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 often-succulent chow.

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.

Inside Scoop
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 desserts.

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.

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