I’ve been doing this job in the Tampa Bay area for the past 11 years, but I’ve been a restaurant critic in different parts of the country since 1991. Along the way, I’ve learned a few things that, if implemented, will likely make you a better restaurantgoer.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
I started as a food critic back before the world wide web and social media. Mostly I’d drive around in my car and scribble things on a notepad on the dashboard. I’d turn my stories in on floppy discs. I’ve done the job in Baltimore, San Francisco and Tampa Bay, and in that time I’ve learned that the job is part detective. In order to evaluate a restaurant, you first need to understand what its intentions are. What are its objectives and its sense of identity? On Yelp, I see people all the time who haven’t done their homework. They go to a Peruvian restaurant and grouse that there aren’t free chips and salsa. Or they go to an Italian restaurant expecting red checkered tablecloths and Chianti bottles with drippy candles and spaghetti and meatballs and instead get fancy cream sauces. Use the menu — not just what’s on it, but how it is printed, whether there are pictures, whether it is laminated — the restaurant’s price point, the signage, the decor, the neighborhood. And once you’ve figured out what the restaurant is trying to do, evaluate it against all the other restaurants you’ve eaten at in this category, at precisely this price point and cuisine.
So if the consumer and restaurant critic are detectives, your server and the service staff must function like a psychologist. Telegraph to them your expectations. Do you want to linger? Do you have theater tickets in an hour? Are you there to be entertained and educated about the menu or do you want to be left alone in private conversation with your date? Your job is to communicate your expectations and needs up front. If you have a Groupon or a gift certificate, tell them at the beginning of the meal. If you have a dietary restriction, tell them right away. But recognize: If a restaurant can’t accommodate your restriction, don’t get mad. I did a story on what happens at a restaurant when someone in the dining room has a serious gluten allergy. Everything shuts down, the counters need to be wiped down, they need to make sure nothing with flour is in the vicinity. It essentially has the power to halt everything else that is going on in the kitchen. And if a restaurant doesn’t do substitutions, this may be because they have a particular vision of what goes with what. That’s their prerogative.
I know that in all the years I’ve done this job, I’ve been lied to. This is not a prime steak, that is not a house-made dessert. I have good taste memory, and there’s a Sysco lobster bisque I’ve been served a dozen times as a “house-made soup.” Lies have escalated in recent years with the rise of farm-to-table restaurants. There are things you can do to be lied to less. Understand seasonality, what grows near you and when. Use your phone — you’re already Instagram-bragging that pork chop — to Google what’s on the chalkboard and menu. If they list Farmer Brown’s heirloom tomatoes, does he exist? Is he a farmer near you? What does his Facebook page say about what he’s growing right now? If I were king, every small farmer in the country would keep an updated Facebook page: Here’s what I’m growing and here’s who I’m selling it to. It would shine a light and leave less room for misrepresentations.
Ask questions. Yes, what is an escabeche or an ingredient you’ve never heard of. But also if you see menu verbiage like “sustainable” and “local,” which have no legal meaning, ask precisely what is meant. Not in a confrontational way. We all just want to be on the same page. And every restaurant, outdoor market and grocer needs to know that consumers are paying attention.
This is nuts and bolts stuff. Manners still matter. Napkin on your lap, use silverware from the outermost inward, no cellphones on the table unless it’s quick-serve or you’re expecting an important call. Tipping has gotten complicated. If you’re in a food hall and paying with a Square reader, do you tip? How much? This is awkward, but you need to know if they are a tipped employee or a regular wage employee. If they earn as little as $2.13 per hour, you need to tip them. Ordering wine: When presented with the cork, don’t bite it or sniff it. You can squeeze it and see if it feels wet or spongy, but this ritual goes back to when wine labels might be torn or illegible and it was a way to make sure the cork identified the wine properly. And then what to say about wine? This is something that stresses a lot of people out. With a bubbly, you can’t go wrong with “yeasty” or “bread dough.” With a white wine, no one will give you a hard time if you say “green apple” or “citrus.” And if you want to get fancy with a big red wine, say something like “cigar box” or “pencil lead.”
I eat out 200 times a year. I get food poisoning fairly regularly. There are single meals where I may be served more than 4,000 calories. That’s part of why we go out to dinner, to eat more, and more recklessly, than we ever would at home. So here’s what you do. Talk a lot and eat slowly. If a place is notorious for huge portions, when you order it have the staff put half in a to-go box. That way you’re not negotiating with yourself as you whittle that lasagna down to nothing. I would also think long and hard about taking everything home in a plastic foam clamshell. If you want to eat less at a restaurant, order a bunch of things to share. Small plates and shareables make psychological good sense. Thomas Keller talks about the law of diminishing returns — the first three or four bites of something are sublime, by the 20th bite even something insanely good is just okay.
SAVOR THE EXPERIENCE
And while you’re out to eat, recognize that the whole endeavor used to be something special, a treat, an indulgence to have strangers nurture and care for you. At its highest level, cooking is an art, not a craft, one that rivals ballet or painting for its ability to inspire and amaze. In the United States, we eat out more than five times a week now. In 2017, food service sales surpassed that at the grocery store. Don’t take who is making our food and how it is being made for granted.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] Follow @lreiley.