5 Things Not to Do If a Food Critic Is Eating at Your Restaurant

anton_critic.jpg
Most food critics just want to be left alone. And eat ratatouille.
Please note: After speaking with the owners, it has become clear that Liberty Kitchen did not comp my first meal at the restaurant; they comped my dining companion's meal, which I erroneously assumed was my own meal being comped. Also note that chef Lance Fegen did not have anything to do with the naming of either BRC Gastropub or the Hawaiian MacCock burger; those names were were created by owner Lee Ellis.

In this week's cafe review of Liberty Kitchen, I had a difficult time pegging the restaurant and what it's trying to be. Oyster bar with killer burgers and cocktails? Upscale dinner destination? Casual lunching spot with confusing prices? I ended up drawing my own conclusions -- which you can read in the review -- but I think that perhaps one of the reasons I was so rattled the entire time is that I was spotted from my first visit.

Liberty Kitchen has had issues with critics from the day that it opened and posted a sign barring Houston Chronicle food critic Alison Cook. The ban ostensibly arose out of owner Lance Fegen's disagreement with something Cook once wrote about his previous restaurant, Glass Wall (which is now owned by ex-partner Shepherd Ross), as well as her review of his other establishment, BRC Gastropub.

The sign and the "ban" were a rather juvenile reaction, to say the least, but Fegen seems to have an adolescent mind-set in other areas, too: Naming BRC after a "big red cock" and one of Liberty Kitchen's burgers the "Hawaiian MacCock" immediately spring to mind as other examples.

However, if Fegen was in Liberty Kitchen the last two times I was there, I didn't spot him. That didn't stop me from being recognized by his other staff members, though.

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Photos by Troy Fields
I really like you, Liberty Kitchen, especially your oyster bar. Just calm down, okay?
And there's nothing much I can do about that; I'm not anonymous and never have been. I'm accustomed to being recognized and working around it in subtle ways: Watching the service closely at other tables, for example, instead of the compromised service at my own table. And I know that since most dishes involve hours of prep work, it's unlikely that every aspect of my food is prepared à la minute.

These are issues which former New York Times food critic Frank Bruni addressed in The Atlantic after leaving his post, saying that "critics have long been recognized" and that it's now virtually impossible to remain anonymous. More to the point, he wrote, it's not necessary:

[R]estaurants suddenly faced with a critic in the dining room can't change the menu instantly. They can't go shopping right then for better ingredients. They can't get a better service staff, or re-train the line cooks, etc., etc. While a recognized critic's portions may be slightly different from another person's, and while the kitchen may take special care with the order going to a critic's table, the fundamentals that make the restaurant great or mediocre remain in place. And while the service can get better for a critic, it can also get worse: hyper-solicitous, nervous, intrusive.

Hyper-solicitous and intrusive were the hallmarks of the bizarre service that I encountered while at Liberty Kitchen, and the reason I thought it would be helpful to draw up a list of things for restaurants not to do when a food critic is spotted in the wild. Trust me -- this advice will make things better for everyone.

Location Info

Venue

Map

Liberty Kitchen

1050 Studewood St., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Philippe

1800 Post Oak Blvd., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Arturo Boada Cuisine

6510 Del Monte Dr., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

BRC Gastropub

519 Shepherd, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Glass Wall, The Restaurant

933A Studewood, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

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95 comments
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candiceanderson42
candiceanderson42

Food critic is part of the restaurant business as they are helpful tools for you to improve things. They are here to threaten your business but to give you an overview of how people may react on your service and the food you are offering.

Candice Anderson

POS Systems for restaurants  

skquinn
skquinn

Great article. One thing I noticed, however: the link to the original review of Liberty Kitchen goes to the 404 page when I bring it up, and I can't find it easily via the site's search.

Albert Nurick
Albert Nurick

Some restaurant staffs are taught how to behave when a person of interest is in the house, be it a critic, a celebrity, or someone else who gets their hearts aflutter.  I think the response comes from the top - some train their staff to handle the situation with coolness and aplomb, others act like schoolgirls at their first Justin Bieber concert.

Hank L
Hank L

Katharine:

All of this makes sense to me.  What's ironic is that there are some hack food bloggers who liken themselves to a New York Times food critic and expect restaurateurs to kiss their bums.  Despicable in my opinion.  The fact that you follow a code of ethics regarding paying for your meals speaks volumes and I personally respect your opinion more than other food critics or food bloggers who act like wannabe food critics.

