Leading up to the statewide stay-at-home order, I had three restaurant reviews in the hopper. I was particularly excited about this trio because publishing a string of positive reviews (two four-stars and one 3.5) seemed like a perfect way to usher out the blustery, waterlogged winter we had just endured.

Months later, those articles loiter, unclicked on my hard drive. They will probably be there for a long time, perhaps forever. I certainly can’t publish them. Even though the restaurants fortunately still exist, what I wrote describes dishes, drinks and experiences that no longer do.

And it’s impossible to know if, or when, they ever will again.

In March, I shared my decision not to write critically about restaurants for the foreseeable future. It felt like the only choice in a tense, fragile climate where the only path forward for a food business was to reinvent, scramble, and do it all again the next day.

But things are beginning to change. Restaurants in many parts of the state are coming back. Cheery re-opening announcements seem to come in waves, arriving through social media in effervescent pops of electrons: a new bottled cocktail selection here, a parklet or patio there.

Read a little closer though. What almost all your favorite restaurants are writing are tentative first drafts for what the summer and fall might become. They have no other options; they’re making this up on the fly.

So am I.

Right now, that means trying to answer a question I’ve asked myself several times a day for the past dozen weeks: When will it be the right time to review a restaurant again?

Miyake earned four stars about a week before the coronavirus shut down restaurants across the state. As they start to open up, our critic broods over when it will be OK to review them again. Shown here: Miyake’s Bounahra Kim plating sashimi. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Over the past several years, this paper has held firm to three-month grace periods before a new restaurant is eligible for a Dine Out review. Businesses that make substantial changes (new chefs, different venues, for example) get at least one month before I write about them.

I take this seriously because I know how important it is to allow time for a restaurant to hit its stride. Work a day in a kitchen or dining room, and you’ll see what I mean: Every restaurant has its own language and a unique micro-culture of hard-earned efficiencies that develop over weeks, months and years.

The first thing I was taught in my first kitchen job was how to drain and clean two seemingly identical fryers. They were the same make and model, but deep inside the snaking tubes, one of them liked to hold on to an extra glug of oil. Remove the bucket too soon, and you’d wind up lubricating the tile floor. Now imagine the scene on opening night with a restaurant critic there to witness the swearing and cymbal crash of pans as one of the line cooks plays Slip ‘N Slide into the door of the walk-in. This is why we wait.

What about now? After the hiatus of lockdown, most restaurants will re-open in the same space, with the same equipment as before. Some will even be able to bring back the same staff. But things will be undeniably different.

Dining rooms will operate at reduced capacity, with chalkboards or laminated menus, servers sporting masks and gloves, and strict distancing between customers. In 2020, outdoor tables will be the new black. And how long before diners return? Will they?

This summer is, in many ways, like starting over.

So how long do I pause before writing critically about a restaurant? I’d wait until things return to “normal,” but I don’t think I understand the meaning of that word anymore. If I wait for consensus that we’ve hit a stable equilibrium, I might be in for some serious downtime.

When in doubt, I generally look to the Association of Food Journalists (AFJ) Code of Ethics. Their pre-pandemic guidance suggests waiting a month before a review. But I imagine how things might look in July, during the steepest phase of the ramp-up to what we used to call “tourist season,” and I don’t think a month is fair.

So I called the organization’s president, Hanna Raskin. She was careful to point out that its members have not had an explicit conversation about this topic yet. Still, the code, she reminded me, should continue to be a good guide because “fairness is behind it.”

“But I think you’re right: To review anything right out of the gate doesn’t seem fair,” she continued. “And more than that: We respect people who work and honor diversity. Keep in mind many of these restaurants which are not very well-funded are going to have a longer haul to get back to normal. It comes back to fairness, and not prioritizing places that have the capital to pull this off.”

Judging by recent conversations I have had with chefs and restaurant owners, I’d expect that even two months will be too ambitious a time frame. We’ll be lucky to see anything with more than a passing resemblance to normality before autumn.

But does that obligate me to keep reviews in suspended animation until September? Perhaps not. “One of the fundamental principles of reviewing is gauging how well a restaurant is doing what it’s trying to do. You review the restaurant it is trying to be,” Raskin told me. “At the beginning, they (restaurants) are trying to be safe. I think it’s OK to write about about that, because that’s what they’re focusing on right now. Part of our job is to stimulate conversation and to give readers information. And that’s what people want to know about. They want to know right now if it feels safe.”

Me too. Interviewed for an article in Food & Wine magazine last month, I told New York food writer Andrea Strong how reluctant I was to return to dining out in the short term.

As much as I trust Maine chefs and restaurant owners to be vigilant about their hygiene and safety practices, it’s customers who have me worried. More precisely: summertime tourists, up for a getaway in Vacationland, perhaps not following the 14-day quarantine for out-of-staters, perhaps a little tipsy, perhaps a little too loose and relaxed to care.

Raskin, who is food editor and chief critic for The Post & Courier newspaper in Charleston, South Carolina, expressed similar reservations when we spoke.

“Because we reopened early here, our cases are climbing every day. Things are getting worse. Is it ethical to write about a restaurant and imply that it’s OK to go?” she said. “It’s our job to look out for our readers. I don’t feel like I know enough to send people into what might be a risky situation.”

Not only do I share the same concern, I wonder how interesting a review about a restaurant’s safety practices could possibly be. Anyone up for a little OSHA-themed, germophobe fan fiction?

For the moment, then, I continue to wait this crisis out with a shifted perspective on food in Maine.

It hasn’t been all bad: I have been lucky to be able to write some of my favorite pieces for the Maine Sunday Telegram during this period. Those Spotify playlists I put together in April continue to light up with new hits and followers, and every once in a while, when I open my e-mail, I find a bread photo from a proud new convert to Dan Lepard’s fabulously easy recipe.

But I confess, I miss writing about restaurants … maybe even more than I miss eating in them. I miss pulling out my phone and scrolling through photos of the dishes I ate and zooming in to puzzle out what made them succeed (or not). I even miss deciphering the notes I took surreptitiously during a meal. These are typed under the table, so they frequently read as if they were tapped out by someone with 10 thumbs.

I miss talking on the phone with chefs, learning about their backgrounds and inspirations, hearing nearly every single one praise their front-of-house and back-of-house teams – more than a few welling up as they do.

Over the past three months, we have all been sipping the same corrosive cocktail of uncertainty and impatience. It is finally Last Call, and I think we’re all ready to collect our coats and head outside.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of three recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.
Contact him at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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