It was the best restaurant, it was the worst restaurant. This is a tale of two restaurants. It is, in fact, the same restaurant. On one occasion, I was an anonymous diner, a regular Jane Doe. On another, I was part of a group of professional food journalists. Here is what happened …
Bon Appetit magazine named Husk in Charleston, South Carolina, the Best New Restaurant in America in 2011. Them’s big shoes to fill for sure, because any restaurant lover within spittin’ distance or not, will swarm to the historic port town to see exactly what the fuss is all about. I mean really, a Southern restaurant is the No. 1 restaurant in all the land? Mercy.
Well before Husk was crowned the belle of the ball, I had a trip to Charleston on the books to attend the annual conference of the Association of Food Journalists. A lunch at Husk was on the conference agenda, but it was on my personal agenda, too, which is how I ended up at the restaurant the evening before the conference began, just an average customer eager to experience the new mecca of foodiedom.
Jane Doe Diner vs. The Restaurant Critic
It turns out that my first visit as a Jane Doe didn’t go as well as when I was a member of the posse of journalists. Surprising? No, but it does illustrate a point about why professional restaurant critics go to great lengths to dine anonymously when reviewing restaurants.
It’s tough to get a handle on a restaurant with only one visit and I know lots of diners only get one shot. Some diners form their opinion from one visit and then write up the experience on Yelp, or wherever, and call it a “review.” Folks, that is not a review. That is a snapshot of one meal, one experience. There’s nothing wrong with that. It is what it is. But what it isn’t is a review.
If I’d based my impression of Husk from that late Monday evening visit, I’d wonder how in the heck anyone, much less a revered national magazine, thought that Husk was THE best restaurant in the land, let alone in Charleston, a town bulging with great restaurants.
As Jane and John Doe, we arrive without a reservation at 8 p.m. on a Monday night. The hostess was sweet as sugar and said it would be about an hour wait, but we could pass the time in the bar next door. We did, and the bar was vibrant, bustling, enchanting. In fact, on a later visit, we chose the bar over the restaurant because of the ambiance — and the great craft beers and cocktail prowess of the bearded bartender.
An hour and a half later, thinking they’d forgotten about us, we moseyed back over to the restaurant. We were half right. The hostess said she’d mistakenly “just given away our table to someone else,” oops, but it should only be a few more minutes. It was only 15 minutes more.
Once seated on the second floor balcony (relegated for walk-ins and friends with benefits), I was sure things would go smoother. It was a gorgeous evening and the charming balcony was still full of other diners. But things didn’t go so well. Service was excruciatingly slow. The staff had a few friends dining that night and they couldn’t break away from their tables to attend to ours. There was no explanation of the menu or the restaurant. Service was detached.
It wasn’t just the serving staff that had issues that evening. The kitchen was wallowing in some troubles, too. A server dropped a dish off, with a “here you go” quip before spinning on his heels and walking a few tables over to chat with friends. The dish, fried green tomatoes with a dollop of dry pimento cheese and country ham, was 1) cold; 2) soaked in grease; and 3) rather skimpy, with three, silver dollar size tomato slices. Not impressive.
The Restaurant Critic
Three days later at the journalists’ luncheon, rustic serving pieces bearing hot, palm-size slabs of fried green tomatoes, with no apparent puddles of grease, were placed on the table with much fanfare. The pimento cheese was fresh, not dry, and the ham was obviously sliced with care. It was miles superior to the dish I had three days earlier.
On Monday night, Jane Doe ordered the cornmeal dusted catfish with corn, cabbage and peas. The catfish, a generous portion, was more airbrushed than dusted with cornmeal. If it hit the pan for more than 30 seconds, I’d be surprised. It was pallid. The kitchen must have put away the salt and spices because this dish was a tasteless mix of lukewarm catfish and corn mush.
The Restaurant Critic
The journalists got the catfish dish that I had hoped for when I ordered it Monday night, but accompanied by BBQ pit bean succotash and pickled sweet peppers. To be honest, the luncheon catfish version, with a golden brown, seared crust and propped up by a pond of smoky beans and fresh corn, still wasn’t seasoned enough to make a lasting impression.
Best in the Land
One thing that was constant between my anonymous dining experience and the polished show for the food journalists was Husk’s cornbread.
Seriously, the cornbread might be the reason for the best restaurant award. I’ve never seen a more award-worthy skillet of crisp-crust, tender-crumb cornbread in my life. The gratuitous sprinkling of sea salt surely sealed the deal. That cornbread will forever be the standard against which I will measure all others.
The Case for Anonymity
On my first visit to Husk, they didn’t know me from the next tourist, and unfortunately, I caught both the kitchen and the front of the house on a bad evening. It happens.
Getting fussed over at the AFJ luncheon was fun … really, how could it not be? My job as a restaurant critic is to report what an average diner might experience. That means I go anonymously. That means I go more than once, on different days of the week and at different times.
Am I picking on Husk because they were named best new restaurant by a food magazine? Not intentionally, but it gives me the opportunity to point out why professional critics visit restaurants anonymously … and more than once.
My opening of the “best and the worst restaurant” was dramatic. In truth, Husk could never be a “worst” restaurant, but being an average one when you only have one shot is just as unfortunate.
76 Queen Street, Charleston SC