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Leslie Brenner On Eight Tumultuous Years as the Dallas Morning News Food Critic

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The departing critic dishes on her tenure ahead of a new gig in the hospitality industry

Courtesy Rebees

Earlier this week, news that Dallas Morning News food critic Leslie Brenner had resigned her post rocked the Dallas dining scene. The divisive reviewer has taken a position with Tristan Simon’s hospitality group Rebees. For the past eight years Brenner has served as the paper’s chief critic, and it’s been a tumultuous run.

In her time at the Morning News, Brenner has filed hundreds of reviews, at least a few of which have inspired controversy that lingers around the critic. After learning that his restaurant Knife had only earned three stars, Chef John Tesar lambasted the critic on Twitter, inspiring a national news story. She was banned from Tesar’s restaurants, and later, had to don a Halloween costume in order to review an Arts District restaurant.

In a 2013 op-ed, former D Magazine critic Nancy Nichols described Brenner as “mean-spirited” and an “ineffectual dining critic.” A group of restaurateurs also waged a short-lived war on the critic, refusing to let her pay (which is part of the paper’s policy) at their establishments. She’s also taken plenty of flack over the years for her coverage of the city’s Tex-Mex scene, and was once accused of plagiarizing a “best barbecue” list published by Texas Monthly editor Daniel Vaughn.

At the same time, rave reviews from Brenner helped propel chefs like Matt McCallister and Omar Flores into the national culinary spotlight. At least a few major Dallas chefs, including Stephan Pyles, also came to her defense in the thick of the Tesar dust-up. Brenner sat down with Eater to look back over the ups and downs of these past eight years and share her most memorable experiences, from the time she dressed up like a mummy to review Proof + Pantry to her all-time favorite meals in Dallas. Brenner’s last day at the Dallas Morning News is September 8.

Eater: What was your most memorable moment as Dallas' chief restaurant critic?

Leslie Brenner: I’m pretty sure in 30 years I’ll still remember walking into Proof + Pantry dressed as a mummy.

What was the best restaurant meal you had in your time here?

It’s impossible to single out just one; there were so many great experiences. Usually my favorites were the “firsts” — the first time I tasted Misti Norris’ cooking at Small Brewpub. Or the first Bruno Davaillon dinner I had at the Mansion. Or my first dinner at Bambu, when I was completely blown away by Bounmee Nanthaphak’s Thai cooking, or lunch at La Candelaria — a Richardson taqueria whose cabrito tacos on handmade corn tortillas glued me to the ceiling. I’m still dreaming about my first omakase experience at Tei-An.

What was the most challenging aspect of your role as food critic?

Being able to write, week after week after week, something I felt was thoughtful and engaging enough to ask readers to take their precious time to read. The challenge was creating something that gave them a vivid vicarious experience, along with useful, specific information and opinion, plus perspective and context. I also tried to provide actionable constructive criticism for the restaurant, if appropriate. But I still wanted it to be a fun read.

Like many critics, you took your own share of criticism from chefs and fellow writers. Looking back, how did that criticism influence or impact your time at the paper?

If chefs and restaurateurs had nothing but nice things to say about my work, I probably would not have been doing a good job. I was baffled, though, by some local food writers who flouted the unwritten rule that journalists do not go out of their way to criticize other journalists. It’s not something I ever saw in other cities. Fortunately, I think that situation has improved — and continues to improve — which should be good news for whomever The Dallas Morning News hires to replace me.

Why the leap across the desk from journalist to industry employee — was it just time for a change?

After 29 years in journalism, I’ve achieved just about everything I wanted to achieve in the field. Joining Rebees is an amazing opportunity. Tristan Simon is not just a visionary, but one of the smartest, most creative people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. Rebees is much more than a Dallas restaurant group; it’s a real estate development company that will be conceptualizing and creating thoughtful mixed-use developments, including food halls, retail, hotels, office and residential space, and yes, restaurants, all across the country.

The chance to be part of that, to be creating culture and community, is irresistible. We’re losing, in this country, the ability to connect with each other in ways that satisfy our souls, and I’m eager to be part of what could be a solution, helping to create places that can foster those connections. Also, and not insignificantly, I’ve gotten to know -- and fallen in love with -- the other two people on the Rebees team, Taryn Anderson and Fran Mayo. I think we’re going to have a lot of fun.

What exactly will your role at Rebees entail?

As part of the creative team, I'll contribute my conceptual point of view and passion for ideation on Rebees' projects, whether restaurant-related or otherwise. That will often involve soaking up the culture of a place and translating it to a project. I’ll also take the lead in creating the verbal and visual narratives that serve as back-stories for our projects, as well as using my critic’s sensibility to help fine-tune guest experiences. The Rebees website gives a clear picture of what some of those projects will be just out of the gate; one of them is Victory Park.

How did the conversation with Tristan Simon about your new gig begin?

I first met Tristan in 2015, after he had sold Consilient, his restaurant group. I asked him to be on a panel I was moderating about modern Texas cuisine, part of the Savor Dallas festival. We became friends, and the idea of working together eventually grew out of our friendship.

What about Cooks Without Borders? Do you plan to expand your recipe writing now that your time as a critic is over?

I haven’t decided yet. In any case, I’ll certainly continue cooking!

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