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The real cost of a free meal

A restaurant critic dines on the house, raising serious questions about the ethics of reviewing.

November 02, 2005|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

GRAB the November issue of Esquire magazine and you'll find critic John Mariani's annual list of the nation's "20 Best New Restaurants," including local hot spots Providence and Ortolan.

What you won't see is a disclaimer about which meals Mariani ate for free, and at the personal invitation of the chefs -- omissions that have exposed a deep divide in food writing circles over the ethics of restaurant reviewing.

The line is sharply drawn. Most serious journalism outlets -- including The Times and food magazines such as Gourmet and Bon Appetit -- bar critics from accepting free meals. But others routinely publish articles based on meals -- and sometimes trips -- paid for by restaurants, hotels and local tourism offices, raising questions about the credibility of the reviews.

Several restaurants, including Ortolan, made Esquire's list after serving Mariani free meals, a practice chefs and restaurant publicists described as standard when they have invited reviewers to their restaurants, or when the reviewers have made reservations through publicists.

A free meal may cost a restaurateur hundreds of dollars, but that's a small price for national exposure, and the imprimatur of a critic. Mariani, who also publishes a newsletter and is a columnist for Wine Spectator and Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Radio, has emerged during the past two decades as a national arbiter of restaurants and food trends.

But a review based on a "comped" meal, especially when the chef knows the reviewer is in the house, can result in a radically skewed perception of a restaurant's normal performance. And it raises serious questions about the reviewer's integrity.

Reviewing standards are simple, and clear. The code of ethics widely observed, and codified by the Assn. of Food Journalists, recommends reviewers dine anonymously when possible, and not make reservations under their own names. Reviewers should not write about restaurants run by friends. And reviews should be based on several visits, to make an appropriate judgment on the food and service. Failure to maintain that objective distance violates the basic contract with people who turn to reviews for guidance.

"The people who suffer are the readers," said Kelly McBride, a journalism ethics expert at the Poynter Institute. "You assume when somebody is speaking in glowing terms about a restaurant that it is because they did a true, fair and accurate review. But if the restaurant knew they were coming ahead of time and they didn't have to pay for the meal, you can't be sure the reviewers' loyalties truly lie with the reader."

In Mariani's case, the ethical and professional lines are blurred. Mariani and his Esquire editor, David Katz, referred questions to Esquire spokesman Nathan Christopher, who said the magazine picks up the tab for stories Mariani reports exclusively for Esquire. He described Mariani as a freelance correspondent for the magazine, not a restaurant critic.

Yet Mariani clearly makes judgment calls -- a critic's basic task -- when he decides which restaurants make the list, or which he recommends in his newsletter.

Assessing quality based on freebies is playing with a stacked deck, as the chef whips his kitchen staff into show-off mode -- using better products, bigger portions and service to the max -- often to the detriment of the other diners.

"The minute you're given special treatment that is not given with the regular fare of the restaurant ... that's basically crossed the ethical line," said William A. Babcock, chair of Cal State Long Beach's journalism department and former director of the University of Minnesota's Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law. "Everything needs to be done to make sure things are on the up and up. The best way ... is to go incognito, and take notes surreptitiously. That's Basic Reviewing 101."

The practice of reviewing comped meals came to light last month when Chicago chef Homaro Cantu of Moto restaurant was quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times as accusing Mariani of slighting his restaurant because the chef rebuffed a four-page faxed list of demands. These included, according to the story, Mariani's cab fare and hotel bill during a March visit. But Cantu's publicist at the time of Mariani's visit said the faxed list didn't exist.

"He may be confusing this four-page list of demands with a one-page memo that we, as a PR agency, drafted internally on behalf of our client, which is what we do for any VIP journalist," said Janet Isabelli, executive director of Wagstaff Worldwide's Midwest office in Chicago, which no longer represents Cantu. Isabelli declined to provide a copy of the memo but said "it outlines the protocols for the evening, things they should know about the journalist" -- kind of a publicists' Zagat guide to the critic.

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