When Lavender Petty arrives at Chatter in Friendship Heights at midday on a Saturday in late summer, the 10-year-old is wearing big round sunglasses, a bedazzled white flat-brimmed baseball cap, and a T-shirt with the phrase “Haute Chocolate.” Her mother, Andrea Harrison, who doubles as her self-proclaimed “momager,” accompanies the hard-to-miss youngster.
Friends and family call the fifth grader from Capitol Heights Lavy, but online she’s known as the 5 Foot Critic. Encouraged by her mother, who has her own blog, and her grandfather, a chef, she started reviewing restaurants this past January and now has 30 reviews to her credit.
Hill Country had “meh” green beans that were “kind of cheesy” and “had a bunch of mushrooms in them that I wasn’t expecting,” but the cornbread was “great” and the baked beans were “amazing.” Overall: four stars. Fiola Mare was “classy, fancy and cozy” with “awesome” crab spaghetti that had a “hint of lemon” and noodles “cooked to perfection,” which earned the restaurant five stars. And Acadiana had a pork chop with a “bold and smoky flavor.” However she didn’t like the bread pudding (“It was just bread in like the shape of a muffin”): Four and a half stars.
The pint-sized critic judges restaurants on three main elements: ambience, food, and the service (“Does the waiter want to be here? Is he enthusiastic about his job?”). Additionally, she considers whether other kids would enjoy the restaurant and how accommodating they are to diners with food allergies. Lavender is allergic to dairy, peanuts, apples, and bananas.
After being seated at a back corner booth, she peruses the menu, trying to decide what she’ll eat and review.
“When she’s out for business I encourage her to make sure she chooses different things,” says her mother. “But sometimes she’s like, ‘I just want crab cakes.’ She loves crab cakes.”
Lavender has just one rule when making her decision. “I never order off the kids menu,” she says. “It’s always the same things: burgers, mac ‘n’ cheese, and make-your-own pasta. Some of us have an expanded palate and want more.”
In the end, she decides on wings and the blackened ahi tuna sandwich for lunch.
The petite reviewer was inspired by a steady diet of Chopped and Cutthroat Kitchen on the Food Network. “I’m always judging contestants from my point of view,” she says. “So I thought, ‘Why can’t I judge restaurants?’”
Her dream is to one day be a judge on a Food Network program or to have a show of her on the channel. She dines out as frequently as possible, though there’s no proscribed schedule. Her mother keeps a running list of places Lavender would like to dine, which is now more than 40 restaurants long. Dream dinner? Minibar.
As Lavender is discussing her plans, her wings arrive.
“Yaas!” says Lavender, diving in. “They’re good.”
“But what do they taste like,” her mom prompts.
“Spicy and hot, but tender,” says Lavender.
She starts writing her review in her little orange notebook.
“I encourage all good things,” says her mother, looking on. “I feel like with this venture she’s learning and mommy is learning, too. I like that she’s exploring it.”
To help pay for her dining adventures, Lavender sells a variety of goods on her website’s “Critique Boutique Shop.” There are T-shirts with the slogan “Eat. Critique. Repeat.,” food passports that serve as restaurant review journals, and composition notebooks with the word “Foodie” scrawled in red across the front. According to her mother, they have sold nearly $1,000 worth of merchandise. “Not bad considering we haven’t told anyone or really done any advertising,” says Harrison.
After daintily wiping wing sauce off her hands, Lavender delivers her appraisal of Chatter’s ambience. “I think it looks all nice and classy, because I like all the wood and the tablecloths,” she says and then turns back to her notebook to compose her thoughts on the service.
When her ahi sandwich is served, she puts down her big pencil to take a big bite.
“Soaked in sauce,” she declares.
“You should use that as a hashtag if you post a picture on Instagram,” her mother suggests.
“Good idea,” says Lavender, and then takes another bite.