FAQ: How Many Times Should a Critic Visit a Restaurant?
Plus, thoughts on comped meals (they're bad), THC edibles (they're good), and wine pairings (too pricey)
Alright, we have something different on tap for today! Since we have a robust slate of reviews lined up for the fall, I figured I’d take this opportunity to talk about how we critique restaurants, as well as outline some of our ethics and standards.
Initially, the plan was to file this as a web-only FAQ when The LO Times debuted in June, but our ethics committee concluded it was better to give this sort of subject the same platform as a regular column.
Some of what you’ll read below will be obvious — we don’t accept free meals — but a lot of this FAQ will address more complicated issues, including drinking during review dinners, preferences (wine pairings aren’t for me, but edibles are intriguing), the proper number of visits to a restaurant (it depends), note taking (a serious part of the job), fact checking (absolutely crucial), and anonymity (a moving target).
Let me know if you disagree with anything in the comments!
Do you accept free meals or travel?
No. Our editorial policy on gratuities is aimed to align with other major publications. We pay for our meals, and indeed dining out is our biggest expense. We also do not attend press preview meals nor do we visit restaurants at the invitation of publicists or chefs. Are you someone who arranges complimentary travel to other states or countries on behalf of tourist boards, so food writers can dine away from home? We don’t accept those sort of services either.
How much do you drink at restaurants?
One of the weird aspects of food reviewing is that doing your job often involves consuming intoxicating substances as you carry out assessments of a restaurant’s food and vibe. I can’t speak on behalf of art or film critics, but I’m certain they don’t walk around museums or sit in screenings with little martini shakers in tow. Though perhaps that’s the point. Restaurant patrons frequently drink beer, wine, or cocktails with their meals, and so do critics. Occasionally, we write about those drinks.
It’s tougher to spend time at an Edward Hopper exhibit with a glass of aged Burgundy; you’d probably get ejected!
To be sure: you do not need to drink to do this job, but as someone who does enjoy a nice martini, I generally limit my consumption to two beverages (or a shared bottle of wine) for a 90-120 minute meal. For longer tasting menus or extended a la carte affairs (I don’t do too many of those), I’ll allow myself an extra drink.
Well, then how do you feel about wine pairings?
They’re not really for me! I’ve had nice pairings here and there, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, but I often feel lethargic or tipsy even when I don’t finish each pour. I have all the respect in the world for hardworking beverage professionals who put as much care into sourcing and pairing as chefs put into their own processes, but I rather test out a venue’s drink list through more accessible means: by ordering a cocktail, beer, or wine by the glass.
Also, wine pairings cost way too much.
What are your thoughts on THC and edibles?
I think they’re wonderful — as spectacular a match for good food as wine or beer — but I try to be judicious. I love how a 5mg edible can make your palate more sensitive to subtle flavors and textures, and make everything (even water) taste really, really good — all while softening the harsh edges of a long day. That said, I’m not sure it would be fair to one restaurant if I was floating along on a nice sativa cloud of awesomeness, and then at another spot I was just Ordinary Sutton.
So for now, I abstain from THC on review dinners — and quite frankly during most meals out as edibles can turn me into Space Man Sutton, especially after a cocktail. But I’m open to rethinking this. It would be fun to test drive a gummy during an expensive sushi meal as a performance enhancer of sorts, to see if I can better appreciate every tiny bite (I actually did this once during a tasting but it kicked in too late!). I’d also love to find a way to cover edibles as shops selling them are a burgeoning part of our cityscape.
Do you ever go to restaurants when you really don’t want to? You know, because you need to get that meal under your belt?
I do everything to avoid that! I try to visit a restaurant when that’s what I’m in the mood for.
Well, okay, that’s an oversimplification. It’s my job to review all sorts of restaurants, from a wide breadth of cuisines, many of them new establishments. And so within that group of venues, I try to pick out which ones I’m “feeling” on a given day. I tend to get a bit psyched out by prepaid bookings — like, will I want to eat 20-courses at 8pm two months from now? So I try to avoid those type of scenarios.
Then again, sometimes I’ll dine at a restaurant that I’m actually not too jazzed about, not because I’m looking to go “hate eat” my way through the menu, but because folks want to know about a hot new venue. One of those venues was Bad Roman. And you know what? I ended up really liking the pastas there...so far!
How many work meals do you have every day?
As luck would have it, lol, my budgetary constraints don’t let me go on food writing travel benders where I’m dining at, like, five spots a day, but I never really rolled that way. I’ve (almost) always tried to eat like a normal person, as feelings of intense over-satiation, imo, can impact how you feel about a certain venue or dish.
I don’t think that sensation of going overboard would ever rise to the proverbial level of “oh I don’t drink tequila anymore because I had a bad experience when I was 19 at Daytona Beach.” But even still, you don’t want to put yourself in a place where your first encounter with an absolutely amazing slice of marinated pork belly is when you’re trying not to barf it up.
That’s all to say: I try to have no more than two work meals per day, and I’ll never do two tasting menus in a single day.
Do you take notes on your meals?
