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Phil Vettel on 25 years as a dining critic

and Contact Reporter
Phil Vettel reflects on 25 years as the Tribune's dining critic.

As of this month, I have been the Tribune's restaurant critic for 25 years. A quarter-century.

When I filed my first Tribune review, the best restaurant in the area was Le Francais, although a 2-year-old restaurant called Charlie Trotter's was gathering a lot of attention. Topolobampo, Rick Bayless' fine-dining Mexican restaurant, was a few weeks away from opening.

Top-rated (three stars or more) restaurants then, that are no longer around now, included Alouette, Ambria, Cafe Provencal, The Cottage, Jimmy's Place, La Boheme, La Tour, Le Titi de Paris, Les Plumes, Printer's Row, the Ritz-Carlton Dining Room, Terczak's and 302 West. And I got to eat at them all.

I was introduced as the Tribune's new critic in a special dining section; we staged a photo of me, served by a quartet of tuxedoed waiters, in Everest restaurant, without telling the restaurant why we were taking the photo.

(Fun fact: The lobster dish, second from the left, contains only shell, no lobster. Chef Jean Joho devised the sneaky presentation.)

My very first Tribune review was of Gordon, which was 12 years old at the time and considered one of Chicago's absolute best restaurants. I chose that restaurant deliberately. In 1989 just about every fine-dining aficionado had been to Gordon; I reasoned that by weighing in on a well-known restaurant, I'd give readers an opportunity to weigh my observations against their experiences.

I gave Gordon a three-star review, praising then-chef Ron Blazek for his charred lamb loin with minted couscous and veal with barbecued sweetbreads and yawning at the undistinguished shellfish ravioli. I made a point of how owner Gordon Sinclair kept his restaurant on an even keel throughout numerous chef changes. I noted the artichoke fritters and flourless chocolate cake, signature dishes that never left Gordon's menu.

The review was a little raw, but not the worst thing to reread today. Reaction from readers was heartfelt:

"What have you done?" penned one fan to my editor. "Have you realized, as your readers have, that you made a bad mistake? He (me) thinks a wok is something you thwow at a wabbit!"

"Put Mr. Pettel (sic) back writing other feature stories," suggested another. "He's good at that, but he's strictly a McDonald's hamburger guy."

And from a nice lady named Irene: "Who ever thought that just because a person knows how to write, he could be a restaurant critic?"

At least she thought I could write.

There were others, but those were the ones I saved. They keep me humble. Happily, the editors at the Tribune had my back, to use a phrase that nobody knew in 1989, and I was allowed to stick around.

Back then, of course, people who wanted to send a snarky note needed pen, paper, envelope and a stamp; I get my reader feedback a lot faster now. I'd sometimes wait three months before reviewing a new restaurant; now there are bloggers and Yelpers who throw in their two cents on opening night. I'm torn as to whether these are bad things. On the one hand, it's very difficult, and maybe manifestly unfair, to take the measure of a restaurant on the first night, based on just one meal. On the other, restaurants don't have to wait weeks or months to be discovered, as was the case not so terribly long ago.

Some parts of my job are easier now. Once upon a time, I would acquire restaurant menus by stealing them; this was no easy feat in the days of heavy, stiff-back menu covers. At one place, I swiped the entire menu, cover and all, by stuffing it down the back of my pants, under my jacket. Did wonders for my posture. Now restaurants print fresh menus every day and are happy to let you keep them, and most restaurants post their menus online anyway. All of which is extremely useful but does take some of the romance out of it.

This is the point at which essays like these reveal some universal truth that the writer has discovered over the years. I'm not doing that because, one, I'm still waiting for that grand epiphany, and, two, I'm not going anywhere. I'm not ready for that big look backward just yet.

But, 25 years.

I started this gig when there were only two or three restaurant critics in Chicago; thanks to the Internet, the phrase "everybody's a critic" has never been more true. But that reality keeps me on my toes, I think. It makes the job more fun.

Back to that Gordon review. Among the nice things I said about the restaurant was that Gordon, "has aged ever so gracefully, without losing its sense of humor or its capacity to surprise and delight."

May that be true of all of us, eventually.

pvettel@tribune.com

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