As for what Wuwu said--I've had plenty of bad experiences in Houston restaurants, but I personally decided when I started my blog that I only wanted to share places where I really liked the food and thought others might really like it.  But then again, I'm not a food critic. A food critic is supposed to evaluate restaurants and rate them objectively--the good, the bad and the ugly.  That's their job. I've seen plenty of Houston Food Critics dole out negative reviews over the years. 

I don't always agree with food critics, but the again taste is subjective.

Hank on Food 

Wagordon
Wagordon

Katharine, have you ever read Ruth  Reichl's "Garlic & Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise"? Good stuff, very relevant to your story here. To say the least, you were treated rudely. Waitstaff/management should always at least realize that even if they do recognize you, you may ormay not be there to review the joint. Maybe you're just hungry, no?

Megan
Megan

You realize you make WAY too much sense, no?

Jalapeno
Jalapeno

I've been reading Alison Cook for years and have no idea what she looks like.  Neither does Google Image.

Oporto's great, Isn't it?
Oporto's great, Isn't it?

If it's a Houston Press "food critic," they've probably already been asking for free stuff and special treatment all evening.

AliG
AliG

 Think you might be confusing Houston Free Press with Houston Press.

Dunstan2
Dunstan2

But he is confusing a food blogger with a food critic.

Gary R Wise
Gary R Wise

ANYONE can be a food critic. You just gotta have the balls to use your real name.

SirRon
SirRon

How very un-up-the-ass of you to show up and point that out.

SHUT UP AND EAT!!!
SHUT UP AND EAT!!!

EVERYONE's a critic.Only the ones who are completely up their own ass feel the need to get a blog.

I guess that's a distinction.

Jamison34
Jamison34

Great article, thanks Katharine. I agree with the thrust of this piece: critics don't want to be bothered if and when they are recognized. Just common sense. Treat them as you would other diners, don't draw undue attention to them and engage them in conversation, unless you treat all guests that way.While I agree that anonymity is still important and the ideal, I don't think it's practical nowadays and isn't really a deal-breaker. You can't turn a restaurant into a bomb or a star in a few minutes, and even if you could, real critics make multiple visits to even out the experience. 

I do think it's important to disclose the fact when you are 'outed', and to comment about this. There are still some supposedly 'critical' outlets that don't adhere to this standard, and even subvert it. I recall a couple years ago when a popular Italian place in Montrose was visited by My Table, and the editor introduced herself in an official capacity and asked the owner how he would describe his style of cooking, Northern, Southern etc, instead of following up with a phone call. Standard operating procedure for this magazine, I'm told, but it's never disclosed in a 'review', so far as I know. Not good, if you want to have credentials as objective critics, and hand out awards as unbiased observers.

As much as I'd like to, I don't place much faith in sites that allow readers to be the sole critics. Mostly, it's manipulated, uninformed and/or staged opinion. A model like UrbanSpoon is better, where they aggregate real critical opinion alongside the peanut gallery, who often turn out to be competitors or ex-employees with an axe to grind. 

CultureMap more and more seems to be gravitating toward the fluff angle that can be found in 002, PaperCity and Houston Magazine. Very little educated, critical stuff, and more embellished press releases. Evidence: the "purchased feature" or whatever they call the advertorial, is written by the same folk who do the regular editorial much of the time, which is why they don't byline it.

Eater is interesting; they split the difference between CultureMap PR recycling, blogging and real criticism like Katharine and Alison. They aggregate some really fascinating, relevant stuff that's food-related, both locally and nationally. They have a few blogger type critics, but what they lack is street cred in any superstar "I trust and respect this critic" type of thing. 

Overall, we have more information about restaurants and chefs than ever before. Just like we have more channels on TV, and more info everywhere. The thing is, readers have to be especially discriminating to consider all the angles. That's becoming harder to do, I think, for the average person. Sometimes, I appreciate the single Siskel/Ebert model or criticism more than the blather that is everywhere.

Dream
Dream

Are you a food critic? How long have you been a food critic? How many reviews have you written? "That's not very many." "Look everyone, she's a food critic for the Houston Press." "No check today, It's on the house!"  Wow, that is annoying!

Katherine, keep up the good work and please realize that the reviews that you and Alison write do have a tremendous impact on restaurant sales/success/. Restaurant owners get nervous when you show up and we want a good review from your publication. I appreciate that professional writers tend to understand the restaurant business and that some restaurants are going to have an off night or dish. I know that you and Alison go to a location multiple times and look for the positives and the negatives before you write a full restaurant review. I think you are a very good at your job and overall very consistent in your fairness to restaurants. 

