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Dining Out: Secrets from America's Leading Critics, Chefs, and Restaurateurs

Dining Out: Secrets from America's Leading Critics, Chefs, and Restaurateurs

by Karen Page, Andrew Dornenburg, Michael Donnelly, Fiona Donnelly

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This book is the first of its kind to examine what defines fine food in America and it introduces us to many individuals who shape our views about food. Using other successful Dornenburg/Page books as a model, the authors once again base their analysis on interviews with chefs, restaurateurs and critics. This insider's guide to the process of restaurant reviewing


This book is the first of its kind to examine what defines fine food in America and it introduces us to many individuals who shape our views about food. Using other successful Dornenburg/Page books as a model, the authors once again base their analysis on interviews with chefs, restaurateurs and critics. This insider's guide to the process of restaurant reviewing will excite anyone with a serious interest in food. It also features top sites on the Internet that provide restaurant reviews. 'If I were a restaurateur, I would expect all my staff to read this book. As a restaurant critic, I found it a fascinating insight into the minds of other critics and more especially the minds of some of the people who are serious about running a restaurant.'

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
Ever dreamed of becoming a restaurant critic? Or even just stepping into a food writer's shoes for a week or two? Then Dining Out will fascinate you. In this entertaining and informative book, the authors of Becoming a Chef and Culinary Artistry dish the real dirt on the world of restaurants and the writers who critique them. Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page give the skinny on the power of restaurant critics to make or break an establishment and offer tips for having the best possible dining experience. — —Kate Murphy Zeman
Michael Ruhlman
Offering insiders' knowledge and illuminating insights from some of the country's best chefs and food critics.
The New York Times Book Review
Dwight Garner
In the food world, Nora Ephron has written, nothing is what it seems. "People who seem to be friends are not. People who admire each other call each other Old Lemonface and Cranky Craig behind backs. People who tell you they love Julia Child will add in the next breath that of course her husband is a Republican and her orange Bavarian cream recipe just doesn't work." Ephron wrote those words in 1968, but little has changed in the intervening 30 years. While spats between members of the food establishment draw headlines only rarely -- chef David Bouley's nasty break-up with business partner Warner LeRoy is the latest example -- knives are kept sharp in private. Gossip and intrigue are at a constant, rolling boil.

Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page's new book, Dining Out, promises to deliver the dish on the restaurant world circa 1998. The authors fanned out across the country, interviewing dozens of prominent critics (Ruth Reichl, Patricia Unterman), chefs (Alice Waters, Daniel Boulud) and owners (Danny Meyer, Sirio Maccioni), and they've returned with a book that's like a giant and slightly undercooked cassoulet -- the tasty bits are in there, but you've got to work to dig them out.

"Food has become our national obsession," the authors write, and thanks to the proliferating number of city magazines, web sites, Zagat guides and grungy 'zines, there's no escaping restaurant criticism -- everywhere you turn, somebody's pushing a steaming bowl of adjectives in your face. (Steve Forbes tosses in a few reviews at the close of his monthly columns; Consumer Reports now rates chain restaurants.) But as Dining Out makes clear, a handful of critics -- usually those at major daily newspapers -- continue to wield an almost monopolistic power. "The King of Spain is waiting in the bar," Le Cirque owner Maccioni is reported to have said to Times critic Reichl, "but your table is ready."

Dining Out is crammed with anecdotes about critics' lives and methods, and about the lengths restaurants go to in order to spot them and, ideally, make them happy. Reichl talks about her outsize wig collection (she's the lady in black on Dining Out's cover, by the way), and the authors report that more than one restaurant has offered a reward to any employee who spots her at a table. Outside of New York, most critics say disguises aren't necessary. As long as you make the reservation under another name, and don't draw undue attention to yourself, there's little chance you'll be identified. Once a critic is spotted, Dornenburg and Page write, chefs leave little to chance -- most cook two versions of everything the reviewer has ordered, and bring out the most successful plate.

Sometimes even that's not enough. Bad reviews happen, and a particularly negative one can put a restaurant out of business. San Francisco Chronicle critic Unterman has been threatened at knifepoint by a disgruntled chef; Houston Sidewalk's Alison Cook was once burned in effigy; the Philadelphia Inquirer's Elaine Tate has had rocks hurled through her windows. You may have noticed that all of the critics mentioned thus far are women; the authors note the current predominance of women in the field, as well as the odd fact that an unusually large number of food critics are both Jewish and musically inclined. Dornenburg and Page have an eye for this kind of stray detail. One sidebar is a list of the weirdest things critics have eaten. L.A. Weekly critic Jonathan Gold's weird list includes "braised goat penis" and, hopefully not in the same dish, "testicles of a bull that had fallen in the ring to the matador."

