Food, Wine & Spirits in St. Louis

Thursday, September 29, 2011 / 11:15 AM

"You Make The Call" -- Does It Make A Difference If a Restaurant Critic Is "Made" While Critiquing?

Regardless of what one thinks of restaurant critics, they can greatly influence a restaurant's business, at least in the short term. Who better to answer this question that three people who do it for a living: 

George Mahe, current Dining Editor and former restaurant critic for St. Louis Magazine, says:

Having spent years on the kitchen side of a restaurant's swinging doors--as cook, expeditor, owner/manager-- I contend that it does makes a difference when a known critic is in the house. It doesn't matter if he/she's working or not, it's human nature for the owner/manager to make sure that the best server is working that table, that the kitchen is at DEFCON 1, and that every plate at that table is worthy of the cover of Food & Wine.   

This means hand-picked (and often slightly larger) proteins, sauces that are most certainly tasted (and often adjusted), side dishes that may be finished in a skillet or oven (rather than a microwave), and fresh garnishes. Then there's the final plating, a flurry of activity like you've never seen, more hand action than at a teenage romp on the basement couch. Changing, adjusting, fussing over, agonizing over, rearranging, replating... If the restaurant owner cares about what is written about his place, all this is occurring, and any critic who thinks it's business as usual in the kitchen might just want to sneak a peek.

Don't be fooled when the manager/owner checks on the table and plays dumb, like he's never laid eyes on those plates. Trust me, he knows them as well as if he'd tasted the sauce or sampled the green beans. Bet on it. He has. I was that guy.     

My experience as a customer corroborates my opinion. I've ordered the same item both when having been recognized and not. There is always a difference.
Dave Lowry, senior restaurant critic for St. Louis Magazine, says:
Naah. We’ve been trying to convince our editor of that for years. Let us call ‘em up and alert them we’ll be frequenting their establishment this evening but that hey, treat us just like the little people. We sure don’t expect you to pop the cork on that Domaine Romanee-Conti. And what’s this? A complimentary Knipschildt chocolate dessert? Why, when we mentioned in our phone call we just happened to adore chocolate truffles, we never dreamed you’d whip one up, just for lil’ ol’ us!

Does it matter? What, are you nuts? Of course it matters. No, a restaurant can’t, upon espying The Critic waltz through the door that night, automatically, instantly conjure a special dinner. Only so many ingredients in-house, so many preps. They can comp a dessert, maybe. Substitute a more expensive wine. Order the staff to be more solicitous, prompt, engaging. That a restaurant can’t do much to upgrade things at the sudden appearance of The Critic isn’t the point. The point is, the critic is there to get an image of what it’s like for the average diner to dine in that place. What the food tastes like, how it’s presented, what the atmosphere is like. Anonymity is essential. And fair.

That’s why we always make reservations under the name Albert Pujols.
Joe Pollack, veteran St. Louis restaurant critic currently critiquing for St. Louis Magazine and in the blog he and his wife Ann curate, says:

When I began writing about St. Louis restaurants for the Post-Dispatch, 39 years ago, I considered anonymity, but rejected it. I had a fairly public presence, was seen on television, heard on radio, spoke at gatherings, spent time in bars and restaurants. Good bartenders make a living on recognizing good customers. So do good servers. Other diners may know the critic from work, recreation or the neighborhood, and enjoy passing the information, in sotto voce, "Hey, do you know who that is? Yeah, the bald guy over there."

Two examples:  One, I walked in, and as I greeted the maitre d', my voice and face came out of a TV set above the bar. I sat down to hear a customer at the next table angrily return his soup as being inedible. Of course, I asked the same server for the same soup. The customer was right. Two, the meal arrived very slowly. I asked the server if there was a problem and, after hemming and hawing, she said, "Someone told the chef who you were, and he threw everything out and started over." No improvement.

Living here since 1954, I know a large number of bartenders; as a P.R. professional, it was important to know them, and owners, too. They're often gypsies, moving around a lot, and they recognize me. So do their children. I can almost always spot it, and I take it into account.

And besides, no chef can start preparing a soup or sauce when a critic walks in.
So what do you think? Does it make a difference...or not?

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