Young and Hungry

This Secret Document Helps D.C. Restaurants Keep Tabs on Food Writers

shutterstock_175120202

For about two years, a handbook with photos of and details about D.C.'s food critics and writers has been quietly circulating among a handful of upscale restaurants in town. Its author, who shared the document on the condition of anonymity, tells me he created it to better equip managers, maitre d's, servers, and hosts to recognize people in the local food media and to understand their writing styles and preferences. The document is very detailed, covering writers' personalities, likes, dislikes, and even rating their food knowledge and writing ability. It also suggests what kind of server should wait on them.

If that sounds like a dossier produced by an election campaign's opposition research shop, it should. The document's author previously worked in politics, where he was accustomed to compiling information on potential opponents, candidates, committee chairs, and so on.

"When you're in a field where somebody's there to criticize you, you need as much information about that person as you can get to understand their position," he says. "For a server, I think it will be help to them to know that Tom Sietsema doesn't like sweet cocktails, or he likes Manhattans. So when he asks you about the cocktail menu, you can steer him toward something that might be in his wheelhouse."

The information is based on "largely first-hand" interactions with food writers at restaurants where he's worked. "This is what I noticed about the way they eat, drink, talk, and write," he says. "I avidly read what these folks are writing."

He says he hasn't seen anyone else put together a handbook quite as in-depth as his, which is also part of what inspired him to create it. But that doesn't mean other restaurants don't have their own photos of "anonymous" critics or track the same information, sharing it by word of mouth: "They all know these same people, and they may actually know all these same things. They might not articulate it as formally."

My source says he hasn't updated the information in a while, so some of it is outdated. For example, Jessica Voelker no longer works for Washingtonian, and Post food editor Joe Yonan is no longer on sabbatical. While I am not anonymous, I'm withholding the photos in the document, out of respect for my fellow food writers who do go to great lengths to conceal their identities—even if the file's existence proves they're not always successful. (And yes, there's a photo for everyone on this list.)

Here is the complete and unedited text:

In the internet age, the role of food critics and writers have expanded as the popularity of food culture has grown in the Food Network era.  Critics and writers have expanded their footprint to include covering all aspects of restaurants from openings, reviews, and even the career moves of Chefs and Bartenders.  That being the case, the relationship between writer and restaurant has also changed dramatically and it is important for us to recognize the faces, likes, dislikes, writing and personal styles of those who cover our business.

The relationship goes two ways:  They need stories to cover and we need the coverage to promote our various ventures.  The relationship need not be antagonistic, but it is important to remember that many of these writers hold outsized influence over our livelihoods, and we need to ensure the best experience possible when they patronize our business.

Remember that most people who cover restaurants have probably never worked in restaurants, so they won't be sympathetic to the difficulty of our particular business. This isn't necessarily a bad thing as the most important duty of the food writer is to be a consumer advocate, and the eyes and palate of the writer tend to reflect those of most guests more than the restaurant professional.

Tom Sietsema:

Tom Sietsema is probably the most notable food critic in DC.  He is the ultimate consumer advocate and has an adroit writing style that can be very critical and often ventures into the territory of cruel.  He tends to be fair, but can be emphatic when on either extreme of the rating scale.  He tends to get wrapped up in his conversations with dining companions and is very nice but gives little away about his feelings on the dining experience so it's important not to try to read too much into his body language.

Position:  Food Critic for the Washington Post

Writing level: Advanced

Food & Beverage Knowledge:  Advanced

Likes:  Manhattan's, sweetbreads, tablecloths, bread service, nice wait staff

Dislikes:  Loud dining rooms, sweet cocktails, over-pouring wine, overbearing staff

Seat With:  Most professional, experienced server with engaging but hands off style

Todd Kliman:

If food writers were philosophers, Todd Kliman would be the one writing about the Metaphysics of food .  He is an excellent and intelligent writer but not always balanced as a critic. He can be ornery and unpredictable as a guest at times, but is generally very nice to staff and can be expressive as a diner.  He excels most at capturing the spirit of a particular restaurant or dish.

