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Pittsburgh Dining Reviews

Has anyone followed the reviews in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by its new restaurant critic?

I'm a chef in Pittsburgh and, of course, have been following them carefully. Luckily, my restaurant has not yet been reviewed. But what worries me is that this particular journalist doesn't appear to know very much about food, its preparation or presentation. Further, many of her remarks seem mean spirited.

I've read on local industry boards quite a few negative remarks about the restaurant critic, and am wondering what the Pittsburgh folks here on chowhound feel.

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  1. I have to generally concur with you, although I agreed with her comments about the unreasonable markup on wines at Pittsburgh restaurants. I've noted some lamentable missteps that were almost laughable. I detect a lack of sophistication (although honestly I don't know how important the Post-Gazette holds that trait in its "critics") -- a good example was the recent rave about Lidia's (yes, Lidia's!). But let's keep in mind the critic is only 24 years old.

    1. I have been put off by the recent spate of columns that seem to be more about the challenges of being a restaurant critic than about actually reviewing restaurants.

      borntocook, I actually like Lidia's, and I thought her review of the place was mostly fair and pretty well-balanced. Perhaps I lack sophistication too, but I kinda don't care when they give me unlimited refills of beef cheek ravioli.

      I get the sense that maybe the critic comes from a larger city as she seems to harp a lot on the "over-friendliness" of the service here. I don't find it off-putting, personally, but I can see how a New Yorker or LA transplant might be baffled by Burgh-style "Hi Yinz!!" service.

      BTW, the OP might be well advised to note that the critic in question has posted here on CH, and might be reading the boards.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Greyhoundgrrl

        I have found Lidia's to be terribly inconsistent. The frico, for instance, on my last two visits has been a greasy, overly salted abomination. My point about sophistication referred to a more refined taste expected of a food critic, although this little gem is hard to beat: "[S]ervers ... discretely [sic] delivered leftover food in attractive brown paper bags."

      2. I too have followed the reviews -- and at this point I pretty much dismiss them. And you're right, this person does not appear to be well versed on her subject -- food. It reminds me of the long-time Post-Gazette critic who retired about 5 years ago: the woman who referred to her husband as "His Honor." Same mindset; similar notions about food.

        1 Reply
        1. re: MaryLennox

          Glad I found this post as I just commented to my wife recently that I think the Post got a new reviewer and she hates every restaurant in Pgh! Everyone seems to get 1 star out of 4. She seems to excpect 5 star service and decor in all places she visits. I forget which restaurant, but if I recall correctly it was a casual type place that served the little plastic cups of creamer and that really turned her off. Or how at another casual place the sugar packets were left on the table for the entire meal and what a flaw in service that was! I've basically disregarded her reviews after her feeling those two things took away from the restaurant and her experience. I'd like to see China move on.

        2. I somewhat need to disagree with everyone here. Although I might not agree with what she writes about every place she has dined so far, I love the direction she is taking with the rating system. There was nothing worse than the old reviewer either praising a place or being negative (rarely was she negative other than with wine pricing) and then ending up giving everyone 3 stars. In most major cities getting 2 stars is quite an honor. Our old system was artificially inflated so as a reader you could not tell the difference between places by looking at the review. If you read her description of how she was going to change the ratings, they make sense and in the long run we will be much better off because of it. ANd I beleive she writes now about the challenges of being a critic and what she is looking for to try to educate the readers so they can understand that a 1 star rating or 2 star rating is not necessarily bad.
          Pittsburgh restaurants are getting better but they need to be held accountable to a higher standard, I beleive that these ratings are going to help. People need to remember they are just one persons opinion but they can take something from them.

          2 Replies
          1. re: mcharles

            I see nothing wrong with the rating system, mcharles, but I do take exception to the person doling out those stars and half-stars. I agree restaurants need to be held accountable, but how is this person setting a higher standard? There's a lot more to food criticism than being a graduate of a local culinary school.

            1. re: MaryLennox

              Thanks for the enlightenment mcharles, I truly didn't know that 2 stars is an honor in other cities. I guess I'm so accustomed to the PG's rating system that the 1 star, or even the half star rating mean the place is awful. I read her description of the updated star system and it makes sense. Still not sure I like her though, but the new star system, once we get familiar with it, doesn't sound bad.

