Will Not Work For Food

As some of you may already know, I have resigned my position at The Arizona Republic. Although I was grateful to be offered a journalism job at a time when they’re particularly hard to come by, it was time to move on. My last day is August 4th.

It’s hard not to notice that my last post before this one, dated April 5, was my sharing the good news of my recently acquired full-time position as Southeast Valley  restaurant critic at the paper.  And then I dropped off the face of the blogosphere, which was not exactly coincidence.

I counted up how many reviews I’ve written since I started writing for the paper back in June of 2008. You know what number I came up with? 180. 180 restaurants in two years. My God, it’s a wonder I’m not 40 pounds overweight instead of 20. Still, I’m a beast. So there’s that.

And then there’s the aspect of mind numbing repetition: two restaurants a week, two ledes a week, two décor descriptions a week, two conclusions a week, two everything every week. It’s a treadmill, I tell you, and the pace can suck the creativity and enthusiasm right out of you.

Do I sound like a whiner? By all means, take the reins. Then get back to me in six months, a year, 20 years. Clearly, some people are born to this job (John Mariani and other fabulous writers of his ilk come to mind)  and seem content to do it forever. And maybe some people aren’t. Or maybe I just need a little break.

It has been suggested to me that writing a 500-word review is an easy task, something to be handily banged out in an hour, but I beg to differ. In many ways, short reviews are more difficult. There’s less room or time for graceful writing, transitions, jokes and asides, discussing trends, establishing underlying philosophy or creating a solid argument. Much of the good stuff, the little nuggets that make food writing fun get left in the dust for the sake of brevity.

Conventional wisdom holds (although I seriously wonder who dreamed this one up) that people reading on the web are like good old Sergeant Friday, too busy for anything more than “just the facts, Ma’am.” I disagree. It doesn’t matter if you’re holding a book, a newspaper, or a magazine or you’re staring at your computer screen, you still want the writing to be entertaining and brimming with personality. Otherwise, why bother?

Now, that I’ll have a smidge more time, I hope to stay a bit more current here at Wild Lavender. I still love food, and I still have strong opinions. That will never change. Talk to you soon.

Star-Craving Mad

Although I enjoy everything else about my free-lance gig at The Republic, I’ll admit, I dither unto insanity when it comes to assigning stars to restaurants. I reviewed restaurants for 21 years (give or take) without ever bestowing a single star. I just wrote my little reviews and somehow, my readers divined whether I thought the place I was talking about was crappy or fantastic or somewhere in between. And do you know why they were able to do this? They could read, God bless ‘em. They could read and they did read and they discerned what I was saying.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the requirement. People are in a hurry and they want a bottom line, everything summed up neatly, no real reading comprehension required. I can appreciate the whole need-for-speed thing, but I’m an English major, a word person, and I’ve never liked math. Stars represent quantification, and numbers are something I naturally resist. How do you assign a number to so many disparate factors?

Seriously, it drives me crazy. First of all, my stars and Howie’s stars are two completely different things. Given my beat (Everyday Dining), I’m often reviewing inexpensive, family-run operations that have put very little money into their décor.

Does my four-star review of an ethnic hole-in-the-wall equate with his four-star review of a high-end restaurant owned by a celebrity chef? Of course not, and I realize that most readers are smart enough to know the difference. Still, it makes for big discrepancies.

When I first started my current job, my editor suggested that I consider the restaurant’s décor and service when I assigned the stars, but in many ways, that has served to confuse the issue for me even further. If I’m in a barbecue joint, eating a yummy rack of ribs, do I care if the décor is nonexistent, and should I let that become a factor when I’m passing out the stars? Couldn’t there be a five-star rib restaurant based on food alone? The best rib joint in town, and who gives a hoot what it looks like?

Then again, what if I’m in a sweet, sincere little restaurant where the owners have poured time and money into making the ambiance lovely but the food isn’t stellar? Let’s say the food is just average but the setting is adorable? Do I adjust for that—because the place is likeable, even if the food is just so-so?

And what do three stars mean anyway? Our key says that five stars=excellent, four=very good and three=good. Well, I’m a former school teacher, and when I had five grades to work with (A,B,C,D,F), a C (which is roughly equivalent to three stars) meant an absolutely average job. Not horrible, not wonderful, just average. Does “good” mean the same as “average” to you? Do you see how stars are devoid of nuance?

And what about prices? Should I be comparing week to week? If I’ve had something exceptionally good for $15, should all other $15 entrees that fall short of THAT $15 entrée suffer for the comparison?

And then there’s the whole history of stars I’ve already given out. I say to myself, “Wait a minute. I gave such-and-such-a-place three and a half stars. Isn’t this place as good as that one?” Then I worry about “grade inflation.” Sigh.

I’ll tell you straight up, I can think of about a dozen restaurants to whom I was probably either too generous or too stingy with stars. I’m human, subject to moods and anything but infallible. So here’s my suggestion: just read the danged review from first to last and decide if the restaurant in question is one you’d like to visit based on my words, mmmkay?