★★★★☆

The day before Halloween, the Dallas Morning News’ Leslie Brenner finally stopped being a ghost. With great fanfare and several awkwardly posed photos, she became one of a growing number of restaurant critics in the country to show her face in public. After Brenner had spent five years supposedly dining anonymously, a group of chefs and restaurateurs had forced her hand, and suddenly her face was unavoidable. 

Servers and chefs and bartenders and everyone else in the industry had been able to spot Brenner long before she made it easy on them. They were usually tipped off by one of her frequent dining companions, a longhaired Frenchman named Thierry Peremarti—her husband. The two often speak French in each other’s company. “You don’t see that much around here,” says Jonn Baudoin, owner of Casa Rubia.

But it didn’t matter if her husband was with Brenner. “Any critic who reviews 50 restaurants a year or more and dines out five or six nights a week for a major newspaper for a period of more than a couple of years is probably kidding themselves if they think they’re never recognized,” she told me via email. (Brenner said she was too busy for an in-person interview. In the weeks after her big reveal, however, she did have time for a two-hour dinner with a Washington Post reporter and an hour-long interview on KERA’s Think.) 

So it was no surprise that Brenner, with her longhaired Frenchman in tow, had been identified a month earlier, when she walked into Proof + Pantry in One Arts Plaza on the first Thursday in October. Michael Martensen and Sal Jafar II, the restaurant’s owners, had been waiting for her since opening their doors in August. They had a plan.

The staff went through the usual charade of pretending Brenner’s party—which also included the Morning News’ vice president and editorial page editor, Keven Ann Willey, and Willey’s husband, Georges Badoux, a retired chef and restaurant owner—was just another four-top. They were seated at a prime table, against a bank of windows that look out onto the Arts District. Dinner stretched out leisurely over four hours and three bottles of wine.

The $0 tab, then, was a brilliant bit of gamesmanship. Brenner was no longer anonymous at Proof + Pantry, they wouldn’t let her pay for her meal, and she couldn’t come back, because the same thing would happen next time.  

Finally, it was time to settle up. They signaled for the check, and Martensen walked over to personally deliver it. But instead of a bill for the $446 of food and drink they had consumed, he presented the table with a $0 tab. Martensen told Brenner he knew who she was and that the meal was on the house. 

The Proof + Pantry owners had figured out how to exploit a weakness in the Morning News’ review policy. The critic was supposed to dine anonymously, pay for everything, and visit a restaurant at least two times before writing about it. The $0 tab, then, was a brilliant bit of gamesmanship. Brenner was no longer anonymous at Proof + Pantry, they wouldn’t let her pay for her meal, and she couldn’t come back, because the same thing would happen next time. If Brenner couldn’t come back again, then she couldn’t review the restaurant. If she couldn’t review it, then she couldn’t assign a star rating to it. That’s what they were trying to avoid.

A growing number of chefs and restaurateurs felt the stars didn’t match the reviews they accompanied, and even when they did, the ratings were misleading to the average reader. And it was all about the stars. They could take her criticisms, even if they didn’t always agree with them and sometimes felt she had made up her mind in advance. But stars mean national attention and invitations to panels and festivals. Stars mean business travelers. Stars mean money.

After Brenner’s party left $500 cash on the table, Martensen and Jafar tried to return it to the paper the next day. (They ended up donating the money to the Dallas Morning News Charities Fund, in the names of Brenner and Willey.) Then they started talking. The back and forth that began when Martensen delivered the $0 tab continued the next day on every food blog in town. Each side repeatedly jumped in to dispute the other’s version of events. It dominated discussion for days.

The night after Brenner’s dinner, Jafar and Kyle McClelland, Proof + Pantry’s chef, worked DIFFA’s Burgers & Burgundy event, alongside many of the top chefs and restaurants in town.

“And, I mean, it was a nonstop stream of high-fives and handshakes all night,” Jafar says. After years of grousing about the Morning News critic in the close quarters of kitchens and the dim light of after-hours drinks, it was all finally out in the open. People told Jafar, “Man, I can’t believe someone finally did it. ”

★★★☆☆

Like most restaurant critics, Brenner fell into the trade. She wanted to be a writer, but of short stories and novels, not reviews and lists of the best places to get tacos. When she showed up in a 1990 New York Times story about California transplants living in New York, Brenner still identified herself as a “29-year-old novelist from Van Nuys.”

“I don’t think I could go back to Los Angeles, because back there the most interesting thing people talk about is where they had dinner the other night,” she told writer Josh Getlin. “For all the problems, I love New York. It’s a cliché, but people read here.”

When Getlin interviewed Brenner, she was already working as a freelance journalist, after earning an MFA from Columbia University’s creative writing program. Her byline appeared in New York magazine, Harper’s, and New York Woman, the latter of which published Brenner’s first restaurant review. 

