In today’s food-obsessed culture, even your grandmother probably knows her prosciutto from her pancetta. A glut of culinary magazines, TV shows and, of course, blogs has made non-food professionals conversant with topics ranging from molecular gastronomy to proper plating techniques.
And, in the electronic age, we’ve all got opinions, and we can vent on message boards and review sites, such as the Seven Days food forum and 7 Nights.
Of course, not everyone thinks these “citizen critics” should have free rein to label a business trash or treasure. Professional journalists routinely blast the amateur arbiters, and restaurant owners worry that the voices of a few negative Nellies could make or break them. Why should anyone trust an anonymous critic without credentials? they ask.
But the line between online commenters and professional food writers can be crossed — I should know. (I posted my first 7 Nights comment in the summer of 2006, two years before I became part of the Seven Days staff.) Anyone who regularly reads 7 Nights comments will notice a cadre of frequent posters with a passion for food and consistent patterns in their evaluations — just like any professional tastemaker.
To make these citizen critics less mysterious, we decided to interview seven of them and find out what guides their tastes, without lifting the veil of anonymity that allows them to dine out incognito. A couple of these posters have more than 60 comments each to their names, while others have been noticeably eloquent but less prolific. We call them by their screen names, which sometimes coincide with their real names and sometimes don’t.
Number of posts: 61
Job: Co-owner of Independent Vending. “We used to have [a machine] in our house, but I have five kids, and they go crazy on it. There’s something magical about it to them.”
Bite Club member since: March 2, 2008.
Favorite restaurants: TonyO rattles off The Kitchen Table Bistro, Hen of the Wood at the Grist Mill, The Belted Cow Bistro, Trattoria Delia, L’Amante, Drunken Noodle House, Martone’s Market & Café, Little Garden Market, and Ramunto’s Brick Oven Pizza in Williston before “hitting a wall.”
Last meal request: “Three dozen oysters on the half shell, slow-smoked beef brisket, Vermont-grown corn on the cob, Vermont-grown tomatoes with Does’ Leap chèvre, a loaf of August First olive bread and a bottle of Owen Roe DuBrul Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.
TonyO chafes at the cutesiness of the term “foodie.” But people who do use the word would say he fits the description perfectly.
From early childhood, TonyO says, he viewed dining out as “a pleasure and a reward.” That affection for food led him to a career in the restaurant business: He managed both Sirloin Saloon and Pizzeria Uno before starting Independent Vending.
TonyO’s Italian heritage informs his home cooking, which includes classics such as osso buco. He opines that Greater Burlington is curiously low on Italian restaurants: “I’ve never seen an area before where an Asian place opens practically every day, but you can only count the Italian ones on two hands.”
What motivates him to post on 7 Nights? TonyO says he puts on his critic hat whenever he visits a new restaurant or has a dining experience that impresses him very favorably — or the opposite. Since he knows how tough the business can be, he often revisits restaurants that he previously panned.
Last week, for instance, he gave Burlington’s Bluebird Tavern another shot. When it opened last July, TonyO predicted the property would be “vacant soon.” This time, he was thoroughly impressed and ended up praising the Tuesday pub nights online. TonyO says he considers the spot a new favorite that embodies his personal food motto: “For those of us fortunate enough to eat beyond the need for survival, there is no greater pleasure than sharing a meal among friends and family.”
Number of posts: 55
Bite Club member since: February 18, 2006.
Best restaurant meal in Vermont: “One of the reasons I keep going back to Michael’s is in search of honey pears with foie gras and brioche that I once had there. That was amazing.”
Not all of 7 Nights’ most active commenters are lifers in the food biz. In college, says Woodward, she actively avoided waitressing as a source of income. Recently engaged, she leaves the cooking to her fiancé, though she says she likes baking for its predictability.
How did she learn to love fine dining? As a native of northern Virginia, “I grew up on the standard American packaged food,” says Woodward. “So when I got out into the world and realized it could be better, I kind of went all in.”
Woodward misses the “good, cheap Mexican food” and Indian restaurants of her hometown, but says she has no desire to open a restaurant herself. If she did, the “hardcore breakfast lover” would like to own a morning pastry place along the lines of Mirabelles or Chef’s Corner in Williston.
As a reviewer, Woodward says, she is “more likely to rant than rave.” Her comments certainly bear that out: She’s called dishes at A Single Pebble “mushy” and let fly some choice critiques. Woodward says she even surprises herself when she’s driven to comment positively on a place, noting, “I must really like ’em!”
Town: South Burlington
Number of posts: 19
Bite Club member since: March 27, 2006.