As enjoyable as Dining Out can be to browse through, it's a chore to read cover to cover. In lieu of a shapely narrative, the authors appear to have simply dumped out the contents of their tape recorders. A typical section begins with a few breathless questions ("Is there anyone out there who hasn't, at some time or another, fantasized about being a restaurant critic? ... And is the reality of their jobs as wonderful as our illusions?") and ends with critic after critic giving opinions, often at numbing length. Worse is the authors' disinclination to jump into the fray themselves. Unlike Nora Ephron in her 1968 article on "The Food Establishment," Dornenburg and Page draw few conclusions and offer little in the way of synthesis. The pair bring fresh ingredients to the table; you're left wishing only that Dining Out weren't quite so al dente. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Anybody who has ever dreamed of joining a restaurant critic's inner circle will thoroughly enjoy this gossipy, insider's view by the 1996 winners of the James Beard Award for Best Writing on Food (Becoming a Chef). Interviews with leading critics and restaurateurs are a major part of the author's investigation into the methods employed by critics and the effect they have on restaurateurs' culinary ideals. It's a (relatively) serious topic, but one Dornenburg and Page address in a vibrant, conversational tone. Thanks to the unexpectedly dramatic lives of the characters involved, the pages buzz with often surprising tension, humor and emotion. Readers hear from restaurateurs who have staked fortunes on a creative vision, only to find that success often rests in the hands of a single, highly opinionated, sometimes unpredictable writer. The critics, meanwhile (most notably the New York Times's Ruth Reichl, teasingly shown on the cover wearing a face-obscuring hat), don wigs to maintain anonymity, fend off attacks from knife-wielding chefs and eat such dubious delicacies as braised goat penis and worms fried in lard. After being regaled with so many tart and entertaining observations, the final 100 service-oriented pages (Internet review sites, critics' favorite restaurants in selected cities) are somewhat anticlimactic. But just treat them like the after-dinner mint and the rest of the meal will get high marks for its appealing presentation, spice and color. 50 photos. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Dornenburg and Page, coauthors of the award-winning Becoming a Chef (LJ 8/95) and Culinary Artistry (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1996), move out of the kitchen and into the dining room, focusing on the restaurant critics whose opinions often determine where we dine on Friday night. While the authors demonstrate the same incisive culinary qualities as in their previous works, chapters and numerous sidebars on such topics such as "Cooking for Ruth Reichl" and spending a week in the restaurant lives of both Reichl and Gael Greene will hold little appeal for readers who aren't hard-core foodies. Mostly, the book presents food critics' comments about the review process as well as opinions from chefs and restaurateurs about the people who review them; like the Zagat guides, everyone gets to be a critic here. The book ends with a list of the top critics' favorite restaurants, a guide to restaurant review sources on the Internet, and biographies of interviewees, all fairly sugarcoated. Recommended only for specialized culinary collections due to some in-depth reporting and interviews with a few restaurant notables. Otherwise, "Where's the beef?"--Drew Ackers, New York

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
7.50(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

I Eat--Therefore, I Am

"The pleasures of the table

belong to all times and all

ages, to every country and

every day; they go hand in

hand with all our other

pleasures, outlast them,

and remain to console us

for their loss."

--Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste

Phyllis Richman, The Washington Post's restaurant critic for more than twenty years, has been cited as one of the 100 most influential people in the United States' capital city. Newsweek dubbed her "the most feared woman in Washington."

    Richman certainly has reason to be among the most fearful as well. Over the years, she and her restaurant critic colleagues across the country have commonly been harassed and subjected to everything from disturbing phone calls to hate mail, rocks through the windows of their homes, brandished knives, even death threats--"perquisites" not regularly endured by other professional critics of the arts, even after a particularly harsh pan.

    What makes it all worth their while?

    "I have the most wonderful job in the world," Richman enthuses. And there probably isn't a single restaurant lover alive who would doubt her.

