There could probably have been no better training for a restaurant critic than to have spent five years as a recipe and menu consultant for the original Restaurant Associates where I worked for the legendary taskmaster Joseph Baum. In addition to being there for the creation of the luxuriously innovative Four Seasons, I later worked on several of their other creations including a fast-food German-style hot dog chain, and it was there that I learned this lesson:
Everything that goes into a restaurant — from the food to the forks, knives, napkins, salt and pepper shakers, chairs and tables, lighting and menus — represents a choice. At Restaurant Associates the entire staff took part in dry runs to test everything at every level. Later, as a critic, I found myself evaluating such elements almost as seriously as I did the food.
Everything chosen says something about management’s concern for its customers, whether for the fastest of fast-food chains or the most seriously expensive white tablecloth dining temples.
Sitting in a chair too low or too high for a table or counter I wonder if top and middle management had ever sat there and if so, did they find it comfortable? If at a counter, is there a place for handbags or packages? And how hard are the actual seats — very hard being perhaps the house’s way of assuring that customers will not linger — or perhaps not return?
Trying to cut through a very crisp and savory pizza slice, I am often thwarted by an unnecessarily cheap plastic knife with a “blade” that bends at its task, even as blades of steak knives might falter in some top steak houses. For the pizza slice that I fancy in my neighborhood, I bring a knife from home, always worried I may be arrested for carrying a concealed weapon.
Pepper mills should work perfectly, grinding to desired texture, and salt cellars should reliably sprinkle salt, which might mean that both shakers are kept full and clean.
Lighting is a constant problem challenging customers to read the menu or, even more importantly perhaps, the check. And table menus too often are designed with very small type printed in a shade of ink much too close to the background color of the page.
Other concerns for customers’ comfort include noise levels(!), a whole agonizing subject of its own along with pros and cons of background music: when, how and at what volume.
As though the above is not a challenging enough list, current requirements for restaurants seem even more daunting. Thinking back on life as a critic, I am happy not to be in the forefront today and for reasons that perhaps also indicate new and challenging dilemmas to restaurateurs.
For one thing there is the proliferation of critical voices of non-professionals, consumers who may never have been to the places they recommend, or who are favorites of the house returning favors. In addition there are well-justified ethical and practical matters such as promoting local, sustainable and organic foods, accommodating dietary wishes whether based on health or philosophy, all concerns that are harder to deal with at all levels.
Perhaps the biggest and, to me, the most discouraging change is the dwindling role of the simple, pleasantly serviceable neighborhood restaurant where locals might drop in two or three times a week. At the level of their food, the neighborhood restaurants cannot command prices high enough to cover costs of rising rents, fees to reservation sites and salaries with fringe benefits to the delivery staffs servicing takeout business.
With risks greater than ever in this already risky business, it is hard to imagine why anyone would enter it. Thankfully many brave souls do, and I keep fingers crossed for all.
Mimi Sheraton is a pioneering food writer and former restaurant critic for the New York Times, Cue and the Village Voice. She is a columnist for the Daily Beast and host of the Ask Mimi podcast for Sporkful. She has written 16 books, including “The German Cookbook,” which was reissued last year in a 50th anniversary edition, and a memoir, “Eating My Words: An Appetite for Life.” Her book, “The Whole World Loves Chicken Soup,” won both the International Association of Culinary Professionals and James Beard awards, and she won a James Beard journalism award for her article on the Four Seasons’ 40th anniversary in Vanity Fair. She was born in Brooklyn and is a 73-year resident of Greenwich Village. Her latest book, “1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die,” was published in 2015.