New York Times’ CT Food Critic Patricia Brooks Dishes on 38-Year Career
Kim JohnsonA dream scenario to anyone out for a good meal, it was instead a nightmare for Patricia Brooks.
The Connecticut section restaurant reviewer for The New York Times was at a trendy new bistro, set to sample and critique the food, when she realized an employee there had recognized her.
“Suddenly I’m getting all these extra things I haven’t ordered,” she recalls while relaxing in the New Canaan home she’s inhabited since 1957. “It was terribly embarrassing. Instead of finding it nice I found it very upsetting. But what could I do?”
She proceeded with the meal and review, but made sure to alert readers about what had happened.
“It seems to me that to do what I do you have to be anonymous to be fair,” she says. “That’s always been the policy at the Times, and I think it’s a good one. People have told me that some restaurants have my photograph, and that’s possible. But I go to great lengths, and sometimes disguised lengths, to avoid it.”
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Being found out beforehand has only happened a handful of times in the almost four decades that she’s been one of the most powerful judges of Nutmeg State eateries. Her son, Christopher Brooks, who with the rest of the family often accompanied his mom to restaurants, is now The New York Times restaurant reviewer for Litchfield County, while Patricia, who once covered the whole state, now focuses on Fairfield County.
“I remember how awkward it was for her when she was recognized,” Christopher recalls. “Different members of the staff coming to the table, over and over, asking how is everything. Then when we left there was a conga line of employees we had to walk by and shake hands with.”
It has been quite a life of ingesting for Patricia Brooks, who estimates that in her reviewing for the Times she’s had over 4,000 meals, each including multiple appetizers, entrées and desserts. Add all the mostly yummy sampling on her own while writing food guides, cookbooks, magazine features and more, and she is no doubt Connecticut’s all-time luckiest eater.
Of course there’s been a price to pay, even if all the food’s been free.
“Several times I’ve gained and had to lose a lot of weight,” says Brooks, now thin thanks in part to having scaled back to reviewing once a month instead of weekly. “I was like an athlete; I sacrificed my body.”
FOOD FROM THE SOURCE
There is much more to the Patricia Brooks story than restaurant reviewing.
“A lot of people don’t realize that I’ve been more of a travel writer than a food writer,” she explains. The author or co-author of more than 25 books—including seven Connecticut restaurant guides—she and her late husband Lester wrote guidebooks on Spain, Portugal, England and New York State. Brooks has been to 72 countries and credits this with providing the basics for which she is able to expertly judge food.
“When you eat food from the source, you develop a feeling about it and a taste for different cuisines,” she says. “When you travel a lot, food becomes a very big part of the experience. If you go to a party and someone has just come back from somewhere, one of the first things they are going to talk about are the restaurants. Food seems to be like a new American religion.”
It is that knowledge Brooks uses to inform her reviews.
“I know a lot of ethnic cuisines at the source,” she says. “So I’m always criticizing in my head in that sense. Maybe a dish here is tasty, yes, but it’s no relation to what I’d find in Morocco, or wherever. So I’m comparing it to the source. If it is ostensibly a Spanish dish, and you call it that, then it should resemble that.”
It was travel writing that led to Brooks becoming a restaurant reviewer for the Times. A freelancer since 1952, for years she contributed articles on food, travel and other topics for newspapers and national magazines. She’d written three cookbooks and was doing travel features for the Times when in 1977 an editor there, obviously unfamiliar with her range, asked if she knew anything about food.
“I told him about the cookbooks, and he said to go to restaurants and submit sample reviews,” she recalls. She did, and was offered the reviewing position, but wavered. “I was torn,” she says. “I’d gained 50 pounds from doing the cookbooks and it took six months to lose. I didn’t want to gain it again. But I couldn’t turn it down. And of course, little by little by little, I regained all the weight.”
So began an incredible body of work that continues today. For almost 30 years, a Patricia Brooks restaurant review was in every weekend’s Times. She covered Connecticut solo, and is proud that she never missed a Sunday. “For a lot of that time I traveled so much that I had to eat ahead, and that’s how I gained weight,” she says. “If I’d be away for two weeks I had to do the reviews in advance, so I’d be in restaurants several times a week.”
