Last night Dallas Morning News dining critic Leslie Brenner showed up to review Proof + Pantry. Brenner, her husband Thierry Peremarti, Keven Ann Willey (DMN editorial page editor), and Georges Badoux (Willey’s husband, who is a chef and tour guide) spent four hours in the restaurant. Owners Michael Martensen and Sal Jafar II were on hand. Brenner was recognized immediately.
The group seemed to enjoy the experience, and when Brenner asked for the bill, Martensen and Jafar sent out a receipt for a complimentary meal which would have cost a regular diner $450. “Brenner was visibly disturbed,” Martensen says. “She called us over and demanded a bill saying it was unethical for her to accept.”
Martensen told Brenner she was welcome to dine in the restaurant any time she wanted, but not as a critic. “Sal and I decided from the beginning that we didn’t want any review tied to a rating system,” Martensen says. “It pinholes us. We want people to form their own opinions of us. We don’t want a numerical rating, especially from someone who we feel is inconsistent and not anonymous.”
According to both Martensen and Jafar, things got heated. “The rest of the table got into it,” Martensen says. “Her husband was furious saying he wrote music reviews for the Observer and he pays for his tickets. Willey told me if we comp’ed the bill, Brenner could be fired for taking a handout. They were yelling at us.”
They demanded to pay, but Martensen refused to run a credit card. Members of the party left and returned with cash. Brenner put the cash on the table alongside the receipt and took pictures with her cell phone. They left.
This morning Martensen and Jafar drove to the offices at the Dallas Morning News to return the cash. They met with Lifestyles deputy managing editor Lisa Kresl, and Keven Ann Willey. “We are business people and we are also citizens of Dallas,” Jafar says. “We feel it is our right to express an opinion about our local paper. We didn’t tell Leslie not to come in here [Proof + Pantry], we said we don’t believe in their star system, and we don’t want to be a part of it. Even the waiter refused the money as a tip. We offered to donate it to a charity in the DMN’s name.”
Then things got ugly. According to Martensen, they were told it didn’t matter what they wanted, the paper was going to review them regardless. “We volunteered to sweep this under the rug, but they insisted their readership deserves to know about our restaurant. We asked for an explanation of the review process which included anonymity. I told them that Leslie is not anonymous. Everyone in town knows the second she walks in. They all have her picture. I was told the anonymous policy may change in the future.”
Martensen and Jafar left the meeting feeling threatened. “One of the ladies said ‘we’ll see what our readers think about you refusing service to someone’ and ‘you don’t get to make that decision about whether or not we write a review.’ We walked in trying to be nice and explain our decision and left with them pretty much saying f-you to us.”
Earlier this week, another major restaurateur in town told me he refused to let Dallas Morning News photographers into his restaurant. The owner has had several meetings with DMN management and has asked not to be reviewed or photographed by the newspaper. John Tesar kicked up plenty of stinky dirt when he took Brenner and her tactics to task over her review of Knife.
“Everybody we know in the industry feels the way we do,” Jafar says. “We’re taking action. I think of us as the first frogs to jump in the pond. We’re waiting to see who else jumps.”