Leslie Brenner, the Dallas Morning News' food critic, isn't the most popular journalist in town. In the past few months, she's taken fire from chefs and diners alike who say Brenner doesn't understand Dallas or its cuisine. Most famously, Knife and Spoon chef John Tesar joined the chorus of Brenner haters earlier this summer, when he tweeted "fuck you" at the critic and said he would ban her from his restaurants.
Now, more prominent restaurateurs are joining the fray. Late Friday, D Magazine's own critic, Nancy Nichols, published a dramatic account of an encounter between Brenner and Michael Martensen, owner of One Arts Plaza newcomer Proof + Pantry. In the food world, there are few things more dramatic than an in-restaurant showdown between a food critic and a restaurateur. (In the real world, these people are considered extremely weird.)
The details of "the incident" are are somewhat in dispute, but here's the short version. On Thursday, Brenner went to Proof with her husband Thierry Perimarti, a top Morning News editor named Keven Ann Willey and Willey's husband, Georges Badoux, with the intent of reviewing the restaurant. While there, the party racked up a $446 bill. When it came time to present the check, though, Martensen refused to take Brenner's credit card and said that he didn't want her to review his restaurant. From there, a member of Brenner's party left to get cash and left $500 on the table before leaving the restaurant. Safe to say the cash-leaver felt very cool laying those hundreds on the table.
Both Martensen and Brenner agree on these basic details, but differ sharply when it comes to the tone of the evening. In the D piece, Nichols describes a tense scene. Martensen is quoted as saying that members of Brenner's party yelled at he and business partner Sal Jafar II and that Perimarti was furious. There were also charges from Willey that Brenner could lose her job if she accepted the "handout," but Martensen wouldn't budge. Brenner, of course, would never lose her job for accepting a handout unwillingly, but whatever: Drama!
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The next day, Martensen and Jafar apparently went to the Morning News to return the money and ended up meeting with Willey, acting managing editor Keith Campbell and Lifestyles editor Lisa Kresl. The News was reportedly (and obviously) determined to publish the review, leaving Martensen and Jafar feeling "threatened." When the meeting was over, Martensen and Jafar left with the $500 in their possession, a fact that Brenner stressed to me via email and later her blog.
The scene Brenner describes at Proof + Pantry is much more businesslike than the dramatic throwdown that Nichols described. Brenner insists there was no yelling at the restaurant or at the newspaper HQ. "Things did not 'get ugly,' writes Brenner. "When Keven greeted them at reception, they said they came to drop something off, but Keven invited them in for a conversation."
"If Martensen and Jafar left the meeting feeling threatened, they certainly didn't show any indication of it. In fact, Jafar described the meeting as 'positive' while waiting for an elevator after the conversation. Everybody shook hands, and far from being threatening, Lisa said, "It was a pleasure to meet you in person." Brenner also says neither Nichols nor anyone else from D Magazine had reached out to her before publishing their story.
According to Martensen, his company never had any intention of allowing Brenner to review the restaurant because the Dallas Morning News ties their restaurant reviews to a star 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 via online message. "We are a small business and have to right to run the business as we see fit for the better of the business. We want everyone to experience Proof with an open mind and form their own opinion."