Behind the Page: A Restaurant Reviewer's Average Day

This Is Not a Picture of Me

I've been thinking a lot about social media (Twitter, Facebook), how people use them, what they choose to share and what they don't. That's because I can't share most of what I do (most importantly, what I eat) every day because of the job that I have.


On the average work day, I order, taste and sample various foods--desserts, burgers, entire restaurant meals--for upcoming issues. But I don't tell anyone about it because my reviews will eventually publish in the magazine, and I don't want to tip my hat about which places I'm reviewing.  In the past half year I wrote most of our June Summer Cravings Guide (18 pages, primarily food content), the July Island Dining Guide (11 pages, nearly all food content), and an upcoming food issue for November (20 pages, all food coverage, but luckily I had a helper on that one!). I'm already working on another food feature but I can't tell you what that's all about, either. And know this: Every single thing I write about I have personally eaten.


Add that to the three or four restaurants I review every month for the magazine, which tacks on another dozen-ish meals (and: if I'm not impressed enough with a restaurant, I simply won't review it at all) ...People, it's a lot of eating. And because I try to be as anonymous for my reviews as I can, I never tell anyone outside of my dining companions where I'm eating, what I just ate (unless I cooked it at home), or what I'm working on.


In an age of oversharing, I'm a secret squirrel: making reservations under fake names, writing notes hurriedly in bathroom stalls, ordering two (or, like today, three) lunches so that I can taste more than one thing for my research. (It's my policy to hand the leftovers out the car window to people asking for change at stoplights whenever I can, so I'll take this opportunity to say: sorry for the bites taken out of that sandwich, guy.)


What's my point? Well, I had some of the worst service of the entire year last weekend at a restaurant I'm reviewing for an upcoming issue (January, if you want to stalk and guess). But aside from the friends who experienced it alongside me (believe me, we vented to each other all the way down the street), nobody's going to know about it until I write my review. And even then I'll have gone once or twice more, so the criticism may be softer by the time I'm ready to turn the review in to my editor.


And so when--what, every six months?--the old "we've got Yelp! Who needs restaurant critics?" singsong replays itself across the food headlines again, I realize the seduction of that argument is at least partly due to how this job is done when it's done properly (ie, no freebies, no buddying with chefs, generally being as discreet as possible).


Hardly anyone knows what goes into restaurant reviewing: how much fact-checking, how many times I revisit restaurants to make sure the pork belly/salad/chocolate cake is as good as ever. I can't even count how many hairs I've overlooked in my food, how many  amateurish comments by waitstaff, how many bitchy or inept servers--one favorite is the time a server told my friends and I that we were ordering too much food and that we should really think about our health!--and forgotten or incorrect drink orders I've filed away in my reserves. (My policy, by the way, is looser than yours should be: I let the first error fly, but I send back food or make a comment if there are two or more things wrong on the table. But I think normal diners should politely send back food whenever it's not as ordered.)


That restaurant where I had the horrible service? I could eviscerate them on Yelp; believe me, it's tempting! If I were the average Joe, maybe I would. That's the gist: the part where I suck it up, go back for more and then write the final review? That's the part that makes it a job. One I am lucky to have, certainly, but also one I do more work to get right than perhaps shows.