Position:  Food critic for the Washingtonian magazine

Writing Level:  Expert

Food & Beverage Knowledge:  Advanced

Likes:  Engaging servers, ethnic food, spicy dishes

Dislikes:  Emotionless service, superfluous descriptions, foodie cliches

Seat With:  Most personable server.

Jessica Sidman: 

Jessica Sidman rarely reviews restaurants, but is eagle eyed when it comes to finding information about restaurants and writing about trends in the industry.  The ultimate beat reporter, she is engaging and funny but can be unforgiving if not impressed.  A seasoned journalist, her current post at the City Paper brings out the snark more often than any other outlet.  Her writing leans more towards food culture than about the food itself.

Position:  Food Editor at Washington City Paper

Writing Level:  Expert

Food & Beverage Knowledge:  Intermediate

Likes:  Innovative menus, asking tough questions, insight into the "why" of a dish or concept

Dislikes:  Novelty for the sake of novelty, overpriced dishes, obvious or condescending menu descriptions

Seat With:  Most enthusiastic/knowledgable server

Jessica Voelker:

Jessica Voelker is a very nuanced writer who covers beverage with more aplomb than food.  Mild mannered and unassuming, her questions are complex and she tends to delve into esoteric details about what she covers.  She generally respects food and artisans and tends to be receptive to hearing about the "why" of a dish.

Position:  Online dining editor at Washingtonian magazine

Writing Level:  Expert

Food & Beverage Knowledge:  Beverage/Expert, Food/Intermediate

Likes:  Bitter cocktails, contrasting flavors, thoughtful presentation

Dislikes:  Sweet desserts, novelty, careless restauranteurs

Seat With:  Most seasoned career server

Anna Spiegel:

Anna Spiegel is an epitomous lifestyles writer.  Her sensibility is geared toward the young and hip and she tends to write to that audience.  Her personality is vivacious and engaging, but has shown little nuance in her writing.  Her writing can be snarky and witty, but also also leans more towards editorializing than straight reporting.

Position:  Food writer at Washingtonian magazine

Writing Level:  Intermediate

Food & Beverage Knowledge:  Intermediate

Likes:  Young restauranteurs, sleek decor, modern twists on street food

Dislikes:  Sweet cocktails, stuffy restaurants.

Seat With:  Most personable server

Ann Limpert:

Ann Limpert is somewhat of an enigma.  The most reclusive of those in the food world, she's one of the few who doesn't have to cover stories aggressively as her legacy position (her father is legendary Washingtonian Editor Jack Limpert) does not force her to scoop stories to stay relevant like most of her counterparts.  Her personality can be quiet and aloof at times but her writing tells a different story and tends to lean towards the extremes one way or another.

Position:  Food Editor at Washingtonian magazine

Writing Level:  Intermediate

Food & Beverage Knowledge:  Advanced

Likes:  Nostalgic cuisine, Mike Isabella restaurants, good coffee

Dislikes:  Being recognized in restaurants

Seat With:  Most veteran server

Tim Carman:

Tim Carman is a skilled writer and deep thinker about food and food culture.  He can come across as stand-offish but is actually very engaging.  He really cares about food and his writing shows it.  He asks a lot of questions and really delves deep into the essence of dishes but can typically spot BS fairly easily.

Position:  Food writer at Washingtonian Post

Writing Level:  Advanced

Food & Beverage Knowledge: Advanced

Likes:  Ethnic and spicy food, thoughtful cuisine, "different" foods

Dislikes:  Superfluous ingredients, kitschy food

Seat With:  Most knowledgeable server 

Joe Yonan:

Joe Yonan is the Food Editor as the Washington Post and is currently on Sabbatical.  He's a very friendly, engaging person who recently became a vegetarian and will ask a lot of questions about vegetarian and vegan options.  His writing is generally pretty straight down the middle and he tends to me amongst the most balanced of writers.  His writing style is also geared toward a large audience so is typically very "user friendly".

