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A Conversation with Nancy Nichols


Richard Kilgore
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Well I don’t know the Houston food scene at all. But in Dallas restaurants like York St., Lola, even the Green Room set the Dallas standards for this approach. Even the casual concept Fireside Pies uses “Paula’s Cheese,” (a tribute to local cheese maker Paula Lambert) and other local ingredients. The chef, Nick Badovinus grows all of his herbs on the roof of the restaurant. Arcodoro/Pomodoro grows figs, herbs, tomatoes, etc. as well. I think chefs can be bold and brash and creative—in Dallas Joseph Guitieriz (Rouge, Tutto) cooks with a real passion and while I wouldn’t call it “avant garde,’ I would call it cutting edge. He doesn’t let his personality become part of the recipe. I’m not a fan of gimmicks, but many people are. When Kent Rathbun opened Abacus, I felt his lobster shooters were gimmicky—6 little saki glasses filled with a curried broth and a bite of lobster. He sells the hell out of them, so the “show” works for the majority. It all boils down to personal preference—some people like to be served a baked potato the size of a shoe, others are outraged.

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One of my biggest pet peeves of the moment is menu writing. In a rush to be “new, fresh, and exciting,” menu writers have stretched the English language to absurdity. I’ve now eaten “wind-dried” tomatoes, hand-picked basil, “inverted” osso buco, “baby” everything—I’m sure you’ve all seen it.

. . . . .

That gave me a good laugh. Actually, the visual image of huge hay cutters harvesting basil (not "hand picked") had me rolling on the floor.

Do you ever comment on this kind of silliness in your reviews?

Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

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I guess the flip side of the question about pet peeve's would be what dining trends have you seen in recent years that you applaud? Any emerging trends, Nancy? What would you like to see more of?

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I'd like to dig a little deeper on two points that arose above:

Romano, and any other restaurateur, has the right (dang!) to sue frivolously, just as critics have the right to write, sometimes equally frivolously.

Perhaps it's naive of me to be offended or surprised by frivolous lawsuits, but I strongly believe that frivolous lawsuits are more than just frivolous. They are wrong. They represent an abuse of democratic processes, misappropriation of taxpayers' money and a rarefied form of vandalism. In situations like this, I worry that the media can become part of the problem. For example, do you think that in a million years Romano would have filed this absurd lawsuit -- which, presumably, somebody had to pay good money to defend (in addition to the share of the burden of maintaining the civil justice system, which is borne by taxpayers) -- if he didn't know he could rely on local media to write lots of stories about it?

When Jack says, “I don't believe that comp meals preclude an honest review, or that anonymous ones guarantee honesty” I think he’s dead wrong.

I'm far more concerned about magazines and newspapers carrying restaurant advertisements than I am about a critic getting a comped meal. Critics of many kinds get comps: book reviewers get their books from publishers for free, performing arts critics generally get their tickets free, sports columnists sit in the press box. On the news side, reporters ride the campaign bus and fly on Air Force One. To me, good journalism isn't about not taking comps; it's about not letting those comps create conflicts of interest or exert undue influence over your coverage. What I find in discussions of comps for restaurant reviewers is that many who oppose those comps happen to work at well-funded publications that can afford to spend the money. In that situation, the need to pay tens of thousands of dollars a year for a critic to visit restaurants acts as an anticompetitive measure -- it means only heavily financed journals can play in that arena. But when I look at actual results, like Mariani's restaurant reviews, I think he provides more valuable information than, say, the critic for the New York Times. Mariani publishes a free online newsletter. How is he supposed to pay for these meals? I'd much rather have him getting comped and writing about those meals than I would want to have a situation where only a few wealthy publishers control the world of restaurant reviewing. Yet, while they protest comps, those same publishers invariably carry restaurant advertisements. There they are in the New York Times, right next to the restaurant reviews. And there they are, it so happens, in D Magazine. Do you believe that carrying restaurant advertisements is morally superior to accepting comps?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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To add to Steven's comment, in the book referenced by Robb Walsh in his post, The Soul Of a Chef, Michael Ruhlman makes it a point to mention that Mariani's employer (GQ I think) will not pay for tickets/meals/hotel in "second or third tier cities" like Dallas, Houston or Cleveland! So, in order for him to review establishments in these cities someone has to pay the bills. Hence, the free tickets, room and board and sometimes meals.

