Let’s Discuss: Barbecue-Gate, the Case of DMN Critic Leslie Brenner v Full Custom Gospel BBQ Blogger Daniel Vaughn, Con’t.

An interesting controversy erupted late last week after DMN restaurant critic, Leslie Brenner, released her Best in DFW: Barbecue list. In case you have been leading a normal life and missed the brouhaha, you can catch up by reading the recap post published last Friday on SideDish.

First, I would like to talk about print publications and “best” lists. I have been generating them for 14 years and I know how hard they are to put together. Or rather, how hard they can be if you actually do the legwork. As the food editor of a major city magazine, I’ve learned a few of the dirty secrets in the publishing business. Especially when it comes to lists relating to “bests” and food.

Here is a big one: Most print publications do not spend the time or money necessary to create genuine, editorial “best” lists. The task of compiling them is usually doled out to staffers and underlings to do the research before the “editors” take over. (In some–too many–cases, that never happens.) It is an accepted practice for national food publications to call local food publications for input when they are working on their best lists. Do you really think Esquire eats at all of those burger joints before they declare the best in America?

I have no idea how the Dallas Morning News researches their Best in DFW: Whatever lists. I can only give you my opinion of those they have printed over the last couple of years. They are lazy, weightless amalgamations. None of them include a description of the methods used in quantifying the “winners.” The paper promotes them as “Leslie Brenner’s” but, in small print, claim: “How we choose. The Best in DFW series presents critics’ and staff picks and asks readers to chime in with their favorites. Critics’ picks are presented without ranking.”

If that is the way you conduct your research, put it in your first paragraph. And add authority by ranking the picks.


I hired Daniel Vaughn of Full Custom Gospel BBQ to write the best barbecue story for D Magazine because he has a passion—no, an obsession–for barbecue. And he writes about it on a very sophisticated website. Is he a professional journalist? Who cares? He is an expert. Daniel has sampled barbecue at over 130 restaurants in NORTH Texas and journaled his experiences. He brought local independent barbecue joints to the pages of a glossy city magazine. Suddenly Off the Bone in Forest Hills,  Meshack’s Bar-B-Que Shack, and Baby Back Shak were jammed with new customers.

Brenner’s best barbecue list included many of the obscure joints highlighted by Vaughn. After it hit the Internet, prominent local bloggers accused Brenner of lifting the list from Vaughn’s website or from his article in D. They demanded that Brenner apologize to Vaughn and criticized her for not attributing Vaughn’s (D’s!) list as, at the very least, part of her sourcing. In a post late Friday afternoon, Brenner addressed the throngs by writing:

“Perhaps you’re not familiar with accepted journalistic practices, but it is not customary for a reporter to acknowledge in a print story for a newspaper or magazine the sources that he or she used as a starting point for reporting a story. It is not the same as the blogosphere, in which a ‘shout-out’ to another blog is common practice.

It’s natural that there turns out to be a lot of overlap in our lists, as there are a limited number of barbecue places in the DF-W area that smoke their meats over wood. Of course I’m grateful for all your footwork — thank you for that.”

Pompous? Yes. Condescending? Yes. Right? Yes.

Brenner doesn’t owe Vaughn an apology. It may sound ruthless, but it is a common practice, especially in the food writing business, not to credit all of your sources. Once you “out” a barbecue joint, you don’t own that information. Obviously, in this case, I don’t agree with Brenner’s version of “accepted journalistic practices,” or the fact that she treats Vaughn as an inferior for being a blogger, but she has a point—she isn’t reporting hard news from Iraq, she is critiquing a barbecued rib in Fort Worth. One could even argue that technically Brenner is a critic and not a news reporter. According to her guidelines, she can use whatever information she wants. What she does with it or how she uses it is up to her. And it is up to you, dear reader, to accept it or reject it.

BUT, and this is a big but, she becomes suspect when she writes: “It’s natural that there turns out to be a lot of overlap in our lists, as there are a limited number of barbecue places in the DF-W area that smoke their meats over wood.” Methinks she doth protest too much. Originally, she didn’t declare her search to included only  joints that “smoke their meats over wood.”  However, Vaughn wrote in D that Dallas has a limited number of places that smoke meat over wood. Yes, it is natural that the lists are similar. Vaughn did the footwork.

