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The real cost of a free meal

Times Staff Writer

GRAB the November issue of Esquire magazine and you’ll find critic John Mariani’s annual list of the nation’s “20 Best New Restaurants,” including local hot spots Providence and Ortolan.

What you won’t see is a disclaimer about which meals Mariani ate for free, and at the personal invitation of the chefs -- omissions that have exposed a deep divide in food writing circles over the ethics of restaurant reviewing.

The line is sharply drawn. Most serious journalism outlets -- including The Times and food magazines such as Gourmet and Bon Appetit -- bar critics from accepting free meals. But others routinely publish articles based on meals -- and sometimes trips -- paid for by restaurants, hotels and local tourism offices, raising questions about the credibility of the reviews.

Several restaurants, including Ortolan, made Esquire’s list after serving Mariani free meals, a practice chefs and restaurant publicists described as standard when they have invited reviewers to their restaurants, or when the reviewers have made reservations through publicists.

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A free meal may cost a restaurateur hundreds of dollars, but that’s a small price for national exposure, and the imprimatur of a critic. Mariani, who also publishes a newsletter and is a columnist for Wine Spectator and Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Radio, has emerged during the past two decades as a national arbiter of restaurants and food trends.

But a review based on a “comped” meal, especially when the chef knows the reviewer is in the house, can result in a radically skewed perception of a restaurant’s normal performance. And it raises serious questions about the reviewer’s integrity.

Reviewing standards are simple, and clear. The code of ethics widely observed, and codified by the Assn. of Food Journalists, recommends reviewers dine anonymously when possible, and not make reservations under their own names. Reviewers should not write about restaurants run by friends. And reviews should be based on several visits, to make an appropriate judgment on the food and service. Failure to maintain that objective distance violates the basic contract with people who turn to reviews for guidance.

“The people who suffer are the readers,” said Kelly McBride, a journalism ethics expert at the Poynter Institute. “You assume when somebody is speaking in glowing terms about a restaurant that it is because they did a true, fair and accurate review. But if the restaurant knew they were coming ahead of time and they didn’t have to pay for the meal, you can’t be sure the reviewers’ loyalties truly lie with the reader.”

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In Mariani’s case, the ethical and professional lines are blurred. Mariani and his Esquire editor, David Katz, referred questions to Esquire spokesman Nathan Christopher, who said the magazine picks up the tab for stories Mariani reports exclusively for Esquire. He described Mariani as a freelance correspondent for the magazine, not a restaurant critic.

Yet Mariani clearly makes judgment calls -- a critic’s basic task -- when he decides which restaurants make the list, or which he recommends in his newsletter.

Assessing quality based on freebies is playing with a stacked deck, as the chef whips his kitchen staff into show-off mode -- using better products, bigger portions and service to the max -- often to the detriment of the other diners.

“The minute you’re given special treatment that is not given with the regular fare of the restaurant ... that’s basically crossed the ethical line,” said William A. Babcock, chair of Cal State Long Beach’s journalism department and former director of the University of Minnesota’s Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law. “Everything needs to be done to make sure things are on the up and up. The best way ... is to go incognito, and take notes surreptitiously. That’s Basic Reviewing 101.”

The practice of reviewing comped meals came to light last month when Chicago chef Homaro Cantu of Moto restaurant was quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times as accusing Mariani of slighting his restaurant because the chef rebuffed a four-page faxed list of demands. These included, according to the story, Mariani’s cab fare and hotel bill during a March visit. But Cantu’s publicist at the time of Mariani’s visit said the faxed list didn’t exist.

“He may be confusing this four-page list of demands with a one-page memo that we, as a PR agency, drafted internally on behalf of our client, which is what we do for any VIP journalist,” said Janet Isabelli, executive director of Wagstaff Worldwide’s Midwest office in Chicago, which no longer represents Cantu. Isabelli declined to provide a copy of the memo but said “it outlines the protocols for the evening, things they should know about the journalist” -- kind of a publicists’ Zagat guide to the critic.

Though that accusation turned out to be unfounded, the Chicago incident and an ensuing Houston Press report about Mariani traveling there, with expenses covered by the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, sparked broad debate on the eGullet Society website, www.egullet.com, and in other food-oriented Internet chat rooms. Most rejected the practice as tainted.

Last week, Cleveland Plain-Dealer restaurant columnist John Long criticized Mariani after a Cleveland restaurant made the list, about five years after Mariani visited several Cleveland restaurants on a trip paid for by the restaurants.

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“This isn’t the work of an accredited restaurant reviewer,” Long wrote. “Real reviewers show up at a restaurant, often using a name other than their own, and pay their own way. That is the difference between editorial content and paid advertisements.”

Yet publicists and tourism officials described such free trips as a common practice, called “familiarization tours.” Mariani receives invitations from restaurants and tourism bureaus because of his stature as a critic, including his work for Esquire.

