On a midsummer Thursday night, there’s a reservation in a New York City restaurant’s book for an Enrico Pallazzo.
Only a pop culture junkie might suspect that something was afoot. Enrico Pallazzo is the opera singer in the Leslie Nielsen cult classic “Naked Gun” – and the man posing as Enrico Pallazzo is actually a restaurant critic.
Many people would consider it a dream job to eat at restaurants night after night on someone else’s tab, in search of the perfect culinary experience. But not all that glitters is (edible) gold. The profession of critiquing restaurants comes with its own set of nitpicks from chefs, readers and even the critics themselves.
From battling media portrayals like the grim, disdainful Anton Ego in "Ratatouille" to waging war on their expanding waistlines, critics at publications across the country turn every nightly meal into a work dinner. There are those who eat to live, those who live to eat, and those who work to eat.
“You don’t always have fun when you go out and sometimes you have to pull out your Blackberry and take some notes. Bottom line is, your job is to convey this experience to the reader,” said the aforementioned Mr. Pallazzo, known in real life as Ryan Sutton.
“When it comes down to it, if you have to choose between having good conversation and taking notes – whipping out the Blackberry wins.”
Sutton has been the critic for Bloomberg News for the past six years. On average, he eats out four to five nights a week – with some of those meals clocking in at upward of 15 courses.
For each restaurant he reviews, he visits that establishment at least three times. Of those visits, he dines at the bar – if there is one – at least once.
He typically brings a couple of eating companions. Sometimes it's other Bloomberg employees, Bloomberg clients, food writers or even friends. The only stipulation is that he gets to choose what his guests order – and they had better believe he’s going to extend a fork into their dish to give it a taste.
All Sutton’s visits are anonymous by way of pseudonyms, fake telephone numbers and OpenTable.com reservation accounts. He pays at the end with Bloomberg-funded credit cards.
Since ending their tenures, former food critics like New York Times ex-critic Ruth Reichl have revealed the measures they took in order keep their identity secret – from applying wigs to donning horn-rimmed glasses.
Mimi Sheraton, another former New York Times critic, wrote this of the hairy situation of anonymity in Eating My Words: An Appetite for Life:
“Few things embarrassed me more than being recognized in disguise, feeling idiotic as some captain said, ‘Good evening, Miss Sheraton.’ I always debated whether to go into the ladies and, à la Superman, revert to my real self (whichever one of me that might be), or just sit there feeling silly, steaming under the wig.”
But Sutton says being recognized – at least as a regular patron – isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“I don’t mind being recognized by the third time. I should be – I’m a regular at that point and I like to see how the service changes on the basis of the fact that you’re a regular. There is some worth in being recognized at the end of the review. That said, I still believe in anonymity – but being recognized is important in trying to replicate the experience of a normal patron,” he says.
Along with occasionally scratchy hairpieces, the occupation certainly has its other physical hazards.
During his six-year tenure, Sutton admits he has gained close to 30 pounds.
“It screws with your body image a little bit. You look at yourself in the mirror and you don’t look like you used to,” says the former athlete who also just happens to come from a family of speed skaters.
Another former New York Times critic Frank Bruni wrote in his memoir Born Round of the same toll on his body:
“I had to sample it all. And in order to work my way through a restaurant’s entire menu over the span of several visits and to try at least a few dishes twice, I sometimes ordered even more than the three or four courses that the place normally served.”
“…None of these meals could be constructed in a way that reflected health or weight concerns. If the restaurant took pride in its twenty-ounce rib eye, I took the measure of that steak. If fettuccine with a heavy cream sauce and a blizzard of pancetta was on the menu, it would also be on my table during one of my visits.”
But beyond the health concerns, the relationship between chef and critic, critic and reader has never been an easy flavor to balance. Judgment is subjective – a matter of one person’s taste.
“The awful truth is that, to my mind, at least restaurant criticism under the best of circumstances is by no means cake and ale, Champagne, truffles and caviar," wrote former Times critic Craig Claiborne in his memoir A Feast Made for Laughter. "I disliked the power. It burdened my conscience to know that the existence or demise of an establishment might depend on the praise or damnation to be found in The Times.”
In 2003, master French chef Bernard Loiseau took his own life following a bad review of his restaurant, the Cote d'Or, by GaultMillau and a fear of simultaneously losing his third Michelin star – the highest rating a restaurant can attain by the Michelin Guide.
Michelin has long been revered as the ultimate dining guide – dubbed "The Red Bible" by gastronomes – and a star has been said to boost business by 20 to 30 percent.
“Negative reviews are fine, as long as they're accurate and fair. Critics must always be conscious that they are dealing with people's livelihoods,” states the Food Critic’s Guidelines developed by the Association of Food Journalists. The chefs are keenly aware of this.
