I've been trying to quit restaurant reviewing for several years now, but, like the mob, it's a surprisingly difficult thing to get out of. Passive aggressive editors keep sneaking your name onto the production schedule, and they devise crafty ruses to keep you on the horse: "Hey, why don't you take the wife to revisit [fancy high-end restaurant with luxurious chocolate desserts]. You could have a date night!"
But this time I'm calling it quits for good. I've been telling people it's because I've been in the game too long and am no longer anonymous. Which is true. In a town the size of Charleston — and in a world of pervasive social media — it's not hard to figure out what supposedly anonymous restaurant reviewers look like. (And, yes, they do have photos of the critics taped to the kitchen walls. I've seen them.)
There was a whole dust-up recently when Leslie Brenner of the Dallas Morning News came out, as it were, via a splashy photo spread with lots of musings on why anonymity, which she deemed "extremely important" when she was hired way back in 2009, was now irrelevant. Adam Platt of New York Magazine unveiled himself about a year ago, too, and just this January Jonathan Gold of the Los Angeles Times followed suit — and both made detailed cases for why anonymity not only isn't important anymore but never really existed to begin with.
To me, the whole debate is tiresome. The trope of the anonymous critic seems a quaint relic from that guileless journalistic era between the Truman and Clinton administrations. Blissfully free of irony and seat belts, we maintained an idealistic fiction that society needed impeccably scrupulous, impartial commentators on all aspects of life, from politics to deciding where to go for dinner.
Buy me a beer or three and I'll elaborate that argument, but anonymity (or the loss of it) has nothing to do with why I'm giving up the gig. There are three real reasons for that.
First, writing restaurant reviews is actually pretty dull, unpleasant work. I know, I know: what about all those great meals? And for free! But there's no such thing as a free lunch — or dinner, for that matter. Eventually you have to sit down at a keyboard and grind out the copy.
Writing formal reviews is difficult. And by "reviews," I mean it in the plural form. Composing a passable review or two is challenging enough, since it takes practice to get the hang of the form. But what's even harder is churning out one after another, month in and month out.
There are only so many ways to describe food. You become hyper-aware of your own clichés. If you've gotten tired of reading "lovely," "tinged," and "delightful" in my reviews over the past seven years, all I can say is that you should have seen the first drafts.
Then there's how you structure a review. It's easy to lapse into such a rote pattern that you almost fall asleep while you're writing.
Want to pen a textbook B-grade review? Here's the template. Start with a capsule history of the business ("A new hook-to-table seafood restaurant that opened in May in the strip mall location once home to McGrubby's Greek Deli."). Next, march lockstep through the food offering. (Spoiler alert: we'll start with the appetizers, then move on to entrees, and — surprise! — finish with the desserts.). Toss in a brief description of the interior (exposed brick and brown wood, of course), then wrap it all up with a paragraph that passes final judgement on the place.
If you do it right, the gist of that final paragraph will be that "it's the kind of place you'll like if you like that kind of place" and "time will tell whether local diners will embrace it," which is reviewer code for "it doesn't totally suck, but I give it three months tops."
It's easiest to break out of this lock-step structure when you have a lot to say — that is, when the restaurant is really good or, even better, when it's truly awful. It's the middle-of-the-road places that leave you beating your head on the keyboard
And that gets to the second reason I'm packing it in: the drudgery, not of the writing, but of the eating itself — yes, of all that (nominally) free food.
I wrote my first review for the City Paper in early 2008. It was of Sushi Haru, a short-lived sushi place that I rather liked in a strip mall on Johnnie Dodds in Mt. Pleasant. Perhaps fittingly, my last review was of Restaurant Bougnat, also in a Mt. Pleasant strip mall and also enjoyable. In between were plenty of other meals eaten in suburban strip malls, and most didn't fare nearly so well.
I recently went back and compiled a list of all the places I reviewed. It documents a long slog through culinary mediocrity. There were the occasional bright newcomers, like The Glass Onion and Coleman Public House, and a few much-enjoyed revisits to old favorites like Anson and Charleston Grill. But, the great majority of my review meals — especially from 2008 through 2010, when Jeff Allen was the senior reviewer and snagged most of the plums — were eminently forgettable. Chewing languidly in dim storefronts, I formulated a new reviewers' credo: "We eat this stuff so you don't have to."