Position:  Food Editor at Washington Post

Writing Level: Advanced

Food & Beverage Knowledge:  Advanced

Likes: Vegetarian & Vegan dishes, engaging servers

Dislikes:  Not accommodating single diners

Seat With:  Most personable server

Missy Frederick:

Missy Frederick is the only dedicated  "blogger" to appear in this manual for two reasons: She is a legitimate journalist and Eater DC is perhaps the most comprehensive food source in the city.  Missy is very nice and engaging but does not ask too many in depth questions.  This is largely due to the nature of the publication as it is mainly a news source, though she tends to editorialize even straight news reporting in subtle ways.  She is the ultimate source for what's happening in the city and it important to keep her apprised of goings on in the restaurant during a service encounter.

Position:  Editor at Eater DC

Writing Level:  Intermediate

Food & Beverage Knowledge:  Intermediate

Likes:  Young restauranteurs, sleek decor, modern twists on street food

Dislikes:  Sweet cocktails, stuffy restaurants.

Seat With:  Most personable server

Misc Writers:

These are people who are not traditional writers or critics but are important to recognize for the role they play influencing food culture in DC.

Jeff Dufour:

Jeff Dufour is the Editor of Urban Daddy and writes a daily online magazine email blast about goings on in the city.

Fritz Hahn:

Fritz Hahn is a spirits writer for the Washington Post and writes the Going Out Guide

Bloggers:

The rise of bloggers in the food world has blurred the line between legitimate writer and opinionated internet user with a wordpress account, so we'll define it in simple terms for our purposes:  A food writer is someone who writes for a living and for a major publication.  A food writer also will show up unannounced.  Bloggers, on the other hand, are typically simply layman food enthusiasts or aspiring food writers who write about food for a hobby.  While they often know little of food and even less of writing, they do occasionally reach respectable audiences and those should not be ignored.  With bloggers we will normally know ahead of time that they are coming as their attendance to a media event is prearranged and it's very rare for a blogger to simply show up and attempt to not be recognized.  Basically, they're in it for a free meal, which we happily provide for some positive coverage.

We hope you find this guide helpful, and should you recognize anyone in this booklet please discreetly notify management immediate and flag the reservation as a possible alias if applicable.

Image via Shutterstock

Comments

  1. #1

    As someone who has a blog that is at least tangentially about food, I have no objections to the characterization of food bloggers in this document. It no longer surprises me to realize how so many self-described food bloggers (or worse, "foodies") are essentially dining/nightlife scenesters who are so much more interested in schmoozing with celebrity chefs and bragging about reservations at the newest over-hyped hotspot than they are about food or food culture.

    Time to stop pretending: We are not experts, we are completely non-essential, and we are little more than unpaid shills. We need to stop taking ourselves so seriously.

  2. Ignatius J. Reilly
    #2

    So, apparently Anna Spiegel and Missy Frederick are the same person. Their writing level/knowledge/likes/dislikes are identical.

  3. #3

    Tom Sietsema must be pretty pissed to discover he's only "advanced" and not "expert".

  4. #4

    LOL @ Don Rockwell.

  5. #5

    This sounds rather silly at best. There was much discussion on Tom Sietsema's chat this morning. I don't have much confidence in the judgment or reliability of the person who created this dossier.

  6. #6

    What a snore.

  7. #7

    The persistent misspelling of the word "restaurateur," accompanied by a purported assessment of writing ability is awfully rich.

  8. #8

    TS's "advanced" cheesey writing samples:

    "the best bolognese in town and topped with a blizzard of Parmesan"

    "A fried egg on top and a blizzard of grated Parmesan"

    "milk ricotta and spinach, and finished with a blizzard of grated aged Parmesan"

    "fettuccine festooned with a blizzard of shaved cheese"

  9. #9

    The anon is a little too dismissive of food bloggers.

    While anyone can start a food blog, the good ones stick with it, learn and improve. No one is born a food critic. It's an acquired skill like any other.

    Personally, my view is that anon's decision to set a strict criteria and exclude the food bloggers was done to minimize the work the went into this guide.

Leave a Comment

Blogs Linking to this Article

  1. Handbook of Washington D.C. Food Critics is an Awesome Idea for Dallas | SideDish

    [...] friend of mine in Washington D.C. sent me a link to this story from the Washington City Paper. An anonymous person compiled a handbook with photos and personal details about the dining critics [...]

Comments Shown. Turn Comments Off.
...