“When I was younger and working in San Francisco, I took every word the critics said so personally. When I knew a review was coming out, I would find out which stand would get the first paper and wait for it until around 2 a.m. The next few days following, I would pore over every word and adjust my menu according to each critique,” says Boston chef Ken Oringer.
He continues, "I place just as much importance on the opinions of the people who come to dine at my restaurants nightly. …While I want the critics to come and have positive experiences, I know that giving the diners a great meal is just as integral to building my business.”
Noah Ellis of Red Medicine in Beverly Hills took a different approach, not allowing L.A. Times critic S. Irene Virbila to eat at his restaurant after he spotted her.
"We find that some her reviews can be unnecessarily cruel and irrational, and that they have caused hard-working people in this industry to lose their jobs – we don't feel that they should be blind-sided by someone with no understanding of what it takes to run or work in a restaurant," he explained on his Tumblr along with the kiss of death for an anonymous critic: a recognizable picture of her.
Sutton agrees in that regard. He says, “The key is most of us in the critical profession are not trained chefs, and I think that’s a good thing because we aren’t writing for the chefs, we’re writing for the public.”
As for the public, the even bigger question that looms over critics’ heads is: who died and made them food god?
Especially in the days of Yelp, everyone is a critic. That doesn’t mean their criticisms are necessarily fair or balanced, as witnessed by chef Graham Elliot Bowles in August 2010 when his restaurant Grahamwich – which had then yet to open – received a negative review.
The tongue-in-cheek Tumblr “F*ck You Yelper” curates some of these most outlandish online criticisms, like this one of Los Angeles restaurant Wurstküche:
“They are trying to get peple [sic] from downtown who work and can't take forever for lunch – pretend like you are trying to move it. They don't even start cooking the dogs until you order. You must be kidding. This place could be great – but right now it is just a place to wait."
Sutton, who himself worked front of house in several restaurants before his current stint, says to such unfettered commentary: consider the facts.
“A critic is a journalist. We’re reporters and journalists first – it’s not ‘I like this’ and ‘I don’t like that.’ The critic is a hard-working reporter trying to impart knowledge and protect the consumer.”
“…It’s not like a play where the same thing should happen every night. Something different happens every night at every single different table in the restaurant. It’s individualized, customized theater. To take that and make that intelligible to the reader, it’s extremely difficult," adding that if there’s anything that keeps him up at night as a critic – and a journalist – it’s getting the facts right.
As for how much weight you as a diner put on the importance of professional reviews – well, only you can be the judge of that.
How much stock do you put into restaurant reviews?
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I read a few restaurant critics regularly, so that I can get a sense of their likes and dislikes and their particular quirks. That way I get a sense of how closely their tastes align with mine. I particularly like Tom Sietsema of the Washington Post for his detailed comments on the noise level at a restaurant (because I, too, hate to leave a restaurant with ringing ears from the din). I review restaurants for Trip Advisor quite a bit, but do my best to be generous and not complain about little mistakes. I understand that it's a tough job running a restaurant and I try to look at the big picture. Similarly, when I read reviews on Trip Advisor or Yelp, I generally discount those that have a mean streak or claim they had the worst experience ever. It's pretty obvious that some of the writers are simply bad patrons and are exaggerating or trying to do a hatchet job due to some grudge they've formed against the place. But I also tend to discount overly ecstatic reviews. I look for reviews written with specific details about what they ordered, and what they liked best or wished had been different. I do sometimes decide to try out a new restaurant based on the aggregate of reviews - never on a single review.
The comments are entertaining, however I do take issue with the notion that a critic gets paid to eat. That's not exactly true. A critic gets paid (usually very little) to write, edit, talk to chefs, blog, listen to PR people yammer on, blog, drive to a restaurant, blog, listen to a disgruntled ex-line cook yammer on, blog, drive to a restaurant, get food poisoning, blog, write, edit, drive back to the same restaurant that made them sick in the first place, blog, listen to their editor yammer on about how they're not blogging enough, write, drive back to that restaurant for another round of food roulette just to be fair, blog, read hate mail from any a**hole with 5 free minutes in his work day to spew insults, and then blog some more. It's a journalism job. The eating is one tiny part of that job. It is expensed, but then again, so are a lot of workers' meals.
The key is to find a food critic that shares your likes and dislikes. If you can find a food critic whose opinions in the past, match your opinions, then it is reasonable to expect that their opinions in the future will probably match your opinions.
But to take a random "famous" critic and use what he or she writes to made a decision is folly.