Brenner could have saved herself a lot of grief if she’d included the methods she used for evaluating her list. She’d be off the hook if she had told us how she came up with the list, how many places she visited, why some didn’t make the list, why some did, and how many pounds she gained to find the final nine. Instead, her list reads like a breezy, unranked rip-off of Vaughn’s work in D Magazine. Especially when you consider she (re)reported that Bartley’s B-B-Q smokes their meat with oak wood, an error printed only in D Magazine. (Yeah, us!)  I don’t know what disturbs me more—the thought that Brenner potentially lifted copy from D or the fact that our journalism student/fact checker didn’t catch the original error. Oh, but neither did the professional DMN fact checker, Leslie Brenner.

Here’s another odd fact:  most of her picks have never been mentioned or reviewed in the DMN. Scott at Dallasfood.org has produced a chart to illustrate this fact. At the very least, she owes her readers an explanation of why many of her best barbecue places had never been reviewed in the Dallas Morning News.

I’m sure Vaughn feels like he’s been punched in the gut. It’s tough to put so much of your heart, money, and time into a passion and not be recognized for it. I know just how he feels and I’m sure Leslie does too. If you are looking for validation, do not choose to become a food writer. Or blogger.


  • JD

    What Brenner did – re-package material from another source – is standard procedure for the DMN. Which is why she doesn’t feel she needs to apologize and why the DMN is circling the drain.

  • Neutral

    First, for the record, I love the Ferrari family. But, how is it that are ” Best Italian in DFW” and yet, they received a one star rating???

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  • Pat

    JD –

    Explain how “DMN is circling the drain.”

  • runDMC

    Brenner has shown one consistent and pervasive trait in her tenure, she’s lazy. L.A.Z.Y.
    When have her review targets been more than a stone’s throw from downtown. How many times has she “reviewed” nearby bars as if they were a real restaurant. When has she really dug into a non-anglo cuisine with any real conviction? How many times has she had to use the EATS blog to correct or explain her errors in judgement (Victor Tango), table manners (Mercury) and plagiarism (BBQ). No vision, no knowledge and no ethics. Why bother. She’s just non-fat, decaf in a paper go cup. Exit now.

  • heelsoftar

    @ Pat, they launched the CueCat and never recovered

  • Bartaby

    Correction, Nancy: Vaughn didn’t eat at 130 joints in Texas. He’s eaten at and reviewed 370 in Texas, with 202 of them in North Texas.

    The problem isn’t that Brenner failed to acknowledge using D’s article as a starting point, but that the D article was also her ending point.

  • Bartaby, at the time he wrote for us, that was his number. Sorry for the confusion. Also, runDMC,I don’t think Leslie Brenner is lazy. Like it or not, she produces a lot of words. Perhaps if she included some of her peers in her list making the lists wouldn’t be so lazy. If she ate at 20 places, like she claimed, then she has been busy. If she’d written that in her first paragraph, the list would have more credibility.

  • gunnertec

    This whole episode only serves to underline one very important fact: readers/consumers crave authenticity. Authenticity requires transparency (or vulnerability, but not always). It reasons that if LB had only been transparent about her sources, none of this would be an issue. Well…she’d still be a 2nd-tier food critic.

    I get the “editorializing” for major publication lists. It’s time-efficient. It should always be authentic, though.

    Lastly, I just want to give props to Scott from DallasFood.org. He’s a A+ writer and should be encourage to produce more!

  • Jim

    Sigh…if she’d only started an early paragraph with “to cull through the mediocre offerings, we began by consulting a few best-of lists from the last few years…”

    That would have ended the controversy.

    Bummer she didn’t.

  • gunnertec

    Oh, and it looks like I need an editor for my comment posts.

  • tommy

    The DMN has not had a good food critic since Dotty Griffith was let go. She went to the hamburger joints and also the high dollar places. She was a real food critic. I’m a big follower of Daniel Vaughn having just come back from Taylor and Elgin Texas to sample some of the best ‘que in Texas that he wrote about. There are not but a very few places in the Dallas area like they were. The DMN is going down the drain and now we have to pay to get a TV Weekly in the Sunday news. Belo the Christmas Scrooge.

  • Laura

    So, Bren reprinted a D Magazine error? Heeeee-larious.

  • Does the average DMN “user” even read Brenner’s work? Not many, I’m sure. She has slipped into irrelevance, especially now that there are so many publications/blogs with equal or superior credibility when it comes to dining establishments in Dallas. A feather in D’s cap is its iPhone app that provides full reviews of scads restaurants. The DMN’s app lumps dining under “entertainment,” and one rarely sees restaurant reviews there. Today, there is a reference to the “Best in DFW: Barbecue” feature in question , but it’s not even a complete post! You must go to the DMN’s Eats Blog to get the full story. Fail.