Favorite restaurant: Pho Dang. “I love Vietnamese food, and I’ve always found Pho Dang to be friendly, inexpensive and delicious.”
On her worst restaurant meal: “It was like they pulled someone in off the street and paid them $5 to cover a shift. It was a puddle of room-temperature grease.”
With her tattoos, her encyclopedic knowledge of zombie movies and her affinity for corsets, it’s hard to imagine Miss Molly growing up on a farm in Waterville. But she did, and, after completing her high school requirements early, enrolled in the culinary program at Burlington Technical Center.
Nowadays, as a starving artist, Miss Molly considers eating out a luxury. Before she does, she always checks 7 Nights, then returns and posts a review to return the favor. Most of her posts are positive, and she says she hopes they inspire others to patronize local restaurants.
When she cooks at home, Molly’s favorite dishes include meat-free Asian entrées and the Italian comfort food her boyfriend craves. She’d like to buy local produce, she notes, but the cost can be prohibitive. “It’s really hard that people say you can’t afford not to,” she says. “It’s not like I’m using that money to take my yacht out or go on vacation.”
Number of posts: 6
Job: As a UVM faculty member, teaches Psych 101 to 1300 students every year.
Bite Club member since: April 28, 2007.
What Vermont restaurants do wrong: “I’ve had some Mexican food in this part of the country that fails miserably as Mexican. Then there are times it just fails as food.”
When RudigerVT isn’t teaching college students the basics of human behavior, he’s enacting it on stage as a lead operatic baritone. The Oklahoma native is proud to say he’s the only person he knows who never had to wait tables while getting his vocal music degree.
But don’t think the classy musical background has given RudigerVT pretensions when it comes to food. True, he says his best meal ever was at the high-end (and long-gone) Burlington restaurant and wine shop The Iron Wolf. But now, says RudigerVT, he most often patronizes One Federal in St. Albans for its “flawless comfort food.” His partner doesn’t like “high-stakes dining,” so other frequent haunts include Clover House Restaurant and Rozzi’s Lakeshore Tavern, both in Colchester.
When it comes to opulent meals, RudigerVT is more likely to prepare his own. His mother, who’s in the restaurant supply business, has set him up with quite a collection of professional equipment, he notes, including an industrial mixer. It comes in handy for his dinner parties, at which he says he loves to send out “lots of courses,” all paired with wine.
When he posts reviews, says RudigerVT, he tends to keep his parents in mind; both worked in the food business while he was growing up. Mean or overly negative comments are out. “It’s a horrible business, just ghastly,” he says. “I have a lot of respect for people willing to take the plunge.”
Number of posts: 43
Job: Listing coordinator for Coldwell Banker Hickok & Boardman
Bite Club member since: July 18, 2008
Favorite restaurant: Starry Night Café
Culinary inspiration: “Barefoot Contessa” host Ina Garten. “I love the way she enjoys food so much and puts her heart into her recipes.”
Not all food lovers love all foods. Just ask VTRedhead. She dines out frequently at a wide variety of restaurants, but manages to avoid all flesh but fish. What she misses in meat, this diner makes up for by trying unique cocktails. She recently discovered the enormous drink menu at Parima and gloried in the range of Hurricanes. On another occasion, she ventured to try every mixed drink at Starry Night Café. “That was more of a Scary Night,” she jokes.
Despite her general avoidance of dead animals, VTRedhead admits she’d like her last meal to be foie gras. “Here I am a pescatarian, but that’s my weakness. If there were some here right now, I would eat it,” she says.
Don’t expect to see foie gras as an offering when VTRedhead starts her catering business this summer. Her specialty is soup. With each broth she prepares, she’ll include creative muffins, such as a smoked-gouda-and-sundried-tomato one she recently tested. Customers of Katy Blue Catering can also anticipate “decadent, sinful desserts” following their healthy, meat-free meals.
Number of posts: 68
Job: Category supply management analyst at Ben & Jerry’s. “I do purchases for raw materials on products we’re about to launch.”
Bite Club member since: February 1, 2008.
Earliest food memories: Gefilte fish, matzoh ball soup, egg creams and making Italian sodas at home.
DanielS says he grew up eating well — and often out. In his native Manhattan, he jokes, “There are people who live in an apartment for years and have never turned on the oven. We weren’t quite that bad.”
Now DanielS views his 7 Nights reviews as a way of sharing his wealth of dining experience. “With the abundance of good restaurants we have in Burlington, it’s silly for anyone to pay for an unsatisfying meal,” he says. DanielS calls the service “the TripAdvisor of food” and says it’s made him avoid chain restaurants he once frequented. Following his lead, even his young children now turn up their noses at the mention of Denny’s or IHOP, he claims.
