Never-Never Land: A Code of Ethics
By Doral Chenoweth
GENERAL CUSTER was a nice guy, but he never understood why all those people were shooting at him. The same applies to restaurant reviewers.
On the East Coast, the Connecticut State Legislature once considered a bill to license reviewers. It is reasonable to assume copies of the First Amendment were handed to lawmakers before a vote was wasted.
IN SAN FRANCISCO restaurateurs rounded up a lynch party and invited the alleged offenders to their own hanging. They wanted reviewers to cook for them.
In the rough and tumble Heartland, restaurant operators are more direct. A German chef-proprietor met a reviewer at the door and physically pointed her into a snow bank. Outside, of course. The place was later shuttered for lack of business, not the resulting unfavorable review, which was written from earlier visits.
What all this sound and fury means is that restaurateurs don't want unfavorable reviews. What they really seek is favorable stuff, the sort they can buy in any hotel-convention-chamber-sponsored dining guide. The pitch is direct: Buy advertising, get a good review free.
EVERY CITY has a dozen such freebie guides placed above cigarette machines in hotel lobbies, placed under room telephones, or at restaurant cashier stations. Newspaper reviewers don't work that way. The people who write restaurant reviews are bound by set-in-concrete codes of ethics.
Such codes come first from immediate superiors, editors, then from national journalistic societies conscious of the profession's behavior.
NO LONGER do sports writers travel and drink free with ball clubs. That was two generations ago. Police reporters gave up boozing and buddy-buddy relationships with cops long ago. Travel writers pay their way if taking a cruise or flight.
As for restaurant reviewers, the only known "code of ethics" for this writer came when I produced a list of "never-nevers" for my son.
He had just been named restaurant reviewer for the Ohio State University daily newspaper, The Lantern.
While he had been my dining companion at least a thousand times and he was a senior in journalism, I felt he should have some guidelines, ethics, spelled out. Ten-plus Commandments, as it were.
PHOTO: Tim Revell/The Columbus Dispatch
MAKEUP: Roger Bosworth
SETTING: Carolyn's, German Village
GENERALLY SPEAKING, every active daily newspaper reviewer today has such a list, though it may not be spelled out and posted on a bulletin board.
Topping the list is a slight form of digression but appropriate: Avoid home cooking.
Never lose your love affair with restaurants.
Never run a house account with any restaurant.
Never sign a "freebie" check or a "P/R" check in a restaurant.
Never leave a restaurant without a paid, detailed, dated receipt. (Your attorneys love such documentation.)
Never announce your intention to cover or review a restaurant by making reservations in your
Never accept anything free from the house: booze, wines, coupons for discounted meals, or gifts of any nature. Chinese and Greek restaurateurs may consider it a social slight if you refuse a tendered gift. If you lost in citing a difference in our cultures, make it plain their gift will be appreciated by your favorite charity.
Never review private clubs (Playboy, country clubs, private spas, business-oriented athletic clubs, after hours joints).
Never publish a critical judgment after one visit to a restaurant.
Never let a proprietor pick up your check unless he is doing the same for everyone in the house. That'll cure the intent.
Never serve as a consultant to anyone in the restaurant business. Your "consulting" is your review.
Never trust your own knowledge to be all encompassing where unfamiliar cuisines or ethnic foodstuffs are concerned. Consult Quentin Crewe, John Mariani, Craig Claiborne, A. Escoffier, Ellen Brown, Julia Child. (See Gulp, an ink-on-pulp bibliography for pre-lecture studies.)
Never let the public, editors, Roseanne Barr, Amy Vanderbilt, or other social arbitrators see you dining on spaghetti at a public trough.
Two contemporary food writers to study today are Molly O’Neill of The New York Times and William Rice of The Chicago Tribune. Molly does books and magazine pieces in her punchy writing style. William is the veteran food/restaurant/wine writer who keeps a true midwestern flavor in his writing and actually cooks creatively in his newspaper’s test kitchen, a pleasant touch. He is syndicated to major newspapers by Tribune Media.
If filing your review from 30,000 feet aboard a British Air flight, or from a desert island and you are permitted just one reference book, make it Sharon Tyler Herbst's ultimate culinary bible - Food Lover's Companion. Her 750 pages package 6,000 listings covering everything necessary to make a reviewer look brilliant. (Barron's Educational Series; $14.95 USA; $21 Canada.) Scope out Barnes & Noble.
Never review a restaurant with the preconceived notion of "helping" a potential loser.
Never make a firm judgment on such elements as food being frozen, precooked, and portion controlled food as being all bad. Each process has a valid place in our national culinary picture.
Never submit any advance copy to the place being reviewed. Only in Wallingford, Conn., could you be asked to submit such copy to an owner.
Never write about anyone in the restaurant business who voices intent to have your job.
Never discuss resulting legal matters without your newspaper's legal counsel present.
Never review a restaurant where any threat or discussion of legal action has taken place.
Never make reservations for friends in your favorite restaurant.
Never accept invitations for VIP affairs or review grand opening press affairs. Reserve this sort of publicity event for the food editor or saloon columnist.
Never use the word tasty in a review.
Never bother with reviewing a leased kitchen in a Holiday Inn.
Never precede a review dinner with a martini, margarita, whiskey sour, boilermaker, vinegar-doused salad, cocktail sauce, cigarettes, or snuff.
Never knock leftovers. Ask for a people bag and don't tell your accountant.
The Code of Ethics originally appeared in the trade publication, Nation's Restaurant News.