I think reviews are good when they are taken generally. When they start to talk about the firmness of whipped whatever, I don't care. My palate isn't that refined. But I like to know if 1) it's a good meal for the price and 2) what kind of atmosphere it is and 3) the overall experience, which is really just 1+2 (like how that worked? I used + to mean and but also 1+2 does equal 3! Gosh I'm clever). In Houston we have a little book, The Fearless Critic, that l love. I don't always agree with their negative reviews, but their positive ones have never steered me wrong.
I like to make my own decisions on restaurants along with hotels and movies. There are some reviews that are so over the top, and there's also some by people that have to bitch about everything under the sun and are NEVER satisfied with anything.
Gimmie dat gold!
In the 80's we had a great experience
The critic at the time was Lois Dwan came in sober left drunk most of the time.
She wrote in an article that we left the seeds in a papaya .
What the seeds were was the priciest Beluga caviar ordered by nobody else than Elton Jones.
The Great Elton loves caviar and papaya, but Ms Dwan could not make the difference between papaya seeds and Beluga caviar. When you are drunk or do not know what you see and write that's what happens
Most of these food critics are to be forbidden .
One of them, critic for the Los Angeles time was more interested in my sex life than the food. Another drunk.
I left this lousy town where everybody think they are somebody else........Stars. Yeah right!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Now I sell flowers in Northern California and is much, much happier.
Interesting, but I know that if I were a chef at some restaurant that was being critiqued, the opinion of one person as gospel wouldn't bother me too much at all.
Right, that would be the positive attitude. However, a lot of critics unfortunately have the power to sway public opinion and some become full-headed knowing they could single handedly cause a restaurant to fail. I mean, a terrible restaurant probably deserves to be closed, but in many cases, livelihoods and jobs are lost because of one person's ego.
Cry me a freaking river. You get paid to eat several hundred dollars worth of food a day and your griping about it?
Who do you think you are?
You said it Greg...........I am with you Man, ARROGANT, DRUNK, BASTARD, MEAN AND FAT TOO.
Love you Man, I can even give my Bud
I don't think people should totally dismiss professional reviews, because there are some grains of objectivity in what the critics say. There are different ways to enjoy food - for comfort, and for artistry. If you want to go to restaurant for comfort, then yes, the reviews aren't going to be very much help for you. I enjoy eating, god-forbid, orange chicken every once-in-a-while, because it satiates my craving for something fried in a tub of oil and drizzled with sugary sauce. Reviews of it will probably be very subjective though, because it's not "comfort" for everyone. Same goes for reviews that judge the Filet Mignon at a steakhouse.
But, for gastronomical restaurants, foods can be judged based on the innovation of the preparation, the uniqueness of the flavor/texture combinations, the presentation, the freshness of the ingredients, etc. I'm talking about the restaurants that serve you squid ink ashed by liquid nitrogen over a fresh squid surrounded by a foam flavored with such and such ingredients. Often times, reviews of these restaurants can paint a good picture of how the restaurant will be, since it's not so much about how delicious the food is, more than everything else.
As with film critics, the title "critic" doesn't automatically give someone credibility to me. It takes a few samples of someone's work to begin to understand what makes him/her tick. I'm more likely to give weight to a restaurant review if I've agreed with the critic in the past–or if I know what their strengths are. We have a local restaurant reviewer, who, for example, REALLY loves Italian food. I'll take that into account. We also have critics (and I think this is a problem in most American cities) who don't really know Asian food. It doesn't mean what they say has no merit. But if they're reviewing a Korean restaurant, I'll take it with a grain of salt.
I read restaurant reviews, and I do use them to decide where I will spend my dining dollars. If a place gets consistently bad reviews, it follows that it's likely a bad bet. Why would you ignore the expertise of a food critic, who has an understanding of good food, proper execution of classic dishes, and the ability to describe dishes in writing? At the very least, it clues me in to the style of preparation, the ingredients used, the level of service, the ambiance, the dress, and the menu and wine list.
I don't get the people here who like to fly blind.
I can't believe these comments I am reading. People are that unrealistic they are going to claim they don't listen to food reviews? Ok, perhaps in your home town. But if you travel, or go somewhere new, guess what: You don't have 6 months to sample the various places and decide what is and is not good, especially if you are dropping $300 of your own money on a meal. You obviously turn to a guide or research critics reviews of restaurants in the area. These ARE important, and DO sway opinion. Yes, the final verdict is what you think, but if you are in Paris for a couple nights, and don't want to waste serious paper, then you read the reviews and decide where you want to go.
Be realistic people. Some of these comments are so exaggerated they belong on Yelp. People do use reviews, and they are important.
Oh, and Proud Vegan, if Bush screwed us, then Obama flipped us over and got sloppy seconds.
Having a hard time believing there's a world outside your little bubble doc? Well believe it. There really is life outside your influence – or should that be influenza?