Elie

E. Nassar
Houston, TX

My Blog
contact: enassar(AT)gmail(DOT)com

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When Jack says, “I don't believe that comp meals preclude an honest review, or that anonymous ones guarantee honesty” I think he’s dead wrong.

I'm far more concerned about magazines and newspapers carrying restaurant advertisements than I am about a critic getting a comped meal. Critics of many kinds get comps: book reviewers get their books from publishers for free, performing arts critics generally get their tickets free, sports columnists sit in the press box. On the news side, reporters ride the campaign bus and fly on Air Force One. To me, good journalism isn't about not taking comps; it's about not letting those comps create conflicts of interest or exert undue influence over your coverage. What I find in discussions of comps for restaurant reviewers is that many who oppose those comps happen to work at well-funded publications that can afford to spend the money. In that situation, the need to pay tens of thousands of dollars a year for a critic to visit restaurants acts as an anticompetitive measure -- it means only heavily financed journals can play in that arena. But when I look at actual results, like Mariani's restaurant reviews, I think he provides more valuable information than, say, the critic for the New York Times. Mariani publishes a free online newsletter. How is he supposed to pay for these meals? I'd much rather have him getting comped and writing about those meals than I would want to have a situation where only a few wealthy publishers control the world of restaurant reviewing. Yet, while they protest comps, those same publishers invariably carry restaurant advertisements. There they are in the New York Times, right next to the restaurant reviews. And there they are, it so happens, in D Magazine. Do you believe that carrying restaurant advertisements is morally superior to accepting comps?

This is truly a valid point and one which I could never have made as succinctly. Here in Honolulu it is common knowledge that, if a restaurant wants to correct bad coverage or garner favorable ink, buying an ad is an excellent move. A particularly egregious example was of a fairly new restaurant which was panned by the paper's critic but, lo and behold, when the annual restaurant guide with awards was published, it was front and center as a "Critics Choice" and, surprise!, a full-page advert. Guaranteed more people saw the highly touted award and ad than ever read the review and who knows how many people were suckered into spending their money there at least once. I'm quite certain that this happens elsewhere in one form or another.

"Eat it up, wear it out, make it do or do without." TMJ Jr. R.I.P.

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Steven-

Just curious--I understand that you don't think anonymity is important and that comps are okay. But it has never been clear to me whether you are defending restaurant reviewers who identify themselves and accept free meals in the abstract, or if you also review on this basis yourself?

-Robb

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Steven-

Just curious--I understand that you don't think anonymity is important and that comps are okay. But it has never been clear to me whether you are defending restaurant reviewers who identify themselves and accept free meals in the abstract, or if you also review on this basis yourself?

-Robb

I'm curious why you ask.

"Eat it up, wear it out, make it do or do without." TMJ Jr. R.I.P.

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In the previous posts, Robb and John have emerged as the yin and the yang of ethical dining review policy. Yes times have changed and with it food writers’ visibility, but not to the point that accepting free meals is an acceptable practice. I’ve heard the Mariani rumors (that he dines on free meals, etc) and now that Jack has confirmed the fact, I think it’s fair to say that what Mariani is doing is making us all look bad. It’s one thing to be recognized, it’s another to be catered to no matter what the critic tells the chef or writes in his review. It is an unethical, egomaniacal practice. Maybe Mariani is all about “tough love,” but I’ve seen plenty of freelancers grazing off restaurateurs with stars in their eyes and their reviews have translated into stars on the page. When Jack says, “I don't believe that comp meals preclude an honest review, or that anonymous ones guarantee honesty” I think he’s dead wrong. If you are a critic and accept a free dining experience and then express your opinion to the chef or owner, you become a consultant, not a critic. Period.

