A brief bit of blatant self-promotion
I am moving to New York City at the end of the month. While this is very exciting for me personally, professionally, and culinarily (I’m coming for you, Queens Night Market), the next few weeks will be packed. Knowing myself, I’m not going to give the newsletter enough attention.
Never fear! I’ve got a few excellent guest editors coming up, and we will resume our normal programming in February. If you might want to guest edit someday, let me know by emailing me at email@example.com.
For today, you’ll have to be content with some absurdly blatant self-promotion:
Check out my first real, honest-to-god, published restaurant review in Gateways Magazine.
I reviewed deadhorse hill, a restaurant that kicked off the current Worcester, Massachusetts food renaissance. It's close to my platonic ideal of a local spot, with good cocktails, food that is better than it has to be, and a great atmosphere.
I’ve never been paid to write something under my own name. It was terrifying and thrilling. I may firmly believe in the digital future of media but you bet your ass I ran around with a print copy showing EVERYONE.
It also gave me humbling insight into writing a restaurant review. I’ve now spent more than a year (issue 55!) tossing off one or two sentence reviews of reviews in this newsletter. I never thought reviewing was easy or that I could do a better job, but writing one myself really drove home the challenges.
Writing a review involves a terrifying amount of logistics. Scheduling a group dinner with friends is a nightmare even when it’s just for fun. Reviewing involves multiple dinners with multiple groups over a short period of time. Even when I was offering to pay, it was hard to get people to join me. In this case, it was compounded by the fact that the restaurant is a 1-hour train ride away. I’m somewhat dizzy imaging the logistics of doing this four nights a week.
Speaking of paying, It’s expensive. I had two meals at deadhorse (it would have been much better to have have had three, but I ran out of time). I spent my entire food budget plus my fee. That’s fine! I have a full-time job where I’m lucky enough to make money. I think every local newspaper should have a restaurant critic, but that expense account really adds up. Especially when you’re reviewing Per Se or Vespertine, where dinner for one is more than my entire budget for this review.
The first draft of my review was probably the worst thing I’ve ever written. It was pointless and cliché. I never really appreciated how hard it is to think of a new way to describe a piece of fried chicken. I owe my soul to my sister, who helped edit the piece and does the same for pretty much every Snack Cart.
I often criticize reviews for just being a list of dishes, but then I did it too! It feels like a few things caused that. First, I felt compelled to justify I had been there. Like using an excessive number of footnotes, listing dishes felt like I was showing my work and grounding any larger thoughts or observations in real research.
The way I took notes throughout also made an impact. I ate a bunch of dishes, taking detailed notes on each one. Those notes essentially became a very rough first draft. With that in place, it was hard to restructure my thinking.
The third reason was my audience. I like reviews that write for a food-literate audience and that try to say something larger. But the pressure to be service-y is real. Sure, some people might like reading a 200 word digression on Edison bulbs, but lots of people just want to know if they should go there and what to order if they do.
I still don’t love reviews that are just lists, but I understand how it happens and will do a better job appreciating when someone finds an interesting way to describe something.
Also, making a profound statement about humanity? Even harder than it seems!
deadhorse hill is a certain kind of restaurant, which I do mention in the review. It’s chef-y, it’s upscale but casual, and it’s got an ambitious menu that respectfully pulls from a lot of culinary inspirations. Did I mention there are Edison bulbs and mason jars? Do I have to? Helen Rosner and Greg Morabito, during a segment on the Eater Upsell podcast, once tried to come up with a name for this kind of restaurant during a segment and struggled.
A big part of the current food moment is the ubiquity of this kind of restaurant. When a place like this opens, it says something about where that neighborhood is on the gentrification curve. It says that enough of a certain kind of people live there to make it viable. Who are those people? Is gentrification inevitable? Does this kind of place tip it further in one direction or another? What changed in Worcester, a famously depressed city, so that it's been a feasible, and even successful, home for a restaurant like deadhorse hill for a whole year?
In this case, I couldn’t figure out how to answer these questions concisely while also fitting in everything else-- like, if you should eat there or not. A 550 word limit is a harsh mistress. I also can see eating in a nice place, having a fine evening, and finding very little to say about it other than “eat here.”
This was a fantastic and humbling learning experience (one I would like to do again - email me!). I have a massive respect for food criticism. Making food is a creative act, and this experience drove home that critiquing food is also a creative act. I knew writing restaurant reviews was hard, but I better know why it's hard now. We’re lucky to have a lot of the great reviewers we do, showing us the stories behind the places we eat. Helping us understand our cities, and the people in them, better.
Is collecting a bunch of links to food stories also a creative act? I like to think so. Writing this newsletter over the past year has helped me not just understand if a piece of writing about food is good, but why I like what I like. I hope it has done the same for you.
We'll revisit this topic when someone starts a food newsletter that links to a food newsletter that links to this food newsletter.