Press Herald restaurant critic Andrew Ross and I last sat down to talk about his job, also the restaurant scene in Greater Portland and all around Maine, some six years ago. Hundreds of reviews and a pandemic later, just as we publish Ross’ annual selection of the 75 best places in Greater Portland to eat and drink, it seemed a fine time to check in again.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Why do we need a critic at all? Why can’t I just crowd-source to figure out where to go to eat? 

A: Need is a tricky word. Someone who is paying attention to the meal and focusing on the experience as an experience and not having to have a long conversation about child care or parental care and that sort of thing, it takes some of the distractions out. One of the benefits of having someone like me is that when I go to a restaurant to do a review, I am in review mode. I am focused on the service, I am focused on the food, I am focused on the the atmosphere. I lose a lot of those things when I am going out to eat for pleasure.

Also, the way restaurant critics think about meals is a little different. They think about meals as experiences or a story. Change of framing makes a big difference. When you understand you are paying money for an experience, it forces you to think about the way the connections between the elements play out.

But honestly, most people have a good sense of what they like. Most people know why they enjoy a place. I bring something that is slightly different but not radically different. Crowd-sourced reviews are not a bad thing. There is a place for both.


Q: How do you decide which restaurants to review? Some readers complain you only go to pricey spots. Lately, you’ve reviewed a run of moderately priced places — Sacred Profane, Tacos La Poblanita, Peng’s Pizza.

A: I pay attention to the food press, which is largely driven by public relations. I have to take all that with a big grain of salt. I have a spreadsheet. I’ll make a little note to myself of places I should probably at some point write about. I’m also looking for places that are doing something unusual or have a creative perspective on the cuisine, or are involved in the community in interesting ways. There are lots of reasons why places come onto the list, and they are not always immediately obvious.

One of the pitfalls we fall into sometimes is talking about “important” restaurants. What makes a restaurant important is not necessarily that it’s expensive or the first of its kind. I do look for places that are trying to offer reasonably priced affordable meals that are a cut above. People don’t want to just hear about the sit-down meal that is going to cost $150 with tax and tip, which, by the way, these days is not as much as you think.

Q: Some newspapers have one critic who specializes in the high-end, the so-called “important” restaurants, and another who critiques the more humble spots.

A: I hate that distinction. The New York Times is known for this. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to divide it like that. I don’t think there are two categories of diners. Most people eat at most kinds of places. Most people will eat at a nicer place once in a while; it could be more frequently than that. But people who eat out at (nicer) restaurants will also eat out at the places that are less expensive.

Q: Talk to me about stars. Just before the pandemic, you wanted to get rid of them. At the time, you wanted to replace it with a rating system of 1 to 100. 


A: The system I had proposed (borrowed from New York magazine) had a lot more finer gradations. I still think that’s a good idea for giving people a sense of where a restaurants fits within the range of three stars, and a lot of restaurants will fall into that three-star range because it’s the big bump in the middle of the bell curve. The reason I went away from that — it’s maybe trying to over-quantify something that is very hard to quantify. Is a restaurant experience something you can quantify? It feels a little too precise. I’ve come full circle here. I’m back to the point where I think the star system is OK. Broad bands, zero to five stars, are fine.

Q: Why have stars at all?

A: Readers really want a quick run-down of how I felt about a place. A lot of people open up a review and the first thing they do look down for that box at the bottom, and they look to see what the star rating is. I get why that’s useful. Are you going to ask me why I haven’t given a five-star rating yet?

Q: I was just about to.

A: I re-read the interview I did with you six years ago. The thing I said then remains true: I’ve had five-star meals in Maine, just not on the clock. That’s an unfortunate consequence of the way the job works. I can have a terrific experience but if the restaurant has been reviewed recently or isn’t eligible for a review for some reason, then I can’t write it up as a five-star review.

I went to the Lost Kitchen three times that summer six years ago. I had a meal that I thought was probably a five-star meal the first time I went there. (Editor’s Note: Lost Star Kitchen was reviewed in 2015 by then-Dine Out critic James H. Schwartz.)


Q: So this is the reason none of the rest of us can get into the Lost Kitchen? You went three times?

A: (Laughs) Well that was years ago! The second meal was just as good, and then I went back in that really florid, late summertime when everything seems to be in season, and the meal I had that third time surpassed the previous two.

It’s really hard to get all the elements right at the same time. Part of the advantage someone like (owner/chef) Erin French has is that the Lost Kitchen is out there in the middle of not a lot of other stuff. She and her team are able to focus very, very intensely on each evening and the experience that each evening brings. Having that tight group of staff who know the restaurant intimately and who are able to address problems at that specific space because they’ve seen that kind of problem in that space before is invaluable. That all leads to a cohesiveness of service and a cohesiveness of food. Erin French herself is also extremely charming.

