A few months ago, I had the pleasure of being named the RTD’s dining critic. Friends, family and business acquaintances have been ready with suggestions for restaurants I should review – and full of questions about how it all works.
Here, I’m sharing what friends and readers have asked about how I approach my review meals. Hopefully some of the things I think about (correction: obsess over) when I’m on official business can help make your own meals out even better.
How do you choose who joins you?
I try to spread it among family and friends. It’s endearing how excited they’ve all been about joining me for the first time, sure that the evening will be super-secret and glamorous ...
... but instead, I help myself to the food on their plates ... and pretend I’m catching up on their lives while I’m actually wondering if the wood on the bar is reclaimed ... and interrupt them midstory because I’ve had a sudden thought about a flavor — earthy! floral! bitter! — that I have to record into my iPhone before I forget.
I do look for some qualities in my dining partners:
• Food knowledge: I like to bring people who can share an informed opinion with me.
• Experience: I might ask people to join me if they’ve been to the restaurant I’m reviewing and can add some context from their own visits.
• Flexibility: I ask that they go with the flow, because I might veto what they want to order. What if they’re craving the bouillabaisse when I’ve written about bouillabaisse in a recent review? Sorry, they have to order something else.
What’s your process for a meal?
Here’s what I think about before, during and after a restaurant visit:
• Mental checklist: I prepare to take note of the obvious (food freshness, plate presentation, service) and the less obvious (overall cleanliness, bathroom conditions, general vibe).
• Hunger level: I go hungry because that’s when food tastes best.
• Food choices: I have to talk about the expected and the unexpected — in other words, every choice can’t be chicken or beef. So I recently had quail at La Grotta in downtown Richmond and grilled cactus at La Milpa on South Side.
• Server input: I ask servers for their recommendations. I don’t necessarily follow them, but I always want to know what they’d suggest and why.
• The scene: I note who’s eating there. Mostly couples? Families? A business crowd? College kids? All of the above?
• Second visits: Part of the process is a second visit when the first was less than ideal. My goal is to taste more food and, ideally, have a better experience.
What else do you like to know and share?
I try to include some other key information in reviews:
• Big idea: For instance, The Fancy Biscuit in the Fan District has a very clear concept: It makes simple buttermilk biscuits and then piles them high with creative ingredients for a fork-and-knife biscuit experience. Bam! Easy to understand.
• Owners: Readers want to know who owns a restaurant and if they own other places around town, which can help them connect the dots.
• Chefs: Who are the chefs, and have they worked at other notable places around town?
• Past occupants: I like to share if another restaurant was once in the location, again so that readers can make a connection.
Are there biases you put aside?
Yes. I have to be mindful of keeping an open mind when evaluating my experience. Among things I have to guard against:
• Rooting for good people: After a meal, I generally interview both the owner and the chef by phone. Sometimes the chef is young and excited. Sometimes the owner shares how the restaurant is a dream come true. But I can’t give a place a better review than I think it merits just because I like them as people.
• My palate: I can’t, of course, unfavorably review cuisines that aren’t my favorites. Let’s say I don’t like Italian food (for the record, I do like it — a lot). I need to judge the pastas, meats and sauces based on the quality of the ingredients and the preparation, even if Italian food doesn’t appeal to me all that much.
• Other opinions: I stay away from reviews by other people because I don’t want to be influenced. That includes experienced critics' opinions in other publications well as those on feedback sites that give everyone a voice.
For people who don’t critique food for a living, diving into the level of detail I’ve talked about could feel like a chore, and understandably so. But embracing even a couple of the things I bring to my review dinners — whether asking your server for suggestions or being adventurous in your own choices — might help make your next meal out a bit more memorable.