The Dilemma of Free Food

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Since ELV seems destined never to pay for a bite of food at Old Homestead, he approaches this “review” of it with caution, as should you.

This is hardly something new around the ELV offices, as our non-anonymity is now ubiquitous (we even get busted in Chinatown these days). So it is among other critics (in Vegas and elsewhere) as well, but it still gives us pause before we launch into telling you what we really think of a place, since it’s obvious to both of us that the experience we’re writing about will not exactly be yours.

Truth be told, it is that experience differential that bothers us more than the receipt of free stuff. We always offer to pay, can afford to pay, and really want to pay for the meals at the restaurants we review. But certain restaurants and owners are insistent (charmingly so), and more often than not on the Strip, we don’t pay anything except a hefty tip.

Does this quasi-bribe cause us to conflate or constrict our criticism? In subtle and maybe subconscious ways perhaps, but we like to think at this point in our career that everyone involved knows we will come, taste, and let our opinions rip regardless of whether we threw down for the full cost of a meal.

Does this mean that we’ve developed a certain immunity to the cost-value of what we’re eating? Yes. Were we to actually pay the $300 or so for all of the above food, we might be a bit more prickly about whether we got our money’s worth. But most big-city critics don’t pay with their own money either, so, in their own way, they’re immune to the bite of the tariff as well.  (Our buddy Tom Sietsema pays with a Washington Post credit card – most impressive)

Does being recognized and getting free food mean we’re getting anything better than you will? Not really. A busy restaurant has no time to hand-tailor a dish or a plate “just for the critic,” although it’s a fair bet the top toque in the kitchen will take a few extra seconds to make sure the plating is perfect. Overall though, the food we’re getting is the same ingredients and recipes you will get (albeit with more truffles). With that in mind, we have a clear conscience about posting our opinions, and telling the staff in the restaurants exactly what we think of a dish. It seems we’re doing this more and more these days — much to the Food Gal’s consternation — as most meals have a table-side conversation with the chef or manager where they ask what we thought and we call ’em as we see ’em.

“You were pretty rough on him about that sauce,” she’ll whisper sotto voce.

“Maybe…but it was nothing more than a bland, over-salted demi-glaze,” we’ll shoot back, fuming. “Calling it a sauce Perigourdine is blasphemy.”

Are we over-compensating a bit? Flexing our critic’s muscle just to show we can’t be bought? Again, maybe, but we also think we’ve built up enough street cred over the past 17 years to have the chefs respect our opinions, and want to hear them on the spot, rather than reading them a week later. They also know how much respect we have for them (well, most of them anyway), and when we criticize, even harshly, it’s just another form of tough love.

Service, of course, is something else entirely. We know we’re getting VIP attention, appreciate it, but also know how we are treated in no way reflects how the general public is. It’s the reason we rarely, if ever, mention service in our reviews.

By the way, the food at Old Homestead is fucking fantastic.*


In Caesars Palace Hotel and Casino

3570 Las Vegas Boulevard South

Las Vegas, NV 89109



* Except for the “Thick Cut” smoked bacon, which is salty, tough and $5/slice…which ELV didn’t pay.

11 thoughts on “The Dilemma of Free Food

  1. John, you are a dear friend. And I thank you for all the insider foodie experiences I’ve been privy to in your company since 1997. But I have to politely call, ‘Bullshit.’
    Sadly with few exceptions, the total culinary experience is different with and without you. And I’m not referring to your good company here. I’m referring to my experiences at the same places when I go back without you.
    If you think the whole place isn’t put on high alert when a known critic walks in the door you are fooling yourself. A hostess would never seat you at the worst table by the wait stand without a view, would never give you a less-than perfectly plated and cooked dish. No one would ever place a bent knife or a tweaked fork in front of you to eat with. Your wine glasses are inspected for dust, water marks and whatever else crawls into a glass before each pour. (These things have happened to me at restaurants we’ve been to together.)
    The food quality changes too. I know you’ve run into readers who think you are nuts because your reviews in no way resemble the reality of the experience we – the great unwashed – receive.
    The great irony is – you sing for your supper. We pay cash dollars.

    Hope all is well.

