How does a guy go from writing features and human-interest stories to becoming a restaurant reviewer? Actually, says The Sacramento Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, he had his eye on the plum job for years before he plucked it off the tree in late 2008, replacing longtime food and wine critic Mike Dunne. A veteran journalist and Bee staffer since 1999, Robertson recently filled us in on his newish life as a food critic.
How did you land the gig? When Mike took the buyout and decided to leave the paper, several candidates for the job went to dinner at Dawson’s at the Hyatt Regency along with [Dunne] and an outside person who was asked to be one of the judges. It was quite an awkward dinner. We had a few days to write a review, and then there was an interview with a panel.
What qualifies you to write about food? A lot of people wonder, “Who do you think you are being a restaurant reviewer? What qualifies you?” But 90 percent of being a restaurant critic is reporting. It’s really reporting and being reliable.
Clearly, you also love food. I live and breathe food. I really love to cook. I’m enamored with cooking—how you measure things and put them together and the process, the skill involved, the patience involved to come up with a final product that is really satisfying. It’s a lifelong pursuit. I also like beautiful food. I think it should be a work of art, at its very best. That’s probably one of my biases.
What’s your reviewing philosophy and approach? I knew from the start I didn’t want to just write about the food. I didn’t want to say “the soup was too salty” or “the potatoes had too much rosemary” because I didn’t want to bore people to death. I found many reviews bland and predictable, and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to write stories about going out and having an experience—some of which involves food, some of which involves service, some experiences that leave you feeling good and some that leave you feeling ripped off.
How do you decide what restaurants to review? We want to tell people about places that are new, but also places that they already know about to see if those restaurants are still in the game. There are six, eight, maybe 12 restaurants in town that people are thinking about to celebrate a job promotion, birthday or anniversary, and they’re wondering, “Is that place still at the top of the list?” So I think we need to rotate those into the mix regularly, as well as review the new places, plus what you might call dives.
How do you feel about writing negative reviews? On occasion, you’ve been pretty harsh. I don’t like writing negative reviews at all. It stresses me out. I’ve never as a private diner complained; it’s not my nature. But I realize the readers rely on me to be honest. It’s my obligation. I get 100 times more e-mails for negative reviews than positive, and that’s often because people are applauding my honesty.