A Vile Petulant Little Soul-Sucking Scenester, Or, Why Bad Reviews Aren't Fun to Write but Still Need to Happen

Let’s get the pointless drama out of the way first.  Food writer (and I use the word loosely) Brett Hickman, formerly of Eater Chicago posted the following to Facebook.

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I wasn’t tagged in the post, so I didn’t find out about it until a friend forwarded me a screenshot.

I’ve been called a lot of thing in my foodie career, but “vile petulant little soul-sucking scenester” might be the most impressively stupid.  He has since edited it to be less offensive, but the post is still there.  Even better, chefs have liked and commented on it, and insulted me and the publication that I work for.  FYI: I’m coming for their souls first.

Joking aside, a little backstory:

I write restaurant reviews.  It’s not my whole job as a writer, but it was part of the reason I returned to Chicagoist, as I’m now provided with a (small but usable) dining budget to do regular restaurant reviews.  These articles are some of the most challenging to write, and I do a lot of soul searching about them.  I try to do them right: I go anonymously, I order a wide variety of dishes, I bring dining companions that have knowledge of the relevant cuisine.

Sometimes, reviews are great!  When reviews are great, no one complains and the critic gets to be the hero of the story.  Sometimes, reviews are bad.  When reviews are bad, I usually get a bunch of emails from people agreeing with me and a bunch of emails from people calling me names.  

Here’s the thing: Bad reviews are not fun to write.  You don’t have to tell me that I’m hurting someone’s business and trashing their dream. Ask my fiancé – I lose sleep over it.  I happen to like the chef who runs the kitchen he was complaining about! 

But telling the truth is part of the business, and it’s why I get paid.  If a restaurant isn’t good, I don’t care if it’s small or large, independent or chain, cheap or expensive: the public needs to know.  Why?  So they don’t waste their money.  So the restaurant knows what their problems are.  So in this ultra-competitive industry, the cream has a chance to rise to the top.

Trust me, after a decade in the food writing business, I want every restaurant to be awesome.  I want every chef to succeed.  I know most of the people whose restaurants I review, and it really sucks to insult their hard work. 

This particular review was of a restaurant called Ocean Cut.  It’s part of the same group that owns Chicago Cut. Read the review, but TLDR: it’s on its third concept, it’s not very good and it’s pretty expensive.

The man who called me the nasty names seemed mad for a few reasons.  Let’s break them down:

1)   I went to the restaurant too early.

I hear this a lot, and I think it’s not a very fair criticism.  The complaint usually goes something like this: You can’t possibly review a restaurant until it’s been open for four months, because they haven’t figured out how things work yet. 

Ok, fine, but are they charging me (or any other customer) any less money for that trial period? Are they putting a sign out front saying “we’ll get it eventually, don’t worry”?  Are they closing their Yelp page?  Of course, the answer to all of these questions is no.

Unlike some pubs, I don’t review opening weekends.  But I actually don’t question their right to do so – I just don’t think I get a very good sample when I do.  I actually choose my review times fairly carefully, and if a restaurant is from an established group that should know what it is doing, I don’t think going a few weeks in is particularly problematic.  I also take that into account when I review.  I’m not giving a place a bad review because the server doesn’t remember the specials yet; I’m giving it a bad review because the food coming out of the kitchen is awful.  

So, complain all you want.  You’re not totally wrong, but it’s not going to stop me.

2)   I only went to the restaurant once (or other versions of “you didn’t give them a fair chance.”)

Look, I wish I had both infinite time and an infinite dining budget. If I had those things, I’d do it the old fashioned way.  But I don’t, sadly.  Your choice is to not get dining reviews (because, heads up, I’m not the only critic with this limitation) or deal with it and read many people’s opinions.

Also, here’s the thing: Diners don’t eat that way. Restaurants get one shot to make a diner happy, and if they screw up, that person feels like they wasted their money and probably isn’t coming back. 

3)  I dissed a restaurant he liked.

Let’s get it out of the way: I was mean to Swift & Sons.  Yup!  I was.  I maintain that the meal I had was not good.  And, by the way, other critics agreed with me.  

Since then, I’ve heard some good things, and I plan to go back.  I’ve had a great meal at Cold Storage.  But I stand by my original review.  Get over it.



In any case, if you aren’t making someone mad in this business, you aren’t saying anything meaningful.  There are plenty of food writers who write puff pieces, are in bed with chefs (literally or figuratively) or who don’t know the difference between good and bad if the food is free. 

Given the choice between those options and being yelled at occasionally?  I know where I stand.

