Reader Opinion: Chef / Restaurant Critic Dynamics

The John Tesar / Leslie Brenner battle has everyone talking. Can there ever be peace between critics and chefs?

If you haven’t already heard, John Tesar banned Leslie Brenner (Restaurant critic at The Dallas Morning News) from his restaurants. This followed an angry late-night tweet (he later took it down) about her latest 3-star review of Tesar’s restaurant Knife.

There is a ton of feedback coming from all over Dallas on the topic of Tesar and Brenner. See some of the responses here. See Brenner’s review and Scott Reitz’ review (Observer).

Our 2011 cover story. Is this just anger over a bad review, or is he on to something here?
Our 2011 cover story. Is today’s battle just anger over a bad review, or is he on to something here?
We did a story on Tesar back in 2011 called “The Most Hated Chef in Dallas.” In May we interviewed him about that. His style has definitely earned him a reputation, as Anthony Bourdain has colorfully related in the past.

Here’s what we want to know:

Knowing how much bearing a critic’s review can have on restaurant business (especially using a star system), is John within reason here? He’s never been a fan of Brenner’s reviews. Should the star system be a thing of the past? And what about critics–should they only be focusing on relating the relevant information in their reviews, or writing about their own preferences and tastes? Certainly we all like different things and no two opinions are alike.

Take Brenner’s quotes:

“I couldn’t pass up the $14 bacon tasting: five strips, one (Benton’s, my favorite bacon) severely overfried; altogether, it was as impressive as those new duds the emperor bought…While there’s clearly something special going on here, and the restaurant has great potential, Tesar might well be a victim of his own exuberance and energy. I can’t help but feel that if the menu were half the size and more care and thought put into each dish, Knife would be twice as good a restaurant.”

There’s freedom of speech, and then there’s a restaurant’s livelihood. Where should the line get drawn? Should critics be careful with their words, or should restaurants just be expected to maintain perfection to compensate for reviews?

Having been on the restaurant side myself, I definitely understand John’s frustration. But a critic gets paid to critique, so it gets murky. The publicity this story is getting has everyone buzzing, so sound off for us. Can this kind of thing be remedied, or is it just another part of the ever-entertaining restaurant industry?


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  • FakeLeslieBrenner

    Most people welcome critics critiquing and can read a critique with the understanding that differences in taste and preferences exist. The issue is when media outlets hire cunts like Leslie Brenner who appears more interested in being a bitch to some and coddling her little favorites than offering reviews of any value. It is impossible to take her seriously. Aside from that, John is way more entertaining when he is off of his meds. So, all is good.

  • Matt

    Leslie Brenner is a bad critic. She has two restaurants in the city as five stars (FT-33 and Lucia). If only two qualify for five stars, why does she use a five star system? Most people don’t think of a Dallas Morning News five star review to be equivalent to a James Beard award or something. On top of misuse of the star system, Brenner comes off as a real jerk a lot of times, and I don’t like her prose. As this site has pointed out, she also compares everything here as inferior to certain other coastal cities…. It’s annoying, it’s rude, it’s not insightful or helpful, and I don’t like it. I miss Bill Addison.

    Eh, it’s not like what any of us say here matters; she’ll probably just buy her way into “Best Critics in Dallas” issue of D Magazine later this year.

    • Helen

      Sometimes it feels like attacks against DMN food critics come from one person. Or sock puppet.

      That said, I love the fact that Brenner says what she wants. She could care less about the star system.

    • BradfordPearson

      This isn’t a defense of Brenner or the star system, but to say “If only two qualify for five stars, why does she use a five star system?” makes no sense to me. The New York Times uses a four-star system. Only six restaurants have four stars. The top rating, for anything, should be used sparingly, if ever.

    • curmudgeon

      before Leslie there were only 2 5 star restaurants in Dallas. The Mansion and Salve…..does that mean ALL the other DMN critic were bad also?

  • Greg Brown

    The star rating system is a lazy method for both writer and diner alike. Brenner’s issue is that there is no consistency in how it is applied. Beyond Michelin I see no reason for anyone else to use it. Her sickly sweet, fawning reviews of her favorite Chefs are so ridiculous and over the top that I have no trust in her ability to accurately portray a restaurant for what it really is. And while Tesar is an unapologetic @$$, I have to give him credit for, once again, pointing out what a lazy critic she is. But be careful what you wish for. God only knows what the DMN would put in her place.

  • Milk&cookies

    She’s annoying, add up how many times she uses the word ‘lovely”.
    FT 33 dishes are inventive but too many times over salted ; yuck.
    Not been to Knife Tesar is not endearing but like Spoon; she is not my fav kudos to John.
    He’s never been nice to me But vote with him on this.

