Behind the Lines

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.

Tags: FOOD

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