The Inner Workings of a Restaurant Reviewer
By Sue Todd
For a foodie, a dream job must involve eating. Bonafide foodie Mara Severin has a dream job. A restaurant reviewer for Alaska Dispatch News for almost five years, Severin is living the dream. She visits restaurants and eats.
In the food world, there are two types of people. There are those who live to eat (Mara) and those who eat to live. Mara loves food and wants to celebrate it. Ironically, her husband eats to live. She described it this way.
“We might be at Squid Balls R Us,” Severin said, “and he’ll order the hamburger. But that allows me to try a restaurant’s more mainstream options while I get to order the most outlandish thing on the menu.”
There are struggles. For example, photos of dishes are required for her reviews. It is not uncommon that several bites into a dish, she realizes she forgot to take a picture. It is fortunate that one of her talents is reconstructing a partially eaten plate to make it photo worthy, a skill she has been developing for nearly five years.
Once her research is complete, the writing begins. An English graduate of Columbia University, Mara is quite the wordsmith. Her ability to describe food is mouthwatering. For example, she describes the dumplings at a Korean restaurant as “slippery, plump little pillows with a meaty, savory filling.”
She often uses self-deprecating humor. Recounting a muffin experience, she writes, “The muffins were perfect — lightly sweet and not too dry. But let’s face it, I would cheerfully eat Styrofoam packing peanuts if they were served with honey butter.”
She roots for every restaurant she reviews, because she likes to eat good food and she wants people to succeed. She knows the food business is risky, and people open their doors to serve because it is what they love to do. When they succeed, she told me, they have created a place you want to be, and it is a relationship.
If Severin writes a less than stellar review, she is very specific about what she found lacking and gives only constructive criticism. She readily admits if it involves her own taste palate and preference in restaurant styles. It could be that something she personally dislikes is something her readers love.
“I want the restaurant to know why I write what I write,” Severin said.
Even when a place does not meet all her standards of excellence, she finds what does. She rarely writes about the service unless it is outstanding or beyond bad, because a server is at the mercy of the rest of the operation. In most cases, it is hard to pinpoint a problem.
Severin told me folks have commented that she only writes positive reviews. Well, yes and no. The places she reviews have been recommended to her. So it is not surprising that they have something going for them. Plus, she tends to avoid reviewing restaurants that she may be biased against. Occasionally, when she has to review a place that is not to her taste, she will share takeout dishes with others and use their opinions, always with full disclosure that she has done so.
Severin tries to work anonymously, and most of the time she does. Restaurants are usually very happy to be noticed. Some are able to work it backwards to find out who reviewed them, based on foods mentioned. Sometimes, though, a restaurant is caught unaware after a good review.
In Anchorage, one pie shop ran out of pies before noon the day after a rave review. A sandwich shop got slammed following Mara’s rare five-star rating. Her loyal following trust her reviews, and a good review might send a crowd rushing in. It sounds like a good problem, but it can upend a small operation.
Some of the most fun and informative reviews she has written have been her roundups. A roundup is a sampling of the same thing from different restaurants. She has done several. Finding the best Bloody Mary, the classic chicken wing, the most perfectly prepared eggs benedict, or the most authentic French dip takes research and time and usually a few friends to help.
There are only so many meals consumed in a week, and as in the case of the chicken wings, there were 12 locations involved. Most recently, she did a food truck/brewery dining guide in Anchorage. In the future, she is looking forward to doing an overview of restaurants in both Girdwood and Hope, as the seasons allow.
When asked if she felt her approach was different from other food writers, she was quick to say small town reviewing is very different from the big city. She grew up on the East Coast and spent time living in New York City. According to Severin, everyone there is a food critic. New York living involves so much restaurant dining, and there is huge competition. A patron’s mere selection of a restaurant on a street with so many options is a positive review.
Here in Alaska, people are down to earth, she says. They want to wear their Carharts and XtraTufs while enjoying a fine dining experience. There is very little snobbery but much appreciation for good food. It makes reviewing fun.
Just out of curiosity, I asked her what was her favorite food. She had a hard time narrowing it down. Remember, she lives to eat. At the top of the list was pasta in any way shape or form, along with the perfectly constructed sandwich. In fact, the mention of these two favorites sent Mara on a daydream about pasta sandwiches. The best of both worlds, I believe she said.
You can follow Mara Severin in Alaska Dispatch News every other Friday or online at www.adn.com. If you have a favorite place that you would like her to review, she is open to suggestions. A good review from Mara is not bad for business.