Judge, Jury & Executioner
● By Style
What happens when a restaurant reviewer’s aspirations exceed his role as a journalist?
Perhaps you missed the brouhaha surrounding The Sacramento Bee’s restaurant critic, Blaire Anthony Robertson (a.k.a. “BAR”)? The paper’s veteran restaurant critic, Michael Dunne, ended a long, distinguished, and many would argue, still thriving career at The Sacramento Bee in 1999 by reportedly taking a buyout. The Bee brass replaced Dunne with a rigorous job interview process: a grout dinner with all applicants present and “a few days” to write the review that would secure the coveted position. Blair Anthony Robertson, who remembers the process as having been “grueling,” “came out on top”; and has been something of a nasty thorn in the region’s dining-out lions’ dens ever since.
KCRA has dined with the petulant picky eater, hidden cameras rolling, to document if his dining experiences were really as bad as he often claimed they were. There was the “kerfuffle” over BAR’s piece on The Waterboy, critical mostly of the wait staff and décor. Faithful Waterboy diners rushed to the establishment’s defense, pouncing on Blair for not knowing his pasta from his risotto and his affinity for — gasp! — blush wines. They posted more than a hundred “likes” and dozens of glowing reviews about their personal Waterboy experiences. There was the Orphan review, at which BAR later described overhearing a “job interview” wherein the applicant was asked if he was having sexual relations with his girlfriend, a conversation, Robertson admits, which colored his dining experience there. Orphan subsequently banned BAR, as did Plan B. (Robertson responded that he wouldn’t eat again at either restaurant unless he was paid to do so.)
Robertson has compared Sacramento’s “beloved” Tower Café to a “golden retriever that wants to be loved by everyone,” and Ten22 to the Sacramento Kings’ inability to score.
Some of this made you LOL, didn’t it? Yeah. The man is a talented wordsmith, as one would expect of a critic employed by a Pulitzer-winning paper like The Sacramento Bee. “If the writing is not good and the reader is not entertained in some way, the review is a failure,” says BAR of his chosen profession. However, he also argues reviews are reported: as one would report a fire. When Alan Richman (James Cameron of the James Beard food-writing awards whom BAR has specifically cited the pinnacle of success) was sent for the first time from the sports desk to write a dining review, he recalled covering it “the way I covered baseball games.”
The day after “La Provence’s review by BAR” appeared in The Sacramento Bee, loyal diners packed the restaurant, peppering owner Stephen Des Jardins with questions about whether or not he’d ever employed and then fired The Bee critic who wrote the review. “Most were concerned. Concerned that a review this acerbic would cause their favorite neighborhood restaurant to go away,” Des Jardins recalls, adding a tad rhetorically, “Does a reviewer employed by a newspaper that relies on advertising revenue have the right to make or break a restaurant?”
To be fair, BAR’s takedown of what could be described as a local favorite cited three visits, two for dinner and one for brunch. It might have been entertaining to some, like viewing a train wreck. But was the review really entertaining? Most would call it mean-spirited, begging the question of whether or not the reviewer had a “bone to pick” with the restaurant. “It is a sad example of a restaurant that aspires to be one thing but fails to commit,” he wrote. “I can’t think of a place that does less with more.”
Des Jardins had a warmer relationship with Dunne, whom he has met many times, and whose reviews included some of the details — the ambiance, the décor, the neighborhood fabric — that made La Provence so unique. “This Blair guy [Blair Anthony Robertson] I have no idea what his qualifications are. But his writing is acerbic, mean and bitter. I’ve read other reviews of his and he dogpiles. I sent him information about our “Yappy Hour,” our Kids’ Night—features our patrons love. He didn’t mention our artwork celebrating local artists, or our centuries-old décor. He didn’t mention any of these things.” Des Jardins makes the point that his restaurant has a faithful following, patrons who rave about their experience at La Provence. True to the Internet testimonials, guests have selected La Provence often for very special dining occasions — weddings, anniversaries, and graduations. “Why does the neighborhood return?”
La Provence, he continues to argue, advertises only in local and regional publications. “We don’t advertise in The Sacramento Bee or Sacramento Magazine. For the outlying areas, we rely on word-of-mouth.” Des Jardins also relies on — and pays close attention to — reviews by diners posted on sites like OpenTable.com. “These are people who have actually checked in and eaten at the place they are reviewing. They are describing the experience in real-time, and what they expect and desire from their individual dining experience is usually reflected in these posts.” He admits the critics from diners vary, but points out that his restaurant has consistently enjoyed four and five star status, and often makes top spots in regional listings of “Best Places to Dine.”
