The Journal Sentinel’s Carol Deptolla has been reviewing restaurants in Wisconsin for more than a decade. In this episode of WTMJ Conversations, Deptolla and Libby Collins discuss dining in the pandemic era, restaurant charm, and just how big she thinks a menu should be.
Transcription provided by eCourt Reporters, Inc.
LIBBY COLLINS: How many times will you visit before you actually put pen to paper and review?
CAROL DEPTOLLA: In the olden days, in the before times, it was — it was usually about three times. Sometimes — a lot of times it was more. If it was like a really, you know, a really broad menu, a really huge menu or if it was something where I just wasn’t sure, because we still do the star rating that we did with those in-person full restaurant reviews. If it was something where I just wasn’t sure, if I was on the fence, if it was just kind of hard to know was this a fluke, is this how it always is, I’d go back another time. Usually, it was about three times. Once is just not enough to me to really fully evaluate a restaurant. And even twice, if it’s good once and has issues another time, which is a real restaurant, so, it always struck me as like three is kind of the tiebreaker. And I think that’s sort of the industry standard among — among critics.
LIBBY COLLINS: How many dishes will you try when you — when you’re dining? I mean, do you go with other people so you can kind of taste —
CAROL DEPTOLLA: Yes.
LIBBY COLLINS: — what they have or how does that work?
CAROL DEPTOLLA: Right. Right. It’s really the most efficient way to dine. It depends on the size of the menu, but usually I would try to go with three other people so that there are four people. And then that way, you can really make a dent in the menu when it’s one of these multipage sorts of things, especially. We get every — like I say, are there appetizers, we get appetizers, you know, then we get the main dish and then dessert if that’s available, and just as many of those that it doesn’t look weird, I guess, one for everybody, maybe. And, you know, and then I just try a little of everything, and then usually just pick at the rest of what’s left on my plate. Because by that time, I mean, that’s plenty for a meal, right. A lot of times I’ll take it home so I can see it better, some restaurants are a little dark, you know, and you want to be able to describe a dish and it’s just like, you know, I can’t even hardly see this. So, taking it home gives you a chance to look at it in full light and if you need to re-taste something, you can do that. But, yeah, the idea is to order as many dishes as possible, and if it were just me it would look really weird. So, I take along — I usually take along — more than four is just not — I mean, for one thing, it just gets to be too much. Because I go home after a restaurant visit, in theory, and take notes, some nights it’s just like, oh, I can’t, but I would always take notes. And, you know, if you just have, like, too many dishes, even though you’re writing it down soon afterward, it just is — it gets to be too much. And it’s just too much food to kind of process, too. So, yeah, four is sort of optimal, three or four people all together.
LIBBY COLLINS: When you go back, you have originally the first time, then you go back a second, a third time, does your opinion ever change either from — from good to better or better to worse?
CAROL DEPTOLLA: Mm mm.
LIBBY COLLINS: How do you then use that information when you’re writing your review?
CAROL DEPTOLLA: You know, once you’ve gone a few times, you get a fuller picture. And — well, I won’t say usually, but a lot of times what happens is, you know, the first time I go I’ll order the most interesting things on the menu, and then, you know, sort of as it progresses, you know, sometimes by the third visit, especially if it’s not like a super big menu, you’re really starting to find like the weak spots, and it might be — you know, it might also be service related, but, yeah, you know, sometimes by the third visit I’m glad it’s over, and sometimes by the third visit I wish there were, like, ten more. You know, some restaurants are the kind where you just want to go back again, and others are, well, you know, it was all right, or that wasn’t very good or, you know, something along those lines. So, I mean, it just helps to paint a fuller picture of what that restaurant is, and that’s a lot — by the third — by the third visit, that’s a lot of times where I’ve thought, you know, if they just would trim back the menu, trim back the weak dishes and just — but, you know, I think places want to be sure to give a good variety to people. You want to please everyone, basically, is what it comes down to. They want to — they want to make sure everybody is happy, there’s something for, you know, people who eat fish only and people who just want red meat and, you know, people who are vegetarian or vegan. And sometimes the, you know, the dishes just haven’t spent enough time in research and development or, you know, something along those lines, and, you know, I think sometimes it would help if restaurants didn’t have, like, quite so large a menu.