City Pages Wine & Dine supplement ran into a little snafu recently when its wine writer, freelancer John Glas, asked the 10 finalists for best wine bar to provide him with free food and wine for evaluation so he could consider them for the top 5 list.
Not everyone was happy to get the note, including the one who passed along Glas' memo to the Star Tribune. The Association of Food Journalists addresses this issue in its code of ethics for restaurant reviewers. These are the standards that most restaurant reviewers of the mainstream media follow, as does the Star Tribune. The quick version: pay for food, review anonymously, make multiple visits.
Matt Smith, managing editor at City Pages, noted later in an e-mail exchange with me that the request for free food/wine was done without his knowledge. He shut down the process after a couple wine-bar owners had contacted Rachel Hutton, the weekly-newspaper's restaurant critic, and him to complain about the letter, though by that time John had already evaluated several wine bars in this way.
Matt noted in his e-mail: "John is a wine expert and does frequent posts for our Hot Dish blog, but he's not a professional writer and certainly not a trained journalist. I think he honestly thought that, with a limited budget, that was the best way to tackle the story. My fault, I guess, for assuming most people understood how reviews are done and for not explaining the assignment carefully enough. In any case, it is definitely NOT our policy to ask for free food, and we put a stop to it when we found out. Our writers are supposed to review anonymously and pay for their meals."
Lenny Russo, chef/owner of Heartland restaurant in St. Paul, was one of those who received a note from Glas. He was emphatic when he declined the offer. "I don't give away free food," he told me later.
In this new frontier, with anyone with an appetite blogging, it's surprising that more restaurants don't take that stance.
This is the letter that prompted the complaint, in the manner in which it was sent (boldface and underlining are from the original):