All the elements have to come into play at the same time to have it be a perfect meal – although I don’t think there is such a thing as a perfect meal. This labor shortage issue that restaurants still contend with plays a big part in why this is so hard. It’s hard to get a group of people who know each other well enough and who stick around together long enough to build that cohesiveness.

I suspect what will happen is I will end up writing a five-star review for a restaurant that I’ve written about before, that did well before but has gotten better now, like Sammy’s Deluxe (in Rockland). I think I gave three and a half stars to them, or rated them three-and-a-half stars. I don’t want to say “give.” That sounds like I’m doling something out that doesn’t belong to me. Earning the stars is probably a better way to phrase it. Sammy’s Deluxe was very good when I went there the first time. Almost everything about that experience is better now. If I had to review that restaurant now, it would be in the fours, no question in my mind about it.

It probably takes somebody who has been doing the thing that they are doing in the space that they doing with the people that they are doing it with for a while to hit that stride that gets to the five-star mark. I don’t think it’s going to be a brand-new restaurant. It’s part of the reason we give new restaurants three months (before we review them). But I don’t even know that most places do well after three months. But you have to (review them) after three months. You can’t wait too long because if you wait too long, people will stop paying attention. It’s this terrible conundrum.


Q: How do you evaluate food from cultures less familiar to you? 

A: It’s a tough question. I am very cautious and careful about making sure I am talking about things in a way that reflects both the extent of my knowledge and the limitations of my knowledge. There are things that I know about Thai cooking and things that I know about Chinese cooking, but I am not a Thai or Chinese cook. I am not Thai or Chinese and so there are elements of those cuisines, cultures and foodways that I don’t understand and probably never can understand.

I am cautious about criticizing restaurants and criticizing chefs for making dishes in a way that is not necessarily interesting to my palate when that food might be interesting to someone with a very different background. When I write about a dish, I am very careful to write about the things that I think didn’t go well with the dish or did go well. I don’t just say in a gestalt, impressionistic sense, “Eh! I didn’t like this!” I never say that. What I say is something was overcooked or under-seasoned or too greasy or didn’t have enough acid.

I also do a lot of reading about the foods and the restaurants that I write about.

And I really do make an effort to cover lots of different kinds of restaurants and lots of different kinds of cuisines and different kinds of chefs. There are lots and lots of terrific Thai places and an increasing number of Mexican restaurants. There are restaurants that are attempting to introduce new flavors to a state that hasn’t always had a lot of space for those. Just by writing about some of these places, it honors their efforts.

I write about restaurants from my perspective, which is the only perspective I have.


Q: I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned how well-travelled you are.

A: Readers probably don’t care that much that I have travelled a lot or that I’ve eaten Thai food in Thailand or Japanese food in Japan or Korean food in Korea, that sort of thing. I don’t think that matters too much to people. I don’t want to rely on that. I don’t want to rely on making claims to authority. When I write about a dish, if it’s going wrong, I write about why it’s going wrong in context.

Q: Do you ever bring someone along to a review meal who does know about that particular cuisine? And, extending that, what makes a good dining companion for a critic? 

A: I have done that occasionally. I do that where, first of all, the person is interested in going in the first place. I don’t want to call somebody up and say, “Hey, you happen to be Vietnamese. I’m going to a Vietnamese restaurant. Would you like to go to dinner?” That doesn’t feel right. I don’t want to reduce people to their ethnicity.

A good dining companion is someone who not only pays attention but is also is patient with me. Someone who understands that at some point in the meal I am going to take my phone out and take some notes and that I might seem distracted. But also someone who is willing to let me eat a little bit of what they have ordered, which is an important part of going out with me. I have to taste everything. And if people order a drink, then I have to taste the drink, so someone who is not too squeamish about that.

Q: Do you tell your guests what to order?


A: I don’t. I let everybody else order first, and I order last to fill in the gaps. I always say, “Order whatever you want,” because I really do believe that if something is on the menu, then it’s eligible for critique. What I don’t allow people to do is add on a ton of extras. So if we were ordering waffles at Waffle House, I would not allow a dining companion to order them smothered and covered. I’d want to taste the waffle itself.

Q: You always try to talk to the chefs or restaurant owners before you write the review. Why?

A: I do a lot of fact-checking during those conversations; it’s my opportunity to get a detail right that I might have missed. People will also tell me about methods of cooking things, which sometimes you’ll discover are the clue you need to know to understand why something went well or didn’t go well. I learn a lot about the methods and the ingredients when I am having those conversations. I don’t just magically arrive to a meal with the ability to dissect how somebody did everything. I can often figure something out because I cook so much. But there are things that are a complete mystery, and I won’t know those things unless I ask.