    • Matt

      I’m not sure Tesar is a nice dude to much of anyone. That doesn’t mean he’s wrong, or that his food is bad. Brenner’s a bad critic; Tesar is right.

  • florianhubert

    This is my first post ever. Bottom line – both Nichols and Brenner are insanely personal and political. Neither does research and both have their favorites. Example: Brenner gives 4 stars to Pyle for Stampede and San Salvaje – both are legitimately marginal. Ive never spoken to anyone who things Stampede is good. You know why. Because its not. Nancy Nichols – makes her personal friend Nick best restaurant in Dallas???? Really???? They are both a running joke in Dallas and EVERYBODY is ready for some objective, professional reviewing rather than a couple of hucksters who always have an agenda, which is often personal. They command way too much power by virtue not of their prowess and accountability, but simply because of the broadly subscribed platforms for which they write (and I use that word loosely). These two women as our primary reviewers is a huge disservice to our city. To compound matters, many followers and posters opine on topics about which they know absolutely nothing so the nonsense just perpetuates Nichols’ and Brenner’s agendas. Both the reviewers and posters need to stop writing about people whom they dont know and instead focus on legitimate reviews of dining experiences. With Nichols and Brenner around, dont hold your breath.

    • acrow

      This is somewhat off topic, but I disagree with your characterization of San Salvaje. I went there last weekend, at it was fantastic. I do, however, agree that Stampede 66 is pretty average.

    • Nancy Nichols

      I do research every day. It is my job. You have the right to think San Salvaje and Stampede 66 are average, but don’t accuse me of not doing research. I also read the the bi-monthly report on the amount of sales restaurants do….and somebody other than you disagrees as Stampede 66 is performing like a healthy business so people are eating there. It’s too early to tell on San Salvaje. Nick Badovinus is not a personal friend. I have written a feature on him and I frequent the restaurant because it is where I choose to spend my own money. I have written many reviews on restaurants owned or cheffed by people I have interviewed or met. It hasn’t ever stopped me from reporting on my experience at a restaurant. Could you please clarify this for me as I’m not sure what you mean. thanks “Both the reviewers and posters need to stop writing about people whom they dont know and instead focus on legitimate reviews of dining experiences.”

  • florianhubert

    Excuse me….Nick Benavides’ restaurant Neighborhood Services which is actually quite good but certainly not best restaurant in Dallas.

    • mattshelley

      It’s Nick Badovinus. Good research.

  • Jackson

    Tesar comes off as juvenile in this skirmish, of his own choosing.

    Leslie Brenner’s review of his place, Knife, was overall rather good. I’ve not been, but I’d bet her specific criticisms are legit.

    John has always been this way, juvenile. As D wrote in its 2011 cover story, the guy didn’t arrive in Dallas until 2006, saying, “Nobody knows how hot I was in 1985, and nobody cares.” He then left town and earned just one star in New York before returning. He’s foul-mouthed, yet promotes his upbringing around wealthy people while being the dictionary definition of low-class. He’s supposed to be a Big D big shot? Is Tesar now some standard? Surely not.

    This is bad theater. He’s bad theater. Let’s be clear: only the rich people who fund his restaurants give a damn about him.

  • Jeff

    I guess professional restaurant reviewers have a double talent – the ability to write very well and a talent and understanding of the culinary world and a taste for food. So I appreciate the professional reviewer and do read reviews. I DO wish there were more of them – and not less. One person’s opinion (or two) is not THAT super useful after all. Everyone has their biases and unless you read a particular reviewer often, you have no way of knowing those biases. I really love the way the Rotten Tomatoes sums up a large number of national film critics to give an overall “Tomato” rating on film. Realize a city like Dallas doesn’t quite have that reach but I do think we have room for more reviewers. Yelp can be handy for this kind of thing as well….

  • Matt

    I think you mean she “could not care less about the star system.” However, I get your point and isn’t that the problem – she doesn’t care about the star system, and uses it very poorly. Yet, she still uses it. Poorly.

  • Matt

    Leslie Brenner is hardly on par with any New York Times food critic. Leslie Brenner is amateurish and seems to want the focus of her articles to be about her and other meals she’s eaten. Food critics should write about the food they are reviewing, not a meal in Napa.

  • Nancy Nichols

    Well, writing a restaurant review is a subjective report. So, if you disagree, just say so and tell me what you think the best restaurant is and why it is the best.

  • MCB08

    I simply think Brenner is a poor restaurant critic. I thought Tesar handled it in an unprofessional and juvenile manner. That being said, I am glad there is some focus on the quality (or lack thereof) from the DMN and its primary restaurant critic.

