Moody’s/Dinner in the Barn
Does the tablehopper wear a wig?
This question comes up a fair amount since most people expect restaurant critics to be the way Ruth Reichl was, prowling around in a variety of hats, wigs, and a pocket full of aliases. Well, unlike Ruth or other newspaper food critics, I just don’t have their big budget to eat out “undercover” at a place three times. Remember, I’m a self-employed writer.
Sometimes I am actually paid to eat out anonymously, and my expenses are reimbursed (yes, it’s a very good thing). I also pay my own way a lot because there are so many places I want to check out. But for some of the places I write about for tablehopper (and other publications), since local restaurant publicists know I’m a food writer, I am often invited to events and media dinners, or restaurant owners offer to host me so I can check a place out.
So, yes, when I am hosted for a meal, the odds are good that I’m going to get special treatment of some kind (lucky me), or at least will be experiencing the best that establishment has to offer. Which is exactly what I want to share on tablehopper: what I think is the best an establishment has to offer. It’s why I refer to myself a food writer, and not a critic. Since I’m not dining anonymously, I take full advantage of the wonderful access I am granted by dining as myself. I get to ask questions, meet people, try special dishes. There is sometimes the added perk of meeting the chef or the owner, and so I get to ask things like where did they get the inspiration to make Fernet ice cream. Those are the stories I’m after and want to share, whether I’m paying for my meal, or not. Another thing to consider: some critics are recognized a lot more than they would ever care to admit. (I’m just saying.)
And to be clear, just because a restaurant is hosting me or I think the chef is nice (or cute, hi!), it doesn’t mean I will write a glowing review. Quite the opposite; my reputation as a food writer is only as good as the truth I tell. I can let you know all about a new place but I won’t recommend it just because I had a free meal there. The free meal has to be a pretty good meal to show up in this column. My rule is this: if I couldn’t recommend a place to a good friend, then I don’t write it up.
If a restaurant doesn’t do good things to food or have their act together, it’s hard to hide, no matter what kind of special treatment I may get. For brand-spanking-new places I definitely cut a little slack on things like servers not knowing all the ingredients in a dish, or if my appetizer arrives before my Champagne. A new restaurant is sometimes like a beautiful woman (bear with me here): if she has great cheekbones and a nice disposition, you won’t dwell on her slightly smeared lipstick because odds are good that she’ll look in the mirror and fix it.
In my heart of hearts, I want all restaurants to succeed. I’m excited by seeing owners and chefs and investors bravely forge ahead in the industry that has literally ruined so many people, because they have a dream, a plan, an idea, a vision about what they’re going to do differently than everyone else, or better. I have so much respect for food dreams. And so every time I sit down at a restaurant, I quietly hope I’m about to indulge in a well-prepared meal, or at least a good meal, perhaps with something different or unexpected to offer. I feel real remorse when I have to write about a place that doesn’t measure up or is doing bad things to chicken, because I’m seeing the holes and ragged edges of someone’s food dream. It’s for this very reason that for the restaurants that are open to it (usually the new ones), I share my assessment of what I thought was executed well, and not so well. I feel beholden to help make it better by at least saying something, so people don’t come and waste their time and hard-earned money on a poor dining experience. Fix that lipstick, lady.
A few more things: I just have to share this link to an outstanding article about food critics/food writing by Adam Gopnik from the April 04, 2005 issue of The New Yorker.
Secondly, if you have a problem with my non-anonymous perspective, then don’t read my e-column. ‘Nuff said.
Some final and very important details: while I accept freebies and invitations, I don’t accept payment to write about or recommend a restaurant or a bar or a wine or anyone or anything. (I just couldn’t live with myself.) One more thing you’ll notice: I don’t allow restaurant advertising on this site.