For 15 years, I was The Des Moines Register’s restaurant reviewer. Somebody had to be.* In truth, the food scene here is infinitely better than bi-coastal dwellers might think. But even when the food was at its best, being the food critic in a mid-size city came with drawbacks I had never imagined.
To name a few:
1. Your Friends Hate You
Being a restaurant reviewer breeds jealousy—but for all the wrong reasons. Your friends think you have the greatest job in the world. “You get paid to eat!” they will say with envy.
To which I always have to say, “SHUT UP!” I don’t get paid to eat, I get paid to write. But first, I have to sniff around town and figure out where I can best use my limited expense account to get a halfway interesting story. And that, my friends, is work—especially after you’ve already reviewed all the best places in town and need to head to the second tier.
And let’s get another thing straight: Restaurant reviewing in a mid-size city is rarely a full-time job. In fact, it was only about 10% of my work as a food writer and editor. It’s more of a lifestyle than a living.
2. It’s Expensive
While there are some exceptions, few publications can offer the kind of carte-blanche expense account that everyone assumes a restaurant critic has.
Hence, no one understands (and I don’t really want to tally up) how much of my own money I had to spend to subsidize the gig. Midway through the month, my expense account would run out. Then, I’d dip into my own reserves, because I couldn’t settle for a boring story—and the best angles on the restaurant scene took time and money to uncover.
3. Half your readers think you’re an uptight nut-job, the other half think you’re a pushover
Restaurateurs think you’re too critical; foodies think you’re not critical enough. Nobody quite understands what you’re really trying to do: Connect your readers with food you think they’ll enjoy.
For example, while I don’t love a local French restaurant’s pile-it-on, goop-it-up take on French food, there’s a great groove and a generosity of spirit about the place that I do love. My job isn’t to tell you that you should prefer my style of fresher, more vivid and precise French food. My job is to tell you what to expect if you do go, and how you might get the best meal there for your hard-earned money.
Of course, chefs didn’t find enough praise in such reviews, and hardcore food snobs thought I should’ve brought out the daggers. To which I had to plug my ears to all the noise and do what was right by my readers.
4. People Love to Regale You with Tales of Awful Dining Experiences
My name was on the line with every restaurant or dish I recommended, and if I happened to mislead diners, believe me, I’d hear about it.
“Hey!” a friend (co-worker, mailman, hairdresser, supermarket checkout clerk, etc.) would say. You owe me $50! I went to [such-and-such restaurant] and had that dish you recommended. They really MESSED IT UP!”
Restaurants are, of course, moving targets—something great one week can be pretty awful the next, depending on the ever-variable factors in the industry. Still, you have no idea how awful it makes a reviewer feel when a restaurant you recommended lets one of your readers down. Trust is everything.
5. You Slog Through a Lot of Good-Not-Great Meals
Every four years, someone from a major East Coast newspaper writes a piece that goes something like this: “I had to go to Des Moines to cover the Iowa Caucuses and—who knew?—this Podunk in the middle of flyover country had some really great restaurants.”
This always made me roll my eyes. In an age when our country is obsessed with food, why would anyone be surprised to find some truly great restaurants in any metropolitan area?
But alas, there aren’t dozens and dozens of really great restaurants. There are some stellar restaurants, a few out-and-out awful restaurants, and hundreds of “just okay” restaurants in between.
You have 52 restaurant reviews to write in a year and can only visit the great ones every couple years. That leaves a lot of good-not-great things to write about.
And let me tell you, the only thing less enjoyable than eating a so-so meal is to have to go home and write about it.
*With apologies to writer Bill Bryson, who began his first book with the words, “I’m from Des Moines. Somebody has to be.”
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