The Critic's Notebook: Point of No Return

In a business based on novelty, repeat performances are rare.

By Alice Levitt December 1, 2016

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Normal people have a few favorite restaurants to which they return habitually. Usually, those include a handful of regular haunts for weeknights when they're too tired to cook. Maybe there's a favorite place or two for birthdays and anniversaries. And so on. You know who doesn't have those things? Restaurant critics.

This fact was recently highlighted for me when I dined at Arturo Boada Cuisine for the first time. When I was done with my meal (the highlight was six bowls each filled with tiny scoops of house-made gelato and sorbetto), chef-owner Boada said he expected to see me back soon. Not wanting to give him false expectations, I told him that was unlikely—though I enjoyed my meal, most of my repasts are dictated by my reportorial needs. He pressed—perhaps some night friends and I should come over for a celebratory dinner. Probably not. I was lucky enough to be reviewing Bistro Menil this year on my birthday. Even special occasions are almost always marked by work meals, hopefully good ones. 

As I mentioned in the first Critic's Notebook, the restaurant critic's lifestyle is often not wholly our own in a way that's unique to this singular calling. In my experience there are two kinds of critics: The ones who are able to disassociate—from what they want to eat that day, from socializing with potential conflicts of interest, from hunger or fullness—and those who burn out. I've known plenty of folks who once wrote full-time about restaurants but left the biz to start an eatery of their own, report on other subjects or work as publicists. All of those lines of work allow people to do two things that those of us in the trenches cannot: cook for themselves (even if it's not all the time) or indulge cravings, usually on the day they arise.

Of course, I do occasionally have a free night. But those are spent on dates with my Peloton, catching up on leftovers, and not eating that chicken Parm, no matter how much I know it will comfort me. Similarly, social occasions are typically structured around a meal I have to report. In the rare event that I "take a night off" for a friendly dinner, it's kind of a big deal. I still talk about Al Aseel as the first restaurant in Houston I went to more than once not because I had to but because I wanted to. Also, I'm not sure if there have been any others yet.

Really, it's the opposite of the lifestyle of a model, actress or athlete. Their careers also dictate what they put into their bodies, and the same disassociation often holds true. I've seen the diets my showbiz friends have put themselves through—they are eating not what they want, but what they must. Luckily, for me that's more likely to mean multiple courses of truffles or chocolate, not whatever they can find that doesn't cast a shadow.

And though I make it a practice not to get too friendly with any chefs or restaurateurs, I do cling to just enough humanity to feel guilty about not being able to return to restaurants. This is especially true when dealing with non-native restaurateurs who may be less culturally familiar with the concept of what I do. Their eager faces light up when I tell them how much I enjoyed my meal, followed by some version of "hope to see you soon." And the best I can usually give is an empty promise. I had a favorite Bosnian restaurant in Vermont that I was able to visit once or twice a year—every time the owner seemed a little sad it had taken me so long to come back. The truth is, a glowing recommendation in print means that I loved the restaurant, and I may even think about it often, but I rarely have the option of a return engagement. And when I do, this is a city with 12,000 options.  

Of course, I've only been in Houston for a year. As I get more and more classics under my belt (perhaps a little too literally), I may not need to visit every place every time I write a short mention of it. But for now, restaurateurs, please know, it's not you, it's me.

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