I also think the human story behind a restaurant coming to life is really interesting. I ask a particular question at the end of every interview, and it is almost always the best question I ask. I ask if there is something people misunderstand about their restaurant. It’s almost always a window into some struggle the restaurant is having.

I find those conversations invaluable. The conversations are frustrating sometimes for the chefs. I’ve had conversations that have been lively and fun and then later on when the review comes out, those same people get angry at me because we had such a friendly conversation, and I wrote a review that was mixed. They can sometimes take that personally.

Q: Eight years in as the Press Herald restaurant critic, are you recognized? Does that change the experience?


A: There are a few places that know what I look like. But I am not that unusual-looking. It wouldn’t be easy to say, “Oh he’s the one with the big parakeet tattoo.” When I go into a place, nine times out of 10, I am sure that they have absolutely no idea who I am.

I don’t think it makes too much of a difference, to be honest, with most places. When I come in, they can do everything they can to impress me on the spur of the moment, but generally that only amounts to a couple of things: They can give me a larger pour of wine. But the wine doesn’t change. They can give me a nicer cut of meat. But the basics of what they do, those don’t change. So at some level it doesn’t matter too much if they know that I am in the restaurant.

Q: Why do you write so much about design?

A: The first thing you notice when you walk in the room is what a place looks like and how it makes you feel. There are hundreds of thousands of dollars that go into creating that atmosphere, and some places it’s more money than that. There are some places you probably wouldn’t even think to visit if it weren’t for the design and the atmosphere of the place, if you think about a place like Tuscan Table. It benefits from a designer who understands how to turn this big box space into something gorgeous.

There is also a relationship often between the design of a restaurant and the food they are serving, or the drinks they are serving and sometimes even the service. I think of a place like Broken Arrow, the whole Americana vibe. It goes along well with what they are trying to do. And it’s very intentional.

Covering design is an important element. We cover service, atmosphere and food and drink. All three of those elements are important to talk about.


Q: What about a place like Schulte & Herr. They can’t have spent hundreds of thousands on their design, yet you gave the restaurant 4 stars.

A: You know Schulte & Herr gets a lot of mileage out of being very homey. That place feels like someone’s house, like you are visiting someone for a casual and very delicious German meal. That understated design and vibe fits very well with what they are trying to do.

Q: As someone who eats out a lot, what are your thoughts about tipping?

A: We are at a point where you have to tip at least 20 percent minimum. It’s just not even a question anymore. I don’t think the tipping economy is healthy for the longevity of the restaurant industry. But restaurants got by for quite a long time relying on dirt-cheap labor that it got through tipped workers. What’s very likely to happen, and I hope it happens sooner rather than later, is that we get rid of the whole tipped wage system and maybe we’ll end up in a much better place.

We’ve been on the cusp of this for a while. Everybody hates it. Well, not everybody hates it. Exploitative restaurant owners and tipped workers who are working in the expensive or the high-volume places, they don’t hate it. But everybody else hates it.

Q: You shocked me last week when you described Central Provisions to me as “a little old-fashioned.” OMG!, I thought to myself. Only a moment ago, it seems, the buzziest restaurant! The cutting edge! 


Q: It’s true. It’s become part of the old guard now. Central Provisions was at the vanguard for a while. Since then, it’s been subsumed into the whole restaurant context here, and people do think of it as a little bit old school for Portland, but also still incredibly good.

It’s like Fore Street. I went three or four months ago. And it was a fantastic meal. It was good from beginning to end. Every element, every aspect of the meal was terrific. So just because a restaurant is a little bit old-school doesn’t mean anything negative about it. Fore Street manages to get everything right all at the same time, and it continues to do so 30 years, almost, since it opened. With regards to stars, the place where I’ve come closest to having another five-star meal is Fore Street.

Q: Last question: Is eating out still fun?  

A: (Laughs) It is. It’s more of a challenge than it used to be, for everybody. It’s more of a challenge for diners. It’s more of a challenge for the people running the restaurants. Our pre-pandemic expectations haven’t caught up with the realities of the situation now. It’s easier to get disappointed now.

I still look forward to going out every week. I look forward to compiling my Best 75 at the end of every year, thinking about how things have changed, and what’s evolved and what’s new on the scene and what interesting ideas people have. There is still so much creativity here and so many people who are willing to put themselves out into the world. It’s something we ought to reward, that willingness to take risks and to provide people with exciting, new, interesting experiences and exciting, new interesting food, and it’s still happening. I love that about this place.

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