“I pitched a story about Barney Greengrass, ‘The Sturgeon King,’ a fabulous old appetizing shop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that no one had written about in eons,” she says. “I think we may have called it a review, but it was really more of a glowing write-up, about 250 words. It was published in December 1989. After I wrote a few dining stories, editors started asking me for them.”

She didn’t get around to publishing her first (and so far only) novel, Greetings From the Golden State, until 2001. By then she had carved out a career as a food, wine, and travel writer. She had written cookbooks, an introductory guide to wine, and a history of the American food revolution, 1999’s American Appetite, what Publishers Weekly called “intriguing, albeit somewhat haughty.” She won a James Beard Award for journalism in 1996.

leslie_brenner_fight_shannon_wyne TABLE FOR TWO: Shannon Wynne (above) and John Tesar (below) have both protested Brenner’s methods. But they’ve gone about it in different ways. Photography by Kevin Marple
leslie_brenner_fight_john_tesar

When her hometown Los Angeles Times recruited her as its deputy food editor in 2003, Brenner was a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure. She had also just published The Fourth Star, a behind-the-scenes account of chef Daniel Boulud and his staff trying to recapture the titular rating at Manhattan’s Daniel after it had been docked a star by New York Times critic William Grimes.

“Spending a year at Daniel, learning to understand every area of the restaurant, working alongside the line cooks, trailing the waiters and sommeliers—all of it gave me an opportunity to see how hard these people work, how they poured every molecule of their beings into their work, all in the pursuit of excellence,” Brenner says.

Back in Los Angeles, Brenner was quickly promoted to food editor and, in January 2008, was named acting editor of the Los Angeles Times Magazine. But then the economy tanked, and her position was eliminated. She was laid off in July.

In October, Dallas Morning News restaurant critic Bill Addison announced he was leaving at the end of the year to take a job with Atlanta magazine. Though she had only filled in occasionally as the Times’ restaurant critic—earning notoriety for a pair of eviscerating reviews—Brenner was hired to replace Addison early in 2009. She came to town in February and filed her first column at the end of the month. In it, she addressed the restaurant community directly:

“I understand that there’s a 9-year-old photograph of me making its way around town, my author’s photo that appears in one of the books I wrote. Though I wish I still looked the way I did then, alas, I don’t think I do. Still, restaurateurs and chefs will no doubt try to ‘make’ me. Let me make a suggestion to anyone who fits that bill. Don’t waste your time. It’s better spent training staff.”

And then, to her readers: “We’ll be keeping the star system—with no half-stars. But beginning with my first review next week, we will make some tweaks to how the information is presented. I look forward to hearing how that’s working for you.”

Restaurateurs and chefs figured out what Brenner looked like pretty quickly. But no one ever really figured out her star system. Which is why, five years later, over the course of a few months, the Dallas restaurant community revolted. 

★★☆☆☆

By the time Brenner walked into Proof + Pantry, the revolt was already well underway.  Chefs and restaurateurs bristled at how she seemed to “decide on a review when she gets in the car to drive to the restaurant,” as one puts it. “She worries more about how a review makes her look to the food cognoscenti. She doesn’t evaluate a place based on what the restaurateur is trying to achieve.”

That’s why Martensen and Jafar had brought up the idea of comping Brenner earlier in the summer, when she came in to review Driftwood, the other restaurant they run. (At press time, it was closed for repairs.) Chef Omar Flores—one of her favorites—had recently left Driftwood for Casa Rubia. They were sure that Brenner had already decided to write something that elevated Flores at the expense of the restaurant he had left behind.

They were right: she dropped Driftwood’s rating to three stars, saying that chef Kyle McClelland’s “fish cookery doesn’t dazzle the way that of his predecessor Flores did.” 

The loudest shot of the revolt was fired in July, when John Tesar tweeted “fuck you” to Brenner (and banned her from his restaurants) after he read her largely positive three-star review of Knife, his new steakhouse concept. Four months later, Tesar is still worked up. Especially since, the day before we spoke, Brenner published her list of the top chefs of 2014—and he wasn’t on it, though he had been the year before. 

“She’s ignoring the most popular restaurant in town right now,” he says. “I’m not making that up. I’m blown away by its success. It did $143,000 last week, in a 73-seat restaurant. We reinvented the steakhouse in the state of Texas. I mean, it’s a real story. And she ignores the story, because she’s a spoiled little child. It’s not anger. I almost have empathy for her.”

Brenner had come under scrutiny before—most notably when she was accused by many, including Anthony Bourdain, of plagiarizing barbecue writer Daniel Vaughn—but the sniping had mostly stayed within the microcosm of the local dining scene. Since Tesar had become a nationally known name after his appearance on Top Chef, his tweets about her—which he ended up deleting—spread far and wide, forcing other critics and food writers around the country to weigh in. 

“You can hand that review out to a class of future restaurant critics and say, ‘Look at how this was done,’ ” says Pete Wells, the restaurant critic for the New York Times. “It was thorough as anything. I think she went four times. I just find it mystifying.”

