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Ruth Reichl on What Restaurants Should Know About Food Critics (& How to Spot One)

As a former restaurant critic for the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Ruth Reichl knows what can make or break a great dining experience. She’s famous for her creative and serious approach to the job, which earned her two James Beard Awards for restaurant criticism and led to her dressing up in elaborate disguises to avoid being recognized on the New York dining scene, as she describes in her memoir Garlic and Sapphires.

Here, we ask Ruth what restaurants should know about criticism, how to deal with a negative review — and yes, how to spot a critic.

Ruth ReichlIf you could tell restaurateurs one thing about food critics or criticism, what would it be? 

This isn’t necessarily about critics or criticism, it’s about running a restaurant. It amazes me how few restaurants understand how important the initial contact is. However you are accessing the restaurant — on the phone or website — you take that impression into the restaurant with you.

The same holds true for when you sit down at the table. The first things that happen there are very hard to recover from. Everyone pays attention to the welcome, but the smell of a restaurant when you walk in was always really important to me. The quality of the bread, the quality of the butter. If you give me soft butter that smells like the refrigerator, I’m done.

Overall, what was your approach to criticism? 

If you judge a restaurant on what they’re trying to do as opposed to what you want them to do, you can review anything from a hot dog stand to a four-star restaurant. I would do my homework ahead of time and figure out what they’re trying to do, and how well do they do that. I would study up on chefs, figure out what their previous places were, and really read whatever statements they put out about what they’re trying to do. Then you can judge them on their own pretensions. One of the biggest faults of criticism is that critics have a tendency to judge a restaurant on what they wish it would be. That’s a real mistake.

What are some other little things you’d notice as a critic that people might not think about?

One of the things that always baffles me is when cocktails are too expensive. You’re sitting at a bar, someone asks if you want something while you’re waiting, you order a cocktail — and you realize it’s the most expensive cocktail you’ve ever bought in your life. I am immediately put out by that. I know it’s a profit center for restaurants, but it’s also that first contact people have with you, and it leaves an impression.

I’m also stunned by how unaware restaurateurs are of the sophistication of wine buyers. If you’re marking bottles up three times what you paid for them, it’s very likely that half of your customers know it. Thirty years ago you could get away with that, but today you’re dealing with a more sophisticated diner and drinker. If you’re charging $10 a glass for a bottle you bought for $8, half of your customers will know it and they’re going to be pissed about it. It’s not a smart place to make money.

What you really want as a restaurateur is to get the customer on your side as quickly as possible. You want them to want you to succeed. When I was a critic and giving out stars I really took that into consideration. I would often give restaurants a glowing review and give them two stars instead of three, because if you give three stars, people go in with a huge chip on their shoulder. But if you give a glowing review and two stars, they’ll go in saying, why is she such a bitch?

Every one of your customers can be on your side or not on your side, and that’s something you really want to think about. A lot of it is not how good the food or service is but how much they like you. Restaurateurs don’t think much about the likeability factor. As a critic, you think about it a lot because it’s what you always hear from readers. That’s why Danny Meyer is so smart — he makes is customers feel like they’re loved.

What are some things critics don’t really care about? 

Bathrooms. I once had a big fight with a restaurateur who was mad that I didn’t write about how beautiful his bathroom was. I’m not a bathroom critic! I think customers really care, but critics couldn’t care less.

Also, in cities like New York and San Francisco, critics are very aware of how difficult it is to not have roaches and things like that. Customers are really freaked out if they see a roach, but I don’t think most critics are taken aback by that. Every delivery has the potential for having a cockroach in it. Is there a restaurant in the world where you wouldn’t see a cockroach?

What were some things you looked for from the service staff? 

I still think that we as Americans have a very difficult time with service. There used to be rules, and now there aren’t any rules, so we’re still trying to figure out what is American service.

I’m still stunned by how many restaurants you walk into where the waiter will say, “Hi, my name is so-and-so.” You really want to say, “I don’t care what your name is.” We still have yet to figure out how to have service that is friendly and yet a little bit distant. It should be caring and anticipatory. The best service is the service that you don’t notice, where you never have to ask for your wine glass to be refilled, for more water or bread, or for a plate to be taken away. It just happens. It’s still really rare to get that in restaurants.

One of my real pet peeves is that I really hate it when somebody’s plate is cleared when someone else isn’t finished. It still happens way too often.

