Q: You have a pretty big audience of friends. I bet they have the some of the same questions for you that I have. When you eat out, do you go with a group of people? Do you order extra dishes just so you can taste them? Do you take notes while you are eating? Is this a journalistic perk? Do you take doggie bags home with you? Inquiring minds would like to know.
—Christine Nieman Ewald, Kingston, Ill.
A: I've done very little official restaurant reviewing since joining the Chicago Tribune nine years ago. All those photographs of restaurant meals you see posted by me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are taken for fun in the spirit of social media. But I still try to eat and think like a restaurant reviewer, even if the story stays safely tucked away in my head.
To be a successful restaurant reviewer takes a very special set of skills. Look at how my Tribune colleague, Phil Vettel, lifts the form into an art — as do a number of his compatriots across the country, people like the two Sietsemas, Robert at The Village Voice in New York City and Tom, his distant relation at the Washington Post; John Kessler at the Atlanta Journal Constitution; Michael Bauer at the San Francisco Chronicle; and Jonathan Gold at the Los Angeles Times.
We all can emulate them to a degree, and enhance the dining experience, if we all do one basic thing: Think. Think about what you're going to order. Think about what you're eating as you eat it. Then think about the meal as you walk out the door — what did you like? What did you dislike? Would you go back?
I think too many of us just blindly order, gulp and go. It's not a problem confined to restaurants; it happens at home, too. Can you say with confidence what you ate for dinner last night?
So, I try to think about what I'm doing when I'm out. That doesn't mean I'm not having fun and enjoying the moment; I am. But I'm also trying to be mindful of what's going on.
That's one reason I prefer to dine with no more than three other people, whether working or for fun. I find I can keep track of what people are eating. Everyone can talk easily. A smaller group also makes it easier to share food — and that's one thing I insist upon when going out to dinner. If you order it, I will try it.
Extra dishes? Yes, sometimes, if the menu seems particularly interesting. I don't apologize for ordering more, I just tell the server I'm really, really, really hungry. Doggie bags? Yes, I take them but I rarely eat them. Leftovers make me sad. I try to push the doggie bags off on my guests.
I never take notes on the food while I'm eating. I'm one of those journalists who believes reviewers need to work anonymously to best reflect what an ordinary diner experiences. Nothing attracts attention more than whipping out a reporter's notebook at the table. Ditto for frequent trips to the bathroom to jot down notes in the stall.
Thank goodness so many people have iPhones or tiny cameras and are clicking away in restaurant dining rooms with such abandon. It gives me the perfect "cover" to take my own shots. I suppose you can consider my iPhone pix as visual notes, but I've long been blessed with having a knack for retaining an image of the plates in my memory.
Taking photographs of what I eat is a fun artistic and technical challenge for me. Can I capture what I'm experiencing with the lens of my iPhone? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
Quality aside, sharing my photos with others via social media is a great way to get a conversation started. I can't tell you how many times I've posted my location of Foursquare, for example, and received within minutes suggestions on what to order or where to sit from fellow diner. I love that sort of interaction.
Do you have a question about food or drink? E-mail Bill Daley at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Snail mail inquiries should be sent to: Bill Daley, Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago 60611. Twitter @billdaley.