ELV ANNOUNCEMENT: Huntington Press announced last week that the 6th Edition of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 52 Essential Restaurants is in production and looking forward to a release in mid-November. For the first time, those 52 eateries will be chosen and written about by me and me alone. As much as I’ve appreciated the yeoman’s work that Greg Thilmont and Mitchell Wilburn did on the last two editions (2016 and 2017), Anthony Curtis (publisher of HP) thought it was time for me to do one book with my complete, unfettered and unvarnished look at the Las Vegas restaurant scene. Curtis (no relation, although he does have the same sounding name as our staff), is taking responsibility for the second half of the book — evaluating and listing everything from best burgers to boffo buffets (with an assist here and there from yours truly). As long time publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor, Curtis knows the ins and outs of Las Vegas in a different way than I do, but one that readers will find highly useful when more down-to-earth dining is on the agenda. The heavy lifting (i.e., research and writing) of this edition has been going on for several months now (if you follow me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram you can get an idea of all the territory I’ve been covering), and the next six weeks is crunch time. In the meantime, below is a taste of one of the additional chapters I’ll be writing that will pepper the book with some of my insights gleaned over 23 years of restaurant writing and covering the Las Vegas food scene. Bon appetit!
WHAT DOES A (REAL) RESTAURANT CRITIC DO?
He writes. She eats. He Cooks. She travels. He eats more. She studies. She reads everything she can about food and travel; he thinks incessantly about food, all the time. And after all that, he/she spends an inordinate amount of time hunched over a keyboard, trying to describe food and the experience of eating out in the pithiest, most informative and entertaining way possible.
Not just the food that he or she happens to be shoveling into their piehole at any one moment, but about how everyone eats. And cooks. And feeds each other. More specifically, a restaurant critic is charged with the responsibility of evaluating how restaurants — who are in the business of selling food to the public to satisfy human hunger — are doing their job.
To be a good restaurant critic you need to eat a lot, write a lot, read a lot and travel a lot. If you lack the stamina for any one of these things, you should hang it up right now.
Being a restaurant critic is like being a porn star: It sounds like great idea until you have to do it all the time, on schedule.
A restaurant critic (a real one, not a casual food blogger) is a writer first and foremost. But their beat isn’t sports or news or politics, it’s rating and reviewing each and every bite of food they ever put in their mouth, and put those thoughts on paper, usually weekly, while facing deadlines to do so.
Most importantly, a restaurant critic is a consumer advocate. If your motivation for the job isn’t to help the general public spend their dining dollars wisely, then you should find another occupation. People who just like to eat out all the time and tell everyone what they thought of their meal are known as blowhards….or food bloggers. Food bloggers, as knowledgeable and passionate as some of them are, are not restaurant critics. A real critic analyzes its subject; opinionated Yelpers/bloggers tell you things are “legit.” Big difference.
The job of a restaurant critic is to eat out, all the time, and write cogent, informative and entertaining essays about what they ate, how good or bad it was, and how they felt about the whole experience. A real restaurant critic gets paid for what they do.
There are four types of professional critics: 1) full-time columnists who write for major metropolitan newspapers or national periodicals (these jobs are becoming increasingly rare, and there are probably less than 100 writers in America who make a living from them); 2) free-lance journalists who work as subcontractors to dead-tree magazines, free newsweeklies, and papers (sometimes as a steady gig, sometimes intermittently); 3) on-line critics who work for established Web sites (like Grub Street, Eater National, Huffington Post); or 4) established critics who maintain Web sites of their own (some of which make money, some of which don’t). Yours truly fit into the second category for the first fifteen years of his restaurant writing career, and now plies his trade as a member of the fourth group (since 2008), with occasional forays into numbers 2) and 3). The rarest of the rare critics actually publish yearly restaurant guides, written on real paper!
Restaurant critics don’t make a lot of money. If you’re lucky enough to land a job with a newspaper, you’ll make about as much as a high school teacher; if you free-lance, you’ll be lucky to top what a barista makes at Starbucks. Being a restaurant critic is like being a poet: you better do it for the love and passion for your subject or you better not do it at all.
