In order to review Graze, I put on a suit and tie, flew from Omaha, Nebraska to Charleston, and drove straight from the airport to the restaurant.
Sam Sifton probably doesn't have this problem, but one of the more difficult challenges that I face as a reviewer is simply getting to the restaurant to eat. Dining alone is not ideal, for one needs to sample enough of the restaurant's menu to make a fair judgment. But, with a day job that requires a lot of out-of-town travel, two children who aren't quite old enough for fine dining, and continual aggravations trying to book babysitters (what is it with all you over-achieving teenagers and your endless after-school activities?), it can be tough. I try to eat with my wife whenever we can conjure up a babysitter, and I invite a friend when we can't, but occasionally I have to just visit alone, which really means I have to make two visits, because you can't judge a restaurant based solely off one appetizer and an entrée.
My time to review Graze came during a particularly busy stretch of weekday business travel, and we had family members coming in from out of town on two successive weekends. Graze — a stylish farm-to-table restaurant — isn't exactly the kind of place where you want to take grandma and the kids. So, I managed to catch lunch there with a colleague one week, and the next week I took the long flight back from Omaha, Nebraska, and stopped off at Graze on the drive home.
I was seated at a two-top over in the main dining area, but it was already close to 9 p.m. and things had settled down, so it was pretty quiet in the room. Over in the bar area, I could hear one of the owners chatting up a couple seated at the bar, and he was telling them about when they'd opened and what they were trying to accomplish with the menu.
“So, have you gotten any reviews from the newspapers yet?” one of the guests asked.
“Not yet,” the owner said. “They usually give you five or six weeks to get things running smoothly.” They'd opened back in September, about six weeks before.
“Do they give you advance notice before they come in?”
“No,” he said, playing it nonchalant. “Though, after a while you get to know who they are and you can tell.”
I quietly took another forkful of tasty wreckfish. Just another traveling businessman in a suit having a solo weeknight dinner.
“In fact,” the owner went on. “At one of the places I used to work we would just pull up the reservation on Open Table and see right there, 'Jeff Allen.'” (You booked your reservations on your Open Table account, Allen? Really?)
Fortunately for me, the food at Graze was quite good. When reviewers have a really bad experience on a first visit, we need to go back another time or two to make sure it wasn't just a bad night or we lucked into the only two stinkers on an otherwise good menu.
My wife learned the downside to these reviewers' guidelines pretty quickly.
“How was the meal?” she will now ask me after I return from a review visit with a friend.
“Well, I'll have to go back. How about you and me go on Tuesday?”
“You're on your own, pal.”