... And don't get him started on cold pizza.
Fresh off a few years in the Czech Republic as food critic at the Prague Post, Dave Faries has just returned to town to take up the restaurant reviewing reins at the Dallas Observer. He may miss the glamorous ex-pat lifestyle, and those post-Pairing Off hangovers are nothing compared to football withdrawal, but so far we're loving his weekly explorations of the Big D dining scene (not to mention the new City of Ate blog). Click here to read his first few reviews.
DallasEats caught up with Dave this week, and traded a few entertaining answers to our own Burning Questions for... well, we're not really sure what he'll ask for in return, but we know it won't be a gift basket of canned beets and tapioca pudding mix. (Photos, from top: 1. Dave at a party - image altered to preserve his anonymity. But it's really him, honest. Guess you'll just have to take our word for it. 2. Beautiful Prague. No wonder he stayed so long!)
DallasEats: What is the general process you follow when reviewing a restaurant?
DF: Well, it's not really all that exciting: Call for reservations or just walk in - and repeat a few times. Then do it over and over for years on end.
But, of course, I never use my real name when I call. Usually, I combine the first and last names of two one-hit wonders, such as the guy who did "Hot Child in the City" with the Unabomber... using his first name, of course. I develop a schedule a couple months in advance, putting the priority first on new restaurants, then chef changes and finally on places that haven't been reviewed in quite some time. Then I just try to order a good cross-section of the menu, making sure to try some things recommended by the wait staff.
Really, not much to it - except that I'm there to analyze, so there's a lot of ignoring my guest as he or she babbles. And rushing home to take notes.
DallasEats: What is the hardest thing about maintaining your anonymity?
DF: Do people really want to see me? One time I walked into a bar with Mr. Dallas of the Morning News. The bartender looked up, recognized us, and said, "Oh, my God. What did I do?" I know some places years ago that kept pictures of Dotty Griffith posted in the back.
It's not that difficult, although we have to do some reporting on occasion, requiring discussions with chefs or restaurateurs. If a server or maitre d' recognizes a critic, about the only thing that changes is the service itself - and you notice right away. It's annoying, more than anything, when managers stop by every five minutes.
Anyway, it's really hard for a kitchen to all of a sudden cook better. While I was answering this, the owner of Blue Collar Bar dropped by the office to hand deliver media kits. People are always trying make a good impression. The key is just to be brutally honest, even if your best friends owns the place.
DallasEats: Are there any foods that you absolutely hate?
DF: Tapioca pudding, cold pizza, canned beets, head cheese and non-alcoholic drinks. But I'll eat them - or drink them, as the case may be - if I have to. Well, not the cold pizza, but the other two. There's just something about congealed cheese and thickened pepperoni grease. I'd rather listen to Hannity or watch a Pauly Shore marathon. (Editor's note: I ate a slice of cold pizza this morning while posting this interview. No kidding. -C&S)
The job of a critic is to ignore personal likes and dislikes. You have to forget all that and order things the right way, keep your own preferences out of it. There's buzzwords like "authentic", "fusion", "Tuscan" and such that provide starting points for technique, stye, etc. That's where you begin.
DallasEats: If you had friends coming in town, where would you take them to eat?
DF: Hell, I don't know. I've only been back in the country for a month or so. Critics have no friends. And shouldn't they be taking me out to eat, if I did have them?