Photos by Josh Keown
I am now into my 26th year as freelance restaurant critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, and I am still having a ball. I love to eat and I love to write about food, so this is one helluva job (if you can call it a job). Here’s the backstory. I have worked here and there as a waiter, a short order cook, line cook and –– along the way –– have done restaurant consulting work in Spain, Mexico, India, Canada, and across the United States (but never in Chicagoland, because that would be a conflict of interest). And for several years I headed up my own Italian cooking school here in Chicago. Also, as many of you know, I have been a contributing editor at Pizza Today since about the time the first issue was printed.
I know how tough the restaurant business can be, so my mantra is quite simple: be constructive, never vindictive. Always be fair. Restaurant critics are you friends (and can be your best friend) –– not the enemy.
That preface is the set up for this article, but let’s set the record straight on that. As a restaurant critic, one of my positive reviews can do a whole lot of good. In fact, over the years I have done a lot of good for many restaurants in and around Chicago (I do two reviews every week, and they appear in the Weekend Section of the Chicago Sun-Times, as well as online. I rate restaurants using a star system: One star to four stars (the highest), with half stars added as needed.
Here is how I go about my work. First, I choose the restaurant I want to review. It could be Italian/pizza, contemporary, French, steakhouse, Thai, Indian, Greek, Asian –– whichever way the culinary winds are blowing. Next, I make a reservation using a fictitious name (or using Open Table under a made up name). In other words, all of my restaurant visits are anonymous. When I speak to someone at the restaurant to book a reservation, I am aware of a few things. A pleasant and cordial greeting gets points. If I am put on hold for more than, say, two or three minutes, I might hang up and call back. It’s not a big deal, so I cut some slack there.
We (my wife and the designated eaters I might call in to try more dishes) arrive at the restaurant. A smile from the host stand and a welcome? Good start. Table ready? Yes. Add points. If we get shuffled off to the bar, points are deducted (major points deducted if we are stuck at the bar for longer than 20 minutes). Points can be recovered if a manager or person comes by and gives us an update: “We are clearing your table now, it should be just another minute or two.”
OK, now let’s say I did not make a reservation or the restaurant does not accept reservations. In other words, we just show up and try to score a table at a hot new restaurant. “How long is the wait?” I ask. If he or she says “15-20 minutes,” fine. Now we can have a drink at the bar. But if I see that a halfhour has rolled around and nobody has updated us on the status of our table, points are deducted. Update customers that are waiting for a table as often as feasibly possible. It’s only fair, and that gets points toward the final star rating.
So, now we are seated. Is the table clean and looking good? (OK, so I am at a pizza joint with, say, eight tables. I am not going to get all out of sorts if everything is not perfectly pristine, but it sure helps when it is.) Looking around the dining room I see that the tables are nicely spaced and that the ambience has a certain feel. There's a niceness, a style that flows with the type of food being served. Is this a comfortable place where I will enjoy spending the next hour or so?
Our server comes by and gives us a sincere welcome and (hopefully) a “thanks for coming.” Add points. “Have you been here before?” she asks. “No?” “Let me take a few moments to tell you about our menu.” Add points. You are winning me over.
Our server announces a few of the daily specials (“The pizza special for tonight is with arugula, shaved Parmesan, EVOO.”) Nice. Thanks. If he or she volunteers the price for this special pizza, add points. Water glasses are filled as needed. I am starting to feel really good about this restaurant.
Looking over the menu, I note that each dish gives a broad description of the ingredients. I don’t expect it to be a recipe, but I will expect enough of a description to allow me to make an informed decision. For example: “Pizza Primavera: Rich tomato sauce, bufala mozzarella, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, zucchini, Kalamata olives, basil and extra-virgin olive oil.” Perfect.
What am I looking for? Creativity, something that perks my interest. Even better is that when I look at the menu, up and down and around, I see so many dishes that I want to try. That’s a good thing. Add points. Do the prices on the menu make sense? I have paid up to $24 for a plate of ravioli with eggplant. Was the ravioli that good? Yes, but not $24 good. Will I point that out in my review? Definitely. On the other hand, I will point out in my review what a great deal that linguine with clam sauce was for just 10 bucks.
At this point, our order is placed. Appetizer or salad, pasta, pizza, entreé –– however it works out. Now I am aware of the timing between courses. Did the pasta or pizza show up before appetizers were finished? A nice pace is always good –– no rushing, but no long, long waits between courses (the kids are getting antsy). Points are added or deducted (but not to any degree of absurdity) for how all of that plays out. If there are, say, six people at our table, did three of us get our food, and two or three are waiting (and waiting …)? You’re going to get docked for that.
Let’s say that all is going smoothly. The food is excellent, and everybody is having a good time and lost in the moment of enjoying our food; the mood around the table is solid and conversation is flowing. Our server comes by for a quick check (see sidebar) and moves on. Thank you. Add points.
Quality, creativity and consistency are three areas that I am always aware of when evaluating a restaurant, and I expect that criteria to be commensurate with the price paid.
I look at it this way: when a movie is made, it’s a done deal. It is what it is. A restaurant is way different. Every day is a new day in the restaurant business, and things happen. Someone doesn’t show up, equipment problems, any number of things can happen; all of you have been there.
The bottom line is that if you want a food critic to review your restaurant, send him or her an email and invite them to experience your food. If you have a Web site, point that out. And, point out what dishes or creative ideas I should look at when I am viewing your online menu (I can tell a whole lot about a restaurant just by looking at a menu). Give a food critic a reason to visit your restaurant and, if all goes well, the publicity you will get will be beyond your expectations.
Don’t offer any free meals or under-the- table deals (we don’t like that approach). Win me over with your hospitality and your delicious food. Lastly,
I add major points if, when I leave, someone thanks me for coming and invites me back soon.
I thought you would like to read about some of what irks me. I call them Pat Peeves.
• A menu that is difficult to read. Please, use a bold typeface!
• “How’s everything?” is not a positive approach. “Neither is “How’s everything tasting tonight?” I have actually heard this: “Is anything tasting good?”
• “Who gets what?” are three words that should not be in a servers’ vocabulary.
• “You guys” are two words that should not be used in the company of women. As in “And how are you guys doing tonight?” Uh, that’s my wife, dude.
• Bowls and plates as big as manhole covers do not belong on tables the size of a postage stamp.
• Just because I pause a bit and lay my fork down doesn’t mean that I am finished eating. Get your hands off my plate.
• Music played too loud just adds to the din, and that escalates into a shouting match to just carry on normal conversation. Turn down the volume as needed. It makes everybody happy.
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