By Julia Sexton
Eating on the Sly
Oh, the life of a restaurant reviewer. Think it’s a glamorous life of disguises
and fabulous meals? Think again.
If I’m at a cocktail party and someone asks what I do, I usually say that I’m a food writer. This is hardly enough information for the sort of awkward-silence-prone conversations that one generally has at cocktail parties, so I’ll wind up listing some of the publications I’ve worked for and the types of articles that I’ve written, from recipe-based pieces, to chef profiles, journalistic articles, ingredient news, and round-ups. Fearing one of the above-mentioned awkward silences, I might also blurt out that I have a weekly blog (westchestermagazine.com/EATER) and, oh yes, I write restaurant reviews.
My previously yawning co-conversationalist will suddenly perk up. “A restaurant critic! How interesting!” And to my discomfort, I’ll find that I’m a celebrity.
In reality, the life of a restaurant critic is not glamorous. We eat a lot of bad meals, work at night, and don’t get paid much. We’d often prefer to stay home in our jammies watching The Office when, instead, we have to comb our hair, dress in real clothes, and drive for an hour to eat bad sushi—often after a long day of writing. But, like most jobs, the position has its benefits. I get to eat out a lot for free (which gets me out of having to cook after a hard day) and, occasionally, I’m assigned a great, undiscovered restaurant. The job has its ups and downs. It’s work.
But just try explaining that to strangers, who have romantic notions about my exciting and glamorous life. Here are some of the questions I’m routinely asked:
Do you wear wigs and disguises like Ruth Reichl?
Sadly, I’m not Ruth Reichl—a fact that pains me daily—but do I try to remain anonymous through various little subterfuges. Since caller ID is so common these days, I never make restaurant reservations from my home or cellphone. Instead, I call from neighbors’ houses, or I use friends’ cells, or my husband books our table from work. Plus, I reserve under a changing roster of aliases. I try to protect my published image, which is actually quite difficult. While the New Yorker doesn’t ask its esteemed writers to grin from its contributors page, that publication is in the minority. Most magazines nowadays require photos of their writers, so my picture is lurking in all sorts of publications, but I politely refuse to be photographed where I write reviews. I try not to discuss my writing over the meals, and I don’t take notes at table. Finally, when the meal is over, I pay with cash. Given all these precautions (and because I’m not Ruth Reichl), I don’t bother with disguises. If I need to visit a restaurant repeatedly within a short period of time, something I try to avoid, I’ll change my hairstyle or wear glasses—not so cloak-and-dagger, I’m afraid.
Do you get to bring along anyone you choose?
While I suppose I could bring anyone I like, I actually have rules about my dining partners. First, and most important, no food cranks—which means that if you’re a vegan, don’t eat raw fish, or don’t like spicy food and anything containing green peppers, you’re off the list. I’m looking for food-positive diners, the sort of folks who tuck into sweetbreads, foie gras, blood sausage, and sea cucumber with equal, evident, lip-smacking relish. Amazingly, this leaves out about 95 percent of the people I know.
Another rule is that I get to put my fork into your plate to taste everything on it. Sorry. If that grosses you out, you can’t come.
Finally, if you’re my guest on a review, you don’t get to order whatever you like. You’re not allowed to order anything that I’ve already tasted (no matter how good), and you might even get stuck with something you dislike. After all, if it’s my third visit, your meal is basically anything I haven’t sampled yet.
Given those restrictions, I find that it’s easiest to dine with the same partner again and again—my long-suffering husband. Despite his groans whenever I drag him out midweek, I know that he understands the gig. Plus, he happens to have a deep appreciation of food and a refined palate; I wouldn’t have married him otherwise.
Can you at least drink whatever you like?
As much as I’d love to guzzle the most expensive wines available, the wines at a restaurant are not made in-house, so I’m not there to review them. Certainly, I’ll scrutinize the list and have a glass or two to complement my meal, but more than that might blunt my palate and fuddle my mind. Besides, I’ll need to go home and write up my notes while the dining experience is still fresh in my mind—this would be tough after a long, late meal and a bottle or two of wine.
That being said, certain aspects of wine service do reflect on the restaurant and are my business. Does the sommelier make inspired pairings? Is the list interesting and well-priced? Does it have an exceptional range or a few great bottles? Generally, I’ll ask the sommelier to recommend an interesting, modestly priced bottle. If the wine isn’t well matched, or if he balks at my resolute cheapness, the restaurant gets a demerit.
Cocktails, on the other hand, are definitely created by the restaurant. If a place raves about its cocktails, I’ll certainly try one to see if it justifies the hype.
Have you ever closed a restaurant with a bad review?
Here’s a secret: critics don’t kill restaurants; the lack of customers does. There are many restaurants that happily chug along despite mediocre food and ghastly reviews, surviving (and even thriving) because they’ve managed to satisfy their customers’ expectations. So what if the food’s not great? Some restaurants have an exciting vibe, good-looking waitstaff, fabulous dÃ©cor, or an owner with pizzazz. Elaine’s, in Manhattan, is famous for its bad food—yet it’s a New York institution and booked solid every night.
Similarly, I’ve written highly negative reviews of restaurants that are still packing them in nightly. All I can say is go figure.
Are the reviews ever skewed to favor advertisers?
Not in any reputable publication.
Is there anything you don’t eat?
I try to emulate Jeffrey Steingarten, who, when he got his job writing about food for Vogue, trained himself to lose his few remaining food aversions. I confess that I have a slight sqeamishness about escargots, something I’d worked through when cooking for a living, but it is still slightly there. Professionally, I can eat snails and analyze their flavor, evaluating the way that they’re cooked and seasoned, but if I stop and visualize what I’m eating (slugs), I’ll be repulsed. For me, it’s a matter of mental compartmentalization—mind over matter. Happily, other than snails, I’m a total omnivore—organ meats, game, stinking, runny cheese—you name it, I’ll eat it. And probably like it, too
Has a meal for a review ever made you sick?
Yes. I was once served a paella loaded with less-than-pristine mussels. Let’s just say I’ll never eat mussels that smell like the
Do you ever feel rotten sneaking into a restaurant, then publishing a negative review?
I confess I was conflicted at first. After all, I was in the restaurant business for 15 years, doing everything from cooking on the line, to writing business plans, hiring staff, writing menus and, in a pinch, washing dishes. Mine was one of the faces pressed in the diamond-shaped window of the kitchen door, wondering whether a particular diner was a critic and whether we’d survive the ultimate review. I empathize with restaurant workers because, for years, I was one of them. I also empathize with the owners because, having written up loan applications and business plans, I know the sort of financial risk they’ve taken.
Yet I’ve also eaten bad meals that I could barely afford on the advice of unethical reviewers. When I write reviews, I think about readers who don’t get to dine out often. Maybe they work too hard and too late, or have small children, or have a limited dining budget. Maybe they have a single opportunity to dine out all month. My job is to protect those readers’ investment—of money, time, and effort—and to tell them whether a particular restaurant is worth their business. So no, I no longer feel rotten about what I do. I think restaurant reviewers offer a real service. Like Ralph Nader, we’re consumer advocates—though with better hair.