And, Nancy, I must take exception and say that a free meal doesn't a liar make. A writer is, either, honest... or a liar. Writers (that I know) make enough money where a $150.00 meal isn't quite enough money to bribe them. I realize that many publications feel that they guarantee fair critiques by paying for the meal and having the critic sneak in for an experience... but, the fact is that most critics are known in Houston... certainly, Robb Walsh and Alison Cook are both known in most restaurants here in Houston. If they are known, they get special service whether the meal is paid for, or not. You are not quite unknown in Dallas, either... a beautiful lady is always remembered and noticed ;-) . Writing honestly about a dining experience that is not likely to be enjoyed by the average person in a restaurant is no more helpful to a potential diner than what you are railing against, in my opinion.

And, I must point out that when John enjoyed a comp meal in a restaurant with me, it was because he was a guest of MINE.... and I'm not a PR person for restaurants... I just took him out to dinner at a favorite restaurant of ours (Anthony's) which is no longer open.... so I wouldn't say that my post confirms that John "accepts comp meals". We all accept comp meals when someone takes us out to dinner.

I am, however, enjoying this forum and am glad to be chatting with you. I believe that you have a high level of ethics, but would differ with you if you believe that those who do it differently lack ethics, or are making us ALL look bad.

Jack

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Linda, noise level and table spacing both fall under ambiance, which should be one of the major components of any dining review. It is important for readers to know what type of vibe to expect when venturing to a new restaurant. Noise is a hot topic right now. Currently I am carrying a decibel level reader with me on reviews. I want to add a symbol that rates the noise in a restaurant in our listings. However, what you may or may not know is that many restaurateurs are designing noisy restaurants on purpose. Not only does it turn tables faster, noise produces a high-energy vibe that makes people feel like they’re in a happening place. It’s a big problem, at least in my opinion, and I refer to the noise factor frequently. Dining out is about sharing a meal with friends, families, or colleagues. When you can’t carry on a conversation over dinner, we’ve got a problem. Especially in high-dollar eateries.

Carrabba's, Grotto, La Griglia and quite a few like that in Houston use the busy, somewhat loud, atmosphere as a draw. Frequently, conversations with adjacent tables are part of the action there, and I enjoy it. I doubt, though, that I would go to one of those for a business dinner, or, a romantic evening out with my wife.

Jack

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One of my biggest pet peeves of the moment is menu writing. In a rush to be “new, fresh, and exciting,” menu writers have stretched the English language to absurdity. I’ve now eaten “wind-dried” tomatoes, hand-picked basil, “inverted” osso buco, “baby” everything—I’m sure you’ve all seen it. Presentation seems to go crazy as well. Please stop serving anything in a martini glass or splattering the rims of plates with chopped parsley or paprika--it never works, it always looks like a war zone. I’m also over meat served on top of potatoes. One of my main concerns about the industry is that chefs are taking themselves too seriously. Sure, everyone wants a shot at their own TV show or line of products, we are living in a food-crazy society now, but I really miss the “Alice Waters” approach to dining where the focus is on real food and real conversation over dinner. Thankfully I do see, underneath the “Fusing Maniacs,” a definite trend toward chef owned and operated small restaurants with menus driven by local ingredients.  But, I worry that they won’t survive in our current “wow factor” cuisine society.

Alice Waters is in a class of her own and is a trend setter, herself.... she doesn't need to "Napoleonize" her offerings for WOW factor..... however, as far as Dallas is concerned, if you are correct about the trend toward smaller chef/owner restaurants, it will change my perception about Dallas as a dining town. An example of that trend in Houston is Monica Pope's new restaurant, T'afia, where she only serves locally-grown vegetables and, even, locally-produced "seasonal" wines. As far as presentation is concerned, just like any other commodity, food has always been subject to trends both in ingredients and presentation... and always will be. That doesn't bother me... to some degree, I think it keeps it exciting. I WAS, however, eating Rack of Lamb stacked on top of mashed potatoes years ago at the Brownstone in Houston. I agree with you about piling anything on top of something you have to scrape off in order to taste the entree'.

