5 Things Not to Do If a Food Critic Is Eating at Your Restaurant
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.
Most food critics just want to be left alone. And eat ratatouille.
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.
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.
Photos by Troy Fields I really like you, Liberty Kitchen, especially your oyster bar. Just calm down, okay?
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.