Des Jardins is not the first restaurant owner to be astonished and admittedly deeply affected by BAR’s Bee reviews: Waterboy owner Rick Mahan went so far as to pen an open response, conceding that he perhaps took the review too personally and apologizing for second-guessing BAR’s qualifications. Ten22 owner Terry Harvego cheerfully responded to BAR’s review, (“…free range — that is, ranging from mediocre to horrible…”) by offering diners an “I’ll be the judge” half-price meal deal (reviews have since claimed the restaurant has “turned things around”). But Des Jardins insists this isn’t just about hurt feelings or sour grapes:
“The qualifications [for restaurant reviewers] are different than they used to be, and if reviewers don’t get that then they aren’t qualified. The restaurant critic is not writing for his or her self, he or she is writing for the public. It’s expected that you understand the palate of the dining guests who continue to return, and it’s expected you at least try to understand or realize the reasons why. Before you review my restaurant, learn something about it. Diners research restaurants before they decided to try a place, especially if it’s for a special event or occasion,” says Des Jardins, adding that most log on to do so: “Sites like OpenTable.com, where one can see that the poster has in fact dined at the restaurant they are writing about, blogs like Mike Dunne’s “WineGigs” — these are the resources potential diners are relying heavily on. Diners can read a paragraph and determine for themselves whether or not the establishment is intriguing or appealing. They can read several posts, several very different opinions, and then decide based on more information, not just the opinion of one person.”
As for The Bee critic who has everyone buzzing these days, Des Jardins has a few opinions of his own he’s happy to voice:
Des Jardins adds. “It’s not done to improve anything. He doesn’t have the grace of his predecessor. It’s fine to cite a need for improvement, so long as you make an equal effort to cite what it is diners other than yourself find appealing.”
Neither Robertson, nor his editors, nor any of the other restaurant owners returned calls and emails for clarification or comment. In other interviews, BAR has argued that restaurant critics often come to their jobs from other, totally different writing gigs, and excuses the mistakes he has made in his reviews (“Spellings, names of dishes, comparing La Provence to Paris is like comparing Texas to New York,” Des Jardins insists) because restaurant critics are not expected to have the culinary knowledge of a chef; they are servicing the general dining public.
“Restaurant critics are, more than anything, journalists. As such, we place an enormous emphasis on ethics, honesty, fairness, wisdom and lively, authoritative writing,” Robertson wrote in his open response to the Waterboy review response. “I am a reporter, a gatherer of information, a writer and a critic. When I encounter information that confuses or thwarts me, I seek clarity and understanding through research. I ask questions. I read. I ponder. I compare. Like any experienced and skilled journalist, I must make all kinds of choices along the way to determine what is important, what is not and which pieces of information will best showcase the points I hope to make in my review.”
Award-winning food writers and critics do have full-time fact-checkers and editors to clarify this process, ask for revisions, impose the objectivity we all have a tendency to lack, especially when expressing our opinions.
Alan Richman certainly did. I know this because — full disclosure — I was one of them; I sat across from Alan Richman at GQ Magazine for more than a year. I worked with his editors and fact-checked his copy. BAR claims to agree with Richman that restaurant reviews are reported accounts of a dining experience, but the facts must be accurate in these accounts. That’s what makes it journalism, as opposed to an opinion. People still won’t agree with you (Chef Anthony Bourdain devoted an entire chapter in his book to the fact that “Alan Richman is a douchebag.”), but, as Richman once advised me, if you get things wrong, they won’t even listen to you. If I am covering a football game and report that the quarterback slid in for a homer, readers logically are going to doubt everything else I tell them.
Journalists not only must adhere to the facts of the story they are telling, they must be driven by them. Solely by them. In expressing opinions, in a newspaper or on Facebook pages, one is prone to exaggeration, hyperbole, clever turns-of-phrase and rich metaphor to drive a point home. A good reporter knows when facts are being exaggerated and that the cleverest turn-of-phrase, if inaccurate or the slightest bit misleading, must be edited. Or deleted altogether.
It would appear, from feedback alone, that Des Jardins is not the first to question BAR’s ability to do the job he himself describes (more than a few diners, perplexed by the vitriolic tone of his reviews, dismiss him as “over the top” or suggest “maybe he just had a bad day.”). “I think [Blair Anthony Robertson] wants to live somewhere else, frankly. I don’t think he wanted to be here, and that came through in his review. I love wines, but I select wines for guests based on what they want, what they’d like. I think a well-meaning critic should work to do the same.”
“Know the story. Know who likes the restaurant and why, and write about that, as well.”