Everyone thinks that being a restaurant reviewer is the coolest thing in the world. In seven years at the City Paper and eight reviewing in general, I’ll admit that it is pretty damn cool, especially if you do something completely unrelated for your regular living — people think you’re multitalented and “creative.”
The truth is, I left the food world after Johnson & Wales and Southern Living because I was too much of a wimp for the restaurant life, there are no test kitchens in Charleston, and well, I wanted to make some money.
So, I hung on to my former vocation and permanent passion with this once-a-week look into the restaurant world and squeezed out 1,000 words a week in between client meetings and my “regular life.” Adding a baby and more demanding clients pushed me out of the game somewhat, but I still remember a few of the realities of the “job.”
It’s not easy. It can be joyous, it can be torturous, it can even be hilarious, but restaurant reviewing is never easy. Making time for two dinners out a week and writing a thousand well-considered words about it is challenging enough with another full-time job, but the most intricate parts of criticism are trying to be honest without being cruel, and making sure that every judgment call is explained well enough to serve the folks out there trying to decide where to go eat. After all, you guys are spending your own hard-earned cash. I was spending the paper’s.
It does make you seem “cool,” except at City Paper parties because the ad folks whose clients you’ve pissed off won’t speak to you, and it’s never cool when you make a mistake in print. Then you seem like a moron.
The bad restaurants aren’t hard to write about. The mediocre ones are. Singing the praises of a fine chef or a surprisingly wonderful tiny family restaurant is wonderful. A four-course meal at SNOB provides plenty of fodder for discussion, and the freakish dinner theatre with quarter-inch slab of overdone ribeye at the old Jester’s Court was a comedy piece in itself. It’s the middle-of-the-road places that challenge the adjective vocabulary of a writer — you can only come up with so many ways to say “it’s okay.”
It’s not fun to slam a place. I’ve been “banned” from restaurants, had chefs hurl City Paper racks out into their parking lots, and caused all other sorts of hurt feelings. It sucks, really. I want these fine people to do a great job — after all, I’ve shared their dreams before and admire their courage. They give their whole lives to a risky business that is hard as hell to do right. But the job is to tell you what’s going to happen when you walk into a restaurant and whether I think your time and money will be well spent.
Writing for the City Paper was an adventure. Whether it was a trek out to Harold’s Country Club out in BFE for a fellowship-hall buffet style steak dinner, or a dress-up white tablecloth fine-dining evening, this “job/hobby” was a weekly series of surprises on the plate, in the restaurants, and sometimes just in getting there. Reviewing restaurants was a great part of my pre-Mama life and I hope to get back to it someday, just in time to teach Mac how to place his own orders.