DCP dining critic takes readers through her food journey, debuts rating system

photo: DCP dining critic Paula Johnson’s love of food and restaurants started with her mother

By Paula Johnson

I am often asked what I am looking for when I review a restaurant. That’s the question that’s asked right after “How did you get that job?” I’ve been the Dayton City Paper dining critic for a while now, so it’s time to give a little background and shed some light on what I look for in a dining experience.

How does one become a food critic? 

I jokingly say I’ve been eating my whole life, but what I mean by that is that I have been passionately eating my whole life. When I was a child my mom was concerned I might have a tapeworm or overactive thyroid, which might possibly explain away the copious amounts of food I consumed. My mom was a single mom who worked two jobs, so the task of food preparation fell to my grandma. Everyone has fond childhood memories of grandma’s cooking, but I can say categorically that my grandma was the world’s worst cook. She embraced the instant, frozen, jarred, canned, and packaged with fierce ardor, buying into the freedom from drudgery, which was marketed to women by the burgeoning food industry at the time. I ate Swanson’s Hungry Man TV dinners for lunch when I came home from school every day, and my dinner came from a can. Grandma’s version of spaghetti? Campbell’s tomato soup over noodles. Until that fateful day Italian neighbor lady Dolly Ventrella got wind of it and kidnapped her for an afternoon. I will always be grateful to Dolly for one of the few highlights of home cooking I can recall. (Her recipe is the one I still make today.)

So food literacy didn’t happen at home, and I had a lot to learn. (I didn’t even taste Chinese food until I was in college!) But what I did know was that restaurants were magic. Going out to dinner was the biggest treat in the world, and my mom took us out as often as she could, mostly to steakhouse-style places in deference to my grandma’s limited palate. But my mom had an avid interest in food, though no outlet or time to develop it until much later in her life. (She eventually took cooking classes and even catered small parties.) My love of food and restaurants started with her.

Later in life I married a man who is probably the finest home cook I know, and that is where the real learning took place. Food was the central theme of life, with everything revolving around cooking or where and what to eat. All travel centered around culinary exploration, as well, and I was fortunate to have had the experience of dining at some of the world’s premier restaurants. Being able to write from a perspective of having eaten countless iterations of a particular dish is helpful, to say the least, and makes a judgment on that dish that much more credible. Knowing how that dish is made and about food preparation and cooking techniques is vital. To write about food, you don’t necessarily have to be the world’s best cook (I’m not), but you’ve got to know your sous vide from your soubise, your brunoise from your brûlée, and your mignardise from your mignonette.

Food to me is life, love, and passion. When I discover a place I find worthy, I can’t stop myself from forcing friends and family to go there. Immediately. I have rightly been accused of being a bossy boots in that regard. For years I would devour restaurant reviews, often disagreeing, saying, “I should be a food critic.” So when the DCP opportunity arose, none in my circle were surprised. This explains a bit about how I got here. Next comes an explanation of what standards of judgment I use when I write about a restaurant.

How do I rate my dining reviews?

I begin every review with a two-part question regarding the restaurant’s mission: what is the establishment setting out to do, and did they achieve it? This is key to parsing any dining experience fairly, which is the ultimate goal. A bar or diner-type place that doesn’t claim to serve anything fresh or local will never be my favorite place to dine. These kinds of places order from a warehouse, slit a bag, and drop the contents in a fryer. However, I will try to honestly recognize them for what they set out to be and how they achieve that, and write about my experience accordingly. It’s not usually these types of places that receive my ire; that’s saved for the places that hold themselves out to be what they ultimately are not. Often they are the sort of places that once were, but are no longer, “fine dining.” A place like the former would get a higher rating from me than one that purports to serve house-made and fresh menu items, but clearly doesn’t.

What about décor and table settings? It really depends upon the type of place, again getting back to what the restaurant is trying to be. I don’t expect linen napkins or elegant stemware in a casual place, but I rail against anything in a plastic cup or butter in little packets in a place with a higher price point.

As far as price is concerned, if the place is expensive, I look for why that is and will have no problem with it, keeping the following conditions in mind. I look for freshness and quality of ingredients, skill and thought in execution of preparation, and attractiveness of plating presentation. If a place is a tad pricey, then attention should be paid to every small detail. So many places only focus on the center-of-the-plate item, paying scant attention and care to what’s on the rest of the plate. You might serve a great steak, but if you offer up a ho-hum side dish and a salad with dressing from a food service company, I am not going to be impressed and will likely consider the price point too high.

Similarly, if a place is expensive I will expect the décor and service to reflect that in a commensurate way. If I am going out for a special occasion and want to dress up for a fancier evening, the room’s appearance and ambiance are important. A place with elegant, tasteful surroundings or a cool, hip vibe can really enhance a dining experience. Restaurants that pay attention to interior design and how it impacts diners are always appreciated.

Noise level in dining rooms is something I regularly comment on. That information is invaluable to diners who want to have intimate private conversation, as well as for those who just don’t hear particularly well and don’t want to shout.

I mentioned service, and while there are basic standards of proper server decorum that apply universally, I have much higher expectations from a white-tablecloth-style place than I do for a mom-and-pop family restaurant. I expect a well-informed, attentive, slightly more formal, highly competent level of service in places that are fine dining. A little more casual is acceptable and welcome at a diner. In either place, my water glass should be kept full and I shouldn’t have to search endlessly for my server to collect the check.

Because I am asked so often how I do what I do, I’ve developed a rating system to help further demystify my thinking:

Cuisine 50%
Value/Price 25%
Service 25%

I’m hoping this system provides an at-a-glance summation of what a place is like, with the reader being able to glean more in-depth information about my experience by reading the whole dining review. If a restaurant is notable in its execution of a fine dining atmosphere, including its décor and experience, I’ve marked it with a tuxedo.

As always, I welcome reader feedback as to what you look for in a restaurant when you dine out. Bon appétit!

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Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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