Another thing that drives me crazy: overfilling the wine glass. Every time they come by they fill it, because they’re trying to get you to order another bottle. That really aggressive upselling drives me insane. I think it’s counter-productive. Nobody wants a full glass at every minute! When you feel that, you start to notice how aggressive they are about other things, and it unbalances the trust you have in the restaurant. Trust is the most valuable thing you can have with your customer, and you don’t want to do anything to upset that trust.

And this is everybody’s pet peeve: there is nothing more annoying than having a waitperson say “good choice” after you order. I did not need your approval.

You went out of your way not to be recognized in restaurants when you were a critic. But on the flip side — any tips for spotting a critic? 

Ruth Reichl disguiseThere are very few food critics you can’t find a picture of. Go on the Internet and circulate them to your staff. I went out with a big deal critic this week, and I was kind of stunned that he was not recognized in the restaurant we went to. His picture is everywhere.

There are a few really obvious things. If you’ve got a four-top and you’ve got four different appetizers, four different main courses, and four different desserts, probably you’ve got a food critic there. Usually two people will want the Steak Diane, or something.

If people are passing the plates around, see who they’re going to. Every critic has to taste everything on the table. A sharp-eyed waiter will notice people are actually passing plates around or passing a bread plate with a taste to one person at the table.

I never got up and went to the bathroom, because it was another opportunity for someone who is not my waiter to spot me. But most critics go to the bathroom to take notes. If someone is going at the end of every course, it may be a giveaway that it’s a critic.

Another sign is if you see someone coming in twice at a time when no one wants to eat. When you’re a critic, if you can go at 5:30 you go at 5:30, and if you can go at 10:30 you go at 10:30. If you see the same person come in twice at 5:30 or 10:30, take a look at them. Why are they agreeing to come at odd times? Especially early reservations are a good giveaway.

You wrote about being a food critic in Garlic & Sapphires. How did people react to that book? Was there any feedback that surprised you, from restaurants or from the general public? 

I’m kind of stunned by how fascinated everyone is by it still. It’s still everyone’s dream job. And it is a dream job! It’s a fabulous job.

I was fortunate that I got to do it in a time when newspapers still had money. Today, even reputable critics only get to go to a restaurant once or twice, and it’s really hard to do a fair review after once or twice. Every restaurant has a bad day and a good day, so if you’re only going once and you hit a good day or a bad day, it’s hard to be fair.

The saddest experience I had was when I was on a book tour. A guy came up to me with his eight-year-old son and told me I’d written a bad review of a very bad restaurant he worked in, and he had been fired the next day. When you’re a critic you try not to think about the fact that people are losing their jobs.

What were a few of your most memorable restaurant experiences as a critic and why were they so memorable?

I imagine that one of the lines I wrote in my first Le Cirque review in the New York Times will be on my tombstone. It was the first time I admitted that I was going in disguise and talked about the difference between what happens to the New York Times restaurant critic and what happens to a regular person. The fall-out from that, even 22 years later, is still reverberating. That was really the most memorable review I ever wrote.

The second was with New West magazine in 1978. I did not write traditional restaurant reviews; I wrote short stories with food woven through them. The first one was Robert in the Marina, called “Cops and Robert.” It was a film noir script. It really resonates for me because of the style — I wrote science-fiction, Westerns, love stories, things set in the 17th century, these little strange short stories as restaurant reviews.

What inspired you to do that?

I was living in a commune at the time, and I took a group of housemates to dinner. We had to buy clothes to go to this fancy restaurant. Everybody wanted me to have the job and everyone was throwing advice at me. I had this moment when I looked at us and saw us as if we were a gang sent to find fault with this restaurant. I thought, I could write it that way. It really came from this notion of everyone being so helpful.

Another of my favorite reviews — I don’t even remember the name of the restaurant. I did it for the New York Times, and everything that can go wrong in a restaurant went wrong. The first time we sat for 45 minutes and nothing happened. We tried to get someone’s attention, and finally the hostess came over and said, “I’m so sorry, but your waitress just quit.” The second time I was with Jeffrey Steingarten and the waiter spilled an entire bottle of hot sake on my lap. In trying to clean it up, he poured an entire pitcher of water on me. Crumbing the table, they managed to put all of the crumbs in my bag; I had this big bag. I went to get my coat, and they gave my coat to someone else. It was this complete comedy of errors, and it ended up being one of the funniest reviews I’ve ever written.