America's Obsession with Food and Restaurants

As long as restaurants have been in existence, Americans have been debating their merits with increasing passion. While food was once simply one of the necessities of life, like shelter, clothing, or oxygen, it has moved from the realm of sustenance into a more complex component. Food has become our national obsession.

    In this era of limited attention spans, food commands our senses and holds us rapt. We've become more fascinated than ever by how food is prepared, how it is presented, and the names of the chefs and restaurants behind its creation. Our increase in restaurant dining has led our palates to seek new stimulation through unusual ethnic cuisines, as well as innovative flavor combinations, techniques, and presentations. America's leading chefs strive to entice our patronage through ceaseless innovation.

    Our increasing fascination with food, coupled with the advent of chefs as owners and therefore promoters of their own restaurants, have given rise to the celebrity chef phenomenon. Chefs have taken to publishing glossy, expensive books promoting their restaurants and cuisines, and come into our living rooms to show us how they prepare their signature dishes. Celebrity chefs have been the driving force behind the Television Food Network, which began in 1993 and has become the third fastest-growing cable network in the country. With semi-regular cooking segments, such mainstream talk shows as Today, Good Morning America, Regis and Kathie Lee, and The Rosie O'Donnell Show have also contributed to the phenomenon. Even the high-brow Charlie Rose has hosted chef-restaurateurs Mark Miller and Anne Rosenzweig, and edgier late-night hosts Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O'Brien, and Tom Snyder have occasionally featured top chefs like Daniel Boulud, Emeril Lagasse, and Jean-Louis Palladin on their shows.

    The era of the chef as celebrity has produced an interest in chefs that borders on cultish. In a characteristic sign of the times, chef-restaurateurs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, the Television Food Network's Too Hot Tamales, were featured in People magazine's 1996 "Best and Worst Dressed" issue, and Entertainment Weekly now considers it its purview to publish a list of "The 10 Most Important Names in American Dining."

    Under continuous pressure to be innovative, to accommodate the changing tastes of the public, and to put forward their own personal, aesthetic statements of what food can be, chefs are increasingly finding themselves walking a fine line between art and profit, taste and health. Who is to judge the success of their efforts?

Restaurant Dining and Reviewing in America

With the proliferation of new restaurants, Americans have grown increasingly dependent on restaurant criticism to help them make more informed choices. Many restaurant lovers, especially in urban areas, follow restaurant critics almost as a sport, turning first to the restaurant reviews when they open a newspaper or magazine. Reviews become the topic of the day, with "How 'bout those Bulls?" being replaced by "Did you read Ruth's review of Le Cirque?" as a common conversation starter. In cities with the luxury of multiple opinions, diners find "their" critics, whose opinions they come to rely on. Some restaurant critics are revered or reviled so passionately that reading their critiques transcends utility. The pleasure of reading their columns is an end to itself for readers who may have no intention of visiting the restaurants serving as the critics' muses that week.

    Looking at some of the restaurants, chefs, media, and critics that have influenced the American dining scene over the past two centuries helps to provide a sense of where America has been and where it is heading. Whereas, in earlier days, many American chef-restaurateurs simply adopted the French model as the gold standard, these points in history trace a country struggling to define, for itself, what great food is and what constitutes a great restaurant in terms that are distinctly American.

    Various voices have challenged popular thinking on these questions--from writers Calvin Trillin and Jane and Michael Stern, who made Americans look anew at the pleasures of down-home regional cooking; to the "flower culture," who promoted freshness and purity in food through the health-food movement; to America's melting-pot population, which has embraced an ever-widening variety of ethnic restaurants. It has become clear that certain restaurant critics, too, have played some of the most vital roles in shaping Americans' sensibility about food--from Craig Claiborne, who established restaurants as a subject worthy of serious critique; to Gael Greene, who awakened diners to their sensual possibilities; to Ruth Reichl, whose writing from the perspective of both gastronomy and sociology encourages people to look more deeply into the restaurant experience.


I grew up with a hunger, based on not having enough good food in my childhood. And I went to France at seventeen and lived there for a year. My former husband was very interested in food, and his family ate out a lot. So we saved our money to go to great restaurants together--following the recommendations of, of course, Craig Claiborne [of The New York Times] and Clementine Paddleford, who was the restaurant critic of The New York Herald-Tribune. I cut out all of those reviews, and when we went to Europe or any place we'd follow in their footsteps. I also took some cooking lessons: I was interested in good eating and great dining.

