"No one suspected me": Women food critics dish on dining out for a living

Different menus for men. A server insisting "women don't eat that." Women restaurant writers open up

Published February 1, 2020 7:30PM (EST)

No One Suspects A Thing (Salon/Ilana Lidagoster)
No One Suspects A Thing (Salon/Ilana Lidagoster)

When Besha Rodell reviewed a new, hotly-anticipated restaurant called Otium for LA Weekly in 2016, she awarded them two out of five stars. After she finished writing, Rodell — who at the time was the restaurant critic for the weekly paper — began to read what the other critics in town had to say. That was when she found out about the other wine list. 

LA Times wine writer Patrick Comiskey's review of the same restaurant mentioned a second wine list that had been offered to him immediately. Not only was that list longer, but it had a better selection of lower-priced bottles. How would you feel if you discovered someone else doing the same job was offered different — and better — options? Like Rodell, you might have been frustrated.

"I had two different conversations with the sommelier out of my three visits and was never offered that list," said Rodell, now Australia Fare columnist for the New York Times and a global critic for Food & Wine and Travel & Leisure. She describes Comiskey as Hollywood's version of what a critic looks like."He wears a lot of tweed blazers, he's vaguely middle-aged, nice looking," she said. "He looks like a college professor." 

Two days after publishing her initial review, Rodell wrote a follow-up: "Apparently Otium Has a Great Wine Program. Who Knew?"

Reading Comiskey and Rodell's pieces on Otium side-by-side, it's difficult to believe that they are describing the same restaurant. The second wine list was concrete evidence of how dismissed Rodell felt by the restaurant's staff, while Comiskey had found the service amiable. Why would the restaurant not give all patrons equal access to all of the menus? How common is this discrepancy in treatment? Eleven interviews with former and current female restaurant critics have suggested that restaurants are a little like living organisms; they respond differently depending on who walks in the door. For some, the staff rolls out the red carpet, while others are barely given a glance. And often, it appears women get the second treatment. 

This phenomenon might be hard to discern at first; it may appear that whatever just transpired is just how things are done at this particular establishment. How would you know? What do you compare your treatment to? A critic could adopt a disguise, taking on another identity for the evening (some have done so for just this reason). Another option is to read other critics' reviews, as Rodell did, and spot the differences. Of course, this only works if you have a variety of critics covering your town, critics who are paying attention — and that abundance of full-time coverage is increasingly rare in many markets. 

It may seem like a small thing, at first: A woman dining with a male companion orders a bottle of wine, and the sommelier offers the first taste to the male guest. She asks for the check, and the server sets it down in front of the man. These things happen so often that the woman in question might not even notice — unless, of course, she happens to be an experienced, professional observer of restaurant service.

Hanna Raskin, food editor and chief critic for The Post & Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, shared a memorable experience at a restaurant in San Antonio, Texas. "The server would not let me order a certain pork chop because it was too big," said Raskin. "He said, 'No, women don't eat that' and so, clearly, I had to make a choice between identifying as a woman or having pork for dinner." 

And on a recent trip to France, Raskin was offered a women's menu, sans prices. "I didn't know these things still existed," she said. 

Donna Minkowitz, former critic for Gay City News in New York City, recalled an incident during a New Year's Eve meal with her wife several years ago that is hard to imagine happening to a male restaurant critic. "It was freezing in the restaurant," she says. "We asked 'can you please turn up the heat?' but he [the maitre d'] eventually made this sexual reference to me: 'why don't you come over here and I'll warm you up?'"

Although these experiences are demoralizing, many of the critics I spoke to mentioned an upside to this kind of treatment. "In the beginning I was trying really hard to be incognito and I had this blonde Morgan Fairchild wig I used to wear," said Meesha Halm, a former restaurant critic in San Francisco. "I quickly found out that I didn't really need it, because no one suspected me as a food critic. I could ask a barrage of questions about the restaurant or about the food preparations and really get into the nitty gritty without ever being suspected." 

