It’s not really even an office. There’s a computer, yes. A swivel chair, sure. But the wall is adorned with clipboards, not university degrees. The desk is littered with a hundred receipts, not paper weights. The guys hovering over your shoulder, with their full-sleeve tattoos, sporting the delicious stench of garlic and duck fat, aren’t exactly corporate material, either. And it’s not office hours. It’s midnight. Honestly, it’s amazing this tiny computer we’re all glaring at hasn’t crashed. Because I’ve hit refresh every five seconds over the last hour.
These are the moments of our lives. ... At least our restaurant lives.
From the moment a restaurant opens its doors, we know it’s coming. The review. That few fortnights can turn a year’s hard work into a dream or a nightmare. It can end in champagne toasts or tears. It can secure people’s jobs. Or it can get people terminated ... quickly.
Will they give us a few weeks to get going? Will we identify them when they do arrive?
We know one of them has a French accent. The byproduct: Every French-speaking guest is royalty. One critic looks kind of like Jerry Springer, or so we’re told. So there’s now a picture of Jerry Springer on the wait station. The guy who goes to print first always dines with his boyfriend. All gay men are now PPX (restaurant terminology for VIP). There’s a new critic who we know little about, except she’s a New Yorker with a British accent, and may be African-American. She may be married to a chef, too, so we’ll identify every industry person in the restaurant. Of course, many of them have kids of varying ages, so we’re on the lookout for children with high dining IQs. If they carry cameras. If they’re writing in discreet moleskins. Please alert us. But don’t freak out!
Of course, it’s silly. So we use the cliché “everyone’s a critic.” And of course that’s true. Until we actually catch a live one.
And often we do. The best server is pulled from her station. The sous chef is going behind the line. Interns get kicked out, brutally. Where’s that reserve wine list? Someone call the executive chef in. It’s Monday night, his only night off and he’s watching his Mets at the Ted, but he needs to know. The world is ending. Or so it seems.
Sometimes there are false alarms. That actually was Jerry Springer! And as we total the visits we think we’ve captured, we realize we’ve missed a few. No critic would write based on one experience, right? I really, really hope that our one server who IS an actual idiot didn’t wait on her. Was it the day Manuel was on the fry station? Was it last Tuesday when we had to 86 three items? Most likely, as it always is, yes to all of the above.
Then there’s the phone call. The official one. The one where you just pray that the new girl answering the phone actually remembers the chef's name. The one, where the kitchen prays that the GM doesn’t spiel about us being “just a simple neighborhood restaurant.” It’s an important call. If you can articulate the vision, there’s even the chance to win back a star. Sound unsure and there’s a good chance of losing one.
Then the photographer visits. You’ll try to pry information, but he doesn’t know the content of the piece. You rationalize that more photos means a better review. You don’t see too many pictures with the caption “Hey! Don’t order this, it blows.”
There is no more kitchen conversation about baseball, or music, or current events. No one cares about what happened at MJQ on Wednesday. Every cook’s home life is a stressful mess. Could we get four? Probably three. Two? No way. I’m moving if it’s two!
The restaurant reviewed the week prior gets three stars. Everyone debates that we have to get four then, because we all agree that place sucks. Half the cooks have decided not to shave until we get four stars. The chef is worried if it’s bad he'll lose some of his staff. If it’s great he’ll lose some of his staff. Everyone prepares for the worst, and the typical Atlanta industry rallying cry finally emerges. “Well, I hope it’s not four stars, because this town doesn’t support four stars. It’s bad for business.” Whatever, even if it’s true. Whatever.
And it is revealed. And now we all have tattoos. Virtual ones.