Farewell, and thanks for all the fish

Our critic looks back at seven years of restaurant reviewing.

click to enlarge TOUCH OF GREATNESS: Boca Kitchen Bar provided Brian some of his top food memories from his reviewing years. - SHANNA GILLETTE
Shanna Gillette
TOUCH OF GREATNESS: Boca Kitchen Bar provided Brian some of his top food memories from his reviewing years.

When I started reviewing restaurants for Creative Loafing seven years ago, I must admit I had a romantic view of the job. I expected to discover truly great food and exciting experiences at the Bay area’s eateries, casting a light on hidden gems so that others might follow in my gustatory explorations. The Indiana Jones of the culinary world, maybe?

There was some of that, to be sure, but I quickly learned a fundamental truth about restaurants, restaurateurs and chefs that shouldn’t have surprised me, but did nonetheless: Most restaurants don’t strive to be great. Most restaurants merely attempt to do what they do well enough to keep customers coming back, to build a following of people who appreciate their little quirks and particular take on food, to serve meals that are good enough, to make enough money to keep the doors open. And for most restaurants, that’s fine.

But it does make being a critic a little tougher than you might imagine.

Oh, don’t cry for me, Tampa. Early on in my reviewing career, my editors made it clear that most readers care very little for the little problems and travails of being a critic and I’ve tried to take that to heart. Yes, the free food is nice, as is the opportunity to have a platform to express my views about service, style and cuisine. But when you take greatness off the table — in the case of most of the more than 300 restaurants I have reviewed — what’s left to talk about?

That’s why, just a year or two into my stint as CL’s restaurant critic, I realized that my romantic view of the job was morphing into something else entirely. Instead of a culinary explorer finding gems in the rough, most of the time I was more a consumer reporter informing readers about the best way to spend their dining dollars. I’d try to highlight a restaurant’s strengths and weaknesses and give enough context so that potential customers could choose among multiple spots that compete for the same business with, often, the same food.

Not nearly as romantic, but much more practical. And when I did experience a touch of greatness, it made all the more impact.

At a recent dinner, someone asked me if I have ever given out five stars to a restaurant. I haven’t. Plenty of fours over the years, and even a few 4 1/2 ratings (although I would have liked to officially rescind Chateau France’s after learning more about the place during its expansion bid a few years back). And, no matter the rating, there was often a touch of the sublime at many restaurants I visited, whether it was a single dish that shone like a beacon among more standard stuff, a chef who was truly striving to innovate, or a unique concept interesting enough to stand out.

There were also great experiences, like my recent meals at Boca Kitchen Bar, or the first time I sampled the dim sum at SideBern’s when Jeannie Pierola was in the kitchen, or my first meal at SideBern’s after Pierola had left. The chaos and deliciousness at The Refinery in the early days of the restaurant, the crazy anecdotes that always seem to surround Zack Gross of Z Grille, the serious and concentrated effort of Ferrell Alvarez of Café Dufrain. My first pizza at Wood Fired. Every time I have eaten at China Yuan. Banh mi at Saigon Deli. And my experiences at the best restaurant on the Gulf Coast — Maison Blanche on Longboat Key, home to a chef who seems to reach for perfection on a regular basis.

But five stars? Truthfully, I think there are just a handful of chefs and restaurant owners in the Bay area who — if they were honest with themselves — even strive for greatness, for pushing every aspect of their restaurant from food to design to its full potential. And achieving it isn’t easy, even when you try.

So no restaurants at the pinnacle of the rankings, but plenty of great places to eat. I’ll take that.

I’ve had several conversations with Laura Reiley over at the Tampa Bay Times and largely, I think she agrees with me. Of course, Jeff Houck at the Tampa Tribune avoids all of this critical navel-gazing by just writing about food and the people who make it (his Underbelly tours were genius). Anyone interested in food should read both of those fine folks, as well as Jon Palmer Claridge, the person CL has found to fill my medium-sized shoes as restaurant critic, and Arielle Stevenson, who will be your go-to person at CL for sharing restaurant news and foodie finds.

I have great faith that Jon will bring vim and vigor to the critic’s job and, hopefully, transfer his excitement to you guys. You deserve it and, considering how much the Bay area’s food scene has improved in the seven years I have been on this watch, the scene deserves it, too.

Traditionally, outgoing critics who have strived to be anonymous — as I have for the past seven years — get a big, full-color picture of themselves to accompany their final column. But, really, who cares about that?

For me, and for you guys, it’s always been about the food, hasn’t it?

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