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Dining for Dollars

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Allen Kelson sat in an expensive French restaurant and talked to his necktie. "The rolls are cold."

Carla Kelson, his wife, leaned over to speak to the tie. "The veal was supposed to come with morels and pfifferlings and it came only with morels."

Allen Kelson bent his head down: "The maitre d' said it was green peppercorn sauce but they mash the peppers so you don't feel them … ."

The reason Kelson and his wife were talking to his tie is that there was a miniature microphone secreted beneath it, attached to a cord that ran inside Kelson's shirt and out through his sleeve into a slim black box in his inner coat pocket that recorded what the Kelson's were saying. This Method of reporting allows Kelson to dine in a restaurant and review it without taking notes. Taking notes, he feels, would attract attention.

Kelson is editor in chief and associate publisher of Chicago magazine, director of the magazine's extensive guide to dining, and coauthor, with his wife, of the magazine's monthly restaurant column. A very personable man, he swivels around all day in an expensive office chair, editing the magazine, talking on the phone, and playing with his calculator. "Readers like to see some restaurants really catch it in the neck," he said. Most agree that the magazine's guide to dining is the primary force in Chicago restaurant reviewing. Kelson has studies showing that about 70 percent of the magazine's readership and its high subscription renewal rate can be attributed to the dining guide and column. "If we save them the cost of one bad meal, the $12 yearly subscription price is minimal."

"In philosophy, most of the dining facilities at O'Hare International Airport are not unlike the toilet facilities there: designed to satisfy a basic biological need in an efficient, economical manner." The Kelsons wrote that in December 1977, to introduce a review of O'Hare's Seven Continents restaurant, which they called an "exception" to the rule. But then they wrote of a 45-minute wait for water, dirty salt and pepper shakers, a soiled tablecloth, "soggy" quiche Lorraine, cold filet of sole, and "mealy" potatoes. Soon after, Carson Pirie Scott and Company, owner of Seven Continents and other O'Hare restaurants, pulled its advertising, worth $92,000 a year, out of the magazine.

We're the first city magazine and maybe the first nationally to run an ongoing restaurant list that is not affected by advertisers," Kelson said. For every restaurant that the magazine has considered listing, there are a few containing reviewers' reports, correspondence, press releases, and no mention of whether the restaurant advertises in the magazine. Only 19 of the 58 restaurant advertisers in the January issue are listed in the dining guide.

Each restaurant is rated on a scale of one to ten in food quality, service, variety, value, and ambience. Because "nothing's perfect," the Kelson's have given only two ten ratings in the last five years; they both went to La Francais, for service and variety. The ratings are not published and serve only as a measure for Kelson and his reviewers. Though there is no rating that will ensure a restaurant being recommended, a six, seven, or eight in food quality (depending on the reviewer) and a corresponding number in at least one other category are usually the minimum for consideration. Kelson always makes the final decision. Once a restaurant is recommended and included in the list, Kelson will send out reviewers from time to time to check up. If there is any indication that the restaurant is not maintaining its initial standards, it is out. A restaurant also may be penalized for not responding to readers' complaints, which Kelson forwards to the management. Mama di Pinto, a restaurant Kelson says is "superb," was taken off the list a few months ago for not responding to two letters.

The magazine spent roughly $24,000 on meals for restaurant reviewers last year. Adding the reviewers' fees ($40 per review), the Kelson's fee for their column, the fact-checker's salary, and printing cots, Kelson estimates a yearly cost of $135,000 for the dining section. When the first dining guide appeared in December 1968, in what was then the WFMT Guide, the Kelsons spent $1,000 on restaurants, did all the reviewing themselves, and misspelled bon appetit.