    I was a reporter for the [New York] Post, and I freelanced for magazines like Cosmopolitan and Ladies Home Journal--innocuous pieces that could have been written by anybody. I did fifty pieces for Helen Gurley Brown [at Cosmopolitan]--how not to get dumped by your husband on his way up, which I think I wrote anonymously, profiles of Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds, and lots of how-to stories. People called me to do anything. I did some pieces on "How America Lives" for Ladies Home Journal, and "How the Great Beauties Stay Beautiful" in McCall's. I was a utility writer.

    Nobody thought of me in terms of writing about food. I didn't think of myself in terms of writing about food. The food stuff was just to try to find a way to get someone else to pay the expenses or be able to deduct all this eating from income taxes. I was really a newspaper reporter.

    But I didn't like going to work at 10 o'clock every day and doing small things until there was a breaking news story--when you'd go out to the Bronx and interview the mother of the person who just got shot, and bring back a picture. That was the big thing, but there was a lot of in-between time. There's an author who wrote that the reason he became a writer was because his dream was to sleep until noon. I liked the fact that, as a freelance writer, you could make your own hours.

    Then I did a piece on the reopening of La Cote Basque when Soule had to take it over because the person he sold it to went bankrupt. It was for New York magazine when it was distributed in the Herald-Tribune. Clay Felker was the editor, and he got it in his head that I was a food writer. So, shortly after New York magazine started, he called and asked me to be the restaurant critic.

    People would call me after I started writing for New York magazine and say, "Well, why don't you write for us like that?" And I would say, "Well, you never let me write like that. I had to write in the Cosmo style" or "I had to write in the Ladies Home Journal style." But suddenly they saw another way to express things--in the voice of a writer, rather than in their own voice.

    That was a totally a result of Tom Wolfe and [Jimmy] Breslin and Gay Talese and Peter Maas, people who were writing in New York magazine. Perhaps most of all, it was the result of Tom Wolfe, who wrote in a speaking style. I found myself totally unleashed by that. If you look at Tangerine Flake Baby, it starts out with the sound of the `rrrrr' of the car, and it's about the way people talk. Given that I'd been writing in the most conventional way and to suit whatever the demand was, now I thought that I could write in my own voice.

    No one ever talked about anything I did in most of the other magazines that I appeared in. New York at that point was a very exciting magazine; everyone was talking about it. It was "the" magazine that everyone in media read. And everyone was imitating it all over the country.

    The first time I did a piece on French restaurants, I wrote about La Pyramide [in France], and I imagined that most of the people who read it weren't going to get there. But I wanted them to know what it felt like because the sense memories of that experience were so strong: the smell, and the heat of excitement of eating and drinking too much. They were very vivid, and I thought that I would try to convey that. That became a mark of my writing--that I would put you there in the scene, whether or not you could ever afford to go. I wanted to write something that would be interesting to read even if you didn't like food, so you would learn something about the sociology of New York.

    I think that's where the style of "How does it feel?" and "How does it smell?" came from. Does your throat ache because it's so noisy and you're screaming, or do you have a headache when you walk out? Do you smell butter when you walk in the door? Or is the feel of the tablecloth uniquely silky because it's some custom rich cloth and not something from a linen supply store? I found myself being aware of, and writing about, all those things because I thought that was part of putting you in the scene.


Noted architecture critic Allan Temko and The San Francisco Chronicle were slapped with a $2 million lawsuit in the late 1970s after Temko criticized San Francisco's Pier 39 in two articles that its architect claimed to be defamatory. "In the first article, I warned the city that it was going to be a disaster," says Temko. "The next one was a post-mortem that appeared in 1978. It started out, `Corn. Kitsch. Schlock. Honky-Tonk. Dreck. Schmaltz. Merde,' and went on from there.

    "Most of the precedents invoked by our lawyers were in culinary criticism," remembers Temko, winner of the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism. "The decision [exonerating Temko and the Chronicle] was hilarious because it said architecture criticism is nothing compared to culinary criticism. There were funny excerpts from The New York Times and other newspapers which had really good phrases like `Trout a la Green Death' and `Chicken Bubonic Plague' or something like that, the inference being that no one takes this literally, but that it's free comment."


