There are some food writers in town that I’ve had numerous lengthy conversations with. Despite those interactions, I really have no idea who they are, what they’re about or what they really think about anything. Yet, although I never met her, I always felt like I knew Naomi Wise.
One of San Diego’s longest-tenured restaurant critics, she salt-and-peppered her reviews with talk of her personal experiences. Often, such references were made to justify her judgments or bolster her foodie cred. I appreciated the fact she’d tell you she’d had a classic dish in its region of origin before bashing a subpar version of it being served up in La Mesa. More than that, I respected the fact that she’d make the negative comment in the first place.
We live in a day and age where there is little, if anything, to be gained by being anything but positive in print. Print media is struggling to survive as online information outlets eat up informational market share. Advertising dollars are harder to come by. As such, offending any businesses—read, potential advertisers—can have serious consequences.
Despite that, Wise never pulled punches and I commend her for that just as I applaud San Diego Reader editors for not siphoning the poison from her inkwell. Critics need to be critical. If they’re not, then they’re no good to anybody. The fact is, in the restaurant biz—as with any industry or medium—there are standouts and underperformers, and you can’t appreciate the top tier without understanding the dregs of the bunch.
Looking back on Wise’s hundreds of reviews reveals a level of consistency. She liked what she liked and she outright hated what she hated. I didn’t always agree with her, but at least she was the type of umpire who squeezed the strike zone for every hurler she scrutinized.
There was no critic in town more universally disliked by chefs and more across-the-board adored by pissed off malcontents. What does this mean? Well, likely that she was, to an extent at least, one of the latter. While cantankerousness was easy to detect in her writing, joyousness was not. Secondly, she was not interested in making friends.
She didn’t seek out chefs or congregate with industry elite. Her job was to review restaurants and that’s what she did for a great many years. Over that span, whether readers loved or hated her, agreed with her or thought she was off her banquette, she was always her and a voice unlike any other in San Diego right now. It’s a voice that had its place in the local dining dialog and will be missed.