Publisher Raymond Nordstrand hired Kelson in 1968 to be the Guide's editor in chief, reporter, photographer, designer, typist, and public relations agent. They met in the early 1960s while Kelson was attending Roosevelt University and working on the school newspaper. Kelson was looking for a magazine to advertise the paper in and chose Perspective, Nordstrand's early attempt at an art magazine. After graduating from college, Kelson went to Sears, Roebuck and Company to work on special projects in the mail order advertising department. Six years later, Nordstrand asked him to run the Guide. The first dining guide listed 119 restaurants on the basis of "what we remembered and what looked nice," Kelson said. "We were pretty naive. We used to introduce ourselves to the owner after we ate. We didn't think we might want to go back and check. We learned. I've heard restaurants now paste up pictures of the critics in their kitchens."

"Restaurant critics are the vainest, the worst megalomaniacs in the world. They actually think restaurants revolve around their appearance. It is just another ego-hyphen-critic notion of their own puffed-up importance. What divine madness!"

James Ward was waving his cigarette holder in the air and pacing his kitchen floor. He writes a Sunday restaurant column called "Bread and Circuses" for the Chicago Sun-Times and lives in a restored 106-year-old home in Old town with Oriental rugs, antiques, and many New Yorker magazines. He is very dramatic.

Ward said he believes in anonymity for the purpose of reviewing, yet his picture is on the inner flap of his book Restaurants Chicago-Style. "The publisher wanted it on the book," he said. "So what? Anonymity is easy. My god, restaurateurs have more important things to worry about than the appearance of seven critics." Then Ward was asked what restaurant critic he admired most, he said, "Me of course. When I started in the mid-70s, I was appalled at the level of local criticism. It was either uninformed or pedantic or ignorant or pretentious. It needed lightness—a sense of fun—and it simply was not critical."

Restaurant criticism has often little more than advertising. Terry Hunter was a longtime columnist for the Sun-Times. Hunter's identity changed weekly, for the name was a pseudonym. The features department would send sportswriters, political writers, anyone who wanted a free meal. The Chicago Daily News had William Wells, who most often was represented by Bill Newman. "It was my reign of indigestion," Newman said. "If there was nothing good to say about a restaurant, we just didn't write it up at all." The Tribune basically had the same approach, though its critics—Kay Loring, John R. Thompson, Johnrae Earl—wrote under their own names.

The media today have standards nearly paralleling those of Chicago magazine, though approaches differ considerably and there is often much squabbling among the critics.

"For every yin, Tango offers a yang: Some floors are marble, some deeply carpeted. There are open spaces and closed, sharp edges and curves. And at first, one sees only color: Apollonian white and Dionysian brown … ." this is a description of Tango, one of the restaurants profiled in Ward's book. Some of his colleagues accuse him of overfocusing on decor. Ward says he believes dining in a restaurant is a total experience. He said of Don Rose, a political strategist who also writes a suburban dining column for the Sun-Times and pseudonymously reviews for Chicago magazine: "I can't believe that for all Rose's radicalism, his pragmatic idealism, his innovative social reform, that he has such a petit bourgeois notion of food on the plate. He can elect a mayor and a state's attorney and take beef Wellington as a social problem—as if it's worth discussing piece by piece, shovelful for shovelful."

Rose said, "Yes, I take the food apart piece by piece, dish by dish. This is the most important part of a restaurant. All the ambience and related glories do not compensate for the quality of the dishes that come out of the kitchen. And I do not see what that has to do with being petit bourgeois."

Fran Zell majored in food and journalism at Michigan State University, went to work at the Tribune as a food and feature writer in 1970, and became the paper's official critic in 1978. For about a year, she also free-lanced as a restaurant reviewer for Chicago magazine. She said she now has a "much looser approach" than the magazine's. "Their one fault is that they sometimes overscrutinize—counting the tines on a fork or the pleats in a drapery. I just try to enjoy the general taste of the food." Sherman Kaplan anchors the news on WBBM radio in the afternoons and once a week reviews restaurants on the air. He said, "A meal has to be judged from a broad point of view. I try to catch the flavor of a restaurant—I'm painting an impression." Jane Salzfass Freiman is a cooking teacher who writes occasional reviews for the Tribune. She was born in Beverly Hills, has traveled extensively in Europe, and was eating her father's homemade fettuccine Alfredo, served by a butler, at the age of 11. She is intensely concerned with freshness and faithfulness in cooking. In speaking of Mimi Sheraton's expose of a three-star restaurant in France that reportedly used canned pears in a souffle, Freiman said, "My god, how disgusting."

