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Dining deliberations

One summer in the 1970s, when I was a columnist with a Philadelphia newspaper, an editor—evidently abandoning his struggle against temporary insanity—asked me to write weekly reviews of restaurants on the Jersey Shore.

I can’t remember the name of the crowded seafood place or even which town it was in, but a wisecrack I made in one review stays with me. As I recall, I wrote that my badly charred “grilled” lobster—giddily described on the menu as “Just Arrived From Maine!”—evidently had “hitchhiked down the coast but had a hard time getting a ride because of its appearance.”

"I’ll have the canned ham to go."

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That snarky line got quoted appreciatively along with a few of my other zingers over the summer, and I was rather pleased with my wit for a while. But the reason I recall this today is my realization that I was really just a 25-year-old snotnose who didn’t know a canapé from a cantaloupe, an amuse-bouche from an amusement park, so I really had no business reviewing restaurants, even if it was just for a summer.

On the other hand, that poor lobster was burnt almost to a degree where the fire inspector could have been summoned. Plus, the restaurant was overpriced and overcrowded and smelled of sweat, grease, and Coppertone. So even though I had no food-writer credentials, I don’t think I misled anyone with that review.

Today, I leave the restaurant reviewing to others and rely on the abundance of credible critiques in big newspapers and magazines and online, on Open Table, TripAdvisor, Yelp, Zagat, Zomato (formerly Urbanspoon), and the like. I also benefit from that trusty, age-old technique, word of mouth.

I’m pretty good at aggregating and evaluating all this information, but I’m also busy and not inclined to wander afar. A poll last year by Statistical Surveys showed that most business travelers feel similarly: over 90 percent say that when they’re choosing a hotel, proximity to good restaurants is very important (57 percent) or somewhat important (37 percent).

Sometimes, even down the block isn’t enough proximity for me: I’ve written here previously about my own occasional barbarisms in dining when on the road, including my decision after a hectic day some years ago to buy a canned ham and rolls at a Walgreen’s and retreat to my hotel room for a sandwich, a cold beer, and a good night’s sleep. So you’ll consider the source when I write on the important topic of dining.

At any rate, it’s often difficult to know what to believe about restaurants. Some sophisticated frequent travelers can give you a pretty good argument, for example, that the beloved Café Provence in Prairie Village, Kansas, stacks up well against Bouley in TriBeca. Guardian critic Jay Rayner, meanwhile, makes a strong case that quality at the widely acclaimed Le Cinq at the George V in Paris has plummeted. Who’s right?

My favorite and most-trusted food writer is the late Anthony Bourdain, a celebrity chef who referred to himself simply as a “cook” and maintained modestly that cooking is simply a matter of “applying heat to protein.” I especially value his advice not to dunk your nigiri in soy sauce and “if the rice is good, complement your sushi chef.”

Besides listening to Bourdain, I sometimes consult reviews, and when I do, I tend to give the most weight to the bad ones, which I find generally more reliable than the often overly excited good ones. Last year, in an annual collection of “Bad Restaurant Reviews,” Vox Media’s Eater.com cited a review of a trendy, very chichi Italian restaurant in Philadelphia that said the food resembled “casino cooking” and the place smelled of “body sweat, cleaning fluid, and strong cologne.”

The writer was Craig LaBan, the award-winning and highly credentialed food critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer. My old paper.    

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