food It’s Never Just About the Burger: The Ethical Pitfalls of a Food Critic’s Viral Essay
The promise of an extraordinary hamburger can lead a person to do extraordinary things. Culinary literature—from cookbooks to magazine spreads to travel guides—is chockablock with instructions for making, seeking out, and strategizing the consumption of the supreme patty, the ideal garnish, the perfect bun, and the exquisite gestalt of the meat sandwich entire. With all of this, burgers lend themselves beautifully to list-making: the most expensive, the most elaborate, the most nostalgic. And, of course, the emperor of lists: the best burger.
In 2016, Kevin Alexander, a writer for Thrillist, an online men’s-interest publication, embarked on a year-long journey across America, eating at hundreds of restaurants in search of the nation’s single superlative hamburger. The one that earned a spot at the very top of his resulting “100 Best” was “Nick’s” cheeseburger with grilled onions, served at Stanich’s, a small, family-owned sports bar in Portland, Oregon, that had, in its nearly seventy years of operation, been slinging patties for weekend revellers and victorious Little League teams alike. “This burger is a national treasure,” Alexander wrote.
In January of this year, seven months after Alexander had anointed this neighborhood joint, Stanich’s abruptly closed. The Oregonian, the state’s largest daily newspaper, quoted Steve Stanich, the restaurant’s second-generation proprietor, as saying that the Thrillist article was “the worst thing that’s ever happened to us.” The author of the story, Michael Russell, agreed, writing that after the publication of Alexander’s list he noticed a disturbing change in the small, wood-panelled establishment. “I’ve been back a couple of times since the award, and both times found myself waiting at least 45 minutes for a simple cheeseburger and fries. Staff seemed overwhelmed.” The sign in the window of Stanich’s said that it was closed for an employee vacation, but, as the weeks stretched into months, it became clear that the restaurant wouldn’t be reopening anytime soon.
Alexander, curious and a bit guilt-racked by this turn of events, went back to Portland a few months ago to find out what had happened—had his endorsement really carried such destructive weight? He sought out Steve Stanich for a face-to-face reckoning. The result was a viral essay titled “I Found the Best Burger Place in America. And Then I Killed It,” which inspired fervent praise and some fervent criticism, too. Some raised their eyebrows at Alexander’s apparent belief in his own godlike influence. Portland residents noted that Stanich’s had not exactly been unknown before Alexander showed up—just a few years after the restaurant opened, in 1949, the Oregonian named its burger the “world’s greatest.” Staunch capitalists argued that the fault lay entirely with Stanich for his failure to adapt to increased demand by expanding or franchising his business.
But the piece was shared with particular urgency among members of the media, who never miss a chance to sombrely reflect upon our profession’s enormous power to effect change. Many readers—myself included—walked away from Alexander’s article despairing at the human cost of the sort of national acclaim that, for so many restaurants, is the brass ring. Best-of lists summon customers with brutal efficiency—some of them locals, lured by a word of praise in Food & Wine or Esquire to check out that place down the street they had never really got around to, but many of them are tourists seeking out these pre-approved restaurants as one-off destinations. For a neighborhood place like Stanich’s, the ratio of regulars to one-timers can end up out of whack, undermining the same local charm and familial vibe that may have landed the restaurant a spot on a list in the first place, and making life miserable for the people who liked the restaurant the way it was. (While this phenomenon has been amplified in the Internet era, it’s nothing new: Kenny Shopsin, the late proprietor of Manhattan’s idiosyncratic Shopsin’s restaurant, was famous for giving false information to guidebooks in order to keep “review trotters” away from his door.)
“They weren’t invested in the restaurant’s success, but instead in having a public-facing opinion of a well known place,” Alexander writes of those in-and-out customers who, with each triumphant Instagram post, leech away a neighborhood restaurant’s neighborliness. The journalists who make the lists, like Alexander (and me), end up destroying the very things we seek to celebrate, our loving embrace so crushing that it suffocates. In the wake of Alexander’s piece, chefs and restaurateurs shared their own tales of spotlight-induced misery: customers pouring in the door in numbers well beyond the kitchen’s capacity, the resulting diminished quality of the food and experience, the inevitable aftershock of indignant Yelp reviews.
