Why do Americans love to dine out? We posed the question to Maine Sunday Telegram’s new and always well-spoken restaurant critic, James H. Schwartz.

Variety and theater, he replied without hesitation. Also, “I think dining out is so delightfully social. Even if you go by yourself and sit at the bar, it’s still a community experience. You tend to chat with someone, even if it’s only the server. In a world where so many people I know sit alone with a mouse in their hand, we crave those community experiences.

“The last piece – which may be the first piece – most of us have a repertoire of what we cook and eat at home,” he continued. “Part of the reason that people around the world like to dine out is that we are always searching for something different or something better.”

In his new post, Schwartz will have plenty of opportunity for that search as well as to answer each week the dictate he posed himself in his application: a critic should “tell if you left happy or desperately hungry.” Schwartz, who says he grew up eating “standard 1960s fare” (cornflakes-crusted baked chicken, Sauerbraten made with gingersnaps), spent many years editing and writing at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C., Cottage Living and Coastal Living magazines in Birmingham, Alabama, and the Washington Post. We chatted briefly with him about his new Dine Out Maine gig. Is he happy? Desperately hungry? Our lightly edited conversation follows:

Q: Foodies – all sorts of people – think being a restaurant critic is a fantasy job. I realize you’ve just started. But is it?

A: Going to restaurants you’ve never heard of or only heard a little bit about and getting to enjoy the experience and think about it critically is a blast. If you’re fascinated with food and with the theater of serving people, it is a fantasy to be able to immerse yourself in that world.


Q: So I assume you are fascinated with food and restaurants?

A: I have loved to cook since I was a child. I had a very indulgent mother. Even at the age of 6, one of us (children) was in charge of dinner one night each week. She would do the grocery shopping, and then we were really on our own. Even the electric stove. She said, ‘You’ll figure it out.’ My first meal was scrambled eggs. It started a lifelong fascination with cooking. I am equally fascinated with the drama of serving in restaurants. When it’s done well, it appears so effortless: Things appeared and disappeared. Glasses were emptied and refilled. It’s a wonderful compliment to be able to say ‘The service was invisible.’

Q: It’s often said that service is the Achilles heel of restaurants. In your experience, is the service usually as good as the food?

A: Is the food easier to get right? I think it may be. The food is within the control of the chef to a large degree, even to the extent that if the sauce breaks, he or she can make it again. I think service begins within the control of the restaurant but can spiral out of control in no time, depending on whether the staff showed up that day, whether there is a particularly difficult client, whether things break or spill, or a neighboring table is disconcertingly noisy. The service is harder to get right because there are more variables.

Q: Does a critic need to have worked in a restaurant? Have you?

A: I have not worked in a restaurant. And I don’t think so. A restaurant critic needs a strong sense of observation and a good taste memory. Since I don’t have the option of typing my review at the table, I think it’s important that I can recall the distinctive qualities or flavors of a certain dish. I do keep a small notebook in my jacket pocket, and I will often jot down a single word as a quick reminder of something. It might say “custard” or “crusty” – I’m looking at my notebook right now. Those actually help me. Then I try to jot down my impressions when I get home.


Because of my background as someone who has spent his professional life asking questions, I think being a good reporter helps. You can ask questions of the chef and restaurant owner – I do that after I’ve eaten there. Plenty of people just want to know how the steak tartare tastes, and I hope my reviews make that clear. But I think having additional information, understanding more about the goals, challenges and hopes of the restaurant can paint a fuller picture of what the restaurant is like. It may not change how the steak tartare tastes, but it may enhance your understanding of where the restaurant wants to go.

Q: Many restaurant critics say that awarding stars is the hardest part. Is it?

A: Yes, it’s my least favorite decision. I am conscious of two things: First, I am standing in for the reader, because I have had the good fortune to go to the restaurant. So I feel a responsibility to the reader to accurately describe my experience. And I am conscious of the fact that the number of stars awarded can positively or adversely affect the business life of a restaurant. That is a second responsibility that I take very seriously.

Q: So are stars a good thing? If you had your druthers would you get rid of them?

A: They are a quick reference tool. If I had my druthers, I would ask readers to check the number of stars and then read the review as opposed to turning the page or clicking to the next article.

Q: How do you decide what to order?


A: I never go alone, so that is extremely helpful because I can experience a range of offerings from the kitchen. I try to order a combination of something that reflects a signature dish and a special to demonstrate how comfortable the kitchen is with new terrain.

Q: How do you decide whom to bring?

A: That’s actually pretty easy. Friends have been so interested to be part of this adventure that they are willing to put up with having me eat off of their plates, having me ask them countless questions about their experience and abiding by the rule that we don’t discuss the review until we are out of the restaurant. I never tell the people that I had dinner with what I am going to say in the review. I ask them to read it in the newspaper or check it out online.

Q: How much of a part does that person’s reaction play in your own review?

A: It has not changed my thinking. It will sometimes give me pause. For instance, I remember tasting a pork dish that I thought was impeccably spiced and my guest arched his eyebrows and said, “This is way too spicy.” So I took another bite and I still believe – and said – it was impeccably spiced. But I took note of his response. At the end of the day, a review is consciously subjective. And what I hope to do is to develop a sense with readers that they know I am accurately reflecting my experience at the restaurant and that, if they read enough elements that are tantalizing, they can and will try the restaurant for themselves.

Q: What would you like your readers to know about you?

A: Nothing. (Schwartz laughs). I loathe Facebook. This constant sharing of information is anathema to my soul. (He pauses.) I have to think about this. (A longer pause.) Here’s something I’d like readers to know about me: For me, elegance has little to do with an outstanding experience. One of my favorite restaurants in the state of Maine is a fish shack that offers fried fish, but it offers the best fried fish I’ve ever had. Also, I want people to know that success for me is not taking pot shots at anybody. I go to every restaurant with the expectation that I will discover something new. The best experiences are when the things that I discover are both new and delicious.

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