          2. I'm a review junkie of sorts, used to read them every week in the Washington Post when we lived there, and still do on occasion, but I've only recently been reading the reviews in the PG. Not having eaten at the restaurants she's reviewed (2 kids, few babysitters), it's hard for me to tell. Agree that talking about sugar packets and take out bags is pretty strange and may be an effort to just fill column inches.

            On the other hand, not sure what the other options are. Does the Trib-Review have a decent critic? Pittsburgh Magazine's critic is, in my opinion, useless. Every review is positive (all potential advertisers, I assume) and spends more time talking about the decor and the history of the restaurant that used to be in that location than the food served by the current occupant. It's maddening!

            The current PG critic does appear to try to be thorough, and seems to be credible, from what I can tell, although clearly most people here seem to disagree. I'm hoping to try some of the restaurants she has reviewed in the next several months and will compare my experiences with her reviews, and then hopefully I'll be able to make a judgment one way or the other. Because a reliable critic along the lines of the Washington Post's Tom Sietsma would be welcome.

            2 Replies
            1. re: Whigsboy

              I really like her reviews, and I like the attention to detail she gives. I am not crazy about Lidia's and thought her review was--well I have never been impressed there, not even once. But another restaurant she reviewed, in in my neighborhood, was spot on, everything I have experienced myself.
              Besides, if a restaurant is charging over $35.00 for an entree, wouldn't you think that a cream and sugar bowl could be brought to the table when coffee is ordered? Having sugar packets on the table is kind of what you would expect in the diner that is up the road from the reviewed restaurant.
              Hopefully, her reviews will help to elevate the Pittsburgh dining scene, and create higher expectations for restaurants, chefs and diners too.

              1. re: grapevine

                Not to put too fine a point on it, but I frankly see nothing wrong with a ceramic sugar caddy on the table throughout the meal in a bistro environment. What do you do if someone orders iced tea with dinner, present a sugar bowl and then take it away, bring it back with coffee -- just to not offend anyone's finer sensibilities.

            2. I've lived here six years now, having spent most of my 50+ years in the NYC and Boston metro areas.

              I like China for the following reasons:
              1) she's the best reviewer the P-G has had since I've been here. The previous critics seemed to know less about food and played to the lowest common denominator. China appears to respect serious diners and aims to elevate the conversation.
              2) she's actually talked about COFFEE service at restaurants - something that is almost universally abysmal in Pittsburgh. So cheers for bringing that up!
              3) her star system makes perfect sense to someone used to ratings in the NYT/Boston Globe - or Michelin for that matter. If there's anyone here who would pass up a one-star Michelin resto, please let us have your reservation!

              Here's what I don't like about China:
              1) she's 24 years old and thus more apt to be out of touch with the age group that typically dines out fairly regularly at better restaurants in these parts and who would be most interested in this info.

              All in all, that's not too shabby. I'd suggest it's a major positive. And if someone is afraid of her coming in and ruining a reputation - if you're actually good at what you do, no critic has the power to ruin you. Because if you're good, any professional reviewer would actually be rooting for you and would likely write the review in an extremely constructive way.

              FWIW, I've been to Lidia's thrice and each time had a good experience. Not a three star experience, but a very good one, so not sure what the carping is about her review of Lidias.

              Also, I actually find her talking about herself and the process of reviewing entertaining.

              1. I can understand why a chef would be put off by Ms. Millman. She really knows how to write a negative tidbit in the review. But I'm not afraid of that, and one little tidbit won't steer me away from a deserving restaurant. She seems very thorough, honest, and hard-working, and I think the Pittsburgh dining scene is going to be better off with her at the PG reviewing helm. And really, I've known quite a few 24 year-olds whose opinion I'd trust more than 50 year-olds... Definite props to the new rating system.

                P.S. Grady412 -- what are the "local industry boards" that this food geek could follow?
                P.P.S. China, if you happen to see this -- I'm really curious what you think of these: Eleven, Legume, Casbah, Pho Minh, and The Library.

                12 Replies
                1. re: jacktanner

                  As I would agree that pgh restaurants need to be held to a higher standard, the true question becomes, who's? Should our dining scene be compared to the likes of NY(arguably the world's greatest), San Fran and Chicago? I don't think so. There is no Joel Rubichon, Jean-george, Eric Repiert, Micheal Mina, Mario Batali, and the list goes on and on, here in the burgh. So why should we be held accountable for that level of dining. It works in those cities not ours.

