MOUTHING OFF

Gift of Gabby: Nothing I've written in over a year at Westword has garnered more response than my December 21 Mouthing Off column about Pat "Gabby Gourmet" Miller. Not surprisingly, no one called to defend her practice of eating free at local restaurants. What did surprise me, though, was that the calls weren't only from restaurateurs--who have been complaining to me about her since I started this gig--but also from waitresses, cooks, other media types and, most interestingly, readers with no connection to the food business.

To the restaurateurs who called asking why it had taken me so long to write about Miller's abuse of their grudging hospitality, my reply was that while many complain, no one has been willing to go on the record. A few restaurant owners have said things like, "I'll go on record if you can get five other restaurants to go on record," a proclamation that has always made me wonder why Miller has so much power in this town. Granted, the woman has lived in Denver for many decades and has knowledge of its ins and outs that is unparalleled in the food media. This puts her in a position to be one of the most thorough and insightful restaurant critics around. Instead, Miller seems content to play the social butterfly, taking large groups of friends out to eat and even relying on them to critique restaurants for her--a tactic she and her husband, Mark, mention at the front of their 1995 Gabby Gourmet Restaurant Guide. Unfortunately, they fail to identify the reviews in which this was done. All food writers listen to other critics' opinions, but if you're going to use someone else's stomach, credit it.

The other complaint many restaurateurs have is that Miller often declines to order from the regular menu, instead requesting that her meals be prepared without salt or butter, minus the sauce or, as was the case in one restaurant where I worked, ignoring the typical dishes and ordering a hamburger, no bun. (Before I came to Westword, I also worked at Tango, where I once took a phone call from Miller prior to her visit and got the no-sauce, no-butter, no-salt script.) And it's hard to give a fair review to the food at a place if you're not eating what everyone else would be. "Listen, I'll give her anything she wants, because there's no sense in pissing her off," one well-known chef told me. "But she won't eat my best stuff."

Another common criticism from callers was that, although some of the reviews in Miller's book made it sound as if she'd eaten the most incredible meal she's ever had at a particular restaurant, the place received just a three-pig rating (five pigs means "to die for") that certainly conflicted with her glowing report.

A few messages left on my voicemail got pretty personal, which is not what this is all about. No restaurant critic, myself included, benefits from publicity about one of our own who doesn't travel the ethical path; it tends to make the public suspect us all. As one caller, who identified himself only as Jim, said, "You people are supposed to rate a restaurant on its merits, not for how much they pay you for advertising or how often you can eat there free."

Most of us try, Jim. We try.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner