A longtime local food blogger has been banned from eating at three Portland restaurants because he reviewed one of them after the owners had asked him not to do so.
John Golden, who writes the blog The Golden Dish, on MaineToday.com, received an email last week from Arlin Smith, Andrew Taylor and Mike Wiley – who collectively own Hugo’s, Eventide and The Honey Paw – telling him that he is no longer welcome in any of their establishments.
The email, sent Thursday, references a conversation Golden had with Smith during a visit to The Honey Paw on April 15 – the day it opened – in which Smith warned Golden not to write about his visit. The email also mentions Golden’s May 1 review of the restaurant – a review that the restaurant owners admitted was overwhelmingly positive.
“We wanted to take this opportunity to assure you that we were quite serious when we offered you the choice between dining at our restaurants and writing about them,” it read. “As pleased as we all were that you enjoyed a ‘ten-star’ meal at The Honey Paw, we must remind you that it was your last. Please understand that we are well within our rights to refuse you service, and that the choice to dine or to write was your own.”
Taylor and Wiley said Monday that they are banning Golden from their restaurants because they find him and his writing unprofessional. They said Smith was not available for comment. (MaineToday.com and the Portland Press Herald are both operated by MaineToday Media.)
The relationship between chefs and critics is often frosty. Restaurant owners don’t always like what food critics say, but banning a critic outright is an unusually drastic step. It has happened a few times in recent years, including in 2014 when a celebrity chef from Dallas blacklisted a newspaper critic.
Golden said he wasn’t surprised to receive the restaurateurs’ email, because they had given him an ultimatum, but he said the decision to ban him is “ridiculous.”
“Smith said to me, ‘We don’t want you to represent us,’ and I said, ‘I don’t represent anyone. That’s not what a critic is,'” said Golden, who has also written for Downeast magazine, The New York Times, The Boston Globe and Gourmet, as well as the Maine Sunday Telegram.
In an interview at Hugo’s, Taylor and Wiley said they regret that their disagreement with Golden has become public, but they stand by their decision.
“We’re opening ourselves up to criticism,” Taylor said. “There will be people who are going to say, ‘What a bunch of jerks,’ but that’s not necessarily who we are. I’m sure there will be others in the industry who say, ‘Good for you.’ I don’t think we’re alone in thinking John Golden isn’t a particularly professional food writer for this town.”
And apparently it is legal to ban a writer.
“In the legal battles of the 1960s, we said you can’t discriminate against what we called ‘discrete and insular minorities,'” said Portland attorney Merritt Heminway, who has experience defending no-trespassing cases. “I don’t think restaurant critic gets extra protection. … A restaurant is a private business. He can write what he wants, and they can serve who they want.”
Greg Dugal, president of the Maine Restaurant Association, said restaurants are within their rights to withhold service to customers. But he’d advise them that “they better have a pretty good reason,” such as nonpayment or harassment of staff. He said he wasn’t sure the ban on Golden was warranted.
Wiley especially disliked something Golden wrote recently about several local restaurants. The piece, posted to The Golden Dish in February, mentioned Hugo’s and Eventide, but what annoyed Wiley most was Golden’s comparison of another restaurant – Ribollita – to a “goiter.”
“Was that necessary?” Wiley asked. “And because he wrote about us, it almost feels like we’re ratifying that statement.”
In that same post, Golden included a photo of Taylor wearing a bright orange knit cap. Golden referred to Taylor as “hat model and chef/co-owner.” Taylor said he found the comment petty and personal.
“Some of what he might regard as folksiness doesn’t come off as, ‘I’m here to review the food,’ ” Wiley said. “There is just more personality injected into his pieces than we think is appropriate.”
Golden said the hat comment was a joke.
Taylor and Wiley said Golden also has made errors in his blog, such as mislabeling dishes in photos.
Golden said Monday that Smith told him the same thing during their April 15 conversation, to which Golden replied, “Why didn’t you bring it up sooner? I would have corrected it.”
What makes Golden’s ban unusual is that almost everything he’s written about Hugo’s, Eventide and The Honey Paw has been positive. Typically critics get barred for scathing reviews.
Last year, Dallas Morning News critic Leslie Brenner was banned from a restaurant owned by John Tesar of “Top Chef” fame after she gave it three stars out of five in a review. Houston Chronicle critic Alison Cook was banned from a restaurant in 2011 before it even opened because of her reputation for writing negative reviews.
Mitchell Davis, executive vice president of the James Beard Foundation, the nation’s preeminent culinary organization, was surprised to hear that Golden was banned without having written a negative review. Still, he said, he doesn’t think the decision will hurt the restaurants.
“I think we overestimate the power of reviewers,” Davis said. “(Smith, Taylor and Wiley) are putting their foot down and clearly making a statement.”
Golden said he hasn’t decided whether he will defy the ban and try to eat at Hugo’s, Eventide or The Honey Paw. Wiley said he wouldn’t speculate about what might happen if Golden shows up.