On Tuesday afternoon restaurant owners, executive chefs, managers, cooks, servers and anyone else involved in the restaurant business in Wisconsin got to see something many wished they had seen much sooner. It was a photograph of Dennis Getto, the longtime food critic for the Journal-Sentinel. As I looked at the photo of Getto on JSOnline it felt kind of creepy. To many the first glimpse of the most powerful critic in the state came on the last day of his life.
As many already know, Dennis Getto passed away on Tuesday. Dennis Getto was a Milwaukee institution. He was the critic at the Journal for 25 years. I was still drinking juice boxes and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the fourth grade when Getto was named the Critic in 1982. Fine dining to me was a McDonald’s happy meal. Reagan was only in his second year in office. Many of the Brewers and Packers we cheer on today were not even born.
Dennis’ reviews were so influential that if you even dared to visit a restaurant he gave a great review to on the weekend after the review was published you were guaranteed a long wait for a table. Before trying a place I always logged onto the internet to see what Dennis said. Visitors to the City most likely made informed dining choices based on reviews by Getto. Just about any discussion among friends about where to eat made reference to Getto’s opinion about the place. Many a restaurant has a snippet of a Getto review somewhere on their menu or a good review pasted on the wall. I cannot remember where it was, but I was in a restaurant recently where the restaurant had a series of picture frames running along the walls of the restaurant. Every other frame had some photo in it. The others held a copy of Getto’s positive review of the place. His review had been worked into the decor of the place.
While I read his reviews religiously, I had a laundry list of complaints about Mr. Getto and even once posted a blog entry on OnMilwaukee.com arguing that in order for Milwaukee’s culinary scene to advance, Getto had to go. However didn’t mean I wanted him to die, I just wanted some new opinions, someone to interject a different viewpoint into the restaurant reviews. After 25 years Getto had become too predictable and stale.
Getto really loved independently owned local restaurants and didn’t like the influx of upscale chain restaurants that have opened over the past 5 years in Milwaukee, so much so that it almost seemed as he was trying extra hard to find reasons to rip them. His list of the top 30 restaurants this year didn’t include a single chain. He also was a traditionalist to a fault. Any restaurant who dared to create their own take on a classical dish was in for at least a paragraph of criticism from Getto. If you said something was Pistou it had better prepared the exact way that it has always been or Getto would go off. Though he never said it I also think he was somewhat uncomfortable with sushi when it burst onto the scene 5 or 6 years ago, but it seems like he came to embrace it.
However Getto did love ethnic foods and had no problem visiting restaurants that many critics wouldn’t have bothered to review. He seemed to like Mexican and Southeast Asian food a lot and really showcased all of the excellent Mexican places in town. Another thing that he liked was barbeque. Not the crappy boiled or oven cooked crap that masquerades as BBQ at many restaurants but true blue BBQ that is smoked slow and low like the stuff served at Speed Queen or Great Northern BBQ in Waukesha. Speaking of the Great Northern BBQ Co., owner Mike Killey credited Getto with saving his restaurant. In an article in today’s Journal Killey said “The week before the review came out, I used the last of my personal funds to keep the place going, the week after Dennis’ review, my business increased 500 percent. He had enough sway that a lot of people would just look for the number of stars he gave a place and then go there. He had the power to keep a place open.” For that I have to thank Getto as I think that the Great Northern BBQ Co. is the best place for BBQ in the metro area.
Despite his high profile position, Getto was probably one of the most approachable Journal employees. I once e-mailed him and asked for suggestions in Lake Geneva the week before I was planning on proposing to my wife on a weekend getaway and within an hour or so I had a list of 3-4 recommendations. Every month he hosted chats and every month I would ask 2-4 questions about places I liked, recent reviews, the dining scene, recommendations, criticisms, and the occasional loaded question about his opinion on food blogs. Rarely did a question go unanswered.
He didn’t seem to be a fan of blogs. Though I didn’t ask the question that garnered this response, he disliked food blogs because of the anonymity. He stated “You never know who the blogger is. Is he related to the people who own the restaurant? Does he pay for his meals or mooch off owners. Does he like stuff like chipped beef on toast? Those things are hard to determine and in my mind, make a lot of restaurant blogs useless.”
Who will the new food critic be? It’s too early to even have an idea. Will it be Milwaukee Magazine’s Ann Christenson, who I feel tends to be almost too soft when she criticizes something? If so, I think she would make a good choice, but she will need to be more aggressive in her critiques. Though I am sure his name will come up I can assure you it will not be Willard Romantini. The one time Milwaukee Magazine critic recently stated in an interview in that little tiny free publication they give away in bars (for some reason I cannot remember the name of it now) that he felt uncomfortable criticizing people’s cooking. Maybe they will do a nationwide search and try to lure an up and coming critic to Miwaukee.
Maybe they should look at someone from the blogosphere. I think I read that Audra Shalles over at Taste of the Town is a freelance writer. It might be nice to see her get away from VISIT Milwaukee, who pays her to maintain a blog whose main goal is to promote Milwaukee area restaurants. This results in her rarely saying anything negative about any place and even if she does, she is very apologetic about it. It might be nice to read her reviews when she is given free reign to rip a place to shreds. Problem is that her face is all over her blog, so it wouldn’t be too hard for restaurants to spot her. Heck, maybe they should find a local blogger with no journalism experience whatsoever ;) (Marty Kaiser, e-mail me if you want to talk, I’ll work for cheap). No matter who they go with, it’s going to take readers a long time to warm-up to a new reviewer.