I was supposed to love being a restaurant critic. What happened?

I suspect it’s not uncommon to come to a point where you stop enjoying food, though I haven’t met many critics who admit it.

Wyatt Williams
Former AJC restaurant critic Wyatt Williams snaps a photo of a dish.

Photograph by Jamie Allen

Six weeks ago, I woke up at five in the morning with a stabbing pain in my side. The night before I’d been out eating dinner at a restaurant I’d meant to review, but I’d been having a strange case of chills and fever before I got there. Even after I’d been in the restaurant for 30 minutes, I still couldn’t warm up. I could hardly eat. I asked for a to-go box and signed the check and went home defeated, sick, and fell asleep early. When I woke up with that pain, it seemed like something was very wrong.

My girlfriend drove me to the emergency room, where the receiving nurse began working through some of my symptoms. Fever? Yes. Chills? Yes. Pain? Yes, right here on my side. Loss of appetite?

I wanted to laugh at that last question. I had already lost my appetite a long time ago, though I couldn’t say exactly when. That would have been a long story, hard to explain to a nurse in an emergency room at five thirty in the morning. I just said yes, and she checked the box.

So, here’s a slightly longer version: When I started writing restaurant reviews for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution four years ago, I never thought I would get my fill of it. I could hardly believe my luck. Four years later, I couldn’t have been more ready to quit. When I wrote my editor a few months ago telling her that I wouldn’t be filing reviews for the paper anymore, she, quite understandably, wanted to know why. I said I didn’t really want to talk about it, that I’d rather crawl off and do whatever it is I plan to do with the rest of my life. That explanation didn’t seem good enough to her. Eventually, it didn’t to me, either. I kept wondering: Wasn’t I supposed to love this job, going out and eating dinner and complaining about it for a living? What went wrong?

I feel compelled to mention that we’re living through a time of acute crisis. On the days when we’re collectively coping with another mass shooting, another climate-related disaster, another mandate from our xenophobic president, I’ve had a harder time wording my complaints about the cheese dip or wine list or whatever. That seems like most days lately. Yet, I know that this is not at all why I’m leaving restaurant criticism. I believe that in times of crisis we should hold strong to our arts and culture, to the things that make us human. I believe as much as I ever have that food is an essential part of that, at least as much as anything else.

I should also mention that Atlanta’s restaurant scene is in a rut, in part because of the economic climate. I used to think that a bad economy was bad for restaurants, but I had no clue how bad a good economy could be. The explosion of real estate developments and rising rents in this town have clearly encouraged a recent trend of cynical, money-grab restaurant, where the rooms are finely appointed, the menus are deeply predictable, and the cooking is barely passable. It’s been a drag to review an unusual number of mediocre restaurants over the past year or so. For all of my cynicism about the state of Atlanta’s restaurants, though, I know there are plenty of exceptions to that trend. There are so many great places to eat in this town and plenty more to come. It’s a critic’s job to eat both good and bad meals, to be able to point out the difference between the two. A few bad restaurants in a row is no reason to give that up.

The other day I called Christiane Lauterbach, this magazine’s critic and the publisher of Knife and Fork, and told her I was giving up on writing restaurant reviews. I asked her if she’d ever considered doing the same thing. Lauterbach wrote her first restaurant review in 1983, the year before I was born, and has continued writing them ever since. There have been presidencies and wars and the Olympics and 9/11 and a divorce and the invention of the internet. No matter. “I still put on my lipstick and went to dinner,” she said. “I never thought about it as a career. If I had expected to make a lot of money, I would have been out in flash. But one has to eat.”

She asked why I was giving it up. I said I felt a little like someone at the end of an affair, on the morning that you wake up in bed and realize that you haven’t been in love for some time, though you can’t say how long. There are so many great stories about falling in love with food, about the way it can take over your life and fill every meal, even every moment between them, with a new kind of meaning. The same way I turned to those stories when I first started writing about food—originally at Creative Loafing, subsequently at this magazine—I have returned to them recently, trying to figure out what changed.

I wasn’t even two pages into A.J. Liebling’s Between Meals when I came across a line I had once cherished: “The primary requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite.” When I read those words a decade ago, I believed in them like they were a key, permission to open a door. I knew that I had the sort of appetite that Liebling described. I cultivated and practiced it. I fed it endlessly. I exercised this appetite, as Liebling suggests, “like a prizefighter’s hours on the road.”

Somewhere along the way, I lost my appetite. Even on the days when it does come fleetingly back, I tend to regard it with skepticism. For some time now, I’ve been dreading the meals I review. I suspect it’s not uncommon in this industry to come to a point where you stop enjoying food, or stop loving it the way you once did, though I haven’t met many who admit it. A lot of people stay in bad marriages, too, for one reason or another. In that way, I’m walking away right now while I still can. I’m writing this so I can’t come back. It feels a little shameful, like giving up. Making this decision has given me a new respect for my peers who’ve found their own ways to carry on.

The other day, Lauterbach told me, “In the pit of your stomach, you know if it makes you happy. For me, there is no better day than puttering around in my old car looking for a meal.”

I used to love a chapter from Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, the one where he recounts eating an oyster shucked right out of the Bassin d’Arcachon in France as a 9-year-old. This was the moment for him, the one where he got his first real taste of his own appetites. He wrote, “Everything that followed in my life—the food, the long and often stupid and self-destructive chase for the next thing, whether it was drugs or sex or some other kind of new sensation—would all stem from this moment.” As with that line of Liebling’s, I used to see my own appetites in these words. Last year, when Bourdain was found in that hotel room in the same country where he tried his first oyster, that sentence took on a different meaning. I wish it were harder to recognize. Anyone who has lived with and for those appetites can tell you they may change after some time. The thing that used to make you want to eat can start eating you. No, I don’t like that chapter anymore.

If you were concerned about the other morning in the emergency room, let me tell you I got good news. It wasn’t anything as bad as I had imagined. They discharged me after a few tests and told me to sleep it off and be careful about what I eat. Good timing, I thought.