    It’s clear the DMN is in trouble. It has struggled to adapt its über-traditional print model into something visually appealing and accessible, never mind questions about ethics and “accepted journalistic practices.” Brenner knows she’s wrong and is disguising her guilt by insinuating we, the public, are not sophisticated enough to understand her methods. Rubbish.

    As has been said, it’s time for an overhaul at the DMN. Let Leslie Brenner be the first to go.

  • Bethany

    There are a lot of things that made Brenner’s debacle a lot bigger than it had to be, including her condescending response when Vaughn e-mailed her. Right or not, she could’ve put in a little more thought, instead of maintaining the “just a blogger” mentality.

    But the one thing I’ve often noticed about Brenner’s reviews is that she seems kind of hellbent on not liking the place. Yes, you should expect a different level of service if you’re dining at an establishment with a higher price point, but I keep getting this niggling feeling with each of her reviews that the restaurant’s biggest deficit is that it is in Dallas – as if she really came in here with a certain mindset and isn’t going to let go of it.
    And because of that trace sentiment that winds its way through many of her reviews, I can’t help but think she didn’t WANT to research these places. Barbecue is not white linen napkins and trick questions about wine you can pose to your server, so it’s really not her bag. Everything is compared to California.

  • Murray

    I would also be interested when this article was written. Didn’t Brenner just pronounce Pecan Lodge the most wonderful bbq in Dallas just prior to Thanksgiving? Why were they exclused from this “list”?

    Vaughn also pronounced Pecan Lodge as fantastic just before Brenner did, btw. Coincidence?

  • Daniel

    She’s from California. She sure as hell better have plagiarized her Best-of-Local-Barbecue list. If anything, I give her extra points for recognizing her limitations.

    Am I pompous?: Yes. Condescending? Yes. Right? Yes.

  • Bartaby

    Nancy, it was over 130 in *North* Texas at the time the article went to press (not the entire state, as you said above). That was February of this year. Now, Daniel’s over 200 for North Texas. *That* is hard work.

    Anyone who wants to write about the best barbecue in Dallas has to acknowledge Daniel, whether they agree with him on everything (like Brenner does) or not.

  • I am Brenner supporter but she really stepped in on this one.

  • JD

    @ Pat – “Circling the drain” was a bit of hyperbole, they haven’t had a mass layoff this year and their stock has bounced back a little; “increasingly irrelevant” is more accurate. My point is: where is the paper in 5 to 10 years if they can’t produce original content that people value?

  • downtowner

    @Daniel: Hilarious.

    @Mere: I also generally like Leslie. Agree she stepped in it.

    Also agree that this easily could have been avoided in the first place, and La Brenner also could have avoided compounding the fiasco by responding to Vaughn differently. Would this have become such a big deal if, despite accepted journalistic practices, she had called him up, apologized, and updated the “Best of” list to give him credit? Or what if she’d written one of her “Behind the Scenes” posts and acknowledged Vaughn’s expertise and linked to his website? (Aside: as DMN’s own Bruce Tomaso points out in the comments section to Leslie’s “Let’s Clear the Smoke” post on EatsBlog, she STILL didn’t link to Vaughn’s blog or even name it!)

    Accepted journalistic practices aside, there is a right way and a wrong way to handle things. This was handled the wrong way, plain and simple. That’s too bad for Vaughn, and it’s also too bad for La Brenner, who handed her very vocal detractors fuel to add to their fire.

  • In short, anyone who sees “best of lists” in major publications should be suspect. Daniel is not the best writer, but I clearly understand his criteria and thoroughly respect his opinion. He focuses on one subject and clearly has a passion for it. He’s also a champion of his subject and the joints he visits even if the grub is sub-par. I’d trust his reviews long before D’s(minus Vaughn) or the DMN’s. I think Brenner should have acknowledged Daniel regardless if she used him as a source or not. He’s the best reference to wood smoked meats Texas has to offer. He at least deserves that credit.

  • Barnaby

    Nancy, you are starting to beat a dead horse. You have now officially come off as harpy, jealous and intimidated. Please move on. This is not your battle.