During a meal I try as best as I can not to take notes…I rather just take in everything, especially during an initial visit, and enjoy it as a normal person would. But if there’s something I think I might forget — something a server said, a fleeting aroma, or an element that I can’t find on the menu, like a super high level of acidity — I’ll write it down during the meal or shortly afterward.
That all said, my favorite time to take notes, especially the larger contextual ones, is the day after, usually around lunchtime.
Once upon a time, one of my bosses asked why I didn’t write everything down immediately after, and my feeling on that matter remains the same: I don’t like to over-intellectualize something right after I experience it. I rather chat about it with my companions afterward, or let the memories swirl around in my head for a few hours, like after a good first date. Then, the next day, when the morning comes to consciousness, as my buddy T.S. likes to say, I can be a bit more sober minded about things (at early coffee stands, perhaps) and start to write.
Where do you source your food photos from?
I take them all myself with an iPhone, unless indicated otherwise. They’re also a good source for notes. Sometimes, I’ll find my memory exaggerates or downplays a particular color or plating, and while a photo is just a single point of view with its own flaws and filters, taking a look at it often helps me say, oh, whoops, maybe I should tweak a certain description.
Have you actually visited the restaurants you mention in your cheat sheets and lists?
Yes, unless mentioned otherwise, as I did as part of my soba guide. Obviously it would be financially impossible to revisit each restaurant before we republish a list, though we do our best to be diligent and timely about what we’re recommending and what we’re advising against.
How many times do you visit restaurants?
It depends on what I’m going for! For my short review of Claud, where I focused on the shrimp, I made two visits. My longer takes on Jaffa and Mischa involved three visits apiece, though you’ve probably noticed that those aren’t necessarily the same longer reviews I used to publish during my nine or so years at Eater (though we were moving away from those during the last few years).
With Mischa, for example, I focused on the (excellent) sandwich offerings and used those as a springboard to think about luxury and power dining…rather than trying to publish a more wholistic review of the restaurant. In other cases, like with Jac’s on Bond, I made one visit because I just wanted to capture a few notes on the (absolutely wild) scene and the (very good) creamsicle pie. You’ll also probably see single-visit tasting menu write ups in the fall.
But let me end on this note: Lord’s was one of my final reviews for Eater. The first visit there was…I’ll be honest it just wasn’t very good. The second visit was better and then things started to get exciting on visit three as I made my way through more of the menu. So it was gratifying to be able to stretch out my process on that one. Would it also be nice if I could offer that same courtesy for every single venue I write about, tasting menu spots included? Of course, but the realities of limited resources, time, and stomach space means that probably isn’t in the cards, and that’s all the more true when you factor in opportunity cost.
And by opportunity cost I mean what (overlooked) venues could I have been highlighting instead of going to the same place over and over again? And as I always like to say, I’m a journalist, not a Michelin inspector. The goal is to tell a relevant and truthful story and give some sound advice on what’s tasty and what’s not. The goal is not to carry out a faux-scientific attempt to quantify the quality of a restaurant’s cooking.
How do you ensure what you’re writing is accurate?
Reviews and lists are subjective, but food journalism is journalism, and accuracy is paramount. Fact checking isn’t something that you do for a few minutes pre-publication; it’s a process that’s baked into almost every step of the journalistic process, from brainstorming, to drafting, to writing, to editing, and to publishing.
I’ve always conducted fact check emails or calls with chefs/owners when something isn’t clear pre-publication, and indeed those efforts are as time consuming for me as they are for the restaurants. I verify all prices pre-publication via online menus or by calling up the restaurant. Most of my economic data comes from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Please let me know when I get something wrong via email or DM and I will do my best to amend any errors promptly and append a formal correction when appropriate. You can reach me at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
How do you avoid favorable treatment?
I try to fly under the radar! You won’t find too many photos of me on the Internet, and those that are out there — from the Bloomberg Terminal and an old Tinder profile — are not reflective of my current Sutton Style. And realistically, security cameras, longtime service staffers, and well-informed managers make being truly anonymous impossible, and if I ever have a public-facing job, that will change this equation too.
But making reservations under various names and email addresses help ensure that restaurants don’t get a heads up that I’ll be dining there on a particular evening. On that note: Most of my visits to a given venue are as a walk-in, which is my preferred way to dine anyway.
Do you do sponsored content?
I can’t get into that hotspot you recommended. Any chance you can help me get in?
Our ethics code doesn’t let us pull strings for anyone! Asking restaurants to do favors for The Lo Times would jeopardize our editorial independence. That said, we’ll likely put out occasional advice for snagging tables or bar seats at tough-to-get-into restaurants.
What types of places do you cover?
Anywhere people eat! Restaurants, pubs, panaderias, takeout spots, omakase spots, steakhouses, bakeries, train stations, food trucks, street vendors, supermarkets, stadiums, bathhouses, pop-ups, and elsewhere. I aim to have deep coverage of both affordable spots and the city’s more expensive restaurants. I’ve also long believed that the more frequently a publication can highlight venues that aren’t traditional sit-down restaurants, the better.
What’s with all the chomps?
More on that soon.
p.s. You can read more about what we’re going for in our inaugural post from June.
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