texasmonthly.com: Do you get tired of answering questions at parties about your favorite new restaurants?
Patricia Sharpe: I never get tired of talking about food. In fact, my greatest pleasure is running into someone who is equally obsessed with restaurants. We can natter on for hours. After hearing us get into all the tiny details on this or that dish, other people at the party are rolling their eyes and racing for the buffet table. Actually, it amazes me when people have not heard of restaurants that have been open for, say, a year or more. I think, “How can anybody not have heard of something so exciting and so essential to their mental well-being as a new restaurant?” It’s like not knowing the news. Or not knowing the latest movies.
texasmonthly.com: How did you get into food writing?
PS: I was the luckiest person in the world—I just fell into it. I started out here at the magazine as a gofer and moved up. I started proofreading the restaurant reviews, then got assigned to copyedit them, and gradually moved into writing about food myself. I have to credit Texas Monthly editor Evan Smith for giving me such a bully pulpit over the past several years. More than any other editor I have worked under, he understands the huge appeal of food to our readers. He’s encouraged me to develop my editorial voice, and he always gives food stories huge play. Of course, I cursed his name when I was eating my twentieth taco of the day (for four days running, in San Antonio—this was for our cover story on tacos in December 2006), and I regularly threaten to send him my bill for rehab at the spa. But we’re both fanatical about restaurants, so it works out in the end.
texasmonthly.com: Do you find that you and other Texas food writers overlap in your preferences and reviews?
PS: I would estimate that other food writers and I agree about 80 percent of the time or more if we are covering the same places. I know a fair number of reviewers for other publications and even go out to eat with them. When we disagree, we’re pretty up front about it: “You like that? You’re out of your mind!”
texasmonthly.com: After years of reviewing, do chefs ever recognize you at their restaurants?
PS: Oh, yes. I get spotted a bunch. I’ve been doing this for 32 years, so I’m known. I’ve met so many chefs and so many waiters that they recognize me when I walk in, even when I make reservations under a different name, which I always do. Also, it’s hard not to be noticed when you’re writing notes under the tablecloth. By the way, that hen-scratching can be really hard to read later, so I usually just haul out my notepad and write in full view. I mean, what are they going to do? They might prepare a dish several times to be sure it’s perfect, but then there’s going to be a big delay, so they get demerits for being late.
texasmonthly.com: How much do a restaurant’s decor and ambience factor in your reviews?
PS: As much as you try to focus on the food, it’s hard not to be beguiled by a pretty face. Or a great personality. So I always try to ask myself, “If I were eating this at Luby’s, what would I think of it?” That simple question has an amazing way of snapping you to attention.
texasmonthly.com: I know that you and your eating companions sample many dishes at a restaurant before you write your review, but do you ever find that a single superb dish can linger in your mind and heavily sway your opinion of an entire menu?
PS: Yes, one fantastic dish can make you think a place is much better than it is. I’ve recently started assigning letter grades to dishes so that I have a shorthand way to look back over my notes and assess the overall performance. If I see A+, B, B+, C+, B-, and B, that provides a better snapshot than if I just reread my notes. I might have written reams about the A+ dish and not much about the others that were more ordinary.
texasmonthly.com: How did you go about ranking the state’s best new restaurants of the past year?
PS: My restaurant reviewers are my eyes and ears and tongues; they do the initial vetting of new places. We learn of openings every few days in the major cities, from newspapers, Web sites, the restaurants’ PR agents, and, occasionally, readers. It’s actually easy to predict which restaurants are going to be worth visiting; I can read a menu and tell you that. The reviewers then check out the ones that sound promising and give me a thumbs-up on the top ones. Then I visit, and the best ones end up in my monthly column, Pat’s Pick. Thus, by the end of the year, I have visited most of the contenders for best new restaurants of the year. In November and December, I go back for a revisit and also check out any that I might have missed.
texasmonthly.com: What’s your favorite new dish of 2006?
PS: The fig gratin, a dessert, at Craft Dallas is one of the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth. I love figs anyway, and this dish is sweet and seductive and exotic all at once.
texasmonthly.com: What was the biggest surprise of 2006?
PS: Dallas had a fantastic year, much more so than Houston. Normally those two cities are neck and neck coming around the finish line when I rack up the best restaurants of the past year. I was afraid I would be accused of favoritism because I chose so many Dallas restaurants for my monthly column. But that’s just the way it was. I like both cities equally, folks. Honest.