When Tribune critic Johnrae Earl died on January 11, 1978 (it was the same night Le Rendezvous burned down, and Kelson had always tried to link the two events), two critics from competitive publications were interviewing for Earl's job before he was in the ground. After a respectable amount of time had passed—a week—Zell was promoted to the job.

The position of restaurant critic is a very coveted one. Kelson constantly receives calls from hopeful critics. He first has them fill out a questionnaire that asks about their cooking experience and what cookbooks they own. If the questionnaires are acceptable, Kelson sends them out to review a restaurant by rating it on the one to ten scale and writing a 100- to 300-word report. "I'll send some to ten restaurants before I decide," Kelson said. "It costs the magazine a fortune. I'm always looking but so many don't make it. There was one guy we sent to a Chinese place. He gave it a ten in variety. Yet in his report he said he could not read the list of foods on the placards on the wall. He was out. People think a critic's job is all beer and skittles. It's not."

The following is an account of Don Rose reviewing a restaurant. It was related by one of his regular companions.

"Can't I just order something normal for a change?" the companion asked.

"No, you have to order something difficult for the chef to cook. How about veal Orloff stuffed with pureed mushrooms and covered with Mornay sauce?" Rose said.

"My stomach hurts. I want a steak."

"No.

"Can't we just order two appetizers instead of four? It's so abnormal."

"No, we have to try everything."

"Is Barry Commoner gong to run for president?"

"Rose put four shrimp in his mouth and swallowed them. "Time the waiter. The service is slow."

"Is Burke going to win the nomination?"

"Try my duck and tell me what you think."

"I can't. I ate too many rolls. What's going on in the 49th Ward?"

"Have a dessert."

"No! I ate too much. I'm going to kill myself. You never tell my anything. I want to go home. How can you do this every night?"

"It's a dirty job, but somebody's gotta do it."

The Kelsons had the misfortune recently of running into a "sullen flan." Kaplan had a similar experience when he met one that was "namby-pamby." Restaurant critics spend much time thinking about food and they tend to personify the food in their writing. This anthropomorphic process often results in interesting discussions about the temperament of a chicken.

The job is dangerous. Rose wrote he was served an "overcooked fish" at a new seafood restaurant in Oak Brook. The next day the chef called the Sun-Times and screamed and said he was going to stick a knife in Rose.

Ward opened his front door last year and was confronted with a pile of excrement and a note that said, "Stop writing that shit about restaurants."

Chicago magazine removed a restaurant from its list. In the following week the owner of the restaurant spread a rumor that Allen Kelson was having an affair with a Tribune food writer.

Zell went to eat at the Farmer's Daughter restaurant and wrote a negative review. She received a phone call from a woman accusing her of being the owner's ex-husband's girlfriend.

Ward thinks people are so excitable about food because "next to one's private parts, the palate is the dearest thing there is."

Jovan Trboyevic has a broken heart. It is all because of some silly poll. For the first time in nine years, his restaurant, first Jovan and now Le Perroquet, did not rate as the "creme de la creme" in Chicago magazine's annual contest. Though it was the public and not the Kelsons who submitted the names of their favorite restaurants, Allen Kelson said Trboyevic had broken off all relations with them. "We heard we were no longer welcome at Le Perroquet. And we did not receive this year's membership cards to Les Nomades [Trboyevic's private club]."

The Kelson's have known and loved Trboyevic ever since he opened his original restaurant, Jovan, in 1967. Trboyevic introduced the Kelsons to famous chefs. Allen Kelson said that if he had to choose only one meal in one Chicago restaurant, he would choose Le Perroquet for its "inventive and imaginative approach to food."

