Restaurants and Criticism
I was reminded the other day that Piece of Meat was named one of the 10 best new restaurants in the country by Food & Wine. That was awesome for the folks behind Piece of Meat, which is a place I like, and about which I have written.
But I have to admit I was puzzled by the choice, because while I really like Piece of Meat for what it is, it isn’t in my top 10 restaurants to open in New Orleans in the last 12 months. Top 10 overall food-related venues in town? Sure, but there are restaurants I’d pick before it. Food & Wine writer Jordana Rothman disagrees, and she’s the one writing for Food & Wine, so take my opinion with the weight it deserves.
But the fact that I disagree got me thinking about a discussion I had many years ago with a chef who lamented the fact that we don’t have a real restaurant critic in New Orleans. He was right, we don’t. New Orleans is too small and too parochial to have a true critic. I sure as hell don’t claim to be one, and I don’t envy the person who’d try to take on the job.
New Orleans is a very small town, and that’s particularly true when it comes to the restaurant world. I had not been writing about food – as an amateur – for a year when I was recognized at a fine-dining restaurant by a chef whose work I greatly admired. I was stunned, but in retrospect why wouldn’t restaurateurs be aware of the people writing about their businesses? Granted it was a much smaller world then both in terms of restaurants and food writers, but there is no such thing as anonymity in this town if you write about food, and certainly not if you do it professionally.
Which brings me back to the chef who complained – his point was that local food writers were uniformly positive about restaurants, making it difficult to distinguish between the great and the mediocre (I paraphrase). He was right.
This is also not intended as disparagement of the folks who are writing about food locally. I know most of them and consider them friends. They’re excellent writers and certainly do not lack for integrity. I believe they sincerely mean every word they write, just as I do. But if anyone local has written a truly negative review of a restaurant in the last year or two, I’d be surprised.
There are a lot of restaurants that treat food writers like any other customer. There are some restaurants at which it’s clear they’re treating writers differently. The trick is figuring out those restaurants that don’t let on they know a writer is in the house, but do.
Even trickier – what if the meal you have at a restaurant where you believe they’ve recognized you as a writer is outstanding? Do you mention your suspicion in a review and risk sounding like an arrogant, entitled jackass? What if you are an arrogant, entitled jackass? What then?
The way I look at it is that if I have a great meal at a restaurant it means the kitchen is capable of making great food, and more likely than not they’re making that great food for everyone who comes in the door. Thus as long as I point out my limited experience, I feel comfortable praising a restaurant based on a single meal. Any restaurant can have an off night, though, so it’s not fair to slam a place for a single bad meal. Because I am never assigned a specific restaurant to review/cover, I do not have to return to a restaurant at which I’ve had a bad meal. I am not called upon to write negative reviews as a result. This is a luxury the average food writer does not enjoy, as I understand it.
I would like to believe it is possible for someone to remain anonymous as a restaurant critic in New Orleans but I would also like to believe in Santa Claus. I don’t see how either is possible. I’d love to be proven wrong, though, so if you’ve got a theory, plan or half-baked proposition let me know.