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In the food world, Nora Ephron has written, nothing is what it seems. “People who seem to be friends are not. People who admire each other call each other Old Lemonface and Cranky Craig behind backs. People who tell you they love Julia Child will add in the next breath that of course her husband is a Republican and her orange Bavarian cream recipe just doesn’t work.” Ephron wrote those words in 1968, but little has changed in the intervening 30 years. While spats between members of the food establishment draw headlines only rarely — chef David Bouley’s nasty breakup with business partner Warner LeRoy is the latest example — knives are kept sharp in private. Gossip and intrigue are at a constant, rolling boil.
Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page’s new book, “Dining Out,” promises to deliver the dish on the restaurant world circa 1998. The authors fanned out across the country, interviewing dozens of prominent critics (Ruth Reichl, Patricia Unterman), chefs (Alice Waters, Daniel Boulud) and owners (Danny Meyer, Sirio Maccioni), and they’ve returned with a book that’s like a giant and slightly undercooked cassoulet — the tasty bits are in there, but you’ve got to work to dig them out.
“Food has become our national obsession,” the authors write, and thanks to the proliferating number of city magazines, Web sites, Zagat guides and grungy zines, there’s no escaping restaurant criticism — everywhere you turn, somebody’s pushing a steaming bowl of adjectives in your face. (Steve Forbes tosses in a few reviews at the close of his monthly columns; Consumer Reports now rates chain restaurants.) But as “Dining Out” makes clear, a handful of critics — usually those at major daily newspapers — continue to wield an almost monopolistic power. “The King of Spain is waiting in the bar,” Le Cirque owner Maccioni is reported to have said to Times critic Reichl, “but your table is ready.”
“Dining Out” is crammed with anecdotes about critics’ lives and methods, and about the lengths restaurants go to in order to spot them and, ideally, make them happy. Reichl talks about her outsize wig collection (she’s the lady in black on “Dining Out’s” cover, by the way), and the authors report that more than one restaurant has offered a reward to any employee who spots her at a table. Outside of New York, most critics say disguises aren’t necessary. As long as you make the reservation under another name, and don’t draw undue attention to yourself, there’s little chance you’ll be identified. Once a critic is spotted, Dornenburg and Page write, chefs leave little to chance — most cook two versions of everything the reviewer has ordered, and bring out the most successful plate.
Sometimes even that’s not enough. Bad reviews happen, and a particularly negative one can put a restaurant out of business. San Francisco Chronicle critic Unterman has been threatened at knife point by a disgruntled chef; Houston Sidewalk’s Alison Cook was once burned in effigy; the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Elaine Tate has had rocks hurled through her windows. You may have noticed that all of the critics mentioned thus far are women; the authors note the current predominance of women in the field, as well as the odd fact that an unusually large number of food critics are both Jewish and musically inclined. Dornenburg and Page have an eye for this kind of stray detail. One sidebar is a list of the weirdest things critics have eaten. L.A. Weekly critic Jonathan Gold’s weird list includes “braised goat penis” and, hopefully not in the same dish, “testicles of a bull that had fallen in the ring to the matador.”
As enjoyable as “Dining Out” can be to browse through, it’s a chore to read cover to cover. In lieu of a shapely narrative, the authors appear to have simply dumped out the contents of their tape recorders. A typical section begins with a few breathless questions (“Is there anyone out there who hasn’t, at some time or another, fantasized about being a restaurant critic? … And is the reality of their jobs as wonderful as our illusions?”) and ends with critic after critic giving opinions, often at numbing length. Worse is the authors’ disinclination to jump into the fray themselves. Unlike Nora Ephron in her 1968 article on “The Food Establishment,” Dornenburg and Page draw few conclusions and offer little in the way of synthesis. The pair bring fresh ingredients to the table; you’re left wishing only that “Dining Out” weren’t quite so al dente.
Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.More Dwight Garner.