Welcome to What The Food?, a column that explains why things are the way they are in Toronto’s dining scene. Last time, we looked at why you don’t tip at fast food places. In this edition, we ask longtime critic Joanne Kates how she reviews a restaurant.
Every week, there’s some best-of restaurant list declaring the top places that opened this month or the best places to get a fruit salad east of Yonge Street. It’s become a bit of an everyone-gets-a-trophy situation. But diners still look to the career critics like The Star’s Amy Pataki, The Globe and Mail’s Chris Nuttall-Smith, and Joanne Kates from Post City for recommendations on where (and where not) to eat. So this got us thinking: How exactly does a critic review a restaurant?
Kates has been a professional critic for four decades (“I started in 1972,” she says), and with her annual 100 Best T.O. Restaurants list recently published, we asked her strategy on determining whether a place gets her approval.
“If you’re going to get my bum in the chair, what do you have to do?” Kates begins as she sits at one of the little tables inside the St. Lawrence Market one afternoon. (She was just buying chicken, but for photo purposes she wore her carnival mask.) “I’m looking at the chef’s bio on the chef database to see what they’ve done or look at the [restaurant's] press release. If the chef hasn’t done anything before, it’s really hard to get my bum in the chair because how do I know you can cook? I only have so many nights in a week to go out.”
Two weeks is the typical buffer zone Kates gives for a new restaurant before it’s up for critiquing. (Susur Lee’s Luckee, which opened last month, is the youngest restaurant on her Top 100 list.) Still, her belief is: “if you’re open and you’re taking people’s money [at full price], are you not open for scrutiny?”
After choosing a place, she’ll make a reservation under a fake name and then look at her wardrobe options. “What do a lot of the people look like there? If I’m going to some downtown hipster place, I’m going to be wearing black jeans, black boots, and a black leather jacket, hold the jewelry. I’m doing everything I can to fade into the background.” Her longtime friends and partner—people who know the drill—are her dining companions for the night.
“When I get there, I’m quiet. I don’t complain even if I’m treated like crap. I never send things back. If I’m asked how the food is, even if it’s borderline puke-ish, I’ll say, ‘Great thanks!’ so I’m not drawing attention to myself. If I have questions, I get the person I’m with to ask, and I also tell them to be quiet. They know the rules. They eat what I tell them to eat, and they won’t order a lot of alcohol because my expense account doesn’t have room for that.”
She’ll use her phone to take notes since it’s not unusual for diners to text, tweet, or Instagram their meal these days. Before the advent of smartphones, she’d jot down notes in the washroom or on her lap and, for a time, she even hid a microphone up her sleeve. While some critics do follow-up phone interviews with the chef, Kates opts not to.
“I never do a follow-up interview with a restaurateur because I learned early on in my restaurant-reviewing career that if I talk to them, the milk of human kindness would start to flow in me and I would have a hard time writing an honest review if there were negative things. It’s just how nature works, and I’m desperate to be objective as I could so I never talk to them.”
Kates started working on her top 100 list last September, visiting two or three places a week until March or April, when she’ll go out four or five times to make the deadline. She doesn’t revisit all 100 restaurants from last year’s list. “If I did, I’d probably also go to 25 or 30 that don’t make the list, so I’ll end up going to 130. Do you know anyone who goes to 130 restaurants in a year?” she says. “I’m not willing to ruin my life to do that, so every year I target about a third of the restaurants that need revisiting.”
She’ll visit places she hasn’t been to in say, two years, or restaurants that got a new chef since she was last there. Restaurants she has not visited this time around will hold on to the same spot as the previous year unless a new eatery bumps them to a new ranking. The unpredictability of the restaurant industry can make for an expensive road block: JP Challet’s pricey Ici Bistro was supposed to be on in the top 10 but, after Kates enjoyed a meal there with three of her friends on the company dime, Challet announced that he was moving the restaurant.
Restaurant reviewing is an expensive undertaking, and Kates believes critics like her are a dying breed as user-generated review sites flourish. “There’s a shootout going on between us—what you’d call the old-school restaurant critics who are paid to be objective as much as possible—and the free blogosphere that isn’t monotized very well yet,” she says. “Someone really sharp is going to figure out how to monetize online content and people will pay for it like they used to pay for newspapers. Maybe the phoenix will rise and restaurant criticism will rise again. If not, the restaurant criticism of my style is dead.”
What The Food? appears every other week. Wonder why something is the way it is in a Toronto restaurant? Email email@example.com.