"I think it's easier for people to believe that I don't know things, I certainly play that up as a way to test service or the sommelier — get them to expound, perhaps, in ways that they wouldn't if they thought I knew everything," said Soleil Ho, critic at the San Francisco Chronicle. "To me that's also interesting: how does a server, or a general manager, or a chef treat someone who might not be an expert? That's the one thing I've been able to weaponize; everything else is, at least as far as I can perceive, just normal." 

Tejal Rao, now the California critic for the New York Times and formerly a critic for Bloomberg, found it easy to fly under the radar as a critic in New York City, which gave her a clearer view of restaurants. "I can't really separate being a person of color from being a woman," said Rao. "Sometimes as a critic that made me invisible in a way that was really beneficial. I was trying to pass unnoticed. Especially if I was with another woman of color, I felt like sometimes hosts didn't notice us as much and servers didn't pay as much attention to us. Even though it's not ideal, it worked in my favor."

Ho's experiences in restaurants are also inextricably tied to each part of her identity, not just her gender. "I think it's a conflux of things. I'm also a racialized person, also a queer person, also young, so a lot of these things intersect to really inform the way other people perceive me," she said. "I do think that there's been a lot of to-do about my identity since I've been hired, for good and for ill. People get really excited about it but then people get really put off by it. I think that people perceive a bias that I have that they didn't perceive in other critics—like a white male critic—even if he may have done the same things. I think it's easier to see my lack of objectivity — which is real, we all are not objective — because of who I am." 

Rona Gindin, a former critic based in Orlando, would occasionally bring her children with her when covering a restaurant. "I had a four- and eight-year-old when I started doing this, and normally went out with just my husband or with friends, but every so often we'd be stuck and I'd be dragging the family, and trust me, when you're a harried working mother dragging two kids to a restaurant nobody would guess." Not only did her children ensure anonymity for Gindin, but she was also able to see how the restaurant would respond to them. 

For Rodell, there is some tension between her roles as  a mother and a critic. "There's so much written and talked about already in terms of how hard it is for women to have any kind of high-powered or time-consuming career and have a family, let alone one that takes you out of the house at dinner time every night," she said. "I don't regret it because it is the way that I supported my family." 

Still, she wonders if male critics get the same kinds of questions and guilt trips. "I'm sure that it's tough on [male critics'] family too, but I do think that it's a fairly new phenomenon that men are really expected to participate in the domestic life of their families." 

The late nights, nearly every night,  were challenging for Janelle Bitker, a former restaurant critic for Sacramento News & Review and East Bay Express who's now a food enterprise reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. "I can't imagine having kids and doing that. I often wonder if that is why we don't see as many female food critics as they get older." 

Rodell credits her egalitarian partnership for her ability to freely embrace her career. "If I didn't have a partner who was very supportive and willing to be home and cook dinner for the kid every night while I'm off running around town that would be really difficult too," she said. "I don't think that there's gender equality at this point to say that there's a lot of partnerships out there where the male partner would be happy to do that." 

It wasn't anything so personal as family life that closed the critic chapter for Bitker's career. Between the time that I interviewed her for this piece and publication, she was laid off from her position at the East Bay Express. And though she still writes about food (and has freer evenings), leaving her critic's chair wasn't her choice. Bitker's story isn't uncommon. Several of the women I interviewed for this piece transitioned either to other critical jobs or away from food criticism all together since I began working on this story, a fact that likely says more about the state of journalism and how criticism is valued in general than women in food criticism in particular. 

Not everyone had stories of restaurant sexism at the ready. Leslie Brenner, a former restaurant critic for the Dallas Morning News who's now a restaurant consultant, sees herself as standing on the shoulders of the great female critics that have gone before, people like S. Irene Virbila (whom Brenner edited at the Los Angeles Times), Gael Greene (of New York Magazine), and Ruth Reichl (formerly the critic for the New York Times). "I think it's a world that women have really grabbed by the horns and run with and done brilliantly in," she said. 

