odor of an over-boiled egg.
Martensen presented a check for $446, comped in its entirety, apparently under the assumption that refusing Brenner's payment would negate the paper's ability to print the review.
Sure, the Association of Food Journalists suggests that critics pay in full for all meals and services, a rule that is echoed in The News' own policy that also mandates anonymity and spells out its star system. But counter to Martensen's plan, Brenner did pay for the meal, leaving $500 cash on the table before leaving the restaurant. Accounts of the exchange vary, but cordial or not, it was likely uncomfortable.
As the interaction between Brenner and Martensen continue to gain attention, it will continue to stoke an ongoing dialogue about the importance of, and rules governing, restaurant criticism. Questions like: "Can a restaurant opt out of a review?" will be asked, alongside previously trampled queries including: "How should critics handle anonymity as the Internet and other technologies makes hiding one's identity more difficult?" Or maybe most importantly: "When is it ever OK to leave a $54 tip on a $446 bill?"
With respect to opting out of a review, the obvious answer is, well, no. If Brenner feels too compromised to write the review, The News could easily send out another reviewer. Mark Vamos reviews restaurants for the paper with regularity, and other journalists have penned reviews in the past. She could -- and should, and probably will -- simply write the review and explained what happened.
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How should critics handle anonymity? The AFJ says reviews should be conducted as anonymously as possible, and I agree. I'm not suggesting a critic dress up like a different Muppet every time they dine, but it was obvious this time that Brenner was made out, so perhaps a new strategy should be employed: There are ways to change looks without a costume, there are alternate doors into and out of a restaurant. Every critic who's been around a year or two will get made some of the time, but a critic who works at it can maintain anonymity with some degree of success. In the case of the News, there's always the dining critic bullpen.
But as Martensen spells out in interviews with D Magazine and online comments, he's not upset about critics. Unlike other chefs in Dallas (most notably John "the Tweet" Tesar), Martensen refrains from attacking Brenner directly. His beef is with The News' star system and the inadequacies he perceives in that system. "The idea of allowing one person or publication to change the view of a potential patron by a numerical rating of the establishment is crazy," he said in an interview with the Observer.
While I do think there is some validity to this complaint -- the star system seems to work beautifully in other markets, but Dallasites seem to revile it -- Martensen's argument is blind to the fact that numerical evaluations will be lobbed at his restaurant from all directions in both Yelp and Zagat and whatever-is-next reviews. Criticism won't be going anywhere. And if you've heard chefs bitch about online reviews you might be confused as to why they would be so quick to toss stale bread at the more traditional guys.
As for a $54 tip, I'm not sure. Perhaps the service was deplorable, or perhaps the dining room was too cold, and maybe we should all wait until Brenner's review is published to find out. But for now it looks like Martensen's original plan has backfired, assuming he truly hoped to avoid a review and wasn't just buzz-seeking. All he's done is assure that his inevitable evaluation will be the most carefully read review of the year.