Trboyevic sat in his restaurant, listening to an account of how the Kelsons felt. He sipped his bottled Hinckley & Schmitt water and made a face. "The poll did harm us. We received phone calls and unpleasant letters—rather primitive letters, like 'The sooner you close, the better.' I just cannot see this as a valid poll. It made us look as though we are no good, only a second choice."

The magazine chose every 26th name from their list of 130,000 subscribers in the Chicago area. The chosen subscribers were sent a form asking them to list their three favorite restaurants and the three they'd found most disappointing, based on food quality, service, value, ambience, and/or unique appeal. When the findings appeared in the magazine, the restaurants were listed in one of three groups: "Chicago's creme da la creme," "The second rank," and "The pits."

"The restaurants tended to separate themselves into groups," Kelson said. "Because in some cases there were only a few votes separating the restaurants, we felt more secure listing them alphabetically. In our first poll in September 1970, we had a form in the magazine. We found out a restaurant had stuffed the ballot box. The next year we asked subscribers to put their subscription number on the form. Every year we get more sophisticated. Next year I'm considering turning the poll over to a market research firm."

The problem with the poll was that the magazine did not explain how it was conducted and it did not take into account when the readers had last eaten at their favorite and most disappointing restaurants. In Trboyevic's case, no critic could say that his standards had slipped. It remains a mystery to Trboyevic why he came in the "second rank."

Kelson said, "I've always told him his restaurant is not designed to win popularity contests. The waiters are not that friendly to customers. He has this thug at the door who won't let anyone in unless they have a reservation." Trboyevic will not tolerate anyone who is drunk or talking loudly. He recently received a lot of press for calling the police on two occasions—to remove a customer who as acting "drunk and disorderly" and to remove one for making a scene when he did not have the proper credit card. (This is not to imply that if one eats at Le Perroquet, the odds are one will be arrested. But even if this should happen, it would be worth it because the food is so good.)

"He runs the place like an emperor," Kelsons said. "When I interviewed him ten years ago, he said he refused to serve bread at dinner because he wanted the people to eat only the food he had worked so hard to make. Then one day he finally served bread. He wrapped it up in a napkin with the opening on the bottom so it was difficult to get to. The butter balls were so frozen and hard, they'd roll away from the knife."

"We're not running an arena for masochists," Trboyevic said. "I'm so hurt when the press calls my place arrogant. I don't know—maybe it's because I used to be the officer of a submarine. I truly am only interested in protecting the dignity and comfort of my customers. I don't want people singing and screaming. The press takes such a hickey, provincial attitude sometimes. The way they pick apart a meal. The duck had too much peppercorn. Hah! All they know is the way their mama made it. The ideal critic would be someone who wore a top hat and a monocle and had lots of money but who would also have been poor at times and had to peel potatoes—someone with a sense of lightness—like Gael Greene. Though I like her better when she writes about food and not sex. But all this pedestrian, provincial picking—no, that's not right. A critic should be worldly."

The Kelsons, Rose, Zell, and Kaplan had mothers who were simple Jewish cooks. Ward's mother was Irish and he grew up on meat and potatoes.

"Fran Zell said the marrow was greasy—my eyebrow!" Nancy Goldberg, the owner of Maxim's de Paris, has nothing to complain about except Fran Zell. "Doesn't she know that there is nothing greasier in the world than marrow? Yes, she criticized my restaurant—not once but twice."

The fist time Zell went to Maxim's was in the early 70s to interview a man from the Mobil Travel Guide who was visiting the restaurant anonymously to see if it still deserved its five stars (a great honor). The man told Zell, "This is the most wonderful place—so marvelous." Zell sat down. The table rocked. The service was slow. The waiter gave them the wrong check. The restaurant was demoted to four stars.

Zell went again in 1977 and was seated next to a "polite couple" from Minneapolis. The wife ordered scallops Saint-Jacques a la Meuniere. Zell and the couple looked and saw there were hardly any scallops on the plate. The couple "politely complained." A crowd of waiters circled the table. "OK, if you don't like it, we'll give you scallops prepared another way," the waiter said. The waiter came back and said they were out of scallops. ("That ought to tell you something," Zell said.) Then the light bulb in the miniature table lamp blew out. The waiter blamed the couple. "It was one thing after another."