                  Now having said that I think we can get better, I think we have. I like the new star sytem, but rate it by our standards. Most importantly be qualified. This new reviewer is simply not qualified to critique. Simply put she is a kid and it shows in her reviews. Major cities, with major food scenes dont have kids playing restaurant reviewer. I like the direction the PG wants to go, but why not hire someone with more experience. Her inexperience and lack of knowledge pours thru her well written words in every review. She mentions in her lidia's review that it was refreshing and nice that the entire table was given a taste of the wine that was ordered. As the "pittsburgh food critic" she should know that whoever orders a bottle wine, should be the only person at the table given a taste. By doing that you are entering a verbal contract with the restaurant by tasting and accepting wine, making sure that it is not corked, cooked or anything else is wrong with it. Try pouring tastes for the table at Le Bernadin and see what happens. Her lack of knowledge and experience is holding pgh hostage in so many ways. Her most recent review of Dish is exactly why I cant keep reading her reviews. Although I like Dish for what it is,(a beautiful room with decent food) a 2.5 star restaurant it is not. I was told they don't even have a chef. Just another kid (heard he was 24 as well) keeping up the same menu items they have had for the past 7 years. Grilled whole sardine on raw spinach and a half a lemon is not 2.5 stars, more than she gave Soba Lounge. They are not even on the same playing field, but just like the critic of the PG, its just one persons opinion and we all know about opinions, there like......and everybody has one.

                  1. re: NYfoodie2007

                    Just as I was starting to get familiar with the new rating system I'm completely confused by the 2.5 stars for Dish. It seemed to me that with the new system the 3 star mark would be reserved for only the finest of dining establisments but with Dish getting 2.5 that doesn't seem to be the case. No knock on Dish, but I just don't get the way she's implementing this new system.

                    1. re: Rick

                      It does go to 4 stars, not sure if you're aware. 3 star is not the top rating in this scale. You may still have a point even so, but I thought I would clarify that for those who haven't looked at how the ratings are supposed to work.

                      1. re: CrazyOne

                        Sorry, too quick thinking on my part. I saw the 2.5 stars with the half star shaded and my brain thought that star 3 was the last star. May be helpful if they put up four blank stars then filled them in accordingly for people that don't know the number of stars possible.

                        1. re: Rick

                          That's why they have that link to how the star ratings work. ;-)

                          1. re: CrazyOne

                            I know I know, but in all fairness how likely are people not as into food as we are likely to just quickly read the dining review and not look up the link?

                    2. re: NYfoodie2007

                      Fair and effective food criticism takes a combination of talent and knowledge, not just a desire to spout one's opinion, especially when one is misinformed. In two separate reviews this critic proclaimed that quail is to be served pink. I'm not a big risk taker when in comes to food, and I do believe most chefs would be refuse to serve quail or any other poultry below the salmonella-safe temperature of 160 degrees.

                      Why not hire someone with experience, you ask. The only answer I can think of is budgetary constraints -- the Post-Gazette can't afford an experienced critic. And what bothers me about that is that when someone who lacks rudimentary knowledge about the subject on which she writes, she is really doing no service at all and is, in fact, doing a disservice. After all, these are people's livelihoods we're talking about.

                      1. re: Ari Covair

                        So, what's everyone's qualifications here to judge the critic? Just curious.

                        I haven't much to compare her to. I just add the reviews into the mix as a data point, nothing more or less. I understand that others when reading it in the paper may take it more seriously, perhaps imperiling some livelihoods.

                        1. re: CrazyOne

                          I notice her last two reviews have been snark free. I wonder if her editor has told her to dial it down.

                          1. re: Grady412

                            Well someone has surely reigned her in. Compare, for example, this bitchy excerpt from a review of an Indian restaurant:

                            "a distracting foliage-patterned rug and strands of fake white flowers. Lights bright enough for surgery only call attention to the flaws of the room."

                            to today's breathless review of a Thai restaurant:

                            "There are wooden carvings and velvet panels typical of Thai restaurant decorations, but they are fewer in number and carefully hung, giving them a greater impact."

                            It seems almost unfair to the earlier reviewed restaurants.

                            1. re: borntoocook

                              I had heard a rumor that two chefs from earlier reviews had been fired after the fallout of the horrific reviews the restaurants recieved from China. It wouldn't suprise me, just the same way that the PG doesn't suprise me the way they professionally handled this new reviewer. (its no wonder they are loosing money hand over fist and nobody is reading their paper).