    A critic must being willing to critique, but Leslie lacks consistency and lets her personal agenda often dictate her ratings far more than she should. Simply put, Dallas deserves better.

  • DonMcDermett

    I eat out 6 nites a week and frequent virtually all the places reviewed by Ms Brenner. In a nutshell, she is biased, inflammatory and a poor representation of her profession. Asian or Mongolian noodle houses in some strip center in the mid-cities or Allen always seem to strike her fancy. Big dollar guys like Dean Fearing, Stephan Pyles and John Tesar tend to get the Bronx Salute from her. As a consumer, all I want is an honest evaluation — Ms Brenner is more interested in showing off how much she knows and sensationalist B S! Kudos to John Tesar for calling a spade a spade!

  • DonMcDermett

    I eat out 6 nites a week — frequently at places reviewed by Ms Brenner. In a nutshell, she is biased and a poor representative of her profession and DMN. Asian noodle houses in some strip center in HEB or Allen always set her a flutter. Big dollar and big
    time chef/owners like Dean Fearing, John Tesar, Kent Rathbun and John Tesar get the Bronx Salute. As a consumer, all I’m seeking is an honest evaluation. Ms Brenner is more interested in showing off how much she knows and being as inflammatory as possible (even on small stuff like bacon). Kudos to John Tesar for having the guts to call a spade a spade. She needs to go!

  • Kkk

    So overrated and literally on the take from places. We use to pay her to lie

  • Kkk

    Over it

  • Sharon Peters

    There are food and restaurant writers, and then there are “critics;” we are here dealing with a critic. Who likes the personal BFF treatment from the chefs and foods personalities she covers. Tesar, by his own admission, is not a table-toucher, so that at the get-go puts him in the margins. The fact that, as a chef, and an enormously talented one, who sweats expertise and ability, he is about as cuddly as coarse grit sandpaper puts him totally hors de combat with critics such as Brenner. Reading and rereading her reviews makes it clear that, while she may be able to reel off names of the denizens of the produce section at Central Market, she has little real understanding of what goes on once they enter the alchemy lab in the ante room of Hell that is a professional kitchen. I mean the practical, burn-cut-bandage-and-return, think-on-your-barking-dog-feet, in-the-weeds, wonderful world that is a kitchen in full sail. It’s a huge missing piece. And, no, it is not about you, Ms. Brenner. It is about the food. Then the chef. The his/her kitchen staff and its culture. You’re just there to report on it, make sense of it to readers.

  • Sharon Peters

    Who knows what Tesar is like out of his whites, but in them, he sweats expertise, knowledge, focus, and well-honed talent. In his chef mode, he is about as cuddly as coarse-grit sandpaper. But he’s there to work his magic on ingredients, not make nice and play air kissy-face mid-service with critics. Reading and re-reading reviews by Brenner, it is difficult to get past the fact that she is front-and-center in her reviews, demanding attention, refracting the experience at table and with menu through her prism, denying the reader the opportunity to draw their own conclusions about the reviewee. Ok, we get it: she does not like Tesar. Why? Who knows. Perhaps he doesn’t table-touch to her liking (he admits he doesn’t hold with that behavior). Her reviews leave us with the feeling that she can reel off the names of each and every denizen of the produce department at Central Market, but they leave little sense that she has ever really done hard time in a professional kitchen (would she get why the cornstarch bit in Chef was so hysterical?). And, for godsakes, if a reviewer has some sort of “imaginary friend” beef with a chef, then do what the real pros (the lawyers) do: call it a conflict of interest, and get someone else to cover the restaurant and write the review. Its about the chef, their restaurant, and their food and about the readers, the diners, and the potential diners.

  • UpTn DallasSocial

    I always thought the star system existed for people who didn’t like to read. They want to go out, to a steakhouse, say, so they grab a guide and start looking. This joint has four stars, but it’s across town; this one has three stars, and it’s around the corner. We’ll settle for three stars. That sort of thing. Then there are people (like me) who read, mostly for entertainment. I’m not ashamed to say I enjoy a good bash-up every now and then, and I think this certainly fits the bill.Everybody gets some attention, there’s something to talk about, and it gets your heart started. Good times.

  • Gene

    First time I ever heard of Tesar was when he was on Top Chef. My impression … a lot more mouth and attitude than lasting sustenance. Since then I have read about him in the media and not much change in my opinion. I spent a number years in the hotel/hospitality industry and hired and fired my share of executive chefs. From my impression, Tesar is well suited to run his own restaurants because I don’t think many people could work with him. So maybe, just maybe Zar Tesar will spend his career opening and closing restaurants because the only person he can work with is himself.