Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Food Critics: Jonathan Kauffman, Lauren Shockey and Hanna Raskin Weigh In

Categories: In the Trenches

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I have yet to meet a food critic who looks -- or acts -- like Anton Ego.
We don't expect you guys to read every little thing we write. After all, Eating...Our Words publishes at least ten posts per day. But every once in a while, a topic arises on which we've pontificated in the past -- and in those cases, we like to re-run a previous post which we think still addresses the issue with some relevance. Parts of this post were previously published on June 26, 2011.

Last week, the owner and chef of Lucille's took umbrage at our cafe review of his restaurant -- not a glowing one, but also not a complete slam -- and took to the comments section to voice his dissatisfaction.

"This is not journalism, this is an attack done in poor taste," wrote Christopher Williams. " "Since we are unable to satisfy your discerning palate with our 'leathery ice tea,' we invite you to dine else where in the future."

And in a move that restaurant critics everywhere have seen since the day that they first crawled out of the primordial ooze created by the likes of Craig Claiborne, Williams blamed the harsh review on advertising. Or rather, Lucille's lack of interest in advertising with the Press.

"To any restaurant who wants a good review from the Press, and avoid this type of attack," Williams finished, "you had better fucking advertise now!"

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None of us look like Mr. Creosote, either.
This type of misguided criticism reminded me of one of the last times I'd been accused of shilling for ad dollars after an equally tough review of Tan Tan -- rather, of the second location of a long-time Houston favorite, the original iteration of which I'd often praised in the past. In the comments section of that review from 2011, one commenter accused us over and over of slamming the restaurant because it had apparently cancelled its advertising with us.

"I understand Tan Tan recently cancelled advertising in the HP so HP turns around & writes a damning review as retaliation," the anonymous commenter griped. "I've seen this Houston Press tactic in the past. HP never criticizes the businesses paying for advertising space in the paper."

The truth of it is that there is a hard-and-fast line between editorial and advertising at our paper. And while I'm quite sure that our sales reps would prefer it differently some days, the fact remains that advertising doesn't have any input into our editorial product, and vice versa.

This week at The New York Times, restaurant critic Pete Wells answered a series of questions addressed to him from readers who reacted strongly to his review of Guy Fieri's American Kitchen & Bar in Times Square. Wells didn't have to deal with criticisms levied against him about advertiser dollars, but readers did have some excellent questions about the overall process and ethics behind reviewing restaurants for a living.

The questions were similar to those often posed to critics across the nation.


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12 comments
Jeff_in_Seabrook
Jeff_in_Seabrook

It's now 4 days with 8 posts each day. Really, what gives?

Jeff_in_Seabrook
Jeff_in_Seabrook

You state in the second sentence that EOW publishes at least 10 posts each day; however, for the last 3 days (December 10-12), EOW has only published 8 posts each day. What gives?

HTownChowDown
HTownChowDown

I'm always saddened (but not surprised) by the vitriolic responses of some restaurateurs to less-than-stellare reviews.  Everyone wants their work to be admired, and a great review means more business.  But the reality of the restaurant world is that mistakes do happen, and how you handle them says quite a bit about how your run your business.

Savvy restaurateurs learn from negative comments, and use them as a guide to identify problems in their business.  Petulant ones blame the messenger, and refuse to realize that their restaurant may actually have issues that impact a patron's experience.  Guess which ones will be around in three years?

Lorraine
Lorraine

Do you find that you have any substantive differences with Alison Cook, Houston's other food critic from another generation?

Anse
Anse

I read restaurant reviews because I like to eat and drink and I like to think about eating and drinking, but speaking for myself, I always enjoy a bad review. The take-down of Maggie Rita's was thoroughly enjoyable, and I appreciate the assured decline of that franchise in Houston all the more because of it.

MadMac
MadMac topcommenter

Thoroughly, (sp?) professional and very well written.

Loquesto
Loquesto

@EatingOurWords You don't like licorice?! Sounds like you're just pandering to the masses. Licorice rules!

mgovshteyn
mgovshteyn

This is the only time I've seen Bryan Caswell wear a hat for a team other than Astros. Photoshop?

kshilcutt
kshilcutt moderator editor

@Lorraine Aside from the facts that she's been writing professionally about food for longer than I've been alive, and that she has two James Beard awards and an MFK Fisher award under her belt...of course! She was our first food critic here at the Press and has set the tone for Houston food writing ever since. I've only been doing this for two years - so I'd say that's our most substantive difference. I think we also have very different writing styles, my own owing much to the fact that the Press has a more conversational, informal tone as a whole (which is a good fit for my kind of casual writing style anyway). We also have vastly different backgrounds and general preferences in dining. She's a Vermonter (although I understand her father was Texan) with Nordic roots, whereas I'm a seventh-generation mutt Texan and a born-and-bred Houstonian - and I think your makeup/heritage definitely contributes to the little things you appreciate and seek out in a dining experience as well as the things you're more critical of. She leans more toward talking about wine/wine lists (especially in reviews), whereas I'm generally more interested in beer. The Chronicle (not necessarily Alison in particular) leans more toward fine dining, whereas I'm more interested in the holes-in-the-wall, the ethnic eateries and little, family-run places - although the coverage in the Chron is certainly much broader these days. Et cetera, et cetera. Hope this helps!

MadMac
MadMac topcommenter

I like reading bad reviews, too. Especially ones that don't cost me money. The Mrs. and I eat out about twice a month--that money and time is at a premium. I like reading bad reviews x1000 more than writing a bad review on OpenTable/TripAdvisor after I've dropped $$ on a bad experience.

Anse
Anse

I will occasionally gloss over the comments on Yelp if I've never been to a place before. But I'm amused by the six-paragraph essays people write, as if they're wannabe critics who are looking to get noticed. I really just want to know if a place sucks so I can avoid it for the same reasons as you. But I've found the recommendations of friends to be the most valuable.

MadMac
MadMac topcommenter

Friends? I have gas issues. Kidding. I like the six paragraph reviews. When I read "Id SUKKD," (mispelling intentional, for once) with no supporting anything, I have no idea if that's food/service/reviewer. Now, Shilcutt says there's ice on the Kale and I know I'm not dropping time/money at 'dis joint.

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