Brenner didn't experience sexism having an impact on her professional life. "In terms of the restaurant community, I don't feel discriminated against, and I don't feel that people have given me special treatment because I'm a woman. I've always been a feminist, and I think it's a really good thing that I don't feel in my line of work that my gender has stood in my way at all." 

In fact, Brenner goes a step further. "Women have better palates than men," she said. 

This phenomenon of greater sensitivity in smell and taste has been discussed and studied extensively, especially in the wine and beer world. In 2015, NPR's The Salt published an article called "Are Women Better Tasters Than Men?" It seems that while most people can be trained to taste well, the short answer is: many women are naturally better at it. Brenner's comment — and the implication that it should then be assumed that women naturally would be better at this job — surprised almost everyone else I interviewed. 

But aside from taking advantage of the assumption that she might not be as knowledgeable as other patrons, Ho said she didn't feel that her gender made a great difference in the way she is treated in restaurants. "I think I benefit from the way I present which is not super straight. It's easier for me. No one flirts with me because I look really butch. I prefer that," she said. "I think the idea of a female critic or a woman critic is not so out there. I think the more outlying aspect of my person is race because that's not what people are used to, necessarily, in America."

Raskin, on the other hand, does see differences in how male and female critics are received. "I tend to find that when I'm with my friends who are male critics, they are accorded a different level of respect. I feel that way both from the public, and in the private setting of a restaurant. I think they just they do seem to command more esteem," she said. 

"I feel like if my byline were a guy's byline there are some things that people would have accepted more readily," said Melissa McCart, who worked as a restaurant critic in South Florida, Pittsburgh and for Newsday, and is now editor of Heated with Mark Bittman. "I think that in some communities there's just an inherent belief that critics should be guys." 

Ho has noticed from the mail she receives that some do assume she's the one with a bias — against white men. "I know that there are chefs out there in the Bay Area who think that I will spell the end to the white male chef there—really smart, otherwise very educated chefs," she said. "I was like 'Wow, that's silly.'" 

Online publications and their corresponding one-click email options and comment sections have brought along a whole new set of factors for critics to contend with. "I do remember doing a count at one point," said Raskin. "It was off the charts, not only how many more negative comments are written on reviews written by women, but how hostile and how sometimes scary they are." 

Gindin once received an email from a server who had been fired after she'd written a negative review. "He said: 'you're probably just some housewife living off her husband who thinks she's entitled to an opinion,'" she said. "I hope he Googled me afterwards." 

And a restaurant owner whose restaurant Raskin had negatively reviewed emailed her after reading another review, this one written by a man. "He said, 'It seems like he had many of the same conclusions you did, so I'm starting to think what you said may have been true.' I was just floored." 

Kathryn Robinson, who worked as a restaurant critic for Seattle Weekly and Seattle Met for over 30 years, posits that men are naturally seen as having more authority, whether or not they deserve it. "The only competitors in this town that I've ever felt threatened by have been men, and I realized that it's because I assumed they would be considered smarter than me," she said. 

In spite of this, she is encouraged by the strides women have made as critics. "Women in my lifetime have gotten more badass by the year. Sometimes I think: I'm a restaurant critic, I make the world safe for yuppies, that's just such a trifling thing to do when I could be really doing something important for the world. But then I think, it's important for the world to be a woman with a strong voice and to be a woman who isn't afraid, and who believes her own opinions matter."

"Being a critic requires gaining the trust of the community and it's worth as long as it takes to do that," said McCart, pointing to critics like Besha Rodell and Hanna Raskin as examples. "It also means sticking to your guns." 

Without Besha Rodell, Otium would have likely gotten away with their casual sexism. When women critics are honest about their experiences, and hold restaurants accountable, it brings the industry forward. They also provide invaluable service for those trying to decide where to eat and where to avoid.

By Cara Strickland

Cara Strickland is a writer and former food critic based in the Pacific Northwest.

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