Retired food critic talks about changes in Arizona restaurant industry
BULLHEAD CITY — Howard Seftel became a restaurant critic the old-fashioned way: by visiting nearly every restaurant he could.
“I estimate that I ate about five or six thousand meals in different restaurants throughout my career,” said Seftel during a presentation Wednesday at Mohave Community College. “I truly believe that the most important part of restaurant reviewing is for the critic to be anonymous because I’m writing for people who are deciding where to spend their money. If I’m getting special treatment, I know that a person going to the same restaurant won’t receive the same treatment I just had. So I would make reservations in a phony name, I had credit cards with a phony name, I made no public appearances. So yes, I did sit next to a lot of bathrooms and I did have a lot of bad servers.
“But, I had a real genuine experience that I could tell readers about.”
Seftel retired after a long career writing as restaurant critic for the Arizona Republic and Phoenix New Times. On Wednesday, his presentation, “You Are Where You Eat: How dining out defines Arizona,” followed his career and how the restaurant scene has changed over time in the country in general and Arizona in particular.
Seftel spent three years in Africa in the Peace Corps after college. He was teaching in Los Angeles a short time later when, in 1990, his wife got a job in Arizona, prompting the couple to move east one state.
He said he picked up a copy of the Phoenix New Times and saw an ad seeking a restaurant critic.
“Back then, to be a restaurant critic meant I needed to travel, eat food and write,” said Seftel. “Today all you practically need is an internet connection and a device to write on. So when I first started, my single biggest concern was finding 52 restaurants to review because Phoenix and, for that matter, Arizona was a food desert. I reviewed everything from restaurants to bakeries, food courts and sandwich shops.”
At first, he said, it was tough to write for a mass audience “since people were just beginning to learn about food and I had to always think about if I needed to define something or not.
“However, over the years and before I retired, I would write the same way I would if I was in New York or Los Angeles.”
Seftel said there were a couple of reasons that pushed the United States to become a restaurant society.
The first reason was that after World War II, the U.S. economy boomed, with more people willing to spend money eating out. Another factor was airline travel that became common and affordable for the general public.
“Travel meant that what was once unfamiliar was familiar,” said Seftel. “That meant that people could travel to the Tower of Pisa and taste risotto or see the Eiffel Tower and taste beef bourguignon.”
The third reason was immigration during the mid-1960s.
“This led to more people coming from different countries and they brought their food with them,” said Seftel. “There were also people fleeing from their countries and they were bringing their food as well.”
In his mind, though, the biggest reason for the transformation to a restaurant society was the influx of women joining the workforce.
“As you know, the men were all fighting in the war and the women were in the factories working,” said Seftel. “At the end of the war, the women were kicked out of the workforce to make room for the returning soldiers. But by the late ’60s, women are back in the workforce and they are getting home at the same time as their husbands. So since neither had time to do the cooking or the shopping for food, this was probably the biggest reason why the society turned to dine out.”
During the course of his career, Seftel said, he had to overcome a couple of obstacles to be a great critic.
“I had to overcome my own prejudices,” he said. “I like all foods but I really like some certain foods so I had to be aware of that. I also learned how to separate the social factor, so in other words, separating the food and the kind of time I’m having at the restaurant. I could go to the restaurant and have a great time but the food was just fine and conversely, I could go to the restaurant and the food was fabulous but my time there was just not the best.”
Jokingly, Seftel stated that the best advice he could give to anyone wanting to open a restaurant is to lie down and let the feeling slip away.
“In the restaurant business, you will be dealing with the most demanding customers on earth, your fellow Americans,” he said. “The problem is that everyone feels entitled to have it their own way. Almost everyone has issues: Is the chicken free-range, is the salmon farmed, is the pasta gluten free ...”
Seftel concluded his presentation with pet peeves he has with the food industry and patrons as well.
His number one pet peeve is people looking at their cellphone while dining out with their family or friends. The second is people taking photos of their food and his third and final pet peeve is internet review sites.
“I once wrote that Yelp and Trip Advisor weren’t worth the paper that they weren’t printed on and the reaction was entirely predictable,” said Seftel. “I was a snobby elitist that was worried I would be out of a job because the wisdom of the crowd made me superfluous. To this, I say that everyone is entitled to their opinion but the thing is that not everyone has an informed opinion.”