Being a food critic isn’t all champagne and caviar

By Paula Johnson

Photo: Writing a bad review is the worst part of dining out any year for DCP Epicurean Empress Paula Johnson

On a Monday morning at the end of 2016, I found myself where I am most every Monday morning, sitting in the DJ booth with Dan Edwards at 92.9 FM, talking about the week’s dining review. This show, since it was at year’s end, featured my Top 16 of 2016. What really gratified me as I looked back to compile the list was that I had been to a lot of great places, and I had eaten a lot of really good food, far more than I had remembered. Plus, I had a lot of terrific restaurant experiences, highlighted by great atmosphere and quality service. Writing the list led me to reflect on the nature of this job, and how reliving the best meals is the great part. But I also had to think about the hardest part of being a food critic. This job, like any other, requires you to take the crunchy with the smooth, as my dining companion PIP (Palate In Progress) is wont to say. (Strange that he uses food metaphors a lot, engineer and staunch non-food guy that he insists he is.)

You get PAID for that?

First, let me say that without exception, I have not met anyone who, upon learning what I do, doesn’t exclaim, “Wow! That’s the best job ever!” and I would largely agree. I mean, yes, I get paid to eat out and then write what I think about the experience. Sometimes I get giddy when I remember that I get paid for my opinion. But there are times when this job is harder than it seems, and, at the risk of sounding like the world’s whiniest b$#tch, I am going to spill: What’s so hard about this job?

I looked to a few other folks in the business for what they’ve experienced, and here’s what some of them said:

“You will eat out more than anybody in the world ought to. It’s not uncommon to go through stretches in which you are eating more than five meals in a single day. And most of those meals will not be a ten. Most will be a five.” I don’t eat out with that much frequency, but I agree with that statement. Sometimes I think this job’s tagline should be, “I ate it, so you don’t have to.”

“You will gain 20 to 30 pounds. Even if you exercise four days a week. More if you don’t.” Oh, how true this has been for me, as well as PIP.

“You will forever be asked for restaurant recommendations, and that you cannot win. The asker will either take your advice and be disappointed, or he will not listen to you.” Also true. I have texts from friends telling me my recommendation sucked, and a few letters to the DCP telling me the same. (I have also received letters with spirited defense of some of Dayton’s sacred-cow dining establishments, which I have found to be sorely lacking.) One of the difficulties of writing a review is that I generally try a place just once, so what I write is almost a snapshot of that evening. I have had the experience of returning to a place and being really disappointed.

If an experience is truly dreadful, I will go back, just to be sure. If it’s still bad, cue the angst and antacids because here it comes, the hardest part of my job: The Bad Review. I truly love restaurants, and I know how hard a business it is. I genuinely want a place to succeed. Ruth Reichl, one of the foremost food writers out there, described the saddest experience she had on a book tour. A man came up to her with his eight-year-old son and told her she’d written a bad review of a restaurant he worked in, and he had been fired the next day.

Write it and weep

I wrote a pretty scathing review of a Dayton restaurant this past year (I did go twice, to be sure), and I felt just awful doing it. (The easy ones practically write themselves. Typically, after a great meal I sit at the computer the following morning with all my boxes of left-overs, happily eating and tasting again as I write.) The reviews that are going to be unfavorable are like walking around with something in my shoe for days, constantly niggling at me and reminding me that I have a deadline looming. Then, I am ALWAYS down to the wire (occasionally pleading for an extension) because I don’t want to do what I have to do. In the case of this particular bad review, I was stunned to receive a letter from the restaurant manager. I expected her to lash out, but instead, what she said was amazingly brave and humble. She wrote that she had initially discounted what I had said, but then a former customer brought to her attention that what I wrote was why he had stopped coming.  The manager vowed to examine and change a lot of what the restaurant was doing. In this case, I am hopeful I will discover the opportunity to write something great when I return.

The Top 16 of 2016

The restaurant review is meant to educate and entertain the diner.  To get people to try what they don’t know is part of the mission of writing about food. And it’s also meant to be a wake-up call to restaurants that are not doing a great job. Yes, I had my chance to grumble (see above) but I also had my chance to gush in 2016. And to that end, here are my Top 16 of 2016, broken into four categories plus one for honorable mentions:

Fine Dining

1  Meadowlark

2  Park City Club

3  Nibbles

4  Michael Anthony’s at the Inn at Versailles

Casual Dining

1  Tavernette

2  Nelly’s

3  Jimmy’s Italian Kitchen


1  MoJo’s Bar and Grill

2  571 Draft House

3  Sea Jax Tavern

World Cuisine

1 Kabuki

2  Song’s Sushi

3  Sultan’s

Honorable Mentions  

1  Scruffy’s Hot Dogs

2  DiSalvo’s Deli

3  Cin City Sea and Steak

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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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