Please note: After speaking with the owners, it has become clear that Liberty Kitchen did not comp my first meal at the restaurant; they comped my dining companion's meal, which I erroneously assumed was my own meal being comped. Also note that chef Lance Fegen did not have anything to do with the naming of either BRC Gastropub or the Hawaiian MacCock burger; those names were were created by owner Lee Ellis.
In this week's cafe review of Liberty Kitchen, I had a difficult time pegging the restaurant and what it's trying to be. Oyster bar with killer burgers and cocktails? Upscale dinner destination? Casual lunching spot with confusing prices? I ended up drawing my own conclusions -- which you can read in the review -- but I think that perhaps one of the reasons I was so rattled the entire time is that I was spotted from my first visit.
Liberty Kitchen has had issues with critics from the day that it opened and posted a sign barring Houston Chronicle food critic Alison Cook. The ban ostensibly arose out of owner Lance Fegen's disagreement with something Cook once wrote about his previous restaurant, Glass Wall (which is now owned by ex-partner Shepherd Ross), as well as her review of his other establishment, BRC Gastropub.
The sign and the "ban" were a rather juvenile reaction, to say the least, but Fegen seems to have an adolescent mind-set in other areas, too: Naming BRC after a "big red cock" and one of Liberty Kitchen's burgers the "Hawaiian MacCock" immediately spring to mind as other examples.
However, if Fegen was in Liberty Kitchen the last two times I was there, I didn't spot him. That didn't stop me from being recognized by his other staff members, though.
And there's nothing much I can do about that; I'm not anonymous and never have been. I'm accustomed to being recognized and working around it in subtle ways: Watching the service closely at other tables, for example, instead of the compromised service at my own table. And I know that since most dishes involve hours of prep work, it's unlikely that every aspect of my food is prepared à la minute.
These are issues which former New York Times food critic Frank Bruni addressed in The Atlantic after leaving his post, saying that "critics have long been recognized" and that it's now virtually impossible to remain anonymous. More to the point, he wrote, it's not necessary:
[R]estaurants suddenly faced with a critic in the dining room can't change the menu instantly. They can't go shopping right then for better ingredients. They can't get a better service staff, or re-train the line cooks, etc., etc. While a recognized critic's portions may be slightly different from another person's, and while the kitchen may take special care with the order going to a critic's table, the fundamentals that make the restaurant great or mediocre remain in place. And while the service can get better for a critic, it can also get worse: hyper-solicitous, nervous, intrusive.
Hyper-solicitous and intrusive were the hallmarks of the bizarre service that I encountered while at Liberty Kitchen, and the reason I thought it would be helpful to draw up a list of things for restaurants not to do when a food critic is spotted in the wild. Trust me -- this advice will make things better for everyone.
5. Don't try to comp their meal. I know that you, as a manager or owner or chef, think that you're being nice, but this only puts a critic into an incredibly difficult position. I have to pay for my food during a review. It's called ethics. This has happened to me twice before -- once at Philippe and once at Arturo Boada Cuisine -- and it happened to me during the course of my Liberty Kitchen review as well. It's so embarrassing to have to forcibly reject someone's goodwill and it's equally embarrassing to have to hassle the server for a check when they've been specifically told not to give you one. It puts everyone into an uncomfortable position. In all three situations, I've held out for a check -- sometimes for a comically long time. Although I was only charged for an iced tea at Liberty Kitchen, I left $100 in hopes that it would cover the full cost of the bill and the gratuity. Did I overpay? Perhaps, but I needed to get back to work (we have working hours, too) and leave in as gracious a manner as possible.
4. Interrupt dinner to ask if they're a food critic. There's nothing quite like trying to have a quiet, introspective dinner with a close friend and being interrupted to be quizzed endlessly about your profession. Yes, it's a working dinner. But my working meals are often some of the few times I have to catch up with friends. It's possible to simultaneously take in a restaurant, its food and its service while having a nice, civil dinner with a friend. How would you like it if someone sprang questions on you just as your food had been served, or interrupted you mid-bite to ask detailed questions about your job? Especially in front of the entire dining room, in a loud voice? Putting a person on the spot like that is almost always rude under any circumstances.
3. Ask how long the person has worked as a food critic. If this is a vital piece of information for you to know, the Internet is a vast and endless repository of information. That type of detail is not difficult to find out for yourself.
2. Ask how many reviews they've written. See No. 3. Also, responding with, "That doesn't seem like a lot of reviews..." is incredibly rude and insensitive to the other tasks that most food critics fulfill every day. I may only write one review a week (and no, that doesn't add up to very many when I've only been doing this job since August 2010). But I also write between 15 and 20 articles a week. Would that accumulation of articles be a more acceptable number?
1. Don't play along with the charade. As Bruni said, there's nothing more unsettling or discomforting about a dining experience than being gawked at like an animal in a zoo.
I remember, in my first months as the Times's critic, being gawked at by industry people who would walk into a place where I was dining, stand in the vestibule for a few minutes just for the purpose of laying eyes on me, and then leave. I learned through the grapevine that they had been alerted and summoned by the staff where I was eating, and they wanted to give themselves a better shot at spotting me should I ever walk through their front doors.
Of course smart restaurateurs and staffers are going to recognize critics when they come in. Critics would be absolutely foolish to think or pretend otherwise. But it's the smart restaurateurs who do pretend otherwise -- it's the smart ones who play along with the charade.
If you're confident in your food and service, allow the critic to experience those things unfettered by awkward confrontations and unbiased by obsequious attempts to curry favor. Concentrate on all of your diners equally. Tell your line cooks and servers to relax and do as good a job as always. You'll be doing yourself and your restaurant a great service in the long run.
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