How I Got a Job Reviewing Food in Alexandria

"I feel that part of my job is improve the restaurant experience for both you, the reader, and the restaurant."

Street Dining: Dining out on King St. with appropriate distancing

Alexandria, VA – I sit here in front of my computer, thinking about how much life has changed for me and the rest us because of the pandemic. Where I was comntemplating the next restaurant review almost three months ago, I am now thinking about all of my friends and the people in the food service business and how they must be struggling to maintain. I think about how we have lost the joy of going out and enjoying a meal at some new or favorite restaurant with family and/or friends.

What can you do to support our restaurants?

Visit their new outdoor eating areas. Continue to contribute by using carryout services provided by restaurants. Leave big tips for carryout, delivery, and dining out. Thank them for caring enough about you to earn the ALXPromise certification. Donate money to the various charities so they can provide support to those in need. Help your neighbors. And, remember that those folks providing essential services like trash pickup, fire and police protection, etc. are experiencing the same problems we all are. Their kids are out of school and they are without child care. They can’t find the same products we are all looking for at the grocery stores. They continue doing their jobs even though it may put them at high risk for exposure to the virus. Say thank you. Buy a meal for everyone at the local fire station or for a ward of a hospital.

Jamila and Carpenter’s Shelter therapist Finnie Caldwell serve a donated lunch to residents. (Photo courtesy of Carpenter’s Shelter)

Let’s Talk Stuff and How I Became a Food Writer

So, instead of a review, let’s talk stuff. I am often asked how I became a food reviewer. It was serendipity. First, growing up, my folks didn’t take us out to dinner at fast food joints, we went out to casual and fine dining establishments. At an early age, if asked, I would tell you my favorite foods were escargot and duck a la orange. We became close friends with the ‘Mayor’ of Chinatown in Chicago where I was taught what real Chinese cooking tasted like. Our family dined out at Greek, Spanish, Italian, and other ‘foreign’ flavor restaurants.

I was lucky enough to be exposed to a wide range of cuisines and flavors and developed an educated palate. Living in several areas of the country exposed me to regional cooking styles and tastes. Okay, so past is prologue. One day, our publisher, Mary Wadland said, I’m going to do a restaurant review at a Mexican restaurant, want to come? Of course, I said yes. Then, an off-hand comment about how having lived in the Southwest, I would love to write the review, got a resounding yes. So, here I am, years later, your local foody who got the job of a lifetime.

What IS My Job, Actually?

I’ve talked about favorite restaurants around town. Let’s talk about what I see my job is. Most importantly, I consider myself a reviewer, not a critic. My job is to support restaurants, not tear them down. If I feel something is not good or would benefit from a change, I share it with the restaurant owner or manager. I feel that part of my job is improve the restaurant experience for both you, the reader, and the restaurant. I’ll tell you what I like about a restaurant. I may tell you I think the noise level is higher than I like or that seating in one dining area is more comfortable than another but I will never write a review that would create a negative impact. I’ll always steer you in what I think is the right direction for your meal. And by the way, I am not a covert operative. Restaurants know I’m coming and I always ask them to provide me with a meal that they want their customers to enjoy. No, I usually don’t pay for my meal but I always leave a really big tip for servers.

Do I have pet peeves?

Sure. I really don’t enjoy a server ask me if I am ‘still working on that.’ I love food so eating is a joy, not a job. Ask me if I am finished. Like most of you, I am annoyed by overbearing service as well as a lack of service. I want to enjoy my meal and part of that is enjoying the company of my guests and the taste of the food. Servers, check on us occasionally, don’t keep asking if we need anything, we’ll let you know. But, please refill my water glass without me having to flag you down.

Another pet peeve may get me in trouble with some of you. I believe the price of meal at a nice restaurant includes the cost of a sitter. If you don’t have a sitter, move down a notch to an atmosphere more conducive to loud or cranky kiddos. The restaurant and other guests will be grateful. There are lots of good kid friendly places all around town. Most people at ‘Chez Ritzy Ritz’ don’t want to deal with your kids when they are spending big bucks for a special meal.

The Value of Being Adventurous

I recommend you be adventurous. I love trying new things. How else would I know I love Ethiopian food or that Laotian food is fabulous? Try new foods and restaurants. Do try new restaurants but remember, a new place is still trying to work out the bugs. Dishes that worked well when only two or three plates were prepared in an evening can fail when 30 are ordered on the same night.

Every restaurant opens with a trained phalanx of servers, bartenders, and kitchen staff. However, many of those people will leave within the first two weeks, unable to meet the demands of the job. Your server may not know the menu items as well as you might like. Give them a break and let them go get an answer for you. Or, give the new place a few weeks before you go. You won’t have as high a risk of being disappointed.

The AlxPromise insignia means the restaurant cares enough to make sure both you and their staff are safe.

Enough of my ramblings. Let me know what you’re enjoying when you go out Visit Alexandria Curbside Dining on Facebook to see what others are eating and recommending. Let me know what you like or dislike. I’ll be happy to fill a column with your input. My email is debbyc@thezebrapress.com

Do have a restaurant you want me to review? Please contact editor@thezebrapress.com.

Debby Critchley is the Food and Calendar Editor at The Zebra Press in Alexandria, Va. She is pictured here with Chef Robert Irvine.

 

 

 

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting: “Another pet peeve may get me in trouble with some of you. I believe the price of meal at a nice restaurant includes the cost of a sitter. If you don’t have a sitter, move down a notch to an atmosphere more conducive to loud or cranky kiddos.”
    Kind of hypocritical when,
    “First, growing up, my folks didn’t take us out to dinner at fast food joints, we went out to casual and fine dining establishments. At an early age, if asked, I would tell you my favorite foods were escargot and duck a la orange.”
    No one wants their kid to be grumpy or noisy at a restaurant…some parents today are doing the same thing your parents did.

  2. To those who might think that my pet peeve of children in the dining room of a fine dining restaurant conflicts with my saying how I was taken to fine dining restaurants as a child. When we went to find dining restaurants, we were not allowed to leave our chairs except to go to the restroom. If we misbehaved, we spent dinner locked in the car. We learned very quickly what good manners and behavior was expected of us. I learned very quickly once my brother was sent to the car.

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