Jack

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I'd like to dig a little deeper on two points that arose above:
Romano, and any other restaurateur, has the right (dang!) to sue frivolously, just as critics have the right to write, sometimes equally frivolously.

Perhaps it's naive of me to be offended or surprised by frivolous lawsuits, but I strongly believe that frivolous lawsuits are more than just frivolous. They are wrong. They represent an abuse of democratic processes, misappropriation of taxpayers' money and a rarefied form of vandalism. In situations like this, I worry that the media can become part of the problem. For example, do you think that in a million years Romano would have filed this absurd lawsuit -- which, presumably, somebody had to pay good money to defend (in addition to the share of the burden of maintaining the civil justice system, which is borne by taxpayers) -- if he didn't know he could rely on local media to write lots of stories about it?

When Jack says, “I don't believe that comp meals preclude an honest review, or that anonymous ones guarantee honesty” I think he’s dead wrong.

I'm far more concerned about magazines and newspapers carrying restaurant advertisements than I am about a critic getting a comped meal. Critics of many kinds get comps: book reviewers get their books from publishers for free, performing arts critics generally get their tickets free, sports columnists sit in the press box. On the news side, reporters ride the campaign bus and fly on Air Force One. To me, good journalism isn't about not taking comps; it's about not letting those comps create conflicts of interest or exert undue influence over your coverage. What I find in discussions of comps for restaurant reviewers is that many who oppose those comps happen to work at well-funded publications that can afford to spend the money. In that situation, the need to pay tens of thousands of dollars a year for a critic to visit restaurants acts as an anticompetitive measure -- it means only heavily financed journals can play in that arena. But when I look at actual results, like Mariani's restaurant reviews, I think he provides more valuable information than, say, the critic for the New York Times. Mariani publishes a free online newsletter. How is he supposed to pay for these meals? I'd much rather have him getting comped and writing about those meals than I would want to have a situation where only a few wealthy publishers control the world of restaurant reviewing. Yet, while they protest comps, those same publishers invariably carry restaurant advertisements. There they are in the New York Times, right next to the restaurant reviews. And there they are, it so happens, in D Magazine. Do you believe that carrying restaurant advertisements is morally superior to accepting comps?

You are right on there. There are many examples of ad-driven publications going lighter on their advertisers. I think I mentioned Tony's in Houston before. His new restaurant has been opened for a couple of months now (after moving to a new location after being open for nearly 40 years). He doesn't advertise in the Chronicle (or, anywhere, I guess). The Chronicle has removed him from its dining guide completely, yet can jump in to review a new Landry's restaurant almost immediately. Landry's is a big advertiser... Tony's is probably Houston's oldest upscale restaurant... but doesn't advertise. As far as the The Houston Press is concerned, it is totally ad driven, but I don't believe Robb has any constraints on who and how he can review (at least it isn't obvious). My favorite Robb Walsh review was on a restaurant (middle eastern, I believe) where the owner/manager didn't recognize him. Robb, evidently, had an attractive date that evening. The manager decided to discreetly hit on her and sent a waitress into the ladies' room with his card and a note. In spite of the fact that Robb had some Ok things to say about the food, which was admirable of him, the attempted seduction of a guest's date was the first half of the review. Yuk, yuk.

Jack

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I'd like to dig a little deeper on two points that arose above:
Romano, and any other restaurateur, has the right (dang!) to sue frivolously, just as critics have the right to write, sometimes equally frivolously.

Perhaps it's naive of me to be offended or surprised by frivolous lawsuits, but I strongly believe that frivolous lawsuits are more than just frivolous. They are wrong. They represent an abuse of democratic processes, misappropriation of taxpayers' money and a rarefied form of vandalism. In situations like this, I worry that the media can become part of the problem. For example, do you think that in a million years Romano would have filed this absurd lawsuit -- which, presumably, somebody had to pay good money to defend (in addition to the share of the burden of maintaining the civil justice system, which is borne by taxpayers) -- if he didn't know he could rely on local media to write lots of stories about it?

