Like it or not, John Golden is the most powerful man in Maine food writing. He took over as the Maine Sunday Telegram restaurant critic in November, replacing the two critic tag team the paper previously employed. He has a "day job" as a partner in a real estate firm, but also writes three posts per week for his long-running Golden Dish blog that's hosted by the Press Herald (previously, it ran on Down East magazine's website). Before moving to Maine and becoming a fixture on the dining scene, he lived in New York City, writing for a number of publications there.
Golden's verbosity and reviews are a subject of frequent, at times uncivil, discussion in the comments on this site. He recently agreed to sit down with Eater to talk about his review methods, writing style and what the hell he was doing with that Vinland first look.
How many times do you eat out per week?
I always eat out on Monday and Tuesday. Monday for the restaurant review and Tuesday for the blog, or back and forth. Sometimes I'll even go as late as Wednesday. I need to go and leave time in case I need a second visit. I probably go out two other times -- so usually four times a week for dinner. I eat out for lunch almost everyday.
How do you chose the restaurants for review?
I try to chose those that haven't been written about in a long time. Obviously, there's the new ones. I don't write about them in a review until they've been around at least two months. I'll do my first look on the blog, but you have to give them some time. Some of it is what I'm in the mood for. This past month, I've been doing inexpensive places. That's been fun but I can't wait to go to good restaurants again.
I've been asked why I don't go to different areas outside of Portland. The weather has just been so terrible. I'm not about to drive up to Gardiner in a snowstorm. But I will. I want to. The spring and summer, after mud season, I'll be traveling.
In Portland especially, you're pretty well known and recognizable. Does that make anonymity difficult?
I disagree with that. There are a handful of restaurants and owners who I've known for years. I wrote about them, like Five Fifty-Five, Back Bay Grill and Fore Street, 10 years ago when they opened . They know me. But if I went into Walter's, for instance, I don't know anybody. The front desk won't know me. Some might recognize me from my picture, but it's not the usual thing. And the whole anonymity thing is way overblown. If a restaurant knew I was coming in beforehand, that's one thing. But they don't. And what are they going to do? Redecorate? Hire a new chef? It is what it's going to be.
As far as special treatment, if they try to send things out during reviews, I don't accept them. On the other hand, Craig Claiborne used to be feted all the time. It was for him to know what a chef can do -- how they've cooked and what their range was. In certain ways, it's not terrible to find out a chef's secret dishes and the extent of their skills. Do you necessarily write about it? No. Do you feel obliged to because you accept something? Not necessarily. I've been to restaurants where that's happened and I haven't enjoyed the food. I've sometimes said that.
So some restaurants will try to give you extra dishes?
No, they don't try to give me extra dishes. If I'm going in on a Thursday night for myself -- I'm not writing about it, don't intend to write about it -- and the chef knows me and says I'd love you to try my such-and-such, I will. That's different than sending out freebies. A chef will say, "I'd love for you to see what I've done with this, tell me what you think." That's part of being a critic. If you know about food, which I believe I do, there's nothing wrong with that. If it's in the review process, then it's wrong. You have to be as objective as you can. When something is bad, you say it's bad, and when something is fantastic, you go all over it with praise. Readers just want to know what your opinion is. If they respect what you have to say, they'll honor it. I think most people trust what I say. I get lots of emails that say, "You hit it right on the head. That's the same experience I had." I don't sugarcoat it. I get criticized a lot for the way I write, but so what?
Do you write your Sunday review and your blog posts for the same audience?
I give myself more leeway with the blog. By the blog's very nature, it's a personal thing. When all I had was the blog, I did it more like a traditional review process, but I was very opinionated. In the Sunday reviews, I'm as objective as I can be. You do have to write for a broader audience. That includes choice of language, which I've toned down enormously.
Portland's a food crazed town, but it's still a small community. Is it a lot different reviewing here than in New York or Boston?
