From Dallas’s top kitchens, reviewer Leslie Brenner is feeling the heat

Leslie Brenner’s money is no good at Proof + Pantry. Or at Lark on the Park, Spoon, Meddlesome Moth and a number of other restaurants here. These free meals are not intended as bribes to influence the Dallas Morning News restaurant critic into writing a positive review.

No, they’re intended to prevent a review altogether.

In early November, after a town-hall-style meeting, at least 10 Dallas-area restaurants agreed to adopt a practice first employed in October at Proof + Pantry, where the owners refused to present Brenner with a bill, setting off a widely publicized standoff over who would eventually pocket the $500 that the critic left in cash to cover the check. (Short answer: charity.) The policy is designed to generate either an ethical conflict for the critic, who cannot accept freebies, or an embarrassing public scene, which would cast doubt on the critic’s ability to write a fair review.

“It inherently creates some bias, because now you’re upset about this whole situation,” says Sal Jafar II, co-owner of Proof + Pantry and one of the lead organizers behind the rogue restaurants. “So you’re obviously going to have to disclose that.”

The tactic is just one of several adopted by these chefs and restaurateurs, including controversy magnet John Tesar, who are trying to crash the system: the Morning News’s restaurant star-rating system, which, these insiders say, is flawed as administered by Brenner. The participants also plan to stop granting interviews to the newspaper and stop allowing photographers inside their bars, gastropubs and other eateries in advance of reviews. These rebels will even have a flag to fly: They plan to place stickers in the window and print new menus with the logo “DMN Doesn’t Pay Here.”

This gambit has moved Brenner from the best seat in the house to the hot seat. These operators, confident they can fill their tables without the paper’s attention, are attempting a power play rarely seen in a large American dining market: They’re organizing to confront the major daily’s critic, whose position of influence has historically silenced, or at least intimidated, those who might question his or her authority. In this case, they’re confronting a self-described “tough critic” whose five-star system, they say, cannot differentiate between a self-service three-star barbecue joint with minimal decor and a full-service three-star restaurant with a hip, rustic interior. They’re lobbying for a more nuanced system that includes separate ratings for food, service and decor.

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