Then, this week, Alexander’s burger meta-chronicle took yet another turn. In his original essay, Stanich had alluded to “personal problems” that were a factor in the restaurant’s closing, though he requested to go off-record when he spoke about what exactly those issues were—“the type of serious things that can happen with any family, and would’ve happened regardless of how crowded Stanich’s was,” Alexander wrote, bringing to mind something like a serious illness, or a rough patch in a long marriage. A report in Willamette Week, published on Wednesday by the journalist Matthew Singer, uncovered court records revealing matters far more grave. In 2014, Stanich had been arrested for choking his wife in front of their teen-age son; he pleaded no contest and was sentenced to four years of probation, which he reportedly violated multiple times in subsequent years, including, according to court documents, by pursuing “offensive contact” with his now-ex-wife, who had worked as a manager at Stanich’s for nearly two decades before being diagnosed with advanced breast cancer.
Alexander admitted that he’d learned of Stanich’s 2014 charges before interviewing him but chose not to pursue the matter. “My piece was a reflection on the role of food critic and the responsibility journalists have to preserve the places we write about,” he wrote in a statement sent to me by way of a representative at Thrillist. (An editor’s note has also been added to Alexander’s original story.) “I tried to approach the issue thoughtfully but not investigatively. Through research into Steve’s background I did come across his 2014 harassment conviction, but I failed to investigate the details. I deeply regret not digging deeper on this.”
It’s tempting to think that Alexander’s “I killed Stanich’s” piece fell victim to the same shortcomings he flagellates himself for with his original burger list: an outsider’s clumsiness in sharing a local story, with unexpectedly damaging results. But Portland’s local media seemed just as taken aback by Willamette Week’s discovery as the rest of us. (When Alexander’s essay was published, Russell, the Oregonian writer, praised it as “a gimlet-eyed exploration of list culture.”) Alexander has not revealed what exactly Stanich told him when the two discussed Stanich’s “personal problems.” In a phone call on Thursday afternoon, Stanich told me that he has “found God,” and “made amends with everyone I know, including my family.” He also insisted, as he did to Willamette Week, that his arrest had “nothing to do with” his restaurant’s closing. It seems possible that Alexander’s broad version of the story—of a restaurant succumbing to a fatal overdose of good fortune—is true, though Stanich told me that the restaurant is planning to “reopen for the Christmas holidays,” and served a private party just yesterday. Either way, Alexander’s elision of Stanich’s legal history is a bruising reminder of how easily violence committed by men against women slips into the realm of the uninteresting, and from there to the realm of the forgotten. As Jezebel put it, perhaps Alexander was willing to accept Stanich’s version of events because it better “supported Alexander’s own myth-making.” At best, his depiction of a beleaguered small-business owner who had struggled to “take care of the people who took care of me” was woefully incomplete.
What if Alexander had learned nothing of Stanich’s conviction in the course of his reporting? Is it fair to expect a restaurant reporter to run a public-records search on the subject of a burger story? The stakes, in food journalism, have changed rapidly in recent years—a once-cushy beat that was largely divorced from hard-news concerns is now being recognized as a battleground for issues of sexual assault, immigration, labor issues, and financial fraud. With this comes a responsibility among writers to see restaurants more holistically, not only as places that put food on a plate but as complex social organisms. Even the smallest, most casual operations involve communities of employees, communities of customers, dramas both private and public, and the two can’t always in good faith be separated. A burger story is rarely about just the burger; it’s also rarely about just the critic. Alexander clearly intended for his essay on Stanich’s demise to spark a conversation about journalistic responsibility. In the end—though not quite in the way he anticipated—it has.
An earlier version of this article misstated the name of Michael Russell.