So I print the review, and it’s devastatingly bad. The next week, they bought the back of the New York Times dining section and printed a huge ad: “We’re so sorry, please come back.” Obviously, I had to go back.

I mean, how do you deal with a really bad review? You say, we’re so sorry, we fixed everything please come back.

Was it better the next time? 

Yeah!

Another one I remember was when I went to a restaurant specializing in whole fish that they boned at the table. Our waitress really couldn’t do it; she just wasn’t good at it. It reminded me of my first year as a waitress at a very fancy French restaurant, and I couldn’t resist as a writer to write about what it felt like to be a waiter who has to do a difficult task and wasn’t well-trained. I went into the nightmare of my own experience. But when it came out I felt like it was a cheap shot. I went back six months later and re-reviewed it.

The only time I had a retraction printed, the restaurant had really terrible art on the wall, this Hudson River School art. And I couldn’t resist the use of the word “ersatz.” It’s such a great word. The restaurant called and said, these are authentic 19th century paintings, and I had to write a retraction on it. It had not been a good review, so it was a real “ouch” moment.

How does being a judge on a food TV show like Top Chef Masters compare to your other criticism experience? 

It’s a really interesting thing being a judge. Your audience can’t taste what you’re eating and isn’t going to get a chance to taste it — nobody is ever going to taste it. You use every tool in your arsenal to try and make the audience understand what you’re eating and why you’re making the decisions you’re making. When you’re writing — all writing is re-writing. But speaking, once you’ve said something it’s out there and you’re done. You have to think fast and you have to think in very sensory terms.

It’s harder than it looks. The decision is never hard; we always instantly know yes, I liked it or no, I didn’t like it, this is why it’s good, I know where this comes from. When someone gives you a dish you’re bringing all of that to it to quickly decide: what’s the important thing to put out there for the audience? That’s what matters.

How have you seen food criticism change or evolve over the years? 

I always hated the idea of the restaurant critic as consumer reporter. A critic ought to do more than tell people where to spend their money. That was, for many years, the accepted form. But I tried to bring more of what I considered real criticism into what I was doing. A serious critic gives the reader tools for evaluating the restaurant itself and experiencing the restaurant in a real way. You talk about the cultural impact, the cuisine — there’s a lot to talk about beyond “go here, don’t go here.”

In the age of Yelp and social media, social critics have taken over the consumer reporting function. Critics who are paid to do their jobs are better than they’ve ever been before. If you’re going to be paid today, you really have to know what you’re doing. I don’t think we’ve ever had critics better than today.

And the better critics are, the better it is for restaurants. As restaurants become an increasingly important part of popular culture, writing about it has to get better and better. The better informed the public is, the better restaurants are going to be. If the public doesn’t know anything about food, there’s not a lot of reason to produce great food, but the more critical the customers are, the more restaurants have to come up to that level. It’s good for everyone who cares about food.

What would you say to a restaurateur who’s thinking about responding to a bad review? 

I would follow the Danny Meyer model. Good review or bad, I never wrote a review that Danny Meyer didn’t send me a personal note, always thoughtful and not defensive. If it was a bad review, it was thank you for pointing this out, and I’ll deal with it. If it was a good review, he always added something to it. I think you have nothing to lose by writing a thoughtful note or response to a critic. You have everything to lose by writing a nasty note. The nastier the note you write, the more it will be picked up by social media and the worse it will be for you. No matter how angry you get about it, imagine a million people reading your response. Whining gets you nowhere.

What are some of your best tips for getting a great review? 

Be great! Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Don’t open before your staff is ready. And produce wonderful food and wonderful service and don’t overcharge, and you’ll get a great review. It’s kind of a no-brainer. If you’re a really good restaurant, you’re going to get a good review.

The other thing I’d say is that if you know you’re having a bad night — and every restaurant does — apologies go very far. I’m always stunned at how, if you’re waiting for a table and [the people sitting there] have paid their bill and just won’t leave, the staff act as if it’s not their problem. It is your problem if you’re the restaurateur. Just say, “I’m so sorry, we booked this table and gave it plenty of time, I apologize if you have to wait, can I give you a drink?” Nobody wants to be humiliated. If you’re in the weeds, admit it and comp people something. People will forgive you, and certainly a critic will forgive you. Really, you should say that to everyone who is having a miserable night. People don’t understand how much people will forgive if they’re treated nicely and apologized to.

Ruth Reichl photo credit: Fiona Abound