Think it’s easy to be a restaurant reviewer? Nancy Rommelmann has a few words on the topic
I began my journalistic career as a reviewer of bars, a job that drew the drooling envy of my friends, and more comments than I can count along the lines of “I can’t believe that you get paid to drink!” Then, as people turned thirty, paired up and had kids, I noticed less envy, more incredulity. “How do stay up late at night,” they’d ask. “We’re asleep by 10:30.” Classifying them as weaklings, I kept at it, until several years ago, when I gave up the monthly column, and discovered the joy of getting in bed early to watch reruns of Seinfeld.
Lucky me, the parallel shift to restaurant reviewing proved a piece of cake. It’s a great gig, being able to eat on someone else’s dime; to be paid to travel to exotic locales and chat with chefs whose most earnest desire is to put pleasing things in my mouth. And yet there are pitfalls, usually involving dreadful food and tight deadlines. While every reviewer deals with the occasional dreary soup, tasteless bread, and pasta salad dressed with Kraft Italian, there have been times when I’ve actually been afraid to eat what’s put before me.
Once, with one day to get in a column, a weekly 750-worder more about scene than dinner, I brought a group to a German restaurant I’d heretofore only drank in. Recalling the truly wacky décor; the hundreds of empty Liebfraumilch bottles and paper flowers and Christmas lights and eight-by-ten glossies of Liberace crowding every wall and surface, I figured even if the food were mediocre, it couldn’t wreck the place. And so I chuckled at the collection of gouged Cadillacs and pitted industrial-size KitchenAids in the parking lot; tried to see as authentic the six-foot-two waitress in dirndl and black socks hulking in the doorway. The nickel didn’t actually drop until I caught a whiff of whatever was cooking in the kitchen, an aroma I can sum up as old peas in a pan. The large restaurant was empty save for five other people: two Japanese tourists leafing through a 1985 guidebook, and three florid German men, one of whom orated, his hand alternately making circles in the air and smacking the table. With trepidation, we seated ourselves at a long table whose head was occupied by, I kid you not, a suit of armor.
“Vee haf tonight NO beef. NO chicken. NO fish,” the waitress boomed. “Veal and schnitzel only!”
What arrived were triangles of Spam and hot dogs, oily and foul smelling, surrounded by piles of canned corn and beets. We pushed these to the center of the table and glugged great steins of Spatzel. The next day, I squeaked out a column about a local sushi joint.
The particular misadventure had been my fault; others are attributable to friends, who rave about their favorite restaurants and beg me to review them. The merits of these places usually have more to do with the proximity to the friends’ homes than the food, and once landed me in a Russian restaurant that, because no one who worked there spoke English, the “stake” on the menu turned out to be a raw pork chop. But, my friend wanted to know, what did I think of the eleven-member, all-male band with the purple blouses? Well, I thought their rendition of “Mandy” had been surpassed only by the Huey Lewis medley.
I have been served pho in which floated a tiny green earthworm; a blintz topped with sour cream and an eyelash; eggs with the consistency of phlegm after being sent back twice, and a Toad in the Hole that surely would have tasted better had it actually been made of toad, rather than the hard tam of Yorkshire pudding surrendered beneath canned gravy and gray gristles of beef. This was tragic fare, the sort of desperate “I’ll eat this because I’m starving” item one might choke down in a second-tier ski lodge.
But I should have known better, as almost the entire assemblage at this Olde Irish Pub were using walkers. At the risk of having half the membership of AARP write me nasty letters, one must take care when considering dining were everyone appears to have been born during the Hoover administration, as they are dining on memories. While I’m pleased that they are and their children enjoyed many happy times there in bygone yesterdays, chances are no one who cooked here then is alive today, no less shaking the pots and pans. As a chef of my acquaintance once said, “If I’m not in the kitchen, it takes exactly three days for a dish of mine to become unrecognizable.”
My last story is a sad one, as I so much wanted to enjoy the experience at this tiny café in upstate New York. The owner had been through hard times: abandoned by her husband; fired after the foreclosure of the hardware store where she’d worked for twenty years. And yet she’d pulled it together enough to realize a lifelong dream of opening a little bakery, in her home. Having been told—by my mother, no less—that I might be able to generate a little sorely needed press, she plied me with the heaviest Crisco-based cookies and coffeecake I’d ever eaten. As I washed down the bulwark of dough with weak tea, she watched me, her eyes watery with hope and desperation. Did I think, she asked, that I might be able to write a little something? And so I have.