25 Things to Know Before You Become a Restaurant Critic

Reviewers from Chicago, Philly, San Fran, and Washington serve us the inside scoop on eating like it’s your job (because it is).

The good life? Photograph courtesy of Shutterstock.

Restaurant critic. It’s a pretty sweet gig if you can get it—evenings spent dining on the company dime, days spent rhapsodizing about vichyssoise and vitello tonnato. In a corporate climate of cutbacks and slashed expense accounts, eating for a living seems like the cushiest job ever—especially when you consider all those wired-in foodies ready to Yelp their meals for free.

So, could you do that? To find out, we talked to five very good critics, including San Francisco-based Jonathan Kauffman, who recently relinquished his long-time anonymity to take a post at Tasting Table, and The Washingtonian’s own Ann Limpert, who once recorded a three-hour meal to ensure she got all the dishes just right. Read on to learn about the realities of life as a pro diner.

1) Nobody will think you deserve the gig you’ve got, including your friends. —Todd Kliman, Washingtonian food and wine editor and critic

2) You will get to treat all your friends to free dinner. Which also means they will only see you when you are at work. If they are vegan or eat gluten-free, just delete their contact info from your phone now. —Jonathan Kauffman, editor of Tasting Table SF and former dining reviewer for SF Weekly and Seattle Weekly

3) The chefs are not your friends, your audience, or your clients. You owe them nothing but your honesty. —Jason Sheehan, food editor for Philadelphia magazine and former dining critic for Seattle Weekly and Westword

4) Your iPhone is your best friend. No more running off to the bathroom to
scrawl out notes. Just text ’em to yourself. Although some places don’t
lend themselves to that method. I once used my phone to record an entire
three-hour dinner at Komi just so I could have all the servers’ dish
descriptions. —Ann Limpert, Washingtonian food and wine editor and critic

5) Restaurateurs will be nice to you on the phone, then badmouth you when they hang up. —Jeff Ruby, dining critic, senior editor, and humor columnist for Chicago magazine

6) Your friends will think you are a gravy train. They will not
realize—will never realize—that your budget is actually a research
budget, and that you already know what a martini tastes like. —T.K.

7) You will get hate mail. Some of it will be anonymous and cause you to lose sleep. —T.K.

8) It is ridiculously easy to get a credit card in a fake name. And getting one—or even better, a few—will allow you to be much less conspicuous than you’d be if you were to drop a wad of $100 bills on the table at Restaurant Eve. —A.L.

9) You will spend the rest of your life untagging yourself from Facebook photos. —J.R.

10) No matter how awesome it sounds that someone is going to pay you to eat lobsters and pie all day, there will come a day when it is just a job. Know also that this day will likely come the day AFTER your first bout with serious food poisoning and with an unbreakable deadline hanging over your head. —J.S.

11) You will eat out more than anybody in the world ought to. It’s not uncommon to go through stretches in which you are eating more than five meals in a single day. And most of those meals will not be a ten. Most will be a five. —T.K.

12) You will gain 20 to 30 pounds. Even if you exercise four days a week. More if you don’t. —J.K.

13) Your employer will not provide a budget for a personal trainer. —T.K.

14) If you have kids, they will not be good eaters until they are damn good and ready. —J.R.

15) You will forever be asked for restaurant recommendations, and that you cannot win. The asker will either take your advice and be disappointed, or he will not listen to you. —J.R.

16) Doctors, especially, love to talk restaurants. Don’t have that conversation while they’re doing anything with a scalpel. —A.L.

17) Every time you eat in someone’s home, someone will say, “How many stars would you give this?” —J.R.

18) Listen to your readers’ tips. They might not pan out all (or most) of the time, but you’ll occasionally get the lead on a hidden gem. —A.L.

19) Avoid thinking hierarchically, even if your audience and your publication demand it. Fine dining, ethnic dining. City restaurant, suburban restaurant. Etc., etc. Good food is good food. Your mission is to uncover it, whether it’s in a gas station or a swank hotel. —T.K.

20) Writing well about food and restaurants is harder than it looks. It is harder, for instance, than writing well about books. —T.K.

21) “Mouthfeel” is not a word. If any of you ever use the phrase “to die for” in describing the chocolate lava cake (or any other food item) I will find you and punch you. And no one wants to hear about what your cat thought of the leftovers. —J.S.

22) It is exceedingly easy to get sucked into being an insider. You will be privy to all kinds of gossip, you will receive loads of invitations to media events and dinners and publicity events, and other industry insiders (and friends thereof) will be pressing upon you constantly to cater more to their very specific needs in your writing. But you must resist this lure. That way lies fatuousness. You must remain an outsider. —T.K.

23) You will never want to celebrate your birthday or anniversary in a restaurant again. —J.K.

24.) You will go through stretches where the thought of going out to another dinner with white truffles will feel like an encumbrance. And thinking that thought, you will hate yourself. —T.K.

25) Nothing good has ever been made with truffle oil. —J.S.