This (above) post was attributed to me... however, I didn't write it.

Jack

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Steven-

Just curious--I understand that you don't think anonymity is important and that comps are okay. But it has never been clear to me whether you are defending restaurant reviewers who identify themselves and accept free meals in the abstract, or if you also review on this basis yourself?

-Robb

It's a fair question. I'll answer it briefly here. But since this isn't supposed to be a chat about me, I'll ask that if anybody wants to pursue it further we do so on one of the existing topics that addresses this issue.

The short answer is that I'm not a restaurant reviewer and haven't been for several years. When I was actively writing weekly restaurant reviews for the now-defunct EdificeRex project, I was fortunate enough to have an employer, Insignia ESG, with deep pockets who didn't mind reimbursing me for $1,000 a week in dining expenses. Currently, I write mostly articles (and a book) about restaurants, and of course I write about restaurants here in the eG Forums, and I take comps just as the non-reviewer freelancers for the New York Times and all the major food magazines do.

If there's any hint of a quid pro quo or other expectation that someone wants to buy positive coverage with a comp, I walk away. Otherwise, I eat and then I write what I think. I dine out a lot. Sometimes I pay, sometimes I'm on assignment for a publication that pays, sometimes someone (most often my friend Ken) buys me dinner, sometimes the restaurant buys me dinner, sometimes I've been invited in, sometimes I've gone in expecting to pay but have been comped and no, I'm not rich or stupid enough to argue when that happens -- who paid for a meal makes no difference to me when I sit down to write about it.

More importantly for the purposes of this discussion, the staff of the eG Forums and eGullet Society are permitted to take comps -- we don't think it would be appropriate to spend member-donated funds to support our dining habits, and we don't accept restaurant advertising so we don't have that income stream to pay for our meals -- but if our editor in chief Dave Scantland or I believed anybody on our staff gave positive coverage in exchange for a comp we'd be having a very serious talk with that staff member.

That was the short answer!

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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There are quite a few restaurant owners who swear they know what I look like. And they are mistaken. There are 8 Robert Walshs in the Houston phone book and some of them are using the confustion to their advantage when they present their credit cards and make reservations. Scott Tycer at Aires thought he knew what I looked like because he saw one such credit card. But I hadn't been in his restaurant that night. Other imposters are making reservations in my name too. The Press has received numerous complaints about my behavior in restaurants--when I wasn't there!

Want me to prove it? Name a restaurant that says they know me and I'll go there without being spotted. If you read my reviews, its easy to see that the restaurants don't know who I am. Why else would they seat me at the worst table in the place, give me horrible service, lie about the fish, and kick me out so often?

As for advertising, I have written extremely negative reviews about lots of Houston Press advertisers. One Italian restaurant used their ad space to launch a rebuttal. Others pull their ads in protest. But it doesn't matter. The public trusts us because we are as likely to blacken an advertiser's eye as anybody else's. There is a wall that separates advertising and editorial--reputable pubs observe it strictly and bottom feeders blatantly ignore it and trade editorial for ad dollars. But the New York Times? C'mon. If the state of Saudia Arabia buys an full page ad in the New York Times, do you think the editorial page is suddenly going to lean pro-Arab?

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Jack:

Well you may call it naive, but like it or not, it is a first amendment right. He didn't get that much press if it makes you feel any better. From his side, he has a business to defend. His real goal was to get the star rating system abolished.

And on your comment:

"I'm far more concerned about magazines and newspapers carrying restaurant advertisements than I am about a critic getting a comped meal."

I say, we wouldn't have a magazine without advertising. Why does that concern you. It sounds like you don't want anyone to have any rights. I strongly disagree about comps, especially when it comes to dining criticism. (FYI newspaper columnists do not travel on team dollars.)

You say:

"Yet, while they protest comps, those same publishers invariably carry restaurant advertisements. There they are in the New York Times, right next to the restaurant reviews. And there they are, it so happens, in D Magazine. Do you believe that carrying restaurant advertisements is morally superior to accepting comps?"