Unfortunately in todays world of Yelp and Twitter there are a lot of wanna be critics slam/criticize restaurants all the time. We can't make everyone happy and we get a little jaded by the beatings we take online and in social media. Then there is the self appointed food critic with a blog who has a day job as an attorney/accountant. UGH! We have to deal with these people also. Everyone knows that the restaurant biz is tough, I just wanted to give you a little support and perspective.

Dream

Jay Francis
Jay Francis

A friend and I came up with a new word(s) to describe that nervousness that prompts the waitstaff to check every few minutes to see if everything is okay. We were torn between nervolicitous and solicitervous. We prefer nervolicitous.

SirRon
SirRon

I prefer nervolicious.

SirRon
SirRon

If people critical of blog posts are trolls, then does that make Shilcutt a Restaurant Troll? Just saying!1!!

:)-Heel

Corey
Corey

 An occasional shill, yes; a troll no..

SirRon
SirRon

You just trolled my troll joke.

SirRon
SirRon

"it doesn't matter to me."

Wyatt
Wyatt

"Are you being sarcastic?""I don't even know anymore."

Nathan Miller
Nathan Miller

Great article, but somehow between #2 & #3 you switched from "things that are right" and "things that are wrong." Confused me greatly at first.

Wuwu
Wuwu

The main problem with food critics in general is they are weak at calling something bad when its bad.  They dance around the issue in their wording when in fact they should come out and call a spade a spade. Most critics are kiss ups, ass kissers and trying not to offend anyone when in fact if they just told the honest truth readers would respect them more so.  There is not a single one in Houston I read that can do this time in and time, sorry folks facts are fact...Mia Pham does it almost but not all the way, the others are shills and silent promoters even though they claim they are not.  Don't believe me?  Then ask yourself why is there not someone who really just calls it likes they see it.  Sure you can write a review and point out this and that but why not just say in a more meaningful tone once you have crap food, crap service and crap presentation its a TURD.  

Albert Nurick
Albert Nurick

Not everyone, Wu.  I get more than my share of grief for pointing out restaurants that don't measure up.  Believe me, even the worst restaurants have their apologists who will defend them to the bitter end.

On the other hand, very few establishments that stay open long enough to be reviewed have nothing at all going for them.  So many critics will try to find something positive in order to present a balanced review.  I can't faul that approach, but I hope the conclusion gives the reader a feeling about whether the plusses are outweighed by the minuses or not.

Gentian
Gentian

(Clarification: comments above pertain to all restaurants, except Vallone establishments, at which shortcomings are never pointed out).

Kestrel22
Kestrel22

Kind of hard to prove a negative. How would someone prove that they actually 'call it as they see it'?

Mai Pham, btw, might be one of the more egregious chef idolators, but she didn't allow that to stand in the way when she recently criticized Blue Fish. Right? I think maybe you spend a lot of time reading Houston mag, or Paper City or 002, and not real critics.

MadMac
MadMac

Number three kills me. I read a line on B4Ueat that Killen's took a $12K receipt on a OTC party. Do you think they asked those boyos, "So, how long have you been raping the environment and destroying indigenious cultures?"

Demontaigne
Demontaigne

what is B4Ueat?

Corey
Corey

 Absolute censored garbage, that allows restaurant owners to buy out their bad reviews..

Wilmagg
Wilmagg

I've tried several times posting about restaurants: get a message that 'my comment will be live in 24 hours', and it never gets posted. I've pretty much had it with them and Yelp...both are pay for play sites.

MadMac
MadMac

You forgot, free to read while at work.

Corey
Corey

 Try posting a bad review of Kun Khay Thai, see what happens... Ironically or not so much wonder who also advertises there, and is the first place to run their press releases.. Totally shady, not that yelp is the be all (it's not) but at least it's public. B4ueat also seems to like and cater to the one sentence reviewers too.. "We really liked it, we had good food and they were so nice" type of reviews, it's good for one thing though you can put in your zip code and find who delivers to your zip, which was semi handy before I had a handle on what restaurants were in my neck of the woods.

KJONES1
KJONES1

I've heard that too from people who have posted comments which never see the light of day.

Tim
Tim

I think Robb's telling of this in his review of the now defunct Gravitas is quite germaine to the discussion:

http://www.houstonpress.com/20...

I love the beer anecdote, where Tycer had the waiter offer his own home brew when the 'obscure' Dogfish Head was unavailable.  Hard to think of DFH as obscure nowadays, but I guess it's true I would'nt have known what it was back then.

carrie
carrie

what i don't understand is why food critics in houston make little or no effort to remain anonymous.  or is that my imagination?

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I'd read Alison Cook's assessment of that question, which @f8812a86066b028e3981f7560628a0a5:disqus posted above. It's essentially impossible these days and a food critic is foolish to think otherwise.

