Dishing the Dirt:
The Process of a Restaurant Critic
By Stacee Sledge
Seattle Writergrrls zine, June 2002
Imagine being paid
to write about your experience at a restaurant. Bad service? Tell
the world! Amazing risotto? Sing it loud and help make a new
restaurant a success. Being a restaurant critic certainly has its
perks—among them, being paid cold cash for consuming
But there are downsides too. It's
a lot of work, and some weeks can prove much more difficult than
others. Critiquing restaurants for a living means you find
yourself critiquing them even when you're off the clock. And you
sometimes need a thick skin to tell the truth, when you know your
words might hurt a struggling business that the owner has sunk his
or her life savings into.
I landed the weekly assignment
for the Bellingham Herald last fall. My writing portfolio
included several features for Better Homes & Gardens,
and that, along with a stellar sample review of an area eatery,
eventually sealed the deal for the much-coveted job.
My editor and I work closely to
create a writing schedule. I have final say over where I go, but
she's instrumental in helping me brainstorm. I tend to write each
column at least three weeks before publication, and my calendar is
often planned out many months in advance.
Every week, my husband and I pick a night to go out to whichever
restaurant is up next. Sometimes this is fun; other nights we
don't feel like going out, and it's more of a chore. It isn't
always my husband who joins me for meals; I have a regular gaggle
of girlfriends who like to meet for lunch and dish about dishes
for my column.
The question I'm asked most often
is whether or not I have to pay for the meals. I do. The paper
must keep its distance from my opinions to save it from possible
advertising revenue loss. And as an ethical journalist, I cannot
accept freebies, no matter how inconsequential. But because the
meals are imperative to my freelance writing, they are 100 percent
tax deductible, which makes it much easier to pay the bill after
the occasional less-than-stellar dining experience.
Strangely enough, I still get a
bit nervous each time I go into a new place. I worry that I won't
be able to discreetly scribble enough notes and will forget a
vital detail about the wallpaper or soup du jour.
From the moment I walk in the
door, I soak up my surroundings. Here my background in writing
remodeling and decorating features comes in handy, as I take
mental note of the décor and ambience of a place.
The first thing my companion and
I do after being seated is digest the menu. My husband and regular
lunch companions know that they have to defer to me in their final
selections. Some things are more interesting to write about, or
have been written about too often. If a restaurant has a signature
dish, I'm sure to try it, but if I have a choice between
describing my third grilled pork chop in as many months or a
unique take on the tried and true, such as the Calumet's Cuban
pork braised in chili, lime, and cumin, it's a simple call to
make. No one can order the same dish. Variety is the name of this
game. We usually choose an appetizer, entrées, and one or two
When the food is served, everyone
takes a moment to let me memorize the composition and presentation
of each dish. I initially found myself taking meticulous notes at
this stage, but as I've settled into the job, I find it works
better if I simply enjoy the meal.
My least favorite part of the
meal comes last, when I must "out" myself and ask for a
menu to take home. The menu is imperative for giving plenty of
background information on all the restaurant's offerings.
It doesn't happen often, but
sometimes my cover is blown before a meal is served. I once had an
owner recognize me from my photo in the paper. He hovered over our
table all night, asking for my thoughts on each dish. It didn't
make for a relaxing dining experience, to be sure, and I ended up
scrapping the review.
Getting It Down
The first thing I do after a visit to a restaurant is head
straight to my home office and type up my thoughts. I think about
the ambiance of the restaurant, the style of food, the taste,
texture, and presentation of each dish, and how likely I am to
return as a "civilian." I do a lot of free writing at
this stage, just getting all my thoughts on the page without
worrying about structure or punctuation.
I come back to these rambling
thoughts a day or two later and whip them into cohesive sentences
and paragraphs. It's still a source of amazement to me each week
to watch the pieces fall together.
I'm convinced that Bellingham has
the best restaurants per capita of any other place I've lived. The
service is usually impeccable, and the variety and quality of food
is often exceptional. But they can't all be fabulous. Sometimes
I'm sent to review a place that has terrible service or bland food
(or both), and that's when things get interesting.
Writing a negative review is a
challenge. What I do is very subjective, and I could never expect
all readers to agree with me. All I can do is report my experience
as it happened through my own filter, keeping my reader's needs in
mind as well.
It's always fun to receive email
from my readers—positive and negative—of which I get a handful
of both each week. A couple readers have gone so far as to look up
my home number to give me a call, and although it makes me a bit
uncomfortable, I've yet to have an unpleasant conversation.
My writing process for this
specific column gets easier with time. I found early on that I
have a knack for it, but I still worry about that inevitable
moment when I turn on the computer, stare at that blank white
page, and try to conjure up a strong lede. I'm always waiting for
that day when nothing will come. It hasn't happened yet, but that
anxiety never goes away—and
I think that's key to keeping my writing fresh and appetizing.
Stacee Sledge is a freelance
writer and editor living in Bellingham.