More than half of the places I reviewed before 2011 are no longer in business, and I've not darkened the doors of many of the rest. Those middling restaurants are the hardest ones to critique, for what does one say about them? The friendly staff means well, and they don't intend offense when they remove the sticky knife from your appetizer plate and flop it onto the tablecloth. The owners did the best they could with limited funds to class up a drab interior, and the chef really wants to elevate that thick-cut pork chop. It's not a bad meal, necessarily. It's just not very good.
When one hapless restaurateur throws in the towel, a new one invariably steps in to assume the storefront lease, so there's never a shortage of lackluster candidates queued up to visit. You can't keep mediocrity down
But I realized that fact early on and still managed to slog it out for seven years. There's one final reason for hanging it up now, and that is that the timing just feels right, for our city's culinary scene seems to have fallen into one of its periodic lulls.
I lucked into the reviewing gig at just the right time. I didn't know it in 2008, but something remarkable was stirring in Charleston, and I began to get peeks and glimpses of it when I wasn't schlepping around the outer boroughs eating misguided Asian fusion.
Chefs were getting excited about the fresh line-caught fish that Mark Marhefka was pulling in off the Bump and about Celeste Albers' pristine cauliflower and carrots. They were canning and pickling the summer bounty and butchering whole heritage-breed hogs. Sean Brock was getting settled in at McCrady's and beginning to downplay his molecular gastronomic wizardry and focus on older, more intense flavors like those of Anson Mills' heirloom grits.
By 2010, Brock had staked out his hyper-Southern lardcore credo. That December I snuck into Husk the first week it opened and revisited six weeks later to give it a proper trial. A parade of national food writers soon did the same, and they anointed Brock the new prophet of Southern cuisine.
The next two years brought a torrent of memorable meals at one impressive new restaurant after another: Two Boroughs Larder, The McIntosh, The Grocery, The Lot. Charleston had forged a new and cohesive culinary style — brash and intensely flavored, with obsessive passion for local produce, heirloom grains, and the whiff of smoke from wood-fired ovens. And the rest of the country took notice.
I thought we had hit the peak in 2013, when Mike Lata opened The Ordinary, his stunner of a high-end seafood house. But the wave kept rolling up Morrison Street with the opening of Edmund's Oast and out to the beaches with Coda del Pesce and The Obstinate Daughter.
But now things seem to be sagging again. It feels a lot like it did back in 2008, when I was just getting started on this whole adventure. There's still plenty of energy and buzz around town and no shortage of ambitious restaurant openings. But that energy isn't as tightly focused. We're not satisfied with where we are today, but we haven't quite figured out what's missing.
Maybe it's the restrictive conventions of fine dining. Do we strip away the pomp and circumstance and get back to the basics — metal chairs, paper napkins, a simply cardstock menu — and let the food carry the day? Or, maybe we should latch onto a slick theme — Prohibition-era Cuba, Rat Pack-era Las Vegas — to evoke a mythical, romantic past. Or maybe we need to just take a single humble food item — fried chicken, tacos, bánh mì — and focus obsessively on mastering it. Or, here's an idea: maybe someone should open a French restaurant!
As our focus has blurred, the national media gaze has drifted. The year 2014 was the first since I started reviewing that no Charlestonian made the Beard Awards' finalist list for Best Chef Southeast. The opening of Brock's Mexican-themed Minero — a restaurant that I think is wonderful — was greeted by the national press with a collective yawn. In fact, I'm not sure that any of the New York scribblers have even noticed it.
Perhaps the whole scene is finished and the center of gravity has shifted permanently to places like Nashville and Louisville where things seem fresher and more vibrant. Maybe Southern food is on the outs altogether, and the listicle compilers will move on to wild rice and walleye, demoting pickled okra to the culinary status of Chilean sea bass.
But, honestly, I don't think that's going to happen. There's far too much talent and passion in Charleston for its culinary scene to slide into irrelevance. I'm confident we'll catch a new wave soon that no one can see swelling just yet.
But this time but I won't be the one with the ringside seat — at least not from the faux-anonymity of the reviewer's chair. With Eric Doksa and Allston McCrady, the City Paper is in good hands going forward. (I have photos of both of them that I will sell to interested restaurateurs for a rather reasonable rate.)
I wish them many years of great dining ahead. And hopefully not too many storefront stinkers.