The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I try 125 restaurants a year. Here’s why I don’t review them all.

(Beth Walrond for The Washington Post)
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I won’t bore you with where I had dinner the other night.

Oh, sure, the restaurant is a looker, and the kitchen grills a juicy swordfish. But the risotto was a lawn-clipping-green mess, and my group’s entrees were rushed out with our appetizers — a serious pacing issue made worse by a table so teensy that a votive was voted off. The server was the pushy variety who fills all the wine glasses in a single round, then asks, “Would you like another bottle?” Even before desserts arrived, I knew I wasn’t going to write about the place, certainly not anytime soon.

Spring Dining Guide: The 25 best new restaurants in the DC area

For starters, I’m just one palate on a strict schedule. A typical review requires multiple visits spread over weeks, and experience has taught me to trust my gut regarding first dates; middling food and mediocre service rarely improve if the principals go unchanged or unchallenged. While there’s value in sharing negative news, this restaurant isn’t headed by a prominent chef or situated in a major restaurant zone.

Some people think my published work — weekly reviews, monthly roundups of favorites, spring and fall dining guides — reflects all the calories I’ve consumed on the job. The truth is, I eat at far more restaurants than you read about, north of 125 a year. I’m a lucky grazer. My budget allows for scouting, and sometimes it takes two visits to determine a place isn’t worth telling the world about.

I bring all this up because I’m asked about how the job is done every week — by neighbors, people I meet at the parties we’re now going back to, followers of my weekly online dining Q&A.

I keep a running list of restaurants, sometimes dozens of names long, that I want to visit based on the fact they’re new, somehow changed or they’ve been around awhile and are due for a check-in. Anyone can send me suggestions — readers, publicists, chefs — but my responsibility is to know the scene without their help and figure out what should be covered to achieve a proper mix of cuisine styles, price points and neighborhoods. Hence a review of an immigrant-focused eatery before a roundup of fine dining restaurants ahead of Christmas last year, and more recently, a look at a Greek retreat in North Bethesda followed by an Indian charmer in Alexandria.

There’s always a lot of competition for my attention. A little online sleuthing sometimes determines whether I investigate in person. Just because a restaurant doesn’t have a website doesn’t disqualify it, but one can learn a lot about a place that fails to, say, offer a current menu or list prices. In person, I’ve left places that strand me at a host stand without so much as an “I’ll be right with you,” or look dirty or uncared for.

Any critic will tell you the easiest reviews to write are rants and raves. Passion fueled by great (or not) performances have a way of sending fingers to the keyboard, where the words seem to flow.

It took mere hours to write a pan of Founding Farmers in Foggy Bottom, where six visits let me try pretty much the whole menu and left me outraged on behalf of the crowds, lured in part by a questionable farm-to-table philosophy that evaded anything on the plates.

On the flip side, praising Hanumanh in Shaw took as little time. The charming Laotian oasis from mother and son Seng Luangrath and Boby Pradachith was the kind of place that makes Washington one of the best locations to eat in the country. If circumstances allowed, I’d be a regular there. (So many restaurants, don’t you know. So little time.)

Just as most books aren’t Pulitzer Prize winners and most movies aren’t up for Oscar consideration, the majority of restaurants aren’t James Beard Award-worthy contenders. They fall in the B to C range, meaning they might be good for a few dishes or design elements (a water view, a private dining room), but you wouldn’t go out of your way to seek them out.

How much are you missing from all my eating? In this year alone, I’ve probably struck a dozen restaurants from my to-write list.

The newish neighborhood Italian spot in the District? Let’s just say it was the generic pasta, not the red vino, that almost put me to sleep. That dining tip from a reader, two hours from Washington in Virginia? Not worth the pilgrimage, best left for people who live much, much closer. At another restaurant in one of the chicest parts of Washington, I watched a blase manager chat away on his cellphone while his staff tried and failed to get dishes to the right diners — food you could find elsewhere, and better.

You get the picture. While I have no problem addressing flaws in well-funded restaurants with big-name chefs — looking out for diners’ best interests — there’s little value in devoting prime space to places that might otherwise not even be on readers’ radar anyway. And my email suggests the appetite for okay is nil.

Then there are restaurants I might not mention because I know something unsavory about them.

As eager as I was to tell you about my dinner at a veteran restaurant performing as well as ever, I was dismayed to overhear its owner chastise a delivery person for inquiring about a delayed takeout order. “Cancel it, then!” he barked at a guy who was just trying to ferry a meal to customers. Anyone can have a bad day. Life continues to be a struggle for a lot of people. But the public rudeness put a damper on the night and made me wonder how the restaurateur treats people behind closed doors.

Just because a restaurant doesn’t engage me the first time doesn’t mean I leave it on the back burner forever. The same budget that allows for several visits to restaurants also lets me take pulse checks later. Has a flavor of the month become the landmark of the year? Has the once-was drifted into has-been? Readers want to know. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than being charmed by a place that once left me lukewarm.

Earlier this year, I returned to a place that I only previewed in 2019. While the then-new restaurant had much in its favor — prime location, charming family story, a light-filled dining room dressed with lots of comforts — consistently delicious food escaped me.

Fast forward to 2022. The fact that the restaurant hung on during the pandemic drew me back. One good meal led to another. I even featured the place as a favorite in February.

Now? Suffice it to say, Shilling Canning Company in Navy Yard, with a Mid-Atlantic script by chef Reid Shilling, offers multiple fun ways to dine (a la carte, three courses for $60, a tasting menu whipped up at the kitchen counter) paired with attentive service.

Among the questions I ask myself when I’m considering a place for review: Is this restaurant worth thousands of readers knowing about? Do I get the sense others will have a similar experience? Would I spend my own money to eat here?

Regarding Shilling, it’s “yes” times three.

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