Restaurant advertising has nothing to do with restaurant reviews. They are church and state.

Edited by NancyNichols (log)
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A full-page ad in the New York Times costs $24,000. The retail value of a comped restaurant meal is a few hundred dollars, and the actual cost to the restaurant is a few dollars plus the wholesale cost of whatever wine is served. Yet many would have us believe that somehow a comped meal is likely to corrupt a journalist while a $24,000 ad is not. That makes no sense to me. Anything that can be said in defense of carrying restaurant ads can be said in defense of someone like Mariani accepting comps: It doesn't matter. The public trusts Mariani because he is as likely to blacken the eye of a restaurant that gives him a comp as anybody else's. There is a wall that separates expenses and comps from editorial positions--reputable pubs observe it strictly and bottom feeders blatantly ignore it and trade editorial for comps. But Mariani? C'mon. If Burger King buys a meal for Mariani, do you think he's suddenly going to lean pro-Whopper? Hey, if Mariani is shown to be trading favorable coverage for comps, I'll be the first one to say he should be thrown to the lions. But if he's providing honest coverage, I don't care who's paying for it -- his rich uncle, a budget derived from restaurant ads, the restaurant via comps or the government of Saudi Arabia.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Jack,

It’s not a matter of honesty, it’s a matter of objectivity. When a chef or owner knows who you are and is buying you a meal, you are not experiencing a real dining experience at that establishment. I’ve been recognized plenty of times, but just because they know who I am doesn’t suddenly make them a better cook or server. I’ve had some bad food and service both ways. I prefer to pay my own way and feel free to say what I want to say.

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Advertising And Dining Reviews, a quick lesson.

Let me just address some of the issues that have come out of today’s discussions. Everybody seems to be so concerned about advertising. I wrote a story last year about Rockfish, a seafood restaurant that served fresh oysters to two people who died gruesome deaths. They had just signed a 12 time full-page ad contract with us. I had no idea; nor did I care. The story ran. A fact is a fact. To their credit, they pulled their ads for a couple of months and then resumed them. I have respect for them because they didn’t just get pissed off and go hide. They understand the reality of the marketplace. Good criticism and reporting combined with restaurant owners who understand the rules makes for a healthy environment for readers. Because readers want to know the facts, warts (or roaches) and all. They will make up their own minds. If an ad exec in this office complains to me about a review, that person is fired. We are church and state. And I feel that the public benefits.

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Steven:

Ok, one last time. I don’t care how much an ad costs--you are looking at this scenario from the restaurants point of view. Journalists don’t pay attention to ads, consumers do. That is where you can paint your own canvas. I’d be embarrassed if the whole country knew I was running around eating for free giving black eyes or not. It’s disrespectful to the consumer. And that is what this is all supposed to be about.

Jack: and all. Forgive me if I'm getting names wrong, I'm a new to this posting system and still struggling to get the right answer to the right question.

Edited by NancyNichols (log)
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Hells bells, Philly four-bells system is more cracked than the Morning News’ 5 stars. First of all, if you’re going to have icons, you need to have at least 5 to allow a broader range. That said, once you assign the icons, you’re stuck. I understand that people want a quick reference guide. The only quick reference guide that makes any sense to me is to break restaurants down by price first and then assign the icons. That way a fabulous diner or a hole-in-the-wall Tex Mex joint can become a 5-Bell/Star dining experiences. But the New York/LA-centric food media continues to promote fine dining restaurants as the only establishments worthy of five-anythings.

The NY Times uses a four star rating, although there is a no star level at the bottom. I think there may have been a time when it was a system that carried general respect. Michelin has a three star rating in addition to a no star listing and an almost complete absence of text. It too is under attack more and more, but in it's day it worked fairly well. Why it's worked has been the subject of discussion on the site, but it should be noted that in the twentieth century, France really had a single model of what a restaurant should be. For all that a great bistro is never a three star restaurant and a good luxury restaurant is going to offer a kind of experience that many will consider superior to a good bistro meal.

