The Best Job 

Inside the glamorous world of the restaurant reviewer

Many people think that writing about food and restaurants for the Independent must be a great job. And what can I say? They are correct.

Did you see that Best Friend's Wedding movie with Julia Roberts, where the waiters and chefs are all cowering in the corner as she snaps her fingers and imperiously samples a small morsel of the souffl? Well, that movie is just about dead-on. In fact, the four of us who write reviews for the Indy look so much like Julia Roberts that each of us is, often, mistaken for her. When we all get together it looks like some freakish Julia Roberts clone convention. We're all tall and willowy, with megawatt smiles and collagen-plumped lips.

Back on planet Earth, where we do the majority of our reviews, we don't resemble Julia quite so closely. Nor do we snap our fingers at waiters, which is rude behavior from anyone, much less a restaurant reviewer. We don't whisk in grandly, with an entourage, because our reviews are much more accurate and fair when the restaurant staff doesn't know who we are. We don't skulk around in big hats, sunglasses and wigs, because disguises aren't really necessary in a town the size of Colorado Springs. But we don't announce our presence either, and if we need to make a reservation, we try to do it under someone else's name. We want the same meals and the same service that everyone else receives. Following this to its logical conclusion, we also don't let owners, managers or chefs tell us when to schedule a review.

None of us will be retiring to a villa on the French Riviera from the money we make writing reviews. In fact, I'm pretty sure that if the four of us pooled our earnings, we wouldn't even be able to retire to a house trailer on the Pueblo Reservoir. Nobody earns big bucks writing about restaurants, especially not on a part-time basis.

Sure, it would be nice if our editor threw wads of money at us and said, "Eat out more often," but the world just doesn't work that way. And we don't get free meals from the restaurants we review, either before or after the fact. We pay for our meals, just like everyone else.

Contrary to popular belief, we don't enjoy writing negative reviews. Sometimes, there are insurmountable problems with food and/or service, and we are bound to report what we experienced, for better or worse. We try to do so in as kind a manner as possible, because we understand that most restaurant owners have put their hearts and souls into a place. But we can't lie and say the food is good when it isn't, or praise the service when it takes 20 minutes to get a clean fork (or any fork, sometimes). A few years ago, I went to review a restaurant (now closed) with some friends. One man excused himself to visit the men's room. When he returned to the table, he informed us that when he had been in the Navy 40 years ago, he'd seen brothels with nicer bathrooms.

One of the most important assets every reviewer needs is a cadre of friends who are open to new experiences, don't mind being told what to order, and don't mind sharing. My friends all know that my fork will be in their plate and my spoon will be in their soup. I'm sure some of them can't decide which is the lesser of two evils, sitting by my children or by me. I don't spill as much, but I'm only marginally less greedy about shrimp.

Going out for a review meal means only one person can order the special of the day, no matter how good it sounds. If two people order red meat, someone has to order chicken, or vegetarian, or seafood. We usually find it necessary to order at least one appetizer and two desserts, and that's what has led me to conclude that elastic waistbands are a reviewer's best friend -- which also means we have to have friends whose diets aren't too restrictive, and who don't mind gaining a pound for the greater good.

One final note: Like Julia, we don't often review chain restaurants. After all, a McDonald's is a McDonald's is a McDonald's. If you've eaten at Bennigan's in New Jersey, the experience doesn't change significantly just because you are west of the Mississippi. If a truly new and unusual chain opens here -- Buca di Beppo, for example -- we'll certainly consider doing a piece, but our preference is always for a locally owned restaurant.

Whether it's a hole-in-the-wall diner with the world's tastiest green chili; a hot new place with a trendy chef and jiving vibe; or the latest mom-and-pop joint, we're always on the lookout for something new and different. Every new restaurant is greeted with a tingle of anticipation. We are optimists. We are food writers. We are Julia Roberts.


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