Food writers are not restaurant critics. A food writer is someone who writes articles or books about food. A food writer might write an entire book about a specific food topic: Salt by Mark Kurlansky, or diet and food politics: The Ominvore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, or food fads: pick up any monthly food magazine like Bon Appetit or Saveur. Food writers write about themselves (M.F.K.Fisher), or recipes (Julia Child), or their travels (Anthony Bourdain, Joseph Wechsberg, etc.); restaurant critics write about what they taste, and then evaluate the final product of professional chefs who charge the public money for the fruits of their labors at businesses licensed to sell cooked food.
All restaurant critics are food writers, but rare is the food writer who is also a restaurant critic.
Most restaurant critics work on a weekly basis. (There may be a critic out there who manages to eat, digest, think and review multiple restaurants in a week, but if they exist it’s a fair bet they are either independently wealthy, really, really fat or crazy.) Many periodicals assign their critics to double-duty and ask them to file reports and articles on various foods and food trends for publication in between their reviews of restaurants. In this respect, most critics, if they are good writers (more on this below), are able to toggle back and forth as part-time food writers. Most cookbook authors and food writers wouldn’t be caught dead writing hard-boiled, opinionated prose about some phoning-it-in celebrity chef. But that’s just fine with real critics, because you wouldn’t want a food writer to write a proper restaurant review any more than you’d want a cheerleader to be a football coach.
In a typical week, a critic will visit at least half a dozen restaurants — most for the first time, some to get a second look — as they keep their writer’s pipeline stuffed with potential articles, reviews in progress, and possible subjects for future reviews. Back in the Stone Age — and by “Stone Age” I mean the late 20th Century — it was de rigueur for a critic to visit a restaurant multiple times before filing a review. These days, due to the news-a-minute, immediate gratification impact of the Internet, almost no publication, save for maybe a few major newspapers, requires a critic to eat more than one meal in a restaurant before giving their opinion of it. (This is extremely unfortunate, because restaurants are not movies. Every movie critic sees the same movie; a restaurant is an organic being, dependent upon the coordination of many people to do its job well. All it takes is for a dishwasher to call in sick, or a waitress to have a fight with her boyfriend, or a cook to check into rehab for you to have a lousy time. Only by eating in a place multiple times can a real critic take the measure of a place. (Every place in EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants (past editions) has been visited multiple times by me. Every place in the upcoming issue will have been visited by me more times than I can count. No other critic in Las Vegas can make this claim. No other food writer or critic in the history of Las Vegas can come close to it. No brag, just fact.)
Also, due to to Internet: anonymity has gone the way of the tasseled menu and the hat check girl. Every single real critic (those writing for respected publications, or known to wield any real clout in their city) is known to every major restaurant in town. Pictures of them are posted in restaurant kitchens, and the anyone with a mobile phone can look up anyone’s picture in 30 seconds.
With all of the above as a given, your average (professional, respected, loved or hated) restaurant writer has two parts to their job: eating and writing. The eating part isn’t as easy as it seems. You have to have (or develop) an iron stomach, adventuresome attitude and a fine-tuned palate. You must learn to eat things you loathe and learn enough about them to objectively judge their net worth. (Yours truly will never like beets or Vietnamese food, but has eaten enough of both that he could start a farm or a pho parlor.)
Eating a single meal in a restaurant is no more enough to correctly opine on its merits than looking at a single painting is for you to judge an artist — even if you’re a knowledgeable critic. If you’re going to judge a steakhouse, you better have eaten in dozens of them all over the country. An amateur is one who says, “I went to Mama Leone’s and really liked the lasagna.” A restaurant critic has made lasagna in her home kitchen, watched professionals make it on TV, eaten lasagna in the great Italian restaurants of the world, and traveled to Bologna to see and taste the real thing. Any idiot can tell you whether something is good. I don’t know beans about art, but I can tell you that that Rembrandt fellow sure looks like he knows what he was doing. A good critic knows (and tells you) why something is good or bad.
After all of that is lined up — the porn star stamina, the iron stomach, the insatiable appetite, serious cooking skills, traveling the world, eating the world, reading the great food writers — then it’s time to get down to what real restaurant critics really do: write the review.
And that’s the hardest part of all.