About 10 years ago, the Connecticut section added a second reviewer. “And then a third and a forth,” says Brooks, who’s been more than happy to scale back.
Autonomy has been a constant and welcome aspect of her reviewing.
“About the only thing the Times ever said was to stress the positives if possible,” she says. “So usually I’ll tell the good things up front and the negatives further down. And I’ve always decided which restaurants to review; never been told to go to such and such. In part that’s been because my editors have never lived in Connecticut.”
Though the working meals with friends are always fun, Brooks takes the reviewing extremely seriously. She knows the power her opinion can have on a restaurant’s fortunes going forward.
“But I don’t think about that,” she admits. “My job is to inform the consumer. A restaurant is a very tough business but I have to keep focused on writing for people who may go there.”
JUST ONE VOTE COUNTS
While Brooks is happy to treat her guests to meals, she has no particular interest in their thoughts on the food. “I go by my reactions only,” she says. “Some people will give their opinions whether you ask or not, and they’re not always educated. I have one friend who loves everything. When my son Chris and his wife go with me, they are the most critical people, and vocal.”
Christopher has mostly fond memories of restaurant visits with mom, and credits her with helping to shape his sensibilities when it comes to reviewing. “It’s been fascinating to go with her,” he says. “She’s always tried to be mindful that there are real people behind the businesses she’s reviewing. It’s important to try and be constructive, not tear them down just to tear them down, even if some of them deserve it.
“The meals out that were less fun for me, and this is from the perspective of someone who was in his petulant teen years, was having to pass your plate to her, then getting it back to find that the part you treasured most had been mauled with knife and fork. So that wasn’t part of the experience you savored.”
While decor, service and other variables are taken into account, it is the food that rules for Brooks.
“It’s eight-tenths,” she says. “That’s why I go to a restaurant multiple times, to see which is the norm. The food can vary a lot between lunch and dinner. If it’s really inconsistent, that’s a bad sign. A good restaurant is boringly consistent. It’s a very unforgiving business. Nobody cares if the chef’s mother died that morning. They want the same level they’re used to, coming week after week, month after month.”
Deciding a restaurant’s ‘grade’ is a challenge for Brooks. The current Times ladder is poor, fair, good, very good and excellent.
“Deciding on one is the hard part, the really hard part, because they don’t give half-stars,” she says. “The difference between good and very good is very tenuous sometimes. Some things are really good, but then there are some missteps. That’s the hardest part of a review, I think, that fine line. You want to be fair to the restaurant, but you want to be fair to the readers. It’s a tough decision, and I mull it a long time.
“For instance, there is this little clean, neat, modest place in Norwalk, called Rincon. It’s Mexican. Everything is fresh, very fresh. It was tough deciding between good and very good because if you give it a very good, you expect something pretty special. It’s standard Mexican dishes, but better than the usual. I gave it a good. My friends who found it and told me about it and went with me for one meal said, ‘Oh you only gave it a good. We think you should have given it a very good.’ I said, ‘Well, I weighed everything, agonized over it, and decided it was simply good.’”
Brooks says the best Connecticut restaurant she has ever been to is Thomas Henkelmann, in Greenwich’s Homestead Inn. She has no choice for the worst. “The real disaster, when I was reviewing the whole state, was driving two hours to a place and finding it was sub-par, in addition to being out of the way,” she says. “Who was ever going to go there? It was a useless review, and it’s happened six or eight times.”
New York Times’ CT Food Critic Patricia Brooks Dishes on 38-Year Career
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HER PET PEEVES
It is only natural that Brooks, after so many years on the job, has a list of annoyances having nothing to do with the food. First and foremost is excess noise.
“There is a new place here in New Canaan that is so noisy that people sitting across from each other can’t hear each other,” she says. “Someone working there told me that people like the buzz. I replied that if they’re under 30 they may like the buzz, but when a new place comes along they’ll go there for the buzz. Whereas older people, if they like a place, they’ll be regulars, going every week or two.”