                              The whole sytem is now debunked, there is no truth in journalism and there is no rating system that is accurate. She came out guns blazing, destroying everyone and everything in her path with her "i'm better than you attitude" and now its all nicey, nice. The Post Gazette should take some kind of responsibility for the mean spirited reviews she did in the first couple months. I think the whole system was handled extremely childlike and its a shame. Pittsburgh's dining scene deserves better, the chefs (rumored to have lost their jobs) deserve better and so do we.

                              1. re: NYfoodie2007

                                Just my opinion, of course, but for any restaurant owner to terminate anyone's employment based on this critic's -- or anyone's -- review is terribly naive. The appropriate action is to address the negative points in the review and, if they're valid -- work to improve on them. If they're not (and in this critic's case they usually are not), ignore them.

                  2. I look forward to reading Ms. Millman's restaurant reviews in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and I value her opinions. Here are a few reasons why.

                    Her reviews are thorough, professional, informed, and well-written. To those of you who agree that she "doesn't appear to know much about food," what *specifically* has led you to this conclusion? My two cents on the few specific criticisms made here: (1.) High-end restaurants should offer a coffee service which includes bringing sugar and cream to the table, just as they should bring any special cutlery required by a specific dish to the table before it is served. Otherwise, the table becomes cluttered. (2.) Quail, like duck, is best served while still a bit pink inside. Chicken is another matter.

                    Yes, some of Ms. Millman's reviews have been critical, and this is a good thing. This tells me that she really cares about being held accountable for her opinions and that she takes her job seriously. The number of stars she awards to restaurants actually reflects the experience she relates in her column, a welcome change from the reviews of other Pittsburgh restaurant critics (here I am including those in the Tribune, the City Paper, and Munch's column in the Post-Gazette) which seem to rate all restaurants favorably even when the review itself notes multiple unsatisfactory elements about the food, atmosphere, or service. I don't come away from these reviews feeling as though I have received an honest review. Whether or not I agree with all of Ms. Millman's opinions (many times I do, sometimes I don't), I respect her integrity. I hope that she has not watered down her reviews as some of you have suggested, whether under pressure from the Post-Gazette or from the Pittsburgh public.

                    I have several times encountered a tendency in Pittsburghers to make accusations of snobbery and elitism either out of defensiveness about the mediocrity of the food scene in this city or out of a deep skepticism toward change. This is not to say that there aren't good Pittsburgh restaurants. There are a few *very* good Pittsburgh restaurants. But overall, Pittsburgh needs a restaurant critic who will encourage improvements and praise those restaurants that are consistently good. I think Ms. Millman is just such a restaurant critic.

                    Finally, I find it disappointing that some comments on this board have dismissed her for her age ("she's just a kid") and for her unwillingness to mince words (her "bitchy" and "mean-spirited" reviews). Besides being inappropriate, these comments are much more "snarky" than any that have appeared in Ms. Millman's reviews.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: sarahalisonmiller

                      I tend more towards your side of the comments, I have to say. I am still wondering where these negative judgments of the critic come from. I like Panini Guy's post above, that seemed to sum it up well before. And then came another round of "She doesn't know what she's talking about." Yeah, well, anyone can wander in here and say that.

                      I notice the thread was started by someone who is a chef, and cites remarks on "local industry boards" which of course suggests that the local restaurant management/ownership isn't happy to have a critic who doesn't rubber stamp everything positive. Can't imagine why they'd be unhappy about that if they are serving up a worthy product. Trouble is, many just aren't. The newspaper is a more overt threat to long-held beliefs about certain places than is something like Chowhound where we've already known this truth for some time....

                      1. re: CrazyOne

                        For those who've missed the snark, you'll be happy to see that it's back! http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/08136/... Not to mention the obsession with sweetener containers:
                        "The formal dining room may have had white tablecloths, but it also had containers of sweeteners on the tables (as did the tap room)."

                        1. re: Ari Covair

                          China Millman would be more disappointed with my crabcakes than she was with those at Wright's -- I use absolutely no breading and, in fact, very little binder.

                    2. I tend to ignore food critics - I'm not into food snobery. I love to eat and I'd rather read reviews written by people who are solely into sharing for the sake of sharing - one of the reasons I love CHound.

                      Another site I use a lot is Restaurantica: http://www.restaurantica.com/

                      The site doesn't seem to be run by editors but rather by people who want to share their dining experiences. Makes them a little more trustworthy, no?

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: HungriGirl2

                        Just realized the Post-Gazette has China writing obituaries.