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On my first day at Washington City Paper, one of my colleagues asked me if I’d need to keep the secret phone line.
Um, what secret phone line?
My predecessors had used an incognito number to make restaurant reservations so that their names and the paper’s name wouldn’t come up on caller ID and give away their identities.
I said no. After all, I was the first City Paper food editor to ditch reviews and forgo anonymity. In the age of Yelp and blogs, everyone’s a restaurant critic. What’s more valuable today is storytelling, news, and analysis.
All over the country, the “anonymous” restaurant critic has become a dying breed. (If you go by the photos plastered in the back of any city’s kitchens, very few of them were truly anonymous to begin with.) Anonymity will be extinct within a generation. In recent years, writers for New York magazine, the Dallas Morning News, the Los Angeles Times, and other outlets have hung up their disguises and cut up their fake credit cards.
I don’t count myself as part of that club, though, because I’ve never really considered myself a critic. I’m a journalist who’s tried to cover the restaurant scene like a crime reporter covers crime or a political reporter covers politics. This is surprisingly difficult to explain, because many still view food writers in a very two-dimensional way—you’re either awarding stars and complaining about the saltiness of the beet salad, or you’re testing recipes for and carefully arranging photos of a beet salad.
So for my very last column at City Paper before I leave for Washingtonian, let me pull back the curtain a bit and share with you what it’s really like to be a food writer—warts and all.
The food PR machine is more powerful than you know.
I don’t think most readers realize the extent to which local and national food media coverage is driven by press releases, carefully orchestrated “exclusives,” and media dinners where restaurants treat professional writers and amateur bloggers alike to free, booze-fueled, often elaborate meals in the hopes that they will eventually have something nice to say. It’s not my intention to sound holier than thou—as much as I try to avoid it, I’ve been a cog in that wheel at times. And before I started at City Paper and had a food budget of my own, I used to regularly attend these media dinners. You might be surprised to learn that nearly all of D.C.’s food writers and editors have at some point in their careers. The fact is this can be an expensive beat to cover and few publications have the budgets to support it.
We could argue about these practices all day, but what’s unfortunate is that they’re not made clear to the reader. You don’t typically know if a restaurant earned its way onto a list of the top five new brunch spots by hiring a publicist and inviting writers in for free meals. This isn’t to say gratis grub guarantees a story—the quid pro quo is rarely so clear-cut—but the overarching result is that too often chefs and restaurateurs expect food writers to be their cheerleaders (or at least refrain from saying anything negative, which is just as bad). And while there’s plenty in the dining scene that deserves praise, too often we pick up the pom-poms.
And for those restaurants who can’t afford—or dare refuse—to play this game? Some, like publicist-free Rose’s Luxury, can sustain their own buzz. But more often, a middling restaurant with a cheap gimmick or generic menu that works the PR machine gets far more attention than a better restaurant that doesn’t. We all need to strive to change this.
Most meals are mediocre.
Most people have glamorous fantasies about the life of a food writer. Yes, the job sometimes includes extravagant tasting menus and sushi feasts, but more often, you’re eating overdone burgers and over-salted bolognese while desperately trying to flag down your server for a water refill. While the D.C. dining scene has improved by leaps and bounds in recent years, most restaurants live in a purgatory between awful and extraordinary. So when you’re constantly dining out, most meals are just OK. Sometimes, you’ll wish you could have just cooked at home.
The things food writers like to complain about make them sound like assholes.
You always have to order the weird thing.
I often don’t eat what I’m craving. I eat what sounds interesting, because it’s likely going to make a better story. If there’s a whelk and pig ear terrine on the menu, I’m probably going to order it.
The best time to eat is 5:30 p.m.
I can’t remember the last time I had dinner at 8 p.m. on a Friday night. I much prefer to eat like a senior citizen: 5:30 p.m. on a Tuesday. You can actually get a table without a reservation—key if you like to check out trendy new spots. The staff is also less likely to be harried, and you can actually hear your conversation without screaming.
If I need a reservation at a place that’s booked, I use Rezhound.
This is perhaps one of my best dining secrets. Let’s say I did want that 8 p.m. Friday table at Le Diplomate, but OpenTable shows it’s fully booked. I head to Rezhound.com, enter my desired time frame and contact info, and wait. The service runs bots through OpenTable and sends an email and text message if something opens up. Then I can immediately head to the reservation site and book a spot. Because people often cancel reservations last minute, this is a fairly effective way to get the most sought-after tables.
There’s a right way to take photos of your food at a restaurant.
My husband and friends have been well trained not to touch their food until I get a quick pic. (Yes, I’m one of those people.) I’ve outlined my etiquette tips for taking photos in restaurants before, but it’s worth repeating. 1) Try to avoid flash. Eating at 5:30 p.m. helps with this! 2) Don’t spend too much time taking photos. You can get what you need in five seconds or less. I call this the “other five-second rule.” 3) Use a camera phone and leave your bulky DSLR at home. 4) Don’t post photos of your food on Instagram or Twitter while you’re still at the restaurant. Enjoy your freaking meal!
Sexism is subtle but pervasive in the dining room.
I’m not sure how many times my husband and I have dined out only to have the server drop the check squarely in front of him, even though I’m paying. Other times, the staff will hand me the fruity, sparkling cocktail my husband ordered, or give him the hefty steak I ordered. And on at least one occasion, I’ve been the one to ask questions about the wine list and order a bottle, but then only my husband is poured the taste. Instances like this aren’t usually intentional but avoidable with good training. Just don’t get me started on “female-friendly” steakhouses and male chefs who think it’s acceptable to call a female reporter “darling.”
The worst thing you can tell a food writer…
“If I had your job, I’d weigh 300 pounds!” No need to remind us of the weight we’re constantly trying to keep off and the cholesterol level we’re trying to keep low.
But seriously, this job is the best.
I wouldn’t trade the past four years of cursing chefs, internet trolls, and calories for anything.