  • downtowner

    @Nancy – I forgot to ask. I’m not in the publishing industry. What is the difference between “lifting copy” and plagiarism?

    @Barnaby – I actually thought this post came off as fairly mild in tone given how angry I would be if I were NN.

  • skeptic

    @Baranby – I sure as hell this horse named LB is dead and I say BEAT ON, my Nancy!

  • Downtowner, no difference. I used lifting copy because it’s impossible to prove plagiarism in this case.
    Barnaby, this certainly is my battle. The story originally appeared in my magazine. I am not jealous or intimidated.

  • JD

    A little lost in this discussion: D went about generating their list the right way. They engaged an expert & gave him ample credit in a way that gave positive attention to D and the FCG Blog.

    As a reader and someone who tries to seek out good BBQ, the list turned me on to a few new places and gave some insight into some old favorites. Contrast that to how the DMN has gone about things.

  • Bryan

    Having someone from LA come to Texas and offer BBQ reviews is like me going to Bangkok and reviewing Thai food for the locals there…it has no credibility…I take that as an insult as well as her 2 star ratings for most places in Dallas

  • As Restaurant Reviewer for the Blitz Weekly,I have to side with Leslie Brenner.There are way too many of a certian kind of Restaurant for her to sample everyone! That’s way she covers her base by asking her readers. I had to add Chef Samir Dhurandhar from Nick and Sam’s and Dean Fearing to her list of the BEST CHEFS. She also missed the best BBQ in DFW AT Kenny’s Burger Joint and his Wood Fire Grill which on Sunday nights are only $1 a Rib! Even the Texas Monthly who sent out 30 reporters and interns didn’t sample every BBQ in the state.

  • Borborygmus

    C’mon, this ain’t Dallas, we’re all toughter than that
    This barbecue issue has become quite a spat.
    Poor News, numbers sinking, few who will pay,
    With more people begging, please send back to LA
    This critic whose voice doesn’t speak what we hear.
    Her writing fails to make her criticism quite clear
    Of restaurants whose efforts she busily diminished.
    But like them, a career can be almosted finished
    By a pen, and a person who seems just unable
    To write what she means, her star system unstable.
    (Perhaps, may I mention, she might not aught
    Started shooting first, six months after she got
    Here letting us know, there was no place to go
    In Dallas for a world class dinner, oh no, no.)
    We all asked, WTF, what was she thinking?
    Now beef brisket seems to have her ship sinking.
    So Leslie I’m done, this is the last rhyme for you
    I’m still hoping and praying that it will soon be adieu.

  • HellofromFw

    Really, what she should have done was not write about every single place featured in the D list. She should have found some others. If she had, in fact, scoured other newspapers and blogs in search of bbq places, she would have found plenty: Coopers just opened in Fort Worth; in Everman, not far from Longoria’s, is Hickory Stick BBQ, a local favorite; Woody Creek BBQ and Wilson’s are two other new Fort Worth bbq joints, etc. Not sure if they all use wood to smoke their meats, but they at least could have been square-ones – places she could have called to find out if they do, and if they don’t, surely they could have recommended some other places that do, and maybe those places have not been written about yet. Maybe she could have actually discovered a place. Lists like these are dumb anyway, but they do often help small restaurants. The guy from Blitz Weekly is a good example of the difference between a blogger and a writer.

  • ehhh, the coopers in fw kinda sucks. in my opinion. please feel free to use that quote in any future publications.

  • Hipocracy In Action


    Your war on Leslie and her predecessors at the DMN is getting really old. And weird.

    D Mag’s blogs are starting to feel like a platform for ex-DMNers, former/current competitors and frustrated journalists to get back at the paper.

    Oh, and by the way. I’ll see your charge of “lifted content” and raise you “Nancy dates restaurant owners that she reviews.”

  • Bethany

    Romenesko picked it up, too.


  • Media Lady

    Dallas Observer restaurant critic Hanna Raskin says “it would have been nice” for the News critic to give the D Mag critic a shout-out, “but I’m not yet ready to categorize restaurant finds as intellectual property.”

    Agreed. Nancy has made a mountain out of a mole hill because of her vendetta.

  • get a clue

    @Richard S. Pollak – I certainly hope you have an editor over there at the old “BLITZ”!

