Critic's Notebook

Pssst: The Secret Restaurant Critic Trick for Getting the Very Best Food in Restaurants

No, it’s not “Call ahead and tell ‘em I’m coming.”

By Kathryn Robinson February 6, 2017

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Venison pate was my waiter's enthusiastic recommendation at FlintCreek. Thank God.

Some think restaurant critics are in the game just to let the snark fly—and that may be true, for some.  Me, I consider it a better use of magazine pages to highlight restaurants I can recommend; and, if not entire restaurants, at least particular dishes in restaurants.  That means I need to taste the very best a restaurant has to offer. I figure allowing restaurants to put their best foot forward is a decent way to make up for all the rest of the dishes I order.  

If I didn’t review restaurants anonymously, this would be easy: Waiters and kitchens would be all too happy to make me the dish they considered the best showcase for their skills. But since I am incognito, I have to ensure I’ll get that dish via other means.

Very sly other means.

Are you ready for the trick?

The trick is…ask your waiter. “What’s not to be missed on the menu tonight?” is a good way to ask. Restaurants of reasonable ambition and reach should maintain enough back-and-forth between front and back of house so that waiters are apprised of what’s caught the chef’s excitement any given evening. A rare catch of fish…a preparation the chef’s particularly proud of…the production the entire staff raved about during family meal…the dish the chef is famous for… the dish guests can’t stop talking about…all of these would be fair answers for your waiter to give you.

(Note here that the question you don’t need answered—but the one whose answer, I’ve found, is increasingly volunteered—is “What’s your favorite dish on the menu?” Tells you nothing but the culinary taste of one person.)

Asking what's best on the menu that night can also signal the kitchen to a discriminating diner in the house—a win-win which motivates the chefs, satisfies the diners, and ups the reputation of the restaurant. Not to mention opening your palate to something you had no idea you'd love, as happened to me at FlintCreek Cattle Co, reviewed in this month's Seattle Met.

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