Fork Chops

Life as a restaurant critic

To draw on a line from Kermit the Frog, it's not easy being mean.Life as a critic -- be it theater, art, music, architecture or food -- is a balancing act. Critics strive to be fair while both entertaining and informing their readers.

A positive report is easy; everybody's happy. Write a negative piece, however, and the target may fight back. That's to be expected, but I've heard of self-important reviewers fueling angry letter exchanges, conducting public snubbings, and the worst, abusing their power of print later on.

We can dish it out, but can we take it?

Review master: Don Carson of Don & Charlie's rolls with the punches
Leah Fasten
Review master: Don Carson of Don & Charlie's rolls with the punches

Some criticism is funny stuff but relatively harmless. Political columnists, for example, wield sharp pens and rabid humor without risking too much damage to their subjects. Music columnists can have field days attacking Teflon icons like Madonna and Ricky Martin. Yet what if the target is a small business, as are many theater houses, galleries, nightclubs or, as in my position, restaurants?

Don Ellis, owner of the very successful Landmark Restaurant in Mesa, is still steaming over a negative review he received from me a few months ago. Among other things, I criticized the restaurant's "antiquated" food and its return to "the boring old days."

"It's almost like you were out to get us," Ellis tells me when I call him seeking comment for this column. "If we were empty, I might give you some credibility, but I try hard, and our customers love us. Our patrons [skewing to elderly] don't read your paper, so it didn't hurt us. And maybe your readers like snide comments, but they're not called for."

The jabs haven't affected the Landmark's fiercely loyal clientele, and, in fact, I received several angry calls from its fans afterward -- the best word-of-mouth a restaurant can hope for. I still stand by my opinion that the restaurant could do much better with what it has, but there's no denying that the Landmark serves a niche.

A positive review can be vital to a small operation lacking start-up capital and an advertising budget, however. Farn Boggie, chef at Scottsdale's Coyote Grill, says response is felt the same day as publication and lasts as long as a month. Medizona chef Lenard Rubin, recently scoring big with stellar reviews in several of the Valley's major publications including this one, tells me business at his months-old establishment nearly doubled following the accolades.

A glowing report doesn't necessarily mean easy street for an eatery. For the 13-table Medizona, standing-room-only crowds can tax the smoothest chef and service staff. "It's a challenge to the employees because we don't know the review is coming, and generally, we're not ready for the crush that occurs," Boggie adds. "Then, if things aren't up to par, it can make the reviewer look wrong."

Sometimes, a restaurant doesn't even want a review, no matter how positive. After a New Times photographer visited the Farm at South Mountain for my high-praise article last month, I received a call from the owner politely pleading with me not to run the piece because the resulting crush of customers might ruin the Farm's peaceful setting and strain its home-style kitchen. Indeed within days, I got an e-mail from a reader "very disappointed" with my judgment because her experience at the Farm wasn't perfect; the place was much too busy.

Nobody wants a negative analysis, certainly, but it isn't all doom and gloom, notes Don Carson, owner of Scottsdale's Don & Charlie's. "It's very depressing to me and the staff," says Carson, whose restaurant experienced its first unhappy critique a few years back from a large local paper. "But when you get negative comments, you have to be strong enough to not be defensive. Sometimes there are problems you haven't seen, so you need to forget your foolish pride and fix things."

That doesn't mean restaurateurs shouldn't be human. "I do take reviews personally," admits Boggie. "I'm very proud of what I do, and it really hurts me to be criticized and possibly have my picture in the article as well."

Given that a performance, concert or restaurant can't be all things to all people, a reviewer's primary challenge is to remain objective. Carson wonders how often personal taste gets in the way of criticism, noting that it's not fair to judge barbecue, for example, on whether a critic prefers sweet or vinegary sauces. Personally, I'm easy; I love every kind and style of food, as long as it's done well -- and I won't pick on a restaurant that serves excellent salmon just because the fish is on every menu in town. Give the people what they want, I say.

Still, critics should be open to feedback. "I would like to suggest that the method of putting two restaurants up against one another isn't really fair," says Boggie. "Restaurants have such individual personalities that they can't be directly compared."

And Ellis feels his review was written by and for a demographic that wouldn't frequent his restaurant anyway, so what was the point of being nasty?

They're both good points. They're questions we critics ask ourselves every day, and hopefully, most of the time we get the answers right.

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