I think your proposed system has at least one great fault. A five star forty dollar meal is not likely to be as good as a three star two hundred dollar meal, yet the inferior restaurant will boast of its better rating. Perhaps two hundred dollar meals will be rated with gold stars and forty dollar meals with bronze, or pewter stars. Maybe be could use grains of caviar and peanuts and let people argue if five peanuts is better than three grains of caviar. Mostly however, I find this sort of proposal to ignore an important aspect. Using Michelin's system for the moment, a three star restaurant is not simply a better restaurant but a genre of its own. A three star bistro is like a major league sandlot baseball player.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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I think your proposed system has at least one great fault. A five star forty dollar meal is not likely to be as good as a three star two hundred dollar meal, yet the inferior restaurant will boast of its better rating.

Oh, I beg to differ on this point! How many people would rather have their momma's cooking, a greasy cheeseburger, or a slice of NY pizza as their last meal, their favorite meal? No one picks quail eggs and foie gras.

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Ms. Nichols-

In Food Fight, you note that you have abandoned the anonymity which is standard operating procedure for restaurant critics all over the world because "Times have changed...the emergence of...dining critics like John Mariani as high profile celebrities have put pressure on food writers to increase their visibility and feed the public's curiosity."

In the book, The Soul of a Chef, it was reported that Mariani also gets free plane tickets and hotel rooms from restaurants he reviews. And he never pays for the food or the wine when he is reviewing. So do the "new, higher-profile" restaurant critics also take freebies?

-Robb Walsh

Restaurant Critic

Houston Press

My understanding is that this sort of behavior is not unknown in France. My first insight into this was when we visited a small distillery of eaux-de-vie in the southwest of France that Patricia Wells had listed in her Food Lover's Guide to France. In spite of the listing, this rather remote artisanal operation got few Americans knocking on the door. When the proprietor learned we were Americans, he told us he admired our critics' ethics. He told us Ms. Wells arrived, tasted his wares and a purchase of a few bottles. It was only later that he was notified she had included him in her guide. In France, he said, it would have been standard procedure for the prospective author to announce his intention to write a guide and expect free samples.

I may play at being a restaurant critic here on the site, but it's not a paying job and restaurant reviews are really not my favorite sort of food thread. Nevertheless, when I mentioned to a Spanish food and restaurant critic that I had reservations at a restaurant he had recommended, he asked if I wanted to go anonymously or be introduced. I much prefer to go as a VIP and get the best insight into the best that the restaurant has to offer. It's a better experience, but I don't know that the cooking is any different. What's different is that I may get extra courses, or a taste of a dish that's not on the menu for one reason or another. I think a smart professional can separate that, but I also understand how one's opinion can be colored subconsciously. If I were a restaurant reviewer, I'd feel obligated to dine as anonymously as possible for my own protection, but I wouldn't disqualify myself if I was recognized. I don't particularly condone a regular practice of getting free meals. Books, films and even theater performances are different than meals in my opinion. At the same time, it's just plain foolish to believe that a top restaurant will not recognize most important critics by the second meal, if not the first. (A top critic will not review a restaurant on the basis of one meal, in my opinion.) Today, Frank Bruni in the NY Times noted in his review of le Bernardin that he had been recognized at the restaurant. I'm not surprised he was recognized and it was almost unnecessary to say it, but I'm glad he did if only to recognize that it's likely to be common. When a previous reviewer wrote about donning a wig and not being recognized at a particular restaurant, all I could think of was, "who is she kidding."

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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[...]There is a wall that separates advertising and editorial--reputable pubs observe it strictly and bottom feeders blatantly ignore it and trade editorial for ad dollars. But the New York Times? C'mon. If the state of Saudia Arabia buys an full page ad in the New York Times, do you think the editorial page is suddenly going to lean pro-Arab?

You might be right about the Dining section of the Times, but it might be interesting to check on how many music reviews they do of series that don't advertise in the Times. If you do that, you might reconsider your opinion.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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