If you Google “world’s worst jobs,” I’m confident you will not find “restaurant critic” on any list that comes up. How could any job that requires a person to eat in restaurants while someone else picks up the tab not be among the world’s coolest occupations? I’ve been lucky to be The Seattle Times’ lead restaurant critic since 2008, when I succeeded Nancy Leson, whose singular voice was no easy act to follow. It’s been fulfilling — emphasis on filling — and undeniably fun. Bear with me while I reminisce, before I fold my napkin and push back from the table.
Restaurant reviewing is not the glamorous gig most people imagine. No one ever rolled out the red carpet for me because they never knew I was coming. I made reservations under a fictitious name, and very often, I forgot what it was, leaving me hemming and hawing in embarrassment at the host stand. My credit card bears a fake name, too. It was awkward the one time I left it behind in a restaurant and went back to pick it up, hoping they wouldn’t ask for ID. (They didn’t.)
I’ve kept my face out of social media so I could dine incognito, but occasionally I was busted. Usually it was a waiter who recognized me. They tend to get around. Hans Horchler managed the dining room at Ethan Stowell’s Union when I reviewed it in 2008. Eight years earlier, Horchler waited on me at The Painted Table, a meal that would prove to be unforgettable for both of us. Here’s an excerpt from that review.
“This perfect meal would be served by Hans, whose performance one evening was flawless in all respects, not least when we found a tiny green worm wiggling out from under a salad of organic greens. This can happen with pesticide-free produce, Hans explained apologetically after swiftly removing the plate, and when we declined another salad, he graciously offered gratis desserts.”
Horchler approached me at the end of my dinner at Union with a printed copy of that Painted Table review and asked me to autograph it. It remains my closest brush with fame.
Once a waiter chased me out the door and into the street after dinner. My companion froze in panic, sure we were about to be arrested because I had the menu in my purse. Turned out I’d accidentally taken the restaurant’s copy of the receipt and he needed it back. But bless me father, for I have lifted a lot of menus. I always feel a little guilty, especially when I swipe the whole thing, cover included, because I can’t pry the pages from their fancy bindings. Now that cellphones have cameras, I can surreptitiously snap photos, but I like a paper copy.
My files bulge with the creased, food-splotched, scribbled-on bills of fare that I’ve amassed reviewing regularly for this paper since January 2000. In the beginning, I covered cheap eats, then called “Neighborhood Deals.” Few of those places are around today. The first lead review I wrote as Nancy Leson’s once-a-month relief was on Redmond’s Coho Café. The restaurant still exists and has an Issaquah offshoot. The bronzed salmon burger I liked for its “zippy Creole mustard” is still on the menu. Cost in 2000: $7.90. Cost now: $16.50.
Of 36 restaurants I reviewed in 2008, 21 are gone. Among those still thriving: Joule, Spinasse, Smith, Ocho and Art of the Table. My own informal tracking shows 67 area restaurants closed last year, and 36 more already this year. Just last week, the Capitol Hill restaurant Tango took a final bow after 19 years, citing drooping sales and rising costs. This week, Seattle-based Restaurants Unlimited sought bankruptcy protection and closed some of its 35 restaurants, including Palomino in Bellevue. The numbers underscore what a competitive and risky business it is. I admire every chef and restaurateur who gives it their best shot. But with the area’s robust economy, our population expanding, and more people than ever eating out, restaurant openings continue to far outnumber closings in and around Seattle. My successors won’t go hungry.
People always ask me what my favorite restaurant is. I always say I don’t have one, I have many, depending on the mood and the moment. I’m not dodging the question. I just love restaurants in general. The dozen or so each year that I’ve hung three or four stars on in my reviews certainly top my list of personal favorites. As a civilian, I look forward to revisiting them all.
Finally, thanks to the many readers who have shared tips, showered me with praise or taken me to task. It was always good to know you cared. I have a lot of meals under my ever-tightening belt. I’m moving on, but I’m not finished eating — and writing about it — yet.
Editor’s note: Providence Cicero is moving on, but we’re ramping up our food and drink coverage. Stay tuned for an announcement later this summer about our plans.