Oh God yeah. I grew up in New York reading Craig Claiborne, Mimi Sheraton, Ruth Reichl, Seymour Britchky -- he was one of the meanest food writers, Jay Jacobs in Gourmet Magazine -- he was too piss-elegant sometimes. Those were great food writers. Claiborne was the most elegant. He certainly captured a restaurant. He concentrated on the top restaurants. He was very much an effete person. I knew him slightly in The Hamptons when I lived there. More contemporary ones like William Grimes -- he's great, Sam Sifton, Pete Wells. They all exerted their personality, which a lot of newspapers don't like. They want it in a third-person reporting style, but I think The Times has a different audience.
One of the criticisms of your predecessors at the Maine Sunday Telegram was that they were too nice in their reviews. Is it hard to write something harshly critical in a small town?
I don't think so. You have to say what you feel. I wasn't complimentary about Casa Novello. They used to be a great Italian-American restaurant but they aren't any more. I wrote about another Italian-American restaurant for Sunday (Siano's) that is very good and I praised it. Two stars is the lowest I've gone. I haven't had anything really bad yet. Some of the stars I award I'm on the fence with and I will often give the benefit of the doubt. If they're between two and a half and three, three and a half and four, I'll round up. You don't really need the stars -- I like the stars -- but you say so much in words that you should know from reading if it's great or not great.
You often base your reviews off multiple visits, where in the past the Maine Sunday Telegram has based reviews off a single visit. What's your reasoning for this?
The paper allows multiple visits if the first one wasn't good and you want to make sure it's not a one-off experience. I just think it's my responsibility to know exactly what I'm talking about. I've gone to most all of these established restaurants in the past so many times that I know them very well, what they can and cannot do. It's helpful not to go in blind. You need to go in more than once. I go first in my blog if they're new, then I go back with a basis for comparison. It's rare that you'd go the first time and have an extraordinary dinner, then go back and have a terrible dinner. Does it vacillate between a three-star and a five-star, or a four and a five? I guess it could. It's just important to know what you're writing about.
You had a little fun writing that Vinland first look, didn't you?
Yes. Iit was such an unusual experience and so heady. I wrote that in about 10 minutes, then went over it to fix spelling errors and typos. That was it. It just came out of me. I wrote it as soon as I got back. Maybe I had a few cocktails, but I was really turned on by it and thought, Let's have fun with this. I did it in a manner of what I thought the restaurant was -- over the top. So I was going to write an over-the-top critique. It was all purposeful. It was done in fun. The word choices were ridiculous sometimes, but they worked. I wasn't just picking words out of a hat. I wanted to make it very dramatic. What David Levi did was very dramatic. It was truly an unusual experience. He bases his cooking off of the so-called best restaurant in the world (Noma), so you'd think it'd be pretty good. I don't know if he could do a Chinese meal or cook Italian or make a classic French dish, but what he did, using only local stuff and his flavors -- it was over the top.
Did you watch Sean Wilkinson's dramatic reading of that review?
I did and I loved it! I absolutely loved it. I thought it was hysterical. Picking the Nordic scenery and all that stuff, it was great. That's what I did -- it was like a medieval blog. It was apropos given the event I just came from. Some of the Eater comments said, "It was classic Golden. That's the best review he's done in years." Then others said, "What the hell is he doing?" Those were all good comments. Some criticized my choice of language. Well, that's their problem as long as I use my words correctly. That's the way I normally write. I have to tone myself down a lot.
So you're not referencing a thesaurus a lot when writing these?
No, no. I just know the words, what can I tell you. I was an English major at Columbia University and I know a thing or two. My brother is a famous linguist, so I guess it just runs in the family.
What do you think of the negative reactions you sometimes elicit on blogs and social media?
The comments can get absurd. On the internet, people can hide behind anonymity and their true nature comes out. Whether they're mean, nice or whatever. I think the only thing people should be concerned about is the nature of my review: Has it done its job to tell the reader what this place is about?
Do you aim to be controversial?
When I'm in that mood, I can be controversial. I don't mind being controversial in many things that I do. I do temper it. I try to be straightforward in the Sunday reviews because it's to a much broader audience. The blog is a selective audience. Either they choose to read it or they don't. I have great pageviews, so I guess it's working. It's a lot of work, though. I do have a day job.
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[Photo: Ted Axelrod]