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Reviewing Restaurants Is Serious Business

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I found out early on in my dining career that you really can get the meat sweats. (Don’t ask. It’s gross.) That was the week I consumed 15 burgers—for breakfast, lunch and dinner some days. Then, there was the doughnut blowout, when I crammed in crullers from dozens of bakeries. I also remember well the two consecutive days I gobbled all manner of chicken wings at varying heat levels. And lest I forget, the steamed-crab crackdown, which had me pickin’ and chewin’ dozens of Old Bay-covered crustaceans in a single short month. I was lucky. In the six years I covered the restaurant scene in Baltimore, I only got sick once from something I ate. It’s an occupational hazard. Some longtime reviewers even get gout. Such is the life of a restaurant critic. No one feels sorry for us—and they shouldn’t. It’s a privilege to dissect a meal and help diners decide where to spend their hard-earned dollars. Just ask Matt Amis, Pam George and Mark Nardone, who determined our favorite 50 restaurants around the state in this month’s issue (page 46).

It’s not all fun and games, though. “What makes my opinions matter? I have to be prepared always to answer that question whenever I sit down to write,” says Amis. “I have my little set of standards and guidelines that I follow, and I always try to be as fair and honest as I can.” To be respected, you have to know food, from the overall cuisine to the tiniest sprinkle of cardamom or drizzle of Sriracha. You also have to know how the restaurant business works. Good reviewers are empathetic to behind-the-scenes crises, and to the people doing their best to serve a good meal. “Restaurants are businesses where people work and earn livings,” Amis says. “I take that stuff very seriously, and never try to bash anyone too harshly.” George agrees. “The worst part is when a less-than-stellar review affects a restaurant’s business or a job,” she says. As for me, I appreciate both sides. Not only did I write about restaurants, I have a daughter who is a chef. I know only too well about how kitchen disasters can rattle a cook. Or how brutal those Yelp reviews can be.

Fairness is what professional reviewers strive for. It’s why we included 30 additional “runner-up” restaurants in this issue … and why we asked local chefs where they like to go. “The best part [of reviewing] is going to restaurants that might be outside my comfort zone or geographic zone,” George says. “I may also try dishes that I wouldn’t normally try.” That’s not always as wonderful as it sounds. A few years ago, I had to eat kangaroo and python. Live sea urchin was another bold swallow. Delaware enjoyed some muskrat notoriety before Smyrna’s Wagon Wheel closed last fall. Nardone appreciates that today’s chefs are sourcing locally as much as possible. “I like going into a place like Dogfish or Nage and seeing the vendors listed on the chalkboard,” says DT’s senior writer, who also pens the magazine’s online restaurant newsletter. “It’s fun when you recognize the farms, and more fun as you get to know more of them better.” In the end, that’s what we hope our latest dining issue will do—inspire you to get to know our local restaurants better.

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