Skewering the Reviewer Who Reviewed His Tablemates at Elizabeth

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Jeff Ruby, of Chicago magazine.

On Friday we mentioned Jeff Ruby's review of Elizabeth, which spoke of his communal tablemates in this delicate fashion:

In this communal crapshoot, sometimes you end up with crap. My cohorts include a smug concert pianist, two socially stunted computer geeks, a name-dropping phony, two large Canadians—one making love to his Canon EOS, the other napping between courses—and my wife. One guy says he spends $10,000 a month at restaurants; another keeps mentioning the 20 pounds of deer tenderloin in his freezer. Neither can pronounce “foie gras.”

We also mentioned that one of the tablemates had recognized himself in this account and responded, refuting some of Ruby's points. But what had happened by Friday afternoon was merely the beginning, it would turn out.

But let us back up. As early as Tuesday, one of the other diners at the table, comedian-pianist Sean L.A.M. Bennett, was calling Ruby out on Twitter for labeling him a "smug pianist" and getting cattiness in return:

@dropkickjeffy At Elizabeth: you showed up apology-less 35 minutes late, expressed no interest in conversing, then wrote fiction about us.

@slambennett We did apologize. You must not have stopped talking long enough to notice.

A commenter using the name "Fellow Diner" (which was how Ruby referred to his, well, fellow diners) popped up late Friday afternoon at Chicago magazine to offer an alternative account of the dinner, which ranged from accusing Ruby of bad behavior:

You showed up late without an apology, half-disheveled like a frantic married couple who couldn't find a baby sitter, wasted a cumulative 24 hours of other diners and workers time before you picked up a fork without an apology, sat aloof and apart, and acted rude at the table.

to expressing outrage:

It's extremely rude to eavesdrop on people you're not talking to and to print what you only think you overheard.

to refuting factual points:

The person you claim to have told "ill-informed tales of sous vide" has been using a chamber vacuum and a Polyscience immersion circulator at home for over four years.

The details have a tendency to get a bit picayune, admittedly, and that led, among other things, to another poster calling everyone nuts, which led in turn to claims that that person was actually Ruby responding under a pseudonym. Meanwhile, at LTHForum, the discussion continued, with Bennett resurfacing to post the letter of complaint about the invasion of his privacy that he sent to Chicago magazine, and Fellow Diner returning to tell a (rather long and involved) story about the wine service, the gist of which is that Ruby missed everything worth noting about the wine that night. (We also learn that besides Ruby, there was a Tribune photographer in the house that night. We were about to resolve not to go to Elizabeth when there's media there, before we remembered that it's ontologically impossible for us to do so.)

To be honest, this is more detail than we really need about someone else's dinner, even at as interesting a place as Elizabeth, and we don't know what we think about the particulars of the case. What we do think, though, is that it's Chapter 13,263 in the ongoing story of how reviewing has changed, and we kind of think Ruby got himself wedged real good between a rock and a hard place when he decided to focus his review on his fellow diners.

In some ways this shows how journalism continues to change, maybe not always to its own benefit as good reading. Ruby could have spared himself a lot of grief, and avoided personal insult, by changing the details enough that his tablemates couldn't have recognized themselves. But where journalists 40 years ago could invent imaginary companions and the like (there is no Slats Grobnik in the phone book, we checked) to make their point in an entertaining way, after Janet Cooke and Jayson Blair, it's possible that doing such even in a humorous context would be an instant-career-ender. So instead Ruby reports recognizably on them— and they spot it and raise hell for him anyway with his bosses, and to the broader reading public at the same time.

Someone reporting on a political story, of course, needs to relay it as directly as they can; we'd consider it bias to change details there. But restaurant reviewing falls somewhere between reporting and entertainment, which is to say, nobody has any clear idea what the precise ethics of it should be. What we do know is that the audience can talk back to reviewers, like they never have been able to before. And so they do.