A simple act, a happy critic. —Stefanie Gans
My first year as a restaurant critic, Robert Sietsema, the former New York-based Village Voice critic who now writes for Eater, asked me out to dinner. Sietsema, (a distant cousin of Washington Post’s critic Tom Sietsema) is a well-fed man whose been exploring underground and ethnic restaurants for decades.
We dined at a Southern restaurant and during his short trip to the area, he planned on eating multiple dinners that night (which, abhorrently, is quite common in this industry). I scanned the menu and stopped to pick up bread and smother it in butter. He did the same.
“Bread and butter is my favorite part about going out to eat,” I said. “Me too,” he replied. We both smiled.
With my 10 months on the job, and his 20 years, we still appreciated this kitchen gift that can make going out to eat so lovely. It’s not always the heritage breed cow or the from-two-miles-away organic microgreens. It’s the gesture of warm, crusty bread and soft, salty butter. It’s a welcome mat, a saved seat at the bar, a double-cheek kiss. It’s making a first impression. It’s also a common denominator. Bread appeals to kids’ picky palates—as a child I used to eat bread and butter as my meal—and those paid to eat for a living.
When I dine with people for the first time, they can be shocked that I head straight to the focaccia, baguettes, rolls, biscuits. Maybe they assume restaurant critics save calories for dinner? Or that we’ve grown accustomed to the endless, and so often, underwhelming, dry and stale loaves? Or would rather not engage with butter as cold and hard as Michelle Rodriguez?
I still reach for the basket. I adore the pre-sliced loaf of soft white bread from The Majestic and the variety of carby surprises at Vermilion. I also memorized the places that don’t offer bread—some of my favorite restaurants—and I imagine what the chefs could do with a basket.
After all these meals, eating out almost every night of the week, I still see bread and a tin of butter and think: There is nothing better than this.