No, I Am Not a Restaurant Critic

So for any of you who have followed my episodic journey (a personal tale of a food writer Don Quixote, in my wildest dreams) here at Sauce on the Side, you know I am not a restaurant critic.

Yes, I did some local work in the 90s when I was transitioning from food and beverage manager to writer … I did write for the Times Community newspapers as their food writer/critic as I was cultivating my writer’s chops. I thought I brought a perspective more meaningful than most critics as I knew what it took to get a meal delivered to the table. Having been the recipient of a review that pierced my thin skin as a manager working 60 plus hours a week to serve the dining public, I tried to be respectful of my roots. I was most happy when the Virginia Press Association gave me their top award for critical writing. Their award statement said my work was “imaginative, intuitive, informed.” That made me happy.

Back to my operations days, my defining story as being on the wrong end of a review came when a server in my restaurant told the critic that we “nuked” many items on the menu in the microwave before sending them out. The next day my owner in Florida had the microwave removed … problem solved even if the server statement had offered a serious overstatement of the facts.

But then I believed I had caught the critic in a certain misstatement of fact: she had written that the orange juice served on our brunch was frozen concentrate. I knew for a fact that we squeezed it fresh each week in the kitchen from Florida juice oranges. I had her now … she would have to print a correction in the Akron Beacon Journal. When I called her, I was taken aback by her firm statement that no retraction would be forthcoming. Indeed she said perhaps our juice was fresh squeezed but however we had handled it made it taste like juice concentrate. Wow, it made me relook at how we handled the product and I learned that just to say you do something doesn’t mean that the commitment is followed all the way through to reaching the table. Indeed we had gaps in the way we handled the juice and just because it was fresh squeezed didn’t guarantee our guest that we had taken the proper care all the way to the table.

One of the exercises that Patrick O’Connell used to employ at the Inn at Little Washington is that he would make lists of all the words key critics would use in their reviews. Also he would have staffers visit restaurants and write reviews … just to illustrate what it’s like to give and “receive.” He is a man of detail and great success. There is a lesson in there somewhere.

So that is all a roundabout way to say I had a less than stellar experience in a restaurant recently and not being a critic, I want to talk about it discreetly. One of the things I told my managers in a food complex I ran that had a hotel restaurant, a hotel banquet operation, hotel room service, a family Italian dining room, a modern steak house, a ice cream parlor and a deli is that they were only valuable to me for their “good” information. As you move up in larger management situations, the more isolated you find yourself from good information as managers try to protect themselves. I became the dad that mom and the kids hide things from to protect themselves from his disapproval.

Now, To the Point!
We are all critics … we are all consumers. Here’s what has me going this month: menu accuracy (or good information). I was invited to a Sunday brunch in DC and the restaurant had their brunch menu listed online. Being Mr. Smartguy, I downloaded it and made some order decisions in advance. The service was great … the food was fine, not 5-star but worthy of a nice winter Sunday afternoon. I ordered one of their house bloody marys: I chose the mildest of the trio, no hot sauce, jalapeno or jerk spice like some of my other options. I just wanted the base house bloody mary concoction with Smirnoff plus the celery seeds, the basil, the pickled green beans and pearl onion – just as advertised, no substitutions or adjustments. What I got was the mix and vodka sans the bean/onion garnish? and what about the basil. The mix was so spicy I only was able to drink half over the next 90 minutes. I was with friends … I just kept quiet.

I ordered the Hanger Asada with the descriptor “grits, eggs, guacamole.” Why not tell me the grits are Anson Mills (they do under side orders, but why not brag about the entrée), that the eggs are scrambled (no 63 degree eggs here) and that guacamole is really slivers of avocado. The Shrimp and Grits underneath says it comes with avocado, not guacamole, so they do know a difference.

OK, small points perhaps. But they added up and they are the details that separate excellence from so so. Tell people what they are getting. Brag about the winning differences. And deliver on the promises. Nothing I’ve said requires the celebrity chef. You can do it with your staff … with your bartenders … with your menu. Make It Happen!

About the Author

Michael Birchenall is Editor and Publisher of Foodservice Monthly, a regional trade publication covering the foodservice industry of the Mid-Atlantic (DE, DC, MD, VA). Foodservice Monthly has been recognized as the Restaurant Association of Maryland's Allied Industry Member of the Year and by the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington as the Joan Hisaoka Associate Member of the Year.

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