  • longtimelistener

    Not only do I not see Nancy Nichols’s observations as a vendetta, I think she has become the local food media’s “watchdog” for the likes of Leslie Brenner and her misinformed, misleading and sometimes unethical reporting. First of all, Ms. Nichols is a longtime Dallasite which is more than can be said of the last two DMN food critics who appear to just be “passing through” to bigger and better things. How could Ms. Brenner, one year in residency, possibly have the insight into Dallas culture (and yes, that includes barbecue) that Nancy has. I’m rooting for the home team.

  • jrp

    Daniel is still my hero, but Nancy is a close second.

    “If you are looking for validation, do not choose to become a food writer. Or blogger.”

    truer words have never been found on this blog…and when you omit food it rings even more true

  • anon

    From Brenner’s statement on Eats Blog:
    “For instance, today, D Magazine restaurant critic Nancy Nichols posted a story about tacos, ‘The Tacos-for-Gringos Revolution.’ In the story, which appears in D Magazine’s December issue, she covers five taquerias — exactly the same five taquerias I covered in my July Guide cover story on ‘Tacos from another planet.’ Is that a problem for me or for the paper? Of course not. Restaurant discoveries are not in any sense intellectual property.”

    Nancy, what’s your response to this?

  • Bobby Orr

    Nancy is a Canuck, not a native Dallasite. Me thinks we need a watchdog site for D’s blogs.

  • Anon, the taco roundup is a different scenario. All of those restaurants had high profile openings and all food media was barraged with press releases. If you would please reread the post–I agree with Leslie that restaurant discoveries are not intellectual property. I am continuing the conversation started by Hanna Raskin at the Observer because I think it’s an interesting topic for people interested in food and food writing to talk about. Do I not have the right to criticize another writer? Why can’t critics critique critics? I still feel that Leslie should have had help with her list–fellow staffers who write about BBQ, Kim P, anyone. Or if she’d included her criteria for judging I would have assigned more authority to it.

    This is not a mountain out of a molehill. I feel this is a significant topic to discuss especially given the prominence of food bloggers who come in contact with the real world of publishing. It’s two separate worlds. Ask Daniel how he felt when he came into the office and was told he had to rank his picks. Ask our accountant how much money we spent for Daniel to revisit his finds.

    For the record, I am from Dallas. I’ve lived her for all of my life except for the 11 years I did in Los Angeles. I spent a lot of time in Canada when I worked in hockey.

    Yes, I once dated a restaurant investor, Dick Washburne, and we have made no secret about that here on SideDish or in D Magazine. However, currently I am dating a Labrador retriever, a TV remote, and anyone who will go out to eat with me. Oh, and my computer, Dell.

  • I guess I’ll have to change his name to Cock Washburne. We can’t say dick on SideDish.

  • Oh crap, we can’t say that either? Jayzus. Let’s try Richards.

  • Hein

    So D Magazine uses fact-checkers that aren’t “professionals.” Noted.

  • anon

    Nancy, I agree with you that restaurant discoveries and list themselves are not intellectual property. I also agree that the taco story is a completely different situation. I find it interesting that Leslie used the taco story in her defense on Eats Blog. Too bad her attempt to deflect attention from her poor judgment didn’t work.

  • Logan

    When a writer says they visited a given number of restaurants, in Leslie’s case, around 20, i think…i always wish they would let us know what they visited that didn’t make the list. Is there a reason they don’t do this? Just because it wouldn’t be nice? Or because people would get upset that they weren’t given a chance? I guess it is probably best that they don’t tell us what those places are, but i am always dying to know who doesn’t make the cut on a best of list.

  • KitchenDoor

    Logan, I think that was Nancy’s point. Nancy could you answer that because I think this is a crucial part of your program, right?

  • longtimelistener

    @Bobby Orr: and methinks you need to read my post more carefully. Since when is “longtime Dallasite” synonymous with “native”?

  • Logan, I think it is crucial to list the places you went. It adds credibility to the winners and sets a parameter for comparison. And for the record, I was born and raised in Dallas. I am not a longtime Dallasite.

  • skeptic

    @Nancy Nichols: well, if you were born and raised here, then you are a longtime dallasite (as well). i think longtimelistener’s point was that boooby orr needs to read the postings more carefully before casting aspersions. and i’m sure i should know this, but what the hell is a canuck? love your vim & vigor, nn.

  • Skeptic, a Canuck is either a hockey player for a the team in Vancouver or a person who lives in Canada. Slang like “Yankee.”

  • skeptic

    NN – and as we know, that ain’t you, girlfriend. thank goodness!