The Critics

The pioneer critics have more or less been sword-fighters in the consumers' interest who would go in and examine the menu, essentially, and grade it, usually coming from a bias toward classic French cuisine. When I first got involved in this in the 1960s and early 1970s, it was almost totally predictable that `the best' ten restaurants in any city, according to Holiday magazine or whomever was compiling the list, would be seven French restaurants, maybe one ethnic of some kind--in those days, most likely Eastern European or Asian--and maybe two serving "Continental" cuisine. The last were generally cooks who'd jumped Ship from a cruise line.

The Standard-Bearers

At that time, America's take on grand dining came to some extent from Paris, but also to a large extent from hotels and cruise ships, where the pomp and formality was there, and behind it was a combination of cuisines. It isn't so surprising when you think of the amalgamation of nationalities that contributed cooks and waiters. French was still in the foreground because the French wrote the rules. But the practitioners weren't always French.

Chefs Come Out from Behind Their Stoves

It's funny. In this past week both Paul Bocuse and Alain Ducasse have been in Chicago, and Joel Robuchon is coming in a week or so. Twenty years ago, you could have gone through a lifetime before you'd ever see a live French chef in the middle of America!

Freedom in America

More than one European chef has said to me, "Your great advantage in America is you're not bound by generations of tradition." American chefs have the self-confidence now that they didn't have a few years ago. I trace it back to the American winemakers who were winning tastings in Paris and being looked on as world-class artisans. It brought a lot of wine people from around the world to the U.S., which meant they were also eating our food, from Lutece to Chez Panisse.

The Melting Pot

America's become "the research pool" because of our physical situation, which is halfway to Asia, and this freedom and the fact that the right elements are within the society. We can go a mile or so from here and find a store that's selling Asian ingredients, whereas in Paris you'd have to go quite a way.

Chefs' Collective Voices

Chef's acceptance and eagerness have convinced journalists that they ought to pay attention to these changes. One result is that now the Zagat Survey, for example, differentiates the highest score for food from the most popular. It is a tremendous breakthrough.


1983 Mr. Chow restaurant in New York City wins a $20,005 libel judgment in a jury trial in federal district court against the Gault-Millau, which gave the restaurant a negative review in its 1982 edition. Restaurant critics, as well as reviewers of everything from books to stereos, criticized the decision, arguing that reviews "are traditionally considered absolutely privileged under the First Amendment" and that the Mr. Chow review, "employing obviously figurative or hyperbolic statements, must also be considered to be opinion fully subject to constitutional protection."

1985 The above verdict is unanimously overturned after it is judged that "expressions of opinion are constitutionally protected." The appeals court decision, written by Judge Thomas Meskill with the concurrence of Judges Amalya Kearse and Richard Cardamone, determines that "reviews, although they may be unkind, are not normally a breeding ground for successful libel actions," and notes that Mr. Chow didn't cite "a single case that has found a restaurant review libelous. . . . Perhaps Mr. Chow could prove that the reviewer's personal tastes are bizarre and his opinions unreasonable, but that does not destroy their entitlement to constitutional protection. . . . The natural function of the review is to convey the critic's opinion of the restaurant reviewed. The author [of the review] obviously believed that the service was bad, the pork was too doughy, the peppers were too cold, the rice was too oily, and the pancakes were too thick. The average reader would understand the author's statements to be attempts to express his opinion through the use of metaphors and hyperbole. . . . Because the average reader would understand the statements involved to be opinion, the statements are entitled to the same constitutional protection as a straightforward expression of opinion would receive."

Meet the Author

KAREN PAGE is the coauthor of a groundbreaking series of books chronicling America's vibrant restaurant culture, including the James Beard Award-winning Becoming a Chef. She is the recipient of the 1997 Melitta Bentz Award for Women's Achievement, and a graduate of the Harvard Business School (whose alumnae network she heads) and Northwestern University, which named her to The Council of 100 leading alumnae.

ANDREW DORNENBURG is the coauthor of a groundbreaking series of books chronicling America's vibrant restaurant culture, including the James Beard Award-winning Becoming a Chef. Dornenburg has cooked professionally in some of the best restaurants on the East Coast, including Arcadia, JUdson Grill, and March in New York City, and Biba and the East Coast Grill in Boston. He attended the School for American Chefs, where he studied with Madeleine Kamman.

MICHAEL DONNELLY is a New York-based photographer whose work has appeared in Elle, House & Garden, Travel & Leisure, and the World of Interiors.

FIONA DONNELLY is a feature writer, fashion stylist, and contributing editor at Bride's.

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