One local chef took the opportunity to send an open letter addressed to Brenner that Esquire’s Josh Ozersky published on the magazine’s website. “You could be professional without being a bitch about it, but I doubt you will,” he wrote, signing off “Go to Hell.” Unlike Tesar, he kept his name off it.

Though Tesar’s tweet was treated locally and nationally like the Sons of Liberty tossing tea into the Boston Harbor, that’s not when the revolt really started. It began with another review, published a few weeks earlier, that wasn’t even written by Brenner: Kim Pierce’s write-up of the Bird Cafe, Shannon Wynne’s restaurant in Fort Worth’s historic Victorian Land Title Block building.

“The review read pretty damn good—and they gave me two stars,” says Wynne, the man behind 8.0, Meddlesome Moth, and Lark on the Park, among many others. 

According to the Morning News’ rating system, two stars (out of five) meant Bird Cafe was “Good: Com

mendable effort, but experience can be uneven.” Wynne had two problems with that: “One, nobody looks at that little key—that’s not right there by the stars—saying what’s good and bad. Two, in what universe does two stars equal good? A kid can do the math.”

Others want a return to the old three-tiered system that gave stars for food, atmosphere, and service. Wynne doesn’t disagree, but he has proposed a simple fix if the paper is determined to keep an all-encompassing system: one star is poor, two stars is fair, three is good, four is very good, and five is excellent. “Doesn’t that make sense?” he asks. 

Since no one at the paper has answered yes, he has, for the moment, given up. He told the paper he will no longer help Brenner or anyone else at the Morning News with their reviews. They can write whatever they want, but he won’t ask his kitchens to make certain dishes so they can be photographed. He won’t allow his chefs to be interviewed. As long as they continue with a system he believes to be flawed, he won’t participate. 

“Why do all the work for them?” he says. 

Wynne didn’t publicize his decision, but word of it slowly filtered through the industry over the next few months. The movement needed an elder statesman, and he was perfect for the role. Tesar could be ignored because he is, well, Tesar, a notorious hothead. The Proof + Pantry guys could be ignored because they are still trying to make a name for themselves. But it’s much more difficult to ignore a veteran restaurateur like Wynne. A couple of weeks after they comped Brenner, Martensen and Jafar invited Wynne and other owners and chefs for a town hall-style meeting at the restaurant. 

“It was like watching Frankenstein and seeing the townspeople head up to the professor’s operating room with pitchforks and torches,” Wynne says. “They want to do the right thing, but they don’t know how to vocalize it.”


★☆☆☆☆

If Wynne had been in Proof + Pantry on Halloween, a few nights before the town hall meeting, he wouldn’t have found a scene out of Frankenstein, but something out of another monster movie: a mummy.

Wrapped in strips of muslin and cheesecloth was Leslie Brenner, sneaking in for one more meal at the restaurant. Her husband had come up with the idea, using the convenient timing to their advantage. Her party—all in costume—made it through the entire dinner unnoticed, and even were cocky enough to have their photo taken by their server. 

Though she had just made a very big deal about no longer hiding her face, there was no way around it if she wanted to review Proof + Pantry. And she never considered not doing so. 

“It was important for me to follow through on the work I’d begun on my first visit,” she says.  “Of course, if I felt I couldn’t give the restaurant a fair review, I would have recused myself, but I knew I could give the restaurant a fair review—which I did. And my editors agreed that it was.” But she obviously did make it personal, publishing alongside her review the photo of her dressed as a mummy taken by the server. A clear middle finger.

Brenner’s three-star review—which ran three weeks later and called the restaurant a “fun, sexy addition to One Arts Plaza”—may read as objectively fair, but it’s hard to know for sure. Proof + Pantry deliberately tried to prevent Brenner from doing her job and then told their side of the story to anyone who would listen. It would be hard for anyone not to take that personally.

“There’s no possible way that she is able to write an unbiased review [about us],” Martensen told me a week before the review ran. “No matter what, even if she plays it down the middle.”

Jafar already knew what Brenner would say, predicting the review with uncanny accuracy: “She’s going to give it three stars and say, ‘It’s good but not great, worth checking out, more expensive than I want it to be, and let’s see what these guys do next.’ It’s going to be one of those.” 

The only thing he failed to predict was that Brenner used the first 200 words of her 1,200-word review as a victory lap, crowing that she’d been able to get back in despite Proof + Pantry’s efforts to keep her out. And, honestly, she probably deserved the chance to do so, even though it undercut her professionalism, as did the inclusion of the photo of her dressed in costume. 

But Martensen and Jafar aren’t giving up. Neither is Tesar or Wynne. You don’t end a war because you lose one battle. There are plans for a formal group, with a logo and Facebook page and an identical note on menus saying that they don’t cooperate with Morning News critics. They are in this until the paper revamps its star system. 

“It’s like going to a demonstration,” Wynne says. “All you can do is sit down, handcuff yourself to a fence, and protest by not complying. You can’t win this. The cops are going to hit you on the head.”

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