He sent me a civil letter assuring me that what I had experienced was "a reflection of what the restaurant was and not what it has become."
Then he went on: "I have made the decision to begin an advertising campaign with your publication but, frankly, I cannot commit to doing that until we get your article addressed." He invited me to let him "personally show you what we have done and how far we have come since your last visit."
In the past, when restaurants have retooled or changed hands, I've gone back for repeat visits. That seems only fair.
But it still astonishes me that there are plenty of people--readers, restaurant owners, publicists--who don't understand the principles of restaurant reviewing.
First, no review can be credible if the restaurant staff knows a critic is in the house. I guard my identity as if I had just testified against John Gotti and entered the federal Witness Protection Program. I turn down every public appearance, including worthy charitable ones. I refuse to meet personally with just about anyone connected with the business.
Why? Aside from revealing my identity, there's a danger in getting to know these people--I might like or dislike them. And it's hard to be objective when personalities get in the way.
Second, no review can be credible if the restaurant picks up the tab. In my line, the old saying "There's no such thing as free lunch" is true, both figuratively and literally.
Finally, my correspondent's mistaken impression that there's some sort of connection between advertising and the Cafe column needs to be corrected. New Times' editorial and advertising departments operate independently. (For instance, the advertising staff finds out our Best of Phoenix choices the same time our readers do--when the Best of Phoenix supplement is published.) It's essential to the paper's integrity; otherwise, our reporting couldn't be trusted.
During the past four years, I've reviewed more than 500 restaurants. Not once has anyone suggested to me that I keep advertisers happy by tailoring my views. No one has ever suggested to me that I trim my views for any reason.
My advice to restaurant owners: If you want good press, train an efficient staff, create pleasant surroundings and serve quality food at reasonable prices.
Hot Tip: A plaintive phone call from a distressed mother prompts me to discuss a decision we face every time we eat out--tipping.
She called on behalf of her son, who's working his way through school as a waiter at a high-end Valley resort. The problem: millionaire skinflints who spend hundreds on a meal and leave nothing on the tip line.
There must be a special circle in hell fortightwads who stiff hardworking servers. Tipping at least 15 percent for decent service is part of the cost of a meal. What does that come to on a $20 dinner? A measly three bucks. Cheapskates (you know who you are): Get with the program.--Howard Seftel
Suggestions? Write me at New Times, P.O. Box 2510, Phoenix,