The Journal has a policy of not reviewing restaurants, and the reasoning for this is explained at length in the second half of this article; readers are welcome to review the opinion of other local residents who have eaten at The Brick House. (Click here to read letters/reviews)
The review of The Brick House in The Bergen Record elicited a strong debate, and it was decided that the situation should be investigated. The Journal sent an undercover reporter to The Brick House in Wyckoff with twenty dollars and strict instructions not to violate policy by reviewing any food. The reporter’s credentials consisted of being a former DINK who lived in Manhattan for fifteen years. DINK is an acronym for Double Income No Kids, and these couples are notorious for spending their money in restaurants and chattering about the quality of the food, the drinks, and the ambiance. It was deemed these qualifications surpassed those of most food critics in the United States.
What follows is the reporter’s first hand narrative:
With only twenty dollars, I was tempted to by pass the valet parking in the hopes of saving that extra dollar which I knew was the minimum needed to get my car back. Seeking to preserve the integrity of the investigative report by not drawing attention to myself, I stopped and reluctantly handed over the keys. Intent on making the carhop earn his keep, I inquired as to the direction of the bar area hoping my tone of voice gave the impression I was meeting very important people to discuss important things.
The parking lot attendant provided me directions with exactness, and I strode into The Brick House with an air of authority. I took notice of the immense banquet area immediately to the right upon entering, and made a mental note of it should I ever win the lottery and wish to celebrate. Approaching the only area capable of sustaining me under the oppression of my twenty dollar budget, I glimpsed the inside of a medium sized dining room consumed by a party; I knew by the balloons that it was a private birthday bash I should not crash . Further down the hall I could see the main dining room where other people were eating, but ventured there only toward the end of the investigation.
Turning into the bar area, I was emotionally overwhelmed. The immediate response can only be described by those familiar with the television character Tubbs from Miami Vice, who upon his return to New York City utters the memorable line, “Ahhh, the core of civilization”. I too, was home again. Being a recent transplant from Manhattan to the FLOW area, I felt an immediate threat to my new incarnation as suburbanite dad -and my allegiance to the twenty dollar limit was also being severely threatened.
The bar is long, elegant, with a wave like design. This detail cried out that someone cares, someone said lets make this special so people do not feel like they are lined up like cattle. Someone cared about people with only twenty dollars. The time was approximately 6pm on a Monday evening. Two other men were eating dinner at the bar, and I attempted not to ogle their food too much as my wandering eye might be misinterpreted. I had to forgo conversation with anyone eating food, as I am strong but not a saint, and food for the soul is not just a metaphorical term for me.
The main bar is augmented by a fairly large table area where patrons can either just drink or also dine. A large group of young men occupied a table and appeared only to be drinking. I hated them, their disposable income, their freedom and only wished they had invited me over to join them. Two other couples sat at different tables drinking and eating, but the spaciousness of the room, and my lack of spectacles, prevented me from discerning whether they were sharing appetizers or just very much in love over their entrees. Other small groups, apparently friends or colleagues, appeared to be meeting after work or for pre-dinner cocktails
Uninterested in the images displayed on the flatscreen televisions, I engaged the bartender in a little banter. My brief experience as a bartender, and my lackluster enthusiasm for the position, has made me sensitive to the personality and skills required for the profession. The bartender on duty that night was extremely polished in appearance, so I held little hope for any entertaining distraction in the conversation department. It was a pleasant surprise to find an engaging, intelligent and witty persona under the formality of appearance. Although our conversation was occasionally interrupted as he kept a close eye on the needs of the other patrons, I felt welcomed, accepted and entertained. The twenty dollar budget was already becoming less a challenge and more a nuisance, and it required strong willpower to maintain fidelity to my assigned task. I nursed my draft beer and continued my investigation.
The other area which would allow for some interaction was the cigar bar which I describe as being “underground”. I have not experienced anything like it in suburbia. If the upper bar was the core of civilization, then the lower bar was sin city. I am a couple of generations removed from the era of prohibition, but my impression is that the inconvenience of the law also led an element of excitement in social drinking; the taboo nature of alcohol now being assumed by having a cigar or a cigarette indoors. The scandalous nature of such an opportunity made me giddy. Knowing in advance of the cigar bar’s existence, and the financial parameters set by the editors, I procured a cigar prior to my arrival. I lit the foul product, indoors, in public, and felt a crown upon my head. I was king of the castle.
The bartender in the lower levels was not of the Barbershop Quartet type that I enjoyed upstairs, but instead was of Costa Rican extraction. The difference in skill or personality was non-existent. Nursing my tap beer, I had great fun discussing the trials and tribulations of child rearing, the variances in Caribbean travel, and the offerings of local food establishments. The other denizens of the cigar bar were engrossed in their own conversations, but soon welcomed my participation in conversation ranging from politics, to sports to film. Other patrons of a more artsy type looked on with amusement at our jocularity, but were obviously engaged in more high brow discussions.