MadMac
MadMac

You could go Amish. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

MadMac
MadMac

I was hypothesizing you wear the bonnet, apron and long dress, (for anonymity, not role play) to your assignments. Sorry, had a giggle fit in the middle of typing this. Though, you know everyone'd be well dressed and furnished on the IKEA island. My Mrs. would love it and, I'd get to visit. You know, when she needs stuff assembled.

carrie
carrie

maybe, but since no one seems to even make the effort, it is hard to say.  and it certainly explains why i have often come away from a restaurant you or alison have given raves to trying to figure out how you could have possibly written the review that you did.

Xxx
Xxx

 So then why do we need you again? :) :) :)

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

Or, it could be the pure fact that taste is entirely subjective.  :)

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard

What about the "re-do?"  Is that typically frowned upon?

mike
mike

I'm confused a bit by this blog.  You talk about how not being anonymous affects your abilities to criticize, then try and defend the practice by quoting America's worst op-ed columnist (and reasonably good food critic) Frank Bruni.  I feel compelled to take most of your in-the-loop reviews with a grain of salt since, hell, even I can recognize you.  It may only be small things that are different for you, but those details can spell the difference between undercooked and overcooked.  Sloppy service and good service, etc.  To me, it speaks to a lack of professionalism on your part and your readers pay the price.  Not saying I don't enjoy your reviews, but I feel like you play not being anonymous off as no big deal when, really, it is.

MadMac
MadMac

Oh, please, I've been to a couple of joints KS panned and enjoyed them. I've been to a couple she's raved about to my regret, (mostly 'cause my Mrs. loves the Ethiopian joint so I'm still going to the Ethiopian joint) just saying. But "you play not being anonymous off as no big deal when, really, it is," really? It's not like this is some crime against humanity. That was Ruggles.

mike
mike

Not a crime against humanity.  That's hyperbolic.  But a crime against readers?  Perhaps.

Wyatt
Wyatt

 I didn't get that at all. It doesn't sound like critics are intentionally giving up on anonymity out of laziness, or something -- they're just recognizing the inevitable. Read what Allison Cook wrote, as well. How is any of that unprofessional?

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I'm afraid I don't understand your comment, especially the part about a lack of professionalism. The entire point of my post was that I have to pay much more attention to the small details as a result of not being anonymous. I didn't choose my lack of anonymity; it's something that I have to work extra hard to overcome. And it should be noted for the record that none of us food critics in Houston are anonymous. You know that, right?  :)

mike
mike

Can't google a picture of Alison Cook in 5 seconds, can I?  Everything in a restaurant changes with the acknowledged presence of a critic, be it at your table or another.  I've worked in kitchens--I know.  I'm curious how you didn't choose your lack of anonymity.  It seems like one must choose to be anything but anonymous.  You know that, right?

RRT
RRT

Their margaritas STILL SUCK! 

Bruce R
Bruce R

The winner is: mike. He offered his opinions and supported them. Bradg, on the other hand, was bitching about bitching. A failed attempt at chivalry.

Kestrel22
Kestrel22

One of the funnier things I've noticed about CultureMap is their "Promoted Articles", which is a euphemism for advertorial. Think about it: Advertisers actually get duped into paying for something that a five minute press release could accomplish. That's a bold move in the world of fluff.

mike
mike

So you're telling me I have a fine palate and writing skills?  Many thanks, bro.  I would be great at it.  You're right.

Bradg
Bradg

 Oh, so YOU would be great at it then!?  Let's put your name in the hat for when Alison Cook retires!  And, if at any time a picture of you shows up anywhere for any reason (which is highly unlikely, given the wealth of information out there in cyber world...unless you're a hermit sitting in your Mom's garage apartment)...then you should be fired immediately.  Because anonymity is THE most important requirement for being a good restaurant critic.

mike
mike

You act like finding all three of those qualities would be difficult. 

Bradg
Bradg

 So, I guess the next time an opening comes up for a food critic at any paper, anywhere...the #1 requirement should be if someone is unknown or not.  This should trump anything other qualification, such as writing ability or a good palate? 

mike
mike

Anonymity is a sign of rigor.  Rigor has everything to do with journalism.  Culturemap is not journalism, it's PR.

Demontaigne
Demontaigne

Why? Not sure I follow your logic. What does anonymity have to do with journalism? Does CultureMap not engage in journalism since they post pictures of anybody who scribbles a simple sentence?

mike
mike

I can't reply to your above statement for whatever reason, so I'll do so here.  Not bitter.  Not angry.  Not associated with any restaurant and never worked at one in this state.  I think a lot of food critics, not just Katharine, can no longer be considered journalists.  This could be a serious discussion if you'd let it happen.