Kelson said, "Maxim's is great. It is one of the few restaurants where you can ask them to prepare something that isn't on the menu and they will. They do nice things. When I have a present for Carla, the waiters will hide it in a dessert or something. It's very sexy. After a romantic meal you can adjourn to a suite upstairs in the Astor Towers."

Zell is not vicious. She and the man from Mobile Travel Guide apparently visited Maxim's on the wrong nights. Most critics said they attempt to make several visits before writing up a restaurant but that is not always possible. Because restaurants are dynamic systems, they change. A new chef, a new staff, a new menu can make all the difference.

Salvatore Parrinello opened his restaurant in July 1977, in a large room of a refurbished apartment on Arlington Place. He painted the walls a deep, elegant green. He brought in handmade flags from Italian provinces. He put in lighting that made the silver and glassware sparkle in the dark. He invested thousands of dollars and created a restaurant that looked like a set in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Parrinello's intent was to bring northern Italian cooking to Chicago.

Until Salvatore's opened, Doro's and the Florentine Room at the Italian Village were the only two restaurants in town famous for their northern Italian food. In November 1977, Chicago sent Zell, who was then freelancing for the magazine, to review Salvatore's. Zell said, "Do not recommend." In March, July, and November of 1978 and in October of 1979, the magazine sent four more reviewers (including the Kelsons) and they agreed with Zell. Don Rose, after eating at Salvatore's five times, reviewed it for the Sun-Times in February 1979 and agreed with everybody else. It was Freiman's review in February 1978 that really hurt. In a story on northern Italian restaurants in the Tribune, she called Salvatore's "a young turk of an Italian restaurant." After three visits, Freiman wrote that she had experienced "an astounding number of misspelled words on the menu," "curiously stained" calamari, "suspiciously uniform fettuccine," a dish "marred by a piece of mozzarella cheese that glued together all the noodles on top of the pile," "five sodden pieces of mealy zucchini," no fish in the zuppa di pesce, "rubbery" shrimp, a clam sauce "with a broken shell," "veal scallops that tasted like fried eggs," "a wad of salty canned spinach," and a "large cottony roll."

"My business dropped 50 percent after that review," Parrinello said. "The night after it came out, 18 parties canceled their reservations. I had to let 25 percent of my help go. It took me six months to build my business back up. Maybe Freiman is the most qualified, having lived in northern Italy, but she didn't mention one positive aspect of the restaurant. And you know, what I'd really like to know is just how much time Don Rose has spent in northern Italy."

Zell made another visit to Salvatore's last December and liked it. She gave it a good review. She included it in her list of top ten restaurants. Two weeks ago a couple went to Salvatore's on a Saturday night. It was so crowded they could not get in.

"Restaurant critics are fat, piggy little people. They should be put in jail, locked up." Nick Nickolas gets rather hysterical on the subject. He owns Nick's Fishmarket in the First National Plaza and other restaurants in Beverly Hills and Honolulu. Unlike Trboyevic, who throws out customers, Nickolas throws out critics. He does not call the police. He does it himself. An earthy individual, he rides round in a silver limousine, lives in a two-bedroom condominium in Water Tower Place, and dances in a built-in disco in his apartment.

"That Kelson wearing a wig and talking into a microphone with his old lady. I don't want people who talk into microphones eating in my restaurant," Nickolas said. "I don't want a one-man wrecking crew. Rose—he's one. Ewww. He gets on people real good." Rose put Nick's Fishmarket on his list of best restaurants for 1979 in the Reader.