With great sadness I informed the bartender that I needed to settle my bill and go home. While making the transaction he asked if I wished to see a menu, and feeling it my obligation as a reporter I agreed to review the offerings. I studied the document, and the astute bartender could read the longing in my eyes and suggested I could order just an appetizer if I wanted. Trying to maintain my cover, I demurred saying my wife would surely be upset if I were to have appetizers at The Brick House without her. His reply was that no one would know, which was followed by explosive laughter from both of us. It is the truth in humor that makes us laugh, and it was obvious that it was not twenty dollars stopping me at this point–poo-poo on your twenty dollars, dear Editors– it was the reality that it was something I would want to share with my wife, not necessarily the kids.
I felt it necessary to peak in the main dining room before leaving. It was a mix of generations. Lucky couples were dining alone, others had children who could go potty by themselves– a milestone greater than any school graduation– and a table full of people near retirement age. They looked so happy, so free, their children grown, time to enjoy their own lives; my future looked good.
Remembering the obligations to my editors, I quickly gave the dining area the once over, side to side, so as to report back properly. It was reminiscent of restaurants I’ve been to in Boston. They are often hidden away in one of Bean Town’s many historic buildings, and they cater mostly to a clientele that is somewhat aristocratic. It brought back memories of corporate expense accounts and days when money meant nothing and the experience was everything. The openness of the space preserves the integrity of the architecture. The building itself defines the space rather than a contemporary designer.
The Brick House is an attractive seductress. Even though there were people upstairs enjoying a solitary dinner at the bar, and I envied that experience, I was a different person now; I had to get home by 8pm. But the budgeted twenty dollars had given me more than a few beers, it gave me back memories of opulence glazed with the urbane sophistication that says we are all the same. Alas, I stuck it back in my pants, my final dollar, and began my journey home.
I had three beers and left appropriate tips, and I believe I stayed under budget. I may have spent twenty one dollars, but by the time I left I didn’t care. My advice is people must experience The Brick House themselves, lest their destiny be controlled by paupers engaged by publishers.
The Role of Food Critic for Publisher and Public
In 1951, Bruce S. Hopping of New Jersey was arrested for his role as food critic. The institution he was criticizing was the United States Navy and, as he was a yeoman at the time, it was the Navy’s prerogative to arrest him and threaten him with court martial. It did not matter that his criticism arose out of hundreds of sailors regularly reporting to the infirmary, and it goes to show to what extremes an institution will go to protect it’s reputation.
Although no one reported getting sick at The Brick House, a two page review in the Bergen Record, which also published it as a lead story in its online edition, has led to a heated local debate on the fairness of the review. Many letters attesting to the quality of food and service have been sent to both the Bergen Record and The Journal.
The Oakland Journal does not write restaurant reviews, but it will publish reviews submitted by contributors; it will not publish reviews overly critical. This policy is based on the reality that restaurant reviews are considered entertainment by newspapers, and in the words of the famous London Times Critic A.A. Gill, “It’s my job to sell newspapers and to entertain and perhaps inform my readers”. The well known Canadian critic, Joanne Kates, explains, “I write to entertain myself. If people don’t like it, they don’t have to read me.” More locally. the integrity of reviews is brought into question when one considers the opinion of Abe Rosenthal, former publisher of the New York Times, who was known for jibing his food critics by saying the newspaper made more money off a bad review than a good one.
Most food critics throughout the country have no training in the culinary arts and have never worked in the food industry. In other areas of art or matters of culture, people assume a critic holds some expertise in their field. There are certain incongruities in this practice as an art critic cannot close a gallery, nor a theater critic close a playhouse, but the restaurant critic can potentially close a restaurant. The legendary great food critics such as New York’s Craig Clairbourne and Philadelphia’s Elaine Tait offered critical reviews in a manner that earned the respect not only of readers but of many restaurateurs.
Food critics in newspapers face stiff competition from the growing breed of reviewers on blogs and forums. There are many resources available on the Internet where people can find reviews that reflect a variety of experiences and palates. As “professional” food critics rarely have any formal training, accessing a broader base of knowledge is usually more helpful and informative for diners seeking assistance in where to spend their dollars. The quality of these reviews, like those in newspapers, vary; but the tone and balance of the writing is often a good indication as to the quality of the review.
An innovative approach is being taken by the other major daily available in New Jersey, The Star Ledger, in their online edition. Besides original content, there is wider coverage provided by the use of links to other reviews. It also offers the opportunity to see food critics battle it out as the column occasionally reviews other reviewers.
Overly critical reviews that impact local businesses, local economies, and threaten the existence of jobs should be written by a person with the experience, maturity and skill required to report on the culinary arts in a responsible fashion. Should a food critic with appropriate credentials and skills wish to work pro bono, The Journal may reconsider it’s policy.