DinkinsD
DinkinsD

Walsh and Cook were writing in a pre social media/internet era for the most part. Cook at least made up for it, however, by introducing herself to restaurant owners during moments of ,uh, let's just say 'frivolity'.

Bradg
Bradg

 I find it hard to believe it's not personal when you call someone unprofessional.  And "romantic" is hardly what I would call your attitude.  Because, you're still insinuating that Katharine is unprofessional and not a journalist.  Yep, you definitely have an axe to grind.  My guess is that you're associated in some way with a restaurant that she found lacking.  And, THAT, my friend is unprofessional.

mike
mike

Yeah, I mean, I've been there a few times and always had poor experiences.  The enchiladas were fine, but the service was consistently poor and the salt levels were insane across the board.  I would like to try the burger though.

mike
mike

You mad, bro?  Having an axe to grind imples selfish reasoning, which isn't the case at all.  This isn't personal in the least.  The divide between food criticism and journalism is widening and I suppose I'm a romantic in that sense.

Bradg
Bradg

 So, two out of how many reviews and she finds it virtually impossible to be anonymous, through no fault of her own and yet you call her unprofessional.  How is this not having an axe to grind.  And, no, I'm not being ferocious - how bizarre, as I rarely comment here.  I just dislike tools on any forum in any form.

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard

 I have no affiliation with El Real, and I will tell you that, when it is on point, it is some of the best Tex-Mex in town-mainly the cheese enchiladas, tamales, refried beans, and even their Frito pie.  They can be inconsistent, and that is very frustrating when you go in again and the food simply isn't as good.  I'm guessing you went in on one of these nights.  Hopefully they are getting more consistent these days.

mike
mike

Not a troll.  Promises.  Simply because I'm critical of her decisions doesn't make me such.   No axes to grind here.  Just an honest assessment--two instances out of Katharine's dozens of reviews (or non-reviews) which I thought were a bit disappointing.  And, yes, I feel like she doesn't attempt to keep any semblance of anonymity, which other critics do, and that this affects her work.  Still gonna read HP and Katharine probably won't lose any sleep over my quibbles--nor should she--so calm down a bit there Bradg, though I'm sure your ferocity is appreciated.

Bradg
Bradg

 Officially a troll....with an axe to grind of some sort.  Get a life, Mike.

mike
mike

I should say Robb Walsh "became unanonymous."  Apologies for the double post.

mike
mike

To be fair to Walsh, he only really became anonymous at the end of his very long tenure both here and in Austin.  Like I said, I read your stuff.  Most of it is reasonable and some of it is even good.  The only times I've ever been offended as a reader was your El Real review, which I feel you should have recused yourself from, seeing as how the guy who gave you your big break is a co-owner and when you ducked the Bootsie's review. 

Bradg
Bradg

 Here's a quote directly from Alison Cook about anonymity:

"Unfortunately very few restaurant critics are anonymous anymore in the era of cellphone cameras, Google Images and 24/7 online information saturation. For much of my reviewing career in Houston I did manage to retain a good measure of anonymity, and I still can dine unrecognized in a lot of restaurants. The high profile places, where there's a revolving cadre of staff that goes from one hotspot to the next? Not so much. Part of that is a function of having lived and reviewed in the same city for many years, and having held higher-public-profile jobs that didn't involve restaurant coverage.

Would I rather dine anonymously? Absolutely. Do I think a restaurant can magically produce good food if I am recognized? Absolutely not. I get plenty of subpar food even when a restaurant knows I'm there. They CAN change the service, but that is not necessarily a plus, because often they lay it on too thick.

I do try to level the playing field by reserving under different names, just walking in without a booking, and going at odd times when the full court front-of-the-house press may not be in effect."

So, what exactly is your point, Mike?  That you're bitter about...something?  That you're pissed at...something??? 

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

This is getting a bit pedantic, but okay. I was the web editor here at the paper before I was the food critic. It was a very public role and I was very active on social media as a result of being in that position. I never came to the Houston Press expecting to become the food critic, so I never attempted to carefully cultivate any anonymity in either my private or professional life. I was just a normal person who used/uses Facebook and Twitter to keep in touch with friends and family and who also blogged for another site, Houstonist, which had photos of all its staffers on its site. Between all of that, of course photos of me escaped into the ether of the Internet. So when I was offered the job -- which, I might add, was vacated by another non-anonymous critic -- the opportunity to be "anonymous" was an entirely moot one. Does this satisfy?  :)

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