Inside the Minds of DC's Top Food Critics
By Whitney Pipkin, Edible DC contributor
Phyllis Richman may be retired from her reign over DC’s dining scene, but the former Washington Post food critic still delivered the most memorable punch lines — including a tale about dropping her pants to get into a restaurant — at an event that brought five Washington-area dining reviewers together to dish about their jobs on Sunday night.
Hosted by the Smithsonian Associates in collaboration with Konnected Media Group’s Kyle Schmitz, the evening drew a packed house to the Navy Memorial (and they weren’t just there for sips from Todd Thrasher and Gina Chersevani).
On what other occasion do Washingtonians get to not only ask the critics their burning questions but also see the most well known among them in unabashed disguise and candor?
Northern Virginia Magazine’s Stefanie Gans won the costume contest in a Grey Gardens-inspired black scarf and white-rimmed shades. The Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema and Washingtonian’s Todd Kliman each donned ball caps and sunglasses (and I won’t say which one might have worn a wig, too). Phyllis Richman, the Post’s critic from 1976 to 2000, appeared as herself.
“My best disguise in 1976 was to be a woman,” said Richman.
She then shared a story about a restaurant she had arrived to review that wouldn’t allow her to enter as a woman wearing pants. So, she says, she took off her pants and dined in her tunic (which we’re assuming was long-ish?). It wasn’t long before moderator Mary Beth Albright, writer and former food critic herself, offered to give Richman the mic for the evening. Washington City Paper’s Jessica Sidman not only didn’t disguise herself (she considers herself a food reporter rather than critic) but also made the case that the anonymity her fellow panelists were going for “is a total farce.”
“Any restaurant that cares to know what they look like knows,” Sidman said, gesturing to the others. “The next generation of critics won’t even have the option to be anonymous.”
Sidman said her position at City Paper had been that of a critic until she made the suggestion that she’d rather focus on storytelling. Gans, who’s a friend of Sidman’s and both writes about and critiques restaurants, said she appreciates Sidman’s inside-the-industry beat but still sees a place for reviews beyond Yelp.
Others chimed in on the importance of being a good writer to the duties of food criticism.
“The task is for us to sit down and write a compelling story about something you put in your mouth,” said Sietsema, whose latest series for the Post had him dining at some 50 restaurants in New York City over just a few days. “It’s easy to write a rave or a pan; the B’s and C’s are hard.”
Kliman said reviewing restaurants showed him firsthand that Zagat stickers on their windows “don’t mean anything” and are often outdated. The same can go for the panelists’ written reviews, which Kliman estimates have a six-month shelf life (barring sudden exits by executive chefs).
The panelists also compared dining-out budgets: Sietsema’s amounts to an entire salary and is “not quite unlimited” while Gans can’t use hers toward beverages and uses half of it to complete her magazine’s 50-best issue each year. Sidman eats out two or three times a week while Sietsema hits at least a dozen spots most weeks.
The critics also shared about finding new restaurants and trying to one-up one another by unveiling the next Washington cuisine.
“I spend a lot of time trying to find places that I don’t think Tom is going to find,” said Kliman, who is prone to drive around strip malls for that reason. Gans also confided that, if Kliman finds a new haunt in her coverage area before she has the chance to print it, she’s “pissed.”
The critics also got a stereotypical Washington question about whether their positions should be term-limited to bring fresh voices to the table.
And, of course, Richman had the best answer: “Definitely,” she said. “And it’s always five years from where you are.”
Whitney Pipkin is a freelance journalist covering food, farms and the environment from Alexandria, VA. Her work appears in the Washington Post, Virginia Living and the Chesapeake Bay Journal, among others. She writes at thinkabouteat.com. @whitpipkin