MAY IT PLEASE THE PALATE: Restaurant critics


If there’s one job I want, it’s a restaurant critic.

But I can’t do it. I’m too nice. (Shh. Don’t tell opposing counsel.) To be a successful restaurant critic, you have to be capable of mean. Unafraid to rip a restaurant that even your parents might own. Because mean is entertaining.

Duncan Hines (yes, that Duncan Hines) started as a food critic and writer of food and lodging guidebooks, before his name became synonymous with boxed cake mix. He once wrote: “If the soup had been as warm as the wine, if the wine had been as old as the turkey, if the turkey had had a breast like the maid, it would have been a swell dinner.” Un-PC, but deliciously wicked.

I empathize too much with the hard-working restaurant owners. It’s hard enough cooking for yourself without screwing up, much less a couple of friends. Try a few hundred a night, every single day, because if you miss, you might get this review: “A pallid fart of mediocrity…a stodgy croquette, the size and colour of a cat’s turd, on a thick tomato puree full of metallic tang.” (Jay Rayner, The Guardian)] He goes on. It is the funniest review I’ve ever read. []

Reviewers are aware they have no friends, except those who want to dine with them on expense account. But after enough bad reviews, there are fewer restaurants where they can safely dine without risking being poisoned by the chef. Frieda Norris once aptly commented, “Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them, you are a mile away from them, and you have their shoes.”

New York Times reviewer Pete Wells, fortunately, has a lot of restaurants in the Big Apple to burn through before he completely wears out his welcome, with gems like these: “Beef carpaccio, the chilly maroon flesh stretched out below a scattershot application of radish and celery slices that had started to curl, tasted of refrigeration and surrender.” (LeCirque) And: “Mr. White has said he engineered the [pizza] dough to stand up to the rigors of delivery and reheating with no loss of quality. In that, at least, he has succeeded. Warmed up a day or two later, a Nicoletta crust is just as stiff and bland as when it was fresh from the oven.”

Personally, in the reviews I write for another publication, I am quite capable of making fun of food. But because I try to avoid negative reviews, I simply don’t cover places that I don’t believe deserve publicity. I’m secure in the knowledge they will suffer a slow, agonizing death, and that food karma will prevail. However, there are some restaurants that inexplicably remain popular despite persistent mediocrity. This often has to do with location and the people-watching rather than quality. For example, one Ann Arbor location is always crowded despite a negative reputation and consistently substandard on-line reviews (such as Yelp and Trip Advisor). I wrote of this place, “All the negative reviews about their service are absolutely right. I want to give them a chance but it’s almost as if they teach indifference to their staff.” Their manager called me, asked me to try them again, and I kept my promise. It was much better the next time, and I wrote about it.

Service problems can be fixed; although truly professional service is nearly a lost art, it is still possible to train servers to be personal, friendly, and attentive. Food is another matter altogether, although I hesitate to make fun of hard-working business people. But famous folks are fair game. Here’s the Times’ Pete Wells again, of the restaurant owned by Guy Fieri (of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” Food Network fame):

“GUY FIERI, have you eaten at your new restaurant in Times Square? … Did panic grip your soul as you stared into the whirling hypno wheel of the menu, where adjectives and nouns spin in a crazy vortex? When you saw the burger described as ‘Guy’s Pat LaFrieda custom blend, all-natural Creekstone Farm Black Angus beef patty, LTOP (lettuce, tomato, onion + pickle), SMC (super-melty-cheese) and a slathering of Donkey Sauce on garlic-buttered brioche,’ did your mind touch the void for a minute? … What exactly about a small salad with four or five miniature croutons makes Guy’s Famous Big Bite Caesar (a) big (b) famous or (c) Guy’s, in any meaningful sense? Were you struck by how very far from awesome the Awesome Pretzel Chicken Tenders are?” [complete review at]

Now I would love to get down and nasty like that. Unleash my inner Creative Writing undergraduate major. I would probably be blowing my chance for the State Bar’s civility award, but I’d have fun. Just give me that critic’s job and turn me loose.
Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil rights litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor. He occasionally updates his blog at