When Portland, Ore., publicist Lisa Hill heard that Mariani was traveling to Oregon last July, she invited him to join her for dinner. “I like meeting food writers and building relationships, and he’s been everywhere,” Hill said. “He’s a great name, he’s eaten at all the great restaurants. I just thought I could tell him about what’s going on in Portland.”

Hill, her husband and Mariani dined at Portland’s Olea, one of Hill’s clients, a meal for which no one was charged. Olea made the Esquire list -- a high honor to bestow based on a single meal.

When Mariani’s travels are underwritten by hotels, restaurants and tourism offices, as happened with his trip to Houston, Esquire frequently reaps benefits.

“When he goes down on different junkets sponsored by convention bureaus and restaurants and hotels, it’s not” as an Esquire writer, spokesman Christopher said. But if he “finds restaurants that are great, and decided to put them on his list,” Esquire has no objection, Christopher said.

Jessica Kleiman, executive director of public relations for Hearst Magazines, which publishes Esquire, said the magazine has no policy barring critics from reviewing restaurants based on free meals.

Mariani has defended the practice on grounds of pragmatism. Author Michael Ruhlman wrote in his 2001 book, “The Soul of a Chef,” that Mariani told him during a comped trip to Cleveland that he accepted such free invitations as a way to underwrite a travel schedule that had him visiting 25 cities a year.

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Though he declined to comment for this article, Mariani did broach the subject in a posting on the Poynter Institute’s Romenesko journalism website.

“The fact is, I had been invited by the Houston CVB on a typical ‘fam trip,’ never made a single demand, did not write a word about either the hotel they put me in or two restaurants I visited,” Mariani wrote. “The two I did write about, glowingly, I consider excellent representatives of Houston’s fine dining scene.”

YET he didn’t mention that at least one of the restaurants he wrote about, Bistro Moderne, comped his meal.

Restaurants see such free meals as an easy marketing opportunity. “Bistro Moderne ... recognizes the opportunity presented by a visit from a prominent restaurant reporter,” said Toby Reivant, its director of operations, “and does its best to ensure that the reporter has a memorable experience, which may include, as it did when Mr. Mariani visited Bistro Moderne in June, comping the reporter’s meal.”

Katz, Mariani’s editor, told the FishBowlNY website that “John never demands comps when on assignment for Esquire’s ‘Best New Restaurants’ story. I have the receipts sitting here on my desk to prove it.” However, Esquire declined to detail which restaurant visits Esquire paid for, or which restaurants that made it to the “20 Best” didn’t charge Mariani.

Of the two Los Angeles restaurants on the list, Mariani dined alone and for free in August at chef Christophe Eme’s Ortolan, said restaurant publicist Emily Hoffman. At Providence, Mariani arrived with a small group of people, and one of his group paid the tab, said co-owner Donato Poto.

Mariani is by no means the only writer to accept free trips and meals. Some openly solicit them, contacting restaurant publicists when they know they’ll be in town, asking which new restaurants they should try, said Hoffman, who represents Ortolan through Wagstaff Worldwide’s Los Angeles office. The question usually leads to reservations and a free meal.

The Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau hosts about 250 journalists a year, in most cases covering all or some of the costs, said Carol Martinez, associate vice president for media relations. Nearly all are travel writers who often include restaurants in their articles. Some are staff writers for smaller newspapers and magazines; others are freelancers. She said the group has no record of ever hosting Mariani.

“I love staff people who are syndicated, and I love freelancers who will have a lot of outlets and can place stories in a lot of different places,” Martinez said. “You can get great coverage.... If I had to buy an ad in the same publications, it would cost me a whole lot more money.”

Yet even Martinez was surprised to learn about Mariani’s approach to reviewing. “You would hope that people writing reviews would not let the restaurant know they are coming,” she said.

Such tours muddy the ethical waters even for publications with stringent guidelines. While a current freelance assignment might be above-board, it’s hard for editors to know if a writer has accepted comps on earlier trips.

Few people involved in the practice would identify which reviewers and publications they have treated to free trips and meals. But Holly Clapham, marketing director for the Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau that hosted Mariani’s trip there in June, said the organization had sponsored trips for writers whose work appeared in the Dallas Morning News, New York Post, local Texas papers and regional glossy travel magazines.

Defenders of the practice compare it to sports writers attending events for free, theater and movie critics reviewing shows from comped seats, and book and music critics writing about books and CDs supplied by publishers and music labels. But ethicists say there’s a big difference.

“I see that as really apples and oranges,” Babcock said. “When a theater critic goes in to review opening night, that critic is going in and getting the same course, if you will, that everyone else in that same restaurant is getting. It’s not a separate playbill. Anthony Hopkins is not acting in a solo performance just for that reviewer.”


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