She also frowns on servers who introduce themselves by name, expensive restaurants that don’t ‘crumb’ (clean tablecloths after a course), servers who say what menu items they like (“It’s meant to be persuasive but isn’t”), entrées arriving before appetizers are finished, lack of cleanliness in the dining room (“If it’s dirty, what must the kitchen be like?”), not being greeted warmly by the host or hostess, and food not presented well on plates (“Not crucial but nice”).
Brooks touches base by phone with restaurants after she’s done visiting them.
“If it’s a complex menu I’ll have questions about what spice was used in what dish, and so forth,” she says. “It’s a fairly recent Times policy, talking to a chef or manager and getting a quote. I also need the basics—hours, credit cards accepted, size of the wine list, things like that.”
Feedback from restaurant chefs and owners has been common over the years following her reviews.
“A lot of them say, ‘Thank you for the critiques. They will be helpful,’ which I love,” she says. “That’s pure diplomacy, and smart.”
Then there are the ones who don’t take it so well.
“I reviewed a place in New Haven all the Yalies went to . . . it was old, old, old,” she recalls. “I couldn’t get a fork through the cake. It was not good. The owner wrote to (Times publisher) Arthur Sulzberger, going on and on, saying I was drunk when I came in. If you knew me, I hardly ever drink. Total invention. Fortunately the Times didn’t take it seriously. But I was upset at the time.”
The strangest incident happened after she gave a glowing review to a Northern Italian restaurant in South Norwalk. She followed up by including the restaurant in a magazine feature about great chefs. About a year later she reviewed another Northern Italian restaurant in Greenwich.
“I was sent a clipping of it all marked up angrily by the SoNo owner, who said, ‘How could you give that place a good review?’ He didn’t want competition. He told me to never come to his restaurant again. I’ve been happy to comply.”
Though Brooks enjoys almost every kind of food, there is one type of restaurant she refuses to review—steakhouses.
“My philosophy has been a steak is so easy,” she says. “Why would you go out for steak when you can eat an Indian dinner that is complicated and much harder to make? I take difficulty of preparation into account when reviewing.”
And if she could give readers just one important piece of advice when dining out?
“Stick with the appetizers,” she says firmly. “Chefs in general like to play with appetizers, so they are often much more interesting than the main courses, which tend to be very standard dishes, standardly prepared. The appetizers almost make the meal. When I go out on my own I’ll usually have several appetizers and no entrée.”
STATE OF THE STATE
For her updated 2013 book, The Food Lovers’ Guide to Connecticut, Brooks visited markets, farm stands, specialty stores, bakeries and other places, categorizing each by county and geographical area. Add the thousands of restaurants reviewed and she can lay claim to being the Nutmeg State’s all-time eating expert.
A fringe benefit has been visiting and exploring the many cities, towns, villages and burgs, which have provided her with a deep love and appreciation for all the state has to offer.
“Food-wise, Connecticut has changed amazingly,” she says. “When I started reviewing, my friends said I’d run out of restaurants. I never have, but that was back in the 1970s, and there weren’t many really good ones. A lot of old-timers have these set notions that aren’t true anymore, like they say you can’t get good bread in Connecticut, or there are no good restaurants in Stamford. Yes you can, and yes there are.
“Then they tell me if they want to go out to dinner they go to New York. I just say okay, go ahead. Now there are a lot of good and very good restaurants in Connecticut. We’ve had a food revolution in the state. Even in the smaller towns there are good restaurants.
“And because I’ve written a lot of travel stories, and have written a lot about Connecticut, there are wonderful sights. So many people have not been to Hartford to see the Mark Twain House, or never been to the Bruce Museum in Greenwich. And there are so many other places to visit. So I think Connecticut in the past 30 years has really evolved into a major tourist attraction state. Some of these little towns, like the one I live in, at one time didn’t want people to come. The roads were terrible. If we complained they’d say they keep people out. Can you believe it? Just a crazy, provincial attitude of not wanting strangers.”
Even after almost four decades on the job, Brooks delights in fresh experiences and approaches to cuisine. She recalls when one foreign food debuted in Connecticut.
“I told a good friend of mine, a woman, that I was excited because I was going to dinner to review a new tapas restaurant. She kind of recoiled, and became flustered. She said, ‘Oh… really? Well, that should be interesting.’ She thought I said topless restaurant!”
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