The Kelsons wrote a column in April 1978 about Nick's Fishmarket, headlined "The 24 karat gold fish." In response to the column, which the Kelsons felt was "largely positive," Nickolas wrote a four-page, single-spaced letter elaborating on 14 of the Kelsons' critical points. The Kelsons sent Nickolas a five-page, single-spaced letter with paragraphs numerically coded to Nickolas's responses. The written exchange discussed matters such as whether the onions were "ordinary white onions" or "Maui onions," whether the olive oil was "heavy" or "light," and whether the Kelsons were served "one crab" or "two."

Phylis Magida ate so much she had to unzip her boots. It all started with the consomme of lobster. Then came Brane Cantenac 1970, a mousse of scallops with a chive cream sauce, Meursault 1976, a squab on top of sweet breads in a potato bird's nest, bibb lettuce with walnut oil dressing, raspberry sauce on a strawberry sherbet inside a tulip made out of sugared cookie leaves, and a sweet tray of hundreds of candied fruits and chocolate truffles. The dinner was a party for the media at Maxim's last year to introduce the restaurant's new menu. Magida writes for the Taste section of the Tribune and was one of 20 who attended the diner. Except for Rose, most of the major restaurant critics did not attend. The Kelson's said they never go to media dinners or press parties, and Zell, Ward, and Kaplan said they go only on rare occasions.

"If one does it a lot, friendships with the restaurateurs form and it is difficult to be objective," Ward said. "I'm a great soft touch and I don't want to put myself in occasions of sin." The dinner at Maxim's came very close.

The Kelson's reviewed Ward's book in the September issue of Chicago magazine. They wrote: "It appears that the single common denominator of all the establishments in the book [Ward profiled and listed menus from 18 restaurants] is that all are slathered in unrelenting praise. That isn't too surprising. The restaurants are selling the book." Ward claims he never heard of the restaurants selling his book.

There is a fine line between critics and the restaurant industry. Ward, who was editor of Institutions, a restaurant trade publication, from 1960 to 1968, has many connections in the industry. He says he has written speeches for New York restaurants and currently is employed as a consultant for Windows on the World, a restaurant in the World Trade Center. Though he claims to have no business connections in Chicago, his colleagues basically think that any kind of business dealing with a restaurant is wrong.

Kaplan is involved in a curious promotion for the latest edition of his book, Best Restaurants. His public relations agent, Rhoda W. Charleson, sent out letters to all the restaurants in the book asking them to contribute one or two of their specialties for people to sample at various book promotions. Two events already have been held, at Kroch's & Brentano's and Sears, and the next will be at Neiman-Marcus. Charleson, who said "Stanley Marcus is so excited he's jumping up and down and can hardly see straight," explained that there is "nothing wrong" with the promotion and that the restaurants asked to participate are "already in the book." The problem is not what is in the book but who gets reviewed on Kaplan's weekly radio spot. Though the letter is in no way coercive, the situation is mildly so. What restaurant would refuse? Kaplan admitted "there is a very fine line here. I do intend to keep my reviewing separate from the promotion."

Restaurateurs, when they recognize a critic, are notorious for trying to pick up the check. Zell said she never has allowed this to happen. The Kelsons, Ward, Kaplan, and Ward admit they have "had to accept on some occasions." Ward said, "There have been some instances where if I didn't I would have been simply a totally ungracious asshole. You can only protest so much. The public has the notion that these people who write about food are motivated by free meals. That is not the case. It simple becomes an invasion of privacy. You can't go back and write clearly and objectively."

"Restaurant criticism is the phoniest form of reviewing there is, but it's a necessary form," Jerry Davis said. Davis used to review restaurants for the Sun-Times and Chicagolandmagazine. "How many critics really know Korean food? Only Koreans know Korean food. They have hundreds of dishes."

Though most of the critics say they cook and spend large amounts of time researching foods and recipes, they position themselves (except for Freiman) as "consumer advocates" and not as gourmets. They are very concerned about truth-in-menu. Carla Kelson said, "It's not right for people to go out and spend $50 to $100 and have a terrible meal. When we were first married, we used to put our extra change in a jar and every once in a while we'd take the money and treat ourselves to a really nice diner. That's what most people do. They should get what they pay for.

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