The calls are coming in fast and furious about Lori Midson, the latest restaurant critic for 5280 magazine, who seems to have pushed a few buttons in the October/ November issue.
Callers in the restaurant biz take issue with the fact that Midson, once the public-relations person for the Colorado Restaurant Association, is currently the public-relations director for Sambuca Jazz Cafe (1320 15th Street), where she's responsible for garnering such ink for the place as an article in the Rocky Mountain News's "Home Front" section -- along with a photo of herself. "That's not even a good photo," Midson laments. "I hope people don't think that's really what I look like."
In her 5280 "Dining in Denver" article, Midson, who took her job with Sambuca in June and her job with 5280 in September (she replaced Bill St. John, who has yet to be snagged by the Denver Post, with whom it's rumored he's chatting), took to task a few good Denver restaurants that she thinks need a kick in the butt. (That's a tradition started at the mag by Thom Wise, who then became St. John's successor [yeah, I was in the mix, too, for about a month] as the News's food critic.) I'll agree with Midson on the Denver ChopHouse and Brewery (1735 19th Street), European Cafe (1060 15th Street), Potager (1109 Ogden Street) and the definitely overrated Cheesecake Factory (1201 16th Street Mall) and the Rainforest Cafe (3000 East First Avenue), but not on Mel's Bar and Grill (235 Fillmore Street) or Papillon (250 Josephine Street). And I've never had a bad meal at either Sushi Den (1487 South Pearl Street) or the Beehive (609 Corona Street).
The complaints about Midson carry some scent of sour grapes: One caller suggested that she bashed those restaurants just to make Sambuca look good, and several offered up the misinformation that she runs a whole PR firm dedicated to promoting restaurants. But Midson has only herself to blame, for taking a position that leaves her wide open to conflict-of-interest criticism. "Of course, it's not like I'll ever review Sambuca," she tells me. "I knew this was a potential conflict, and I thought about it, weighed the pros and cons, and decided that I could be fair and accurate. It's not like I'm going after Pacific Star." That's Bobby Rifkin's supper club, at 1735 Lawrence Street, which is the nearby Sambuca's most intense competition.
"After I've been around for a while," she continues, "I think people will get that I'm not out to do in Denver restaurants. Those places I gave a kick in the butt to are good restaurants that I think have become complacent and sloppy. I want them to get it together so they'll continue to succeed."
Still, as one caller said, "It's hard to know if Lori Midson has an agenda. Maybe she doesn't, but wouldn't 5280 want a critic who was free and clear of such a controversy?"
Apparently not. Dan Brogan, 5280's editor and publisher, says he doesn't have a problem with Midson's dual roles. "You know this as well as I do," he says. "There's no journalist on the face of the earth who doesn't have a conflict, and if you're a professional, you should be able to set that aside. It's up to your editor to keep an eye on things. For instance, when Lori submitted the first draft for that issue, there were a couple of places she mentioned that were near Sambuca. I don't remember whether they were ones that needed a kick in the butt or not, but I said, 'Let's make sure we're bending over backwards for places that could be direct competitors.'"
To the question of whether that in itself could be a conflict -- isn't dropping those places because of their proximity to Lori's employer kind of unfair to the reader? -- Brogan reiterates: "That's always going to happen with any journalist. You try to be fair and then become unfair. You have to trust that readers figure out you're a human, that you're not perfect." When he hired Midson, the fact that she was a good writer and had strong opinions balanced out her potential conflict, he says. "Plus, we've got three people now who are going to be doing reviews," he adds. "One of the ideas we're talking about is a point-counterpoint kind of thing, where readers could make up their own minds, like a Gene [Siskel] and Roger [Ebert] thing."
The other two reviewers are Maureen Harrington, former feature writer at the Post and an online restaurant critic, and Mike McNulty, who's been doing other types of writing for 5280 and wrote good test reviews, Brogan says.
In the meantime, Midson says she doesn't mind taking some heat. "I'll deal," she says. "I have a tough skin. I think people are just going to have to accept that I have two jobs. My one is at Sambuca; my other is at 5280."
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Actually, Midson's about to take on a third: motherhood. She's due in two weeks. As a working mom myself, I have to wonder if she'll be going back to both gigs after her upcoming three-month leave of absence from Sambuca. It's one thing to toss the baby at a sitter and go out to dinner; it's quite another to try to breastfeed in the bathroom of a jazz club.
As for one of the other complaints about Midson -- that she'd foreshadowed a trash review of the Beehive in the upcoming December/January issue -- Brogan says he wishes he'd handled the phrasing of Midson's blurb about the place in the "Most Overrated Restaurants" category differently. "Bill Husted jumped all over that, making it sound like we were going to rip the Beehive," Brogan adds. "In fact, it doesn't really say that. But she'd had such a different experience from the incredible one that St. John had described in his review right before we parted ways, and we wanted to address that somehow. But the review that's coming out will be pretty balanced, I think."
Oh, we'll be the judges of that.