Behind the Lines
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Some days it seems like the complaints about restaurant reviews will never stop: “My family and I drove all the way from * * * on the strength of your good ole Anonymous and, like him, we received no special services—all to the tune of $35.15 for four of us. My husband did what he could with two inert, overfried crab bodies; we all contributed some of our food to him out of pity.”
Then, in the midst of the grumbling, comes a letter that makes it all worthwhile: “Another triumph. At your suggestion, we took a leisurely drive to * * * and had dinner at * * *. The best food in the Western Hemisphere, I think. If all your Best in the City continue as * * *, the only problem will be that of fighting the crowds.”
In sheer volume, day in and day out, Around the State elicits more mail than any other section of the magazine, most of it about restaurants and clubs. (In fact, we receive more letters about food than any other subject, including sex, politics, and religion.) In recent readership polls, a third of the respondents declared Around the State to be their favorite section; 78 per cent said they used it to select places to eat out, and 53 per cent referred to it for entertainment.
When Around the State was launched in February 1973 (in Texas Monthly’s first issue), our purpose was two-fold: to let readers in each major city know what the rest of the state was up to in the way of food and entertainment, and to do basic groundwork in seeking good eating places, galleries, theaters, and entertainment.
Response has been encouraging, as when one reader wrote, “As a Texan of some 30-plus years, one of my long-standing complaints was that one must live here at least ten years in order to find the best spots for tourists and for dining out. Congratulations. You have done a lot toward solving this problem.”
Compiling Around the State is a formidable undertaking. It requires the work of sixteen correspondents and critics in seven cities (compared to the Austin-based editorial staff of fourteen who put out the rest of the magazine), a four-figure budget, and hundreds of hours of time accumulating information by phone and in personal visits to restaurants and clubs. Word for word, Around the State occupies more than 40 per cent of the magazine each month.
The sixteen “listers” range from a bank officer to a jazz musician and include three professional journalists, four homemakers (one with a PhD), two ad men, a gallery owner, a bookstore owner, a legislative assistant, a retired dancer, and a cook. Ten are women, six men; their ages range from 24 to 52; eleven are married (two to each other) and five are single. Obviously, there is no such thing as a typical Around the State lister.
As with any project that attempts to cover a state the size of Texas, there are bound to be a few snags, the most persistent of which is maintaining consistency in the restaurant listings. Even though each club and eating place is visited at least once every three months, radical changes in quality can and, alas, sometimes do occur between visits. For some reason, these changes usually are for the worse, and the readers let us know.
“Our sautéed red snapper was tough (and that’s hard to do) and cold and an hour and a half in coming. After a few bites we refused to eat or pay.”
To someone who has wasted money because of what he considers your cockeyed recommendation, it is small comfort to hear that the place was just great back in June. The reasons for variation in quality can be many: perhaps the chef took a day off; or half the waiters didn’t show up; or the manager was getting a divorce; or the grocery store ran out of fresh broccoli. Any one of these can mar the quality of a usually fine restaurant. As a result, our evaluations are based on the long rather than the short haul. New restaurants and lounges are given a month or more to get over opening night jitters, and listed restaurants which have declined in quality are taken out only when it becomes obvious that the change is not simply a temporary slump.
Of all the aspects of Around the State, the most controversial is the restaurant star system. It has caused small wars in the office and abusive phone calls from chefs and owners whose star rating has been deleted. The angry friend of a restaurant owner descended upon the magazine one day, demanding to know the reason for the removal of the star. With rising indignation, he rejected every explanation.
Finally, jumping to his feet, he shouted, “I think you’ve done a dirty, rotten thing,” and raged out the door.
Despite stormy scenes, we feel the star ratings provide a useful service. We are not prepared to classify every important restaurant in the state according to a three-tiered rating system á la Michelin, but we can, and should, indicate to our readers which restaurants in their area are truly exceptional. At the present time sixteen eating places rate stars. Nine are French/continental, two are Chinese, and there is one each for the cuisines of Mexico, Italy, Germany, and America (predominantly seafood), plus a steak house.
The awarding and (groan) removal of stars is always a joint decision between the local restaurant reviewer and the editorial staff in Austin. To keep standards as consistent as possible from city to city, an Austin staff member periodically visits each of the seven listed cities, keeping an eyetooth on the star restaurants. (If there are better jobs, we haven’t heard of them.)
The magazine’s policy of reviewing restaurants anonymously is not universally popular. “Masked marauders” one chef called us. But it follows from our firm belief that the only unbiased visit is an incognito visit.
In “The Final Days of a Washington Restaurant Critic” in the June issue of The Washingtonian, Charles and Frances Turgeon wrote, “When a restaurateur knows that a critic is testing his establishment he naturally will do everything in his power to please him. Usually that means the best available table, extra care in the cooking, and a sparkling performance by the service staff. Such special treatment may tell the reviewer a great deal about how well a restaurant can perform when it is trying its hardest, but very little about what it will do for the average couple when they come to dine.”
There are other advantages to anonymity: an unrecognized critic will not be tempted to pull punches for fear of insulting a friend who runs a mediocre restaurant, nor can he or she be wooed with the offer of favors, such as discounts. Texas Monthly restaurant reviewers are not permitted to identify themselves by name nor are they allowed to accept free meals.
Of all the questions asked about Around the State perhaps the most frequent is, “Why don’t you add more cities?”
A man from Colorado City (West Texas) wrote, “We are 250 miles from the Dallas- Fort Worth area; 400 miles from El Paso—so your guide to entertainment Around the State is rarely useful to us.”
We agree that there is more to the state than the seven cities currently listed. Certainly Lubbock, Amarillo, Midland/Odessa, Beaumont/Port Arthur, and the
Rio Grande Valley (to mention only the most obvious) are in the mainstream of Texas life as much as are Austin and San Antonio. We look forward to the day when we can cover the state more fully, but that will take more staff people and resources than we presently have. We hope the time is not far off when we can give residents and travelers in all parts of Texas our considered opinion about the best things to do and see and the best places to get a bite to eat.