I have a go-to line when describing my book: the story of a girl who secretly writes the New York Times restaurant review because the real critic has lost his sense of taste. And every time I say that, 1 out of 3 times people will ask, “is it autobiographical?”
“Ha, I wish!” I usually say (though Tia goes through some hardships I’d rather not).
What happened, actually, was a lot a lot of research. I already had some front- and back-of-house restaurant exposure. That info is also relatively easy to get -- on TV, in chef memoirs, in pretty profiles in glossy magazines.
But the life of a restaurant critic? By its very nature, it’s a more clandestine field -- which is exactly what drew me to the topic in the first place.
So over the next couple months, I’ll be going over some of the real-life facts that informed my quite-fictional story. First up -- the most recent memoir from a New York Times restaurant critic: Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater, by Frank Bruni.
I’ve seen Frank Bruni speak in person and he seems like a great guy -- kind and funny, smart but also not above some gossipy snark. Here are some key tidbits that I found interesting and made their way into my book in some way or another.
Restaurants keep photos of key critics back-of-house. Here's a flyer that was sent to Eater.
Bruni would visit a new restaurant at least two months after opening. Earlier than that and the restaurant “might demonstrate a shakiness -- or, conversely, a focus, that wasn’t a reliable indication of what was to come.” Visits were spaced out at least a week apart. Bruni would often eat out seven nights a week, sometimes eating more than one dinner a night.
Bruni typically ate with three guests. Four apps. Four entrees. Four desserts. No duplicate orders!
The New York Times has an arrangement with American Express in which critics can use fake names.
Despite what you may think about competitiveness, restaurants share information, at least when it comes to critics: pseudonyms, frequent dining companions, photos and videos. If a restaurant manager spotted Bruni, he or she would often tell colleagues from neighboring restaurants so they could see him in-person.
Many critics say that even if a restaurant has IDed you, that doesn’t change the dining experience that much. The menu, the decor, the staff: you can only do so much on the fly. But Bruni says the feeling (if not the food itself) did change when he was “made.” A female waitress is swapped out with an attractive male waiter. Waitstaff get overly solicitous. Both Nobu 57 and L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon offered to do his dry cleaning after some relatively minor spills.
Bruni also had self-doubt. He would often ask himself, “How could I ever be 100 percent sure I’d given a restaurant a fair shake? How could I know I’d experienced and assessed it in the most accurate light?”
Unlike Ruth Reichl, Bruni only wore disguises for three restaurants: Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s V Steakhouse, Per Se, and Jeffrey Chodorow’s Wild Salmon. He just felt silly, his guests couldn’t stop giggling, and they were of dubious utility (he was IDed at Per Se).
There’s a LOT more to Born Round than restaurant review stuff and this one-note listicle doesn’t do it justice. It’s really a story about family, addiction, and caring for yourself. Definitely give it a read!
PS: Born Round's cover art inspired my own. I love the look of a besmirched tablecloth. Sometimes eating out isn't so glamorous...