It’s hard not to name names or point fingers during Maine Restaurant Week.
Sure, brand recognition is great for Marketing 101 awareness-building, but even the briefest mention is interpreted as a micro-review. So I’ll say (as I have in the past) that straight-up reviews are not my thing. Especially during the 12 days of Restaurant Week.
There was a time when I made decent side-hustle money doing restaurant reviews. But they haunted me. I had too much insider perspective and a tendency to overanalyze. If the service was slow, I wanted to ask if a food runner called in sick or if the kitchen was in a funk. When a wine vintage was misrepresented on a daily list, it irked me. After recently ordering a 2013 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon with BFF, we were poured a replacement imposter and I found it irks me still.
No matter what, it’s not snobby to want what you order. How hard is it to put a tasteful disclaimer on the bottom of the list stating: “Not all vintages may be as depicted and sorry for the inconvenience?” Most diners are reasonable, but they don’t want to have to understand the wine distributor (insert several names here) may be out of stock, or the bar manager screwed up the inventory or a party of eight ordered four coveted bottles of the requested pour.
These complicated nuances are part of what makes the restaurant business an art form, and hard to review from the inside out. A fellow server described it to me perfectly:
“When I read the review about … it was as if food fusions of God-knows-what met the Emperor’s New Clothes. What on earth was … talking about? It’s sad when people think they’re going to love a place and leave feeling slightly misled or doubting their own senses. Same power of influence when a restaurant is brilliant, but the reviewer ripped it a new one based on a few off visits. We forget reviews are just educated opinions.”
Opinions aside, Maine Restaurant Week is a welcomed event. It signifies spring is on the way, encourages diners to try new places, and with multiple set courses allows those waffling on New Year’s resolutions to have dessert. I reached out to friends in the trenches regarding restaurant week dining, and here’s what they served up.
M.L., career everything having to do with the front-of-house: “I don’t know what the hell I have to say about RW, dude. Two of them seem like a value to me: MK Kitchen (in Gorham) and Wilson County Barbecue (Portland.) Love that the latter is actually offering a choice of regular menu items at the low price point. Emilitsa could be compelling but they list nothing so I won’t go. And Eighteen95 (in the Portland Regency Hotel)? I wouldn’t know what or where that was had I not looked at the RW offering. They’ve got stuff I might want. The most shocking to me is Elsmere BBQ and Wood Grill (Portland and South Portland.) Smoked meats at $35? Their app/drink add-on special for $17 gets another whaaaaaaatever from me. In all honesty, I’ll do what I’ve done the last five years and visit the establishments where I don’t have to compete with restaurant weekend going on. I’m such a malcontent.”
A.G., career bar manager: “I always struggle with legitimate value. I know everyone is out to make money, but I’ve broken down components on one menu in particular and found it would be less to order individually off the regular menu. That’s just wrong.”
D.L., full-time at Portland’s very best fancy restaurant: “Where I work, we don’t do restaurant week as our menu changes daily. Come in for a cosmo.”
T.M, bar manager: “My friends and I play tourist and try to cram in as many meals as we can somewhere else. This weekend, we’re going to Camden and staying and eating at the Hartstone Inn. Oh, look at their pan-crisped gnocchi with tiger shrimp, sweet peppers and grilled eggplant. We made reservations and are going to Natalie’s at Camden Harbor Inn. I request the time off when I could be making money. I don’t think I’d enjoy it as much if we stayed in Portland. You get it, I’d know everybody and couldn’t relax.”
Many other Dansko-rocking cohorts promised to name names and voice opinions about their own meals when the 12-day week is over. Being tasked with reporting off-the-clock will be challenging for others with an insider’s eye. But sharing what they bring to our Leftovers table will be tasty, for sure.
Until then, I’m going to take up D.L. on that cosmo. And to all of you, Maine Restaurant Week or not, enjoy your meal.
Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at [email protected].