Ten years ago this month, I wrote my first dining column for City Weekly, then called the Private Eye. Ten years. In that time I’ve written more than 800 food and wine columns and eaten at least 1,500 “professional” meals in more than 500 different restaurants. I don’t even want to think about the number of calories and pounds.
Since I began writing for City Weekly I’ve been married, divorced, lost both parents and fathered a beautiful little boy. I’ve been thanked and threatened, won awards and been called an asshole more times than I can recall. In 10 years, I’ve eaten in some of the world’s best restaurants and also some of the worst. Amazingly, I’ve suffered only a single case of food poisoning, and it didn’t happen in Utah. I’ve outlasted half a dozen managing editors and fought over compensation with every one of them. It all goes with the job.
On a Saturday afternoon 10 years ago, I spotted a notice in the Private Eye advertising for a new restaurant critic. I thought, “Well, hell, I could do that.” As it turns out, I was right. I’d eaten lunch that day at a place called Mountain Chicken and dashed off a quick review. A week later, I was a restaurant critic. The job paid $35 per week plus expenses, and I was in pig heaven.
In the past decade, I’ve probably been asked a hundred times how a person becomes a restaurant critic, and I still don’t know the answer. I guess in the words of the Nike pitchmen, you just do it. There is no licensing involved and no formal training. There is no Food Writer University. But reviewing a restaurant is really all about telling a story—a point too many food critics seem to miss, sadly. So it helps first to be a decent writer. Of course, a restaurant critic’s most important trait is passion. Frankly, I’m amazed and appalled at the number of food writers who don’t seem to have more than a passing interest in their subject. If a restaurant critic can’t muster up some passion for food and the people who make and serve it, he should move on to a less demanding profession, like politics.
A good food writer should be hungry, in every sense of the word. Thankfully, over the years, I’ve managed to bump up my salary to a near-living wage, so I’m not hungry in the starving-artist sense. But a food writer—and especially someone who writes about restaurants for a living—has to hunger for the next great dish, the next great meal, the next great cook. He must love to eat and have a passion for culinary discovery and adventure. For some people, adventure is climbing K2. For me, it’s encountering a perfectly executed dish in a restaurant no one has ever heard of.
Writing about restaurants in Utah isn’t always easy. In the past 10 years, I’ve eaten many more mediocre meals than good or great ones. But that’s probably also true of places like Detroit, Des Moines, Dubuque and Davenport. It’s the guys in New York, San Francisco and Paris who have it easy. They can pick and choose from star chef restaurants while I’m writing about Buca di Beppo. But not writing about highfalutin restaurants every week keeps things interesting, and it helps hone a food writer’s chops. I think it takes a certain skill to tell an interesting story about a so-so restaurant; anyone can write about the spectacular ones.
In 10 years, I’ve seen the Salt Lake and Park City culinary landscapes morph immensely. A decade ago, there was a dearth of restaurants that were any better than average. Eric’s Fine Dining. The New Yorker. La Caille. Maybe Adolph’s in Park City. But for a food maven, Zion was slim pickings indeed. Thankfully—or I’d be out of a job—the situation has improved dramatically.
Gastronomy Inc. pioneered the notion in Salt Lake City that eating out could be much more than a mere necessity, with restaurants like Baci, The New Yorker and The Oyster Bar peppering the downtown dining scene. Destination eateries like Metropolitan, Bambara, Log Haven, Fresco, Spencer’s, Tiburon, Santa Fe, Absolute!, Martine and Tuscany soon followed. Up in Park City, a restaurateur named Bill White single-handedly redefined the notion of fine dining with his eye-popping restaurants Grappa, Chimayo and Wahso. Chez Betty, Gamekeeper’s Grill, Zoom, Ziehm, Sage Grill, Mariposa, The Glitretind, Bistro Toujours, 350 Main and The Riverhorse added to Park City’s embarrassment of dining riches.
Interesting restaurants of a smaller scale also gave foodies something to buzz about during the last decade. Places like Brumby’s, Caffe Molise, Squatters, CafÃ© Bacchus, The Barking Frog, Third & Main, Lugano, CafÃ© Eclipse, Oasis, Capitol CafÃ© and Il Giardino come to mind. And then there were the joints where dÃ©cor just didn’t matter, the food was so good. I’m thinking of Little World, Q4U, Curry in a Hurry, CafÃ© Trang, Shogun, Red Iguana, Mama’s Plantation, Mazza, Thai Siam and Ruth’s Diner, just to name a few.
And let’s not forget the purveyors. In the past 10 years, places like Granato’s, Liberty Heights Fresh, Pirate O’s, Tony Caputo’s, Greek Market & Deli, Aquarius Seafood, PiÃ±on Market & CafÃ©, Pazzo, Valley Game & Gourmet, Juhl Haus, Cheese House, Emigration Market, Cucina, Rico, Chalet Market and Snider’s Bros. all helped to keep our kitchens well-stocked.
Aside from countless calories, a constant in this column has been my employer John Saltas. I’m honored to count him as not just a colleague, but a friend. Over the years we’ve butted heads, we’ve scratched and clawed, we’ve kissed and made up. Through it all, John has insulated me from the not-often-disinterested clutches of City Weekly sales staffers and advertisers. He’s never once asked me to pull a punch because something I wrote might offend an advertiser or kill a sale. But most crucial, Saltas taught me the single most important principle of reviewing restaurants (and perhaps of life in general) and he continues to remind me of it regularly: Be fair.
I think there was a time when getting off a good line in a review might have been more important to me than being accurate. And that’s not fair to the hard-working restaurateurs, chefs, servers, managers, bussers, dishwashers, bartenders and cooks I write about. So if my columns seem softer and gentler than they once were, it’s not because I’m pulling my punches. I still manage to irritate plenty of people, most of the time. But now more than I can ever remember, we seem to be living in a time of narrow-mindedness and meanness of spirit. And frankly, I don’t want to add to the spiritual pollution choking all of us. So these days if a restaurant really sucks, I’m more likely just to ignore it than to hammer it.
On the other hand, Dubya and his gang of arrogant punks have really gotten me riled up lately. I haven’t been this pissed off since that rabid freak Richard Nixon and his rancid band of thugs trolled the nation. I’m feeling cranky and will probably continue to feel that way until at least November. Still, I plan to breathe deeply, chant the Seinfeld line “SERENITY NOW!,” and continually remind myself of Saltas’ admonition to be fair.
Being paid to write about food almost makes me giggle. I feel my name should be Mr. Lucky. Aside from maybe being a porn star or playing third base for the Boston Red Sox, I can’t think of anything I’d rather do. And I’m not going anywhere. Because I know that somewhere out there, a talented cook is working on a flawless dish that I’ve yet to get my lips around.