Eater Guide to Disney - Three Parts

I was so excited to write for the Eater Guide to Disney World.  I saw that Helen Rosner, their features editor, was headed to WDW to research it.  When I sent her a long list of places to dine,  instead of telling me I was a freak, she offered to let me pitch. These are the results.

7 Worth-It Disney World Restaurants Where the Food Doesn't Matter

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Is Your Whiskey Artificially Flavored?

Last week, a blow hit faux-pretentious whiskey geeks everywhere - Templeton Rye, the craft whiskey brand that popped out of nowhere to become the thing that boys who graduated from Makers have to drink, settled a big false advertising lawsuit.   What was the basis of the suit?  Well, Templeton spent a lot of energy marketing itself as an Iowa product.  Except... it's not made in Iowa.  Like most rye in America, it's made in a huge factory in Indiana, and then bottled (and sometimes aged for short times) at whatever distillery's label is on the fancy bottle you bought it in for $40.

But that wasn't the story that caught my eye.

.... "Alcohol flavoring formulation."  Blech.

We spirits geeks are all about the flavor, and we spent a ton of energy talking and writing and snobbing about how the quality of the wood, the humidity, the temperature, the charring, the time in the barrel and the general demeanor of the distiller (magically transmitted through to the liquid) all combine to make this magic thing called good whiskey.

Yeah, right. Except when it's not - except when it comes out of a test tube like the delicious "cheese" on your favorite bag of nacho cheese chips. 

I, of course, am not the first person to have noticed this - when Templeton had to do some disclosures late last year, the scandal hit and I missed it.  Two great blog posts from back then explained the laws behind this.  

The bottom line: Federal regulations don't require any labelling when artificial flavors go into booze.  The only ways you can know for sure? First, you can look at the bottle. According to the experts, if it says "straight" (as in "straight bourbon whiskey") you're safe.

Or, you could go the second way and ASK your local distiller.  Yet another argument in favor of local, craft products.  So I did!  Turns out they have some pretty strong feelings on this issue. 



My hometown distillery in Iowa, Cedar Ridge (who, one supposes, has a right to be pissed at Templeton's fakery, since they're making award-winning product from scratch in the same region):

When asked about whether FEW uses artificial ingredients, distiller Paul Hletko responded "Ha. No. We make whiskey the old fashioned way. We actually make it."

Some may complain that i'm being too fancy, elitist or picky.  Everything else is artificially flavored, so who cares? We eat artificial flavorings (or "natural flavorings" which are the same thing) in everything from candy to bottled water to roast chicken, so why should liquor be any different? It tastes good, stop your whining.

Here's why it matters: Fine spirit makers are selling an idea.  They're selling an experience. You're not spending $50 for some flavored water with a pretty label - you're buying the copper still, the barley spread on the floor, the handmade barrels, the master distiller with the tongue of gold, the smell of the mash. You're buying the time capsule of it all - the idea that when I crack open a cognac made in 1982, i'm returning for a brief moment to the year of my birth.  And you're buying the craft, created over hundreds of years, of making this stuff taste pretty amazing.  That's what your $50 is being spent on - and that's why it's an insult when someone fakes it. 

But, it tastes pretty good, someone said to me, so why should i care?  So does a bag of cheetos.  That's not what I want to sit down to at the end of the day.  

PR Fail: Balls Vodka and Gay Marriage (MAYBE?)

One of my favorite pastimes, back when I used to be a professional blogger, was making fun of press releases for ridiculous products.  It's not always the PR person's fault when something is horrible - some products, like this crystal-encrusted wine wand, just can't be saved.  But in other cases, there's a magic confluence of stupid product and badly-conceived PR that makes me so incredibly happy that I have to share it with everyone I know.

Enter "Balls Vodka."  The puns are, of course, endless.  "You never want to be without the right size balls" is a great way to point out that bottles come in many sizes!  

Check out that busty lady!  How can you NOT buy this vodka?  

Well, if you're a gay man (and therefore not the target audience for busty ladies) you might be able to resist.  Though her fetching strappy sandals almost brought me back.  And gay men do love balls, now that I think about it. 

Balls decided to capitalize on the recent gay marriage decision with a release entitled "A Little 'I Do' and Balls Vodka."  And they created an adorable photo of a guy putting a not-quite-ring (it looks like an onion ring, but could be a piece of cheese or a napkin ring) on another guy.  

Except, of course, no heads.  So it might not be two guys. It might just be a man and a woman who happen to be talking about getting married the week after the most exciting thing to hit marriage since the invention of the cupcake wedding cake.  You don't want to go TOO far with the pandering to the homosexuals. 

To Balls, everyone.  The vodka whose tag line (which is particularly appropriate to the situation) is "Don't act like a Mary unless your name is Mary."