What's your point? Or do you not have one? You are saying you don't read reviews when there is no other information to go by? Strong work. Strong work indeed.
You said you couldn't believe the comments. I'm suggesting you get your head out of your plastic bubble and realize not everyone lives like you do. Some people (type "a") live and die by reviews; some people (type "b") don't give them a second thought. Just because you are type "a", doesn't mean everyone else is required to be, too.
If you still don't see the point, then resolve yourself to the fact that school starts again in a few weeks and your 5th grade teacher will probably explain it to you.
More cushion for the pushin'.
"People are that unrealistic they are going to claim they don't listen to food reviews?
You can't conceive that some people might use food reviews while at the same time other people don't?
Why would you presume that someone who does not use food reviews is unrealistic?
Lack of vision from the doc's lofty perch.
The bigger (they think) they are, the harder they fall.
I take all reviews, restaurant critic or yelpers, with a grain of salt. I'm only looking to please my own palate so I'll make my own decisions.
Agreed, although you can learn about food from reading detailed reviews
In the same way that "those who can, do; those who can't, teach," I believe the same mentality applies to critics. It probably explains why many of them or so spite filled.
Hopefully with the advent of the internet, critics will continue to lose their high and mighty place. I understand the commerce behind it, as "the press" is an integral part of the nature of the beast when it comes to things like music, movies, and food, and exposing such things to a wider audience. However, when they start to get ego-driven and realize they can exploit their power, it becomes a bit pathetic.
Please stop with that canard. I can, I do, and I teach.
who is still in middle school.
Losers...gimme your lunch money.
Wow, such immaturity. It's what I'd expect from a bunch of self-described teachers.
I'm not a teacher. And you ARE a teenager; you just have delusions of grandeur.
Yeah. He's pathetic.
And he changes screen names all the time, too.
Not too sure how you came to the conclusion that I'm a teenager. And what delusions of grandeur are you talking about? Based on your absurd statements, I hope you are a second grader because you certainly have the thought process of one. If I offended you because perhaps your mommy or daddy is a teacher, well, they've really raised you into something stupid.
Wow, whoever this is is really acting immature and probably has issues. Probably best to just ignore and let them rant.
I take in some reviews, but really pay no attention to the critics. I have worked in restauarants (some very high class) and I don't care who the chef or the staff is – you always have "off nights" whether it be service or food. Same resaon I don't really listen to movie critics or wine critics – it's up to me if I like a movie or a particular drink – if a critic likes it and I don't (or vice versa) so be it – I'm the one partaking in that particular item/service – all that matters to me!
re: "off nights"
This is why a competent reviewer will visit at least three times, possibly more... if only one night is "off" that will be taken into account. Of course, if every one is an "off night" then that says a lot.
Disclaimer: Some 35 years ago, when I was in college, I filled in for the regular reviewer at a local paper in upstate New York while she was on medical leave for several months; it was quite an experience. My writing skills were more important than my culinary ones, although the fact that I grew up cooking from an early age didn't hurt. Besides, who would suspect a shaggy-haired college kid – even one wearing a clean shirt and (occasionally) a tie on what usually appeared to be a double date of being a reviewer?
A bunch of fat people who gets to eat for free complaining...no wonder the US is screwed
George Bush screwed us.
I've found that critics do not visit buffets or hole in the wall mexican joints, so they don't really have anything to offer me as a highly technical food consumer.
Eww, that's gross
what are you, 10?
The hoity-toity ain't got nothin on where the locals eat!
Hole in the wall establishments and mom-and-pops are where the real grub is golden. And critics won't dip their pedicured toesies inside.
One pores over print. One does not pour over it unless one wishes to make it wet.
I will pour some chicken noodle soup into a bowl.
Why should I let someone else who likely doesn't share the same opinions as I dictate what I think is good or not? Critics may very well hold some weight in the artistic world, but.. I'm not an artist. I've read too many bad reviews about a particular movie or restaraunt only to be blown away by what they deem "bad".
Whether it be food, cinematics or a pretty picture... It's my opinion – not theirs – that matters to me, but don't get me wrong; I do fully respect what they do. Not everyone could carry the weight of someone's livelihood and passion on their shoulders and come out on the other side with minimal damage.
Reviews are not all subjective opinions. There are usually enough factual information to help one get a sense of what they are getting into. For example, things such as rats, roaches, and dirty utensils are universally disliked.
I don't read professional restaurant reviews – period. I do like to read reviews on yelp, trip advisor and such. However, you really have to watch those as often the people who comment either had an over the top great experience or an absolutely horrible experience and usually the truth falls somewhere inbetween, so I usually disregard the obvious outliers.
"How much stock do you put into restaurant reviews?" Zero. Ditto for movies. It's all about word of mouth for me.
... and making my own decisions.
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