Do restaurant critics pay for their meals or does everything get comped, in hopes of coercing a favorable review? Jack L, St. Louis
In years past, there was a certain local colymnist who (allegedly) almost never saw a restaurant bill. The story goes the last place to drop a check on his table was never mentioned in the column again. Ah, but this person was not a dining critic.
All the dining critics that I’ve ever encountered have expense accounts for that purpose and are under strict orders to accept nothing gratis, lest some quid pro quo be expected.
If the critic is anonymous (and Relish readers know I’m a firm believer in anonymity), the “free food” issue would be moot, but if the critic is known or made, it can get uncomfortable. Oftentimes an owner/manager will send out complimentary courses, or tastes, or alcoholic beverages, either to provide a bigger picture and/or to flavor the review.
The Association of Food Journalist (AFJ) Guidelines “request that the cost of the items be added to the check. If such an incident occurs, it should be acknowledged in the review.”
Does any of the above happen? Yes and no. The reviewer can ask to be charged appropriately, and the restaurant often ignores the request. The reviewer can then either become insistent or just let it go, at the risk of making the situation even more tenuous. In my days as a restaurant reviewer, I admit to doing both.
It was not until later that I learned of the succinct line the late, great Joe Pollack used to shut down that discussion: “If I don’t pay in full, I don’t write.” His widow and current SLM food critic Ann Lemons Pollack said he used the line often and effectively. Then there was the time “an envelope was delivered to Joe’s house filled with cash—hundreds of dollars—from a restaurant I will not name,” recalls Pollack. “Joe sent it back and never went there again.”
Editor's note: SLM's lead dining critic Dave Lowry wished to chime in on this subject. We begrudgingly complied.
AH, JUST A MOMENT THERE, BOSS
We feel it critically important to add that any aversion to the accepting of envelopes stuffed with one-hundred dollar bills delivered to the table of Your Restaurant Critic should by no means be construed as a universal disaffection for such blandishments and we are entirely open-minded in entertaining them.
And while the extent of proffered food in our dining adventures to date has consisted of some sweet gratis packets of hot sauce at Taco Bell, should a couple of extra toasted ravioli happen to fall on our plate at Imo’s when we just might be there this coming Saturday night, or if say, that Zinfandel we might order would just happen to get left in the cellar at Tony’s when we could possibly be dropping by for a review real soon, and they brought out instead a bottle of the Haute Brion Pessac Leognan, the uh, ’99 vintage, for example, well, let’s just say we’ll be real grateful, if you get our drift.