Though DanielS enjoys local food — he gardens at home and has enrolled his family in a CSA for two summers — he’s not jumping on the localvore bandwagon. Online, he has called Hen of the Wood at the Grist Mill to task for being “a bit self-righteous” — and, he notes now, he finds nothing wrong with craving an orange in February. “I understand why people are part of the localvore movement,” he says, “but people shouldn’t be made to feel guilty if they’re not.”
Number of posts: 8
Job: System developer for the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources
Bite Club member since: March 31, 2009
Favorite restaurants: Trattoria Delia and Hen of the Wood at the Grist Mill
On being called a “foodie”: “It’s so cute. We’re cuddly. ‘Gourmand’ is so snooty.”
Most food lovers enjoy an excuse to chow down in bulk. Not Morganna. Both she and her husband have had gastric bypass surgery, a singular impediment to dining out. Perhaps that’s why she says the tapas menu at River Run Restaurant in Plainfield has been such a revelation.
At restaurants with bigger portions, the couple asks to order half, Morganna explains. When they can’t, “I make no bones about taking home a doggie bag,” she says.
Morganna’s first job was slinging tacos at a fast-food chain. She’s stayed away from professional kitchens since then, but cooking Latin food has remained part of her life. A Cook’s Tour of Mexico by Nancy Zaslavsky is her go-to cookbook at home. Grilling and smoking are two of her favorite summer pastimes, and Morganna prides herself on authentic homemade fajitas.
Despite south-of-the-border tastes, the Iowa native says that if she ever opened a restaurant, the theme would be “haute trailer-trash cuisine.” She envisions menu items such as Spam croquettes and fried bologna sandwiches in an upscale setting.
While that eatery may never materialize, Morganna, who chose her handle for its reference to the strong woman of legend, says she’ll continue to post on 7 Nights as a public service. “I really like helping people and talking to people with the same interests,” she says.
One day it’s snowing; the next day half the population of Burlington is dining al fresco on Church Street. What better time to call attention to Vermont restaurants? This week, Seven Days publishes its annual dining guide, 7 Nights. Next week, from May 14 to 20, the paper presides over the state’s first Vermont Restaurant Week. More than 50 area restaurants — from St. Johnsbury to St. Albans — are offering prix-fixe deals in an effort to make dining an affordable adventure for everyone.
The concept has taken off in hip food cities such as Seattle and New York City. We couldn’t let the land of artisan cheese, microbreweries and community-supported agriculture be last to the table.
What does Vermont Restaurant Week mean for diners? At Junior’s Italian in Colchester, 15 bucks could buy you a salad, spaghetti and meatballs, and cannoli. At Café Shelburne, $35 could get you mussels in puff pastry, duck confit with potato gratin and chocolate fondant with pistachio crème anglaise.
But there’s more to it than gorging on delicious dishes. At The Essex: Vermont’s Culinary Resort & Spa, a panel discussion of local and imported luminaries digs into what makes Vermont products and restaurants special — and what opportunities we’re missing.
What’s dinner without a movie? The Food & Wine Film Festival at Merrill’s Roxy Cinema should give diners plenty to chew on with showings of the documentaries Fresh and Food, Inc., as well as foodie-friendly fiction films.
Other events help food lovers expand their tastes along with their perspectives: a wine dinner at 156 Bistro in Burlington, a spread of craft beer and gastropub fare at Montpelier’s Three Penny Taproom, and a pairing of artisan cheeses with unique condiments at The Essex.
To whet your appetite, this issue of Seven Days digs into the subject of food. More and more, local eaters are going public about their palates. Alice Levitt sought out seven “citizen reviewers” who post critiques on our 7 Nights website and discovered what drives them to praise — or knock — an eatery. For advice on what makes a useful online review, we turned to Lara Dickson, owner of graphic- and web-design biz Deep Dish Creative.
Suzanne Podhaizer spoke with two out-of-state gourmets visiting for Restaurant Week: Chef Rob Evans, who will appear on Saturday’s panel, and fromager Tia Keenan, the artist behind what promises to be the most unusual cheese pairing the state has ever seen. Both are big fans of Vermont’s culinary culture.
Want more? Andy Bromage commandeered a table at “Vermont restaurant central” — Leunig’s Bistro — so he could interview the maître d’.
A meaty insert provides detailed menus for each participating restaurant, as well as a full calendar of Restaurant Week events.
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Joanna Grossman: Agreed. These meat and potatoes themed-articles make VT seem like a crusty relic, *not* a thought leader in…
Lisa Morgan Gould: I await a time when there will be a best Vegetarian/Vegan category... sigh... someday...