An editorial by Gary Nager
Throughout the nearly 18 years I have been the owner, editor and primary food “critic” for this publication, I have probably received as much praise and criticism for my dining reviews as I have about controversial road projects. Maybe more.
And, to be honest, I’m O.K. with that. I’ve heard it all before — “He never says anything bad about a restaurant, so how can you trust him?” But, the part many people don’t understand is that I don’t consider myself to be a “critic.” I prefer to think of myself as a “dining reviewer,” but either way, I believe my job, in these cases, is to tell you the things I like about any place I review — from ambiance and service to as many items on the menu as possible.
Despite what some people think, the easiest thing in the world is to say a place has fresh fish that isn’t fresh or that their steak often has more gristle than flavor. But, rather than let any such criticism see print, the thing I do is go back to the restaurant owner and/or chef and tell them about any problems.
“If I don’t like what I had, I will always tell you,” I’ve told countless restaurateurs. “But, if I like what I had, I will tell (approximately) 70,000 of my closest friends.”
And, believe me, I’ve had plenty of uncomfortable sitdowns with restaurant owners over the years. But, whether an eatery advertises with me or not, I still believe my job is to help promote area businesses, not put them out of business. It’s an attitude I brought with me from my time living, working and owning my own media buying/ad agency in New York City for more than a decade. I saw some truly amazing restaurants go out of business because a “critic” for the New York Post or New York magazine said his “pasta wasn’t al denté enough. One star (out of five).”
I’m sure, for some people, it’s something of a rush to have that kind of power, but I knew how expensive it was just to rent space anywhere in Manhattan or even Long Island or Westchester County and I saw restaurant owners who worked 80- or 90-hour weeks and sweat blood every day just to open and maintain a place.
So, I decided, at about age 30, that if I ever wielded that kind of power (as some say I do today), I would do so to help local restaurant owners, not try to make them shut their doors.
My years growing up in Long Island and living and working in Manhattan allowed me to experience every type of cuisine, from every country in Asia to Zimbabwe (African food, to date, has never been high on my list, but I’m still open-minded). More important, at least to me, is that I have learned what I like and don’t like over the years. To be my favorite Chinese place, you’d best have great egg rolls and spare ribs, a spicy shredded pork dish that makes me sweat and amazing fried rice. Italian places should know that garlic is the spice of life and yes, the pasta should be served al denté without having to ask for it. A great Japanese steak house has to have not only a tender and tasty hibachi steak, but also a great seared tuna and white meat fish (grouper, snapper, etc.) sushi.
While it’s true that I won’t just put it in print if I don’t like something I sample at a local eatery, if you can’t tell the difference between a “rave” review of mine and a…let’s say lukewarm one, all I can say is that most people I’ve talked to in person about this subject definitely have known the difference. They’ll even tell me, “You really love Acropolis, but you were just O.K. with __________ (go ahead, fill in that blank yourself).” I try to not overuse words like “my favorite” or “the best” in my reviews, so if I do give something one of those titles in a story, I don’t believe you can go wrong sampling it.
In fact, I stand behind every word of every dining review I’ve ever done. If you try what I recommend, more often than not (although everyone’s tastes are still different), you’ll at least enjoy your meal. If you try things I haven’t mentioned…well, I obviously can’t vouch for menu items I haven’t tried or dishes I don’t normally enjoy, so you’re more on your own at those times.
The most important thing, at least to me, is that the restaurant owners, time and time again, tell me that my reviews work better than ANY other advertising medium. From Day One, there has been a big run on mojo park and merluza at la Cubanita Café, people stopping into Jalapeno just to sample my favorite seared grouper (or amberjack, etc.) sashimi and other fresh fish and to 900º Woodfired Pizza for the New York-style (and woodfired oven) pizzas and pastas since my respective reviews of each came out.
The fact is that while some people only want to see me be “honest” and say when I’ve had a bad meal or two somewhere, most of you apparently not only enjoy reading my reviews (which I always put in the last few pages of an issue to ensure that the back of the book gets as many eyeballs as the front), you actually go to the places and try them…and usually try my recommendations. And, best of all, you tell the restaurant owner(s) that I sent you and I can’t thank you enough for that!
In other words, I won’t apologize for not trying to put anyone out of business, even though any number of restaurants I’ve written nice things about over the years have gone the way of the dinosaur. The bottom line is that even though this isn’t NYC, it’s tough to operate a dining establishment anywhere and my goal is still to help, especially the mom-and-pop places.