  2. I ate the best ribeye I have eaten at any Las Vegas steakhouse here the other night. Just enough dry aging to give the meat the nutty character without the funk. Perfectly rested, excellent marbling (true prime), not over seasoned, no enormous pats of butter to compensate either. I live in LV and eat at all the other steakhouses fairly often too. This place is different and I hope it remains so. Of course they just opened and they are trying to make a name for themselves. However, I remember when Delmonico’s used to be good too and now serves less than prime beef, overly seasoned, buttered etc to make it taste good. I do hope the Old homestead maintains this level of quality and doesn’t sacrifice it to the bean counters . In fact, on that note, maybe I can convince my wife to go back again this weekend.

  3. OK. Sorry, I missed the gist. I read this and it stuck in my brain as your point:

    “Does being recognized and getting free food mean we’re getting anything better than you will? Not really.”

  4. It’s funny John, but I remember quite a passionate, negative review regarding the pricing at Blue Ribbon Sushi because you had to pay. A restaurant that you have recently admitted might be better then you give credit for. To say you are not prejudiced by the comp is laughable. As for this effort, nice way to turn a review of a new steakhouse into a testament to you. “The food is fucking fantastic”… Guess I should go tomorrow.

  5. John, how does the steak compare to Carnevino? I think Carnevino has the best in town and was wondering how the dry age tastes at the Old Homestead. They do claim Pat LaFrieda beef too.

  6. Anne, I actually have to disagree with you on this in regards to your comments about the restaurant always being on high alert when Mr.Curtas walks through the door. When John went to cafe martorano he had to wait at the bar area for a long period of time, and I am sure he did not get a great table at this restaurant. Also I am sure that he didn’t get any special attention on the plates of food that he received because quite simply the owner of the place refuses to kiss anyone’s ass. I know this because I went back and forth a while back with John on this restaurant which I believe has solid food, but obviously has had some sevice issues/attitude that could turn some people off.

  7. If anyone reading this post honestly believes John is being served the same plate made with the same level of attention as one being served to a regular customer then i have a bridge to sell you. Its bitter/sweet that John has been ‘outed’ and is now on the Vegas food critic tit so to speak. Hopefully this doesn’t quell the honesty and wit like it has with Max ‘Never had a free meal i didn’t like’ Jacobson.

  8. “A busy restaurant has no time to hand-tailor a dish or a plate ‘just for the critic'”



  9. As a restaurant PR guy with many clients in Vegas I have sat through many a meal with John, at my client’s restaurants and others, and can say that he does get better service when they know he’s there. And yes, there is special attention to the plates that come out of the kitchen. But that’s the same as it is in any city where the critic is also on TV once a week and has his photo on his blog. So, yes, he does receive the white-glove treatment, and any good publicist will make sure he does. But to John’s point, it doesn’t matter if they spit-shine the glasses, plates and put every piece of food in place with a pair of tweezers. If the food sucks, it’s going to suck whether plated perfectly or not. If the kitchen staff doesn’t know how to cook, that’s pretty hard to hide. And I have been at the table when John lays into a restaurant owner, chef, etc., that are paying my agency to have him there, and tell them just what he thinks. Case in point at Dom DeMarco’s. He told them he didn’t like the square pizza, just not his thing (he said as much in his initial review of the place). They agreed to disagree and moved on. Two years ago he told the Origin India owner that his chef didn’t use enough spice in a particular dish. Next time in I believe he called the dish “sinus clearing” in heat. They took notice, and adjusted accordingly. If treated really well does he sometimes hold back just a bit in his reviews? Perhaps. But if he doesn’t like a place he makes it pretty clear in his review even if he doesn’t just come right out and say “this place blows” in all caps.

  10. I think what John said was fairly accurate to my experiences as well, and I’m certainly still less recognizable than Mr C.
    As Ken said well above: “If the kitchen staff doesn’t know how to cook, that’s pretty hard to hide.” And at the end of the day, that’s really what matters in a restaurant, beyond whether you get the prime table or the proper fork.

  11. A close friend of mine, a humble fellow from New York who writes about Food and Dining, once told me that Food Writers have the loneliest job in America. You’re castigated to the wolves if you honestly write that the texture of the pasta was akin to globs of bunker oil. But if you praise a Chef for pairing short ribs with scallops, you’re viewed by your peers as pandering to those who pay for your dinner.

    He told me there is one simple trait by which we, (those of us who write about food), must subscribe to and that is honesty. If you speak truthfully from your soul, if you are honest and if you have ethical standards, that is what in the end is will best serve you and your readers. And that, my friends, is the standard by which I know ELV follows.

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