My former editor at Westword, Patty Calhoun, was always fond of pointing out that eating is the easy part of being a restaurant critic: “It’s the writing that always gets you.”
So true. The hardest thing in writing about food, especially when trying to churn out concise, meaningful briefs for the “If You Go” portion of a travel story, is knowing what’s crucial to the reader and what can be left out.
Here are some tips to help you form the foundation for a simple “If You Go” brief to include at the end of your travel article. It may be helpful to print these out and keep them on hand as a model you can refer to again and again.
** 1. List the restaurant’s name, address, phone number, and website if there is one. Hours are not necessary unless a publication’s guidelines request them or they are particularly pertinent. It is helpful to include which meals the restaurant offers (for example, breakfast only, or lunch and dinner) and to state any days it is closed. I cannot stress enough how important it is to double-check, even triple-check the information. If a correction has to run the day after your first piece does, it may well be your last piece.
** 2. Next, make a quick list of the five most important things you want readers to know about this restaurant. Must-haves should include a reference to the location, cuisine style, and whether it is particularly suitable for a specific type of diner, such as couples on a romantic getaway, families, or solo travelers.
** 3. Pick out one or two dishes that are particularly noteworthy and come up with appealing ways to describe them. This is a chance to call attention to your writing style and to make it pop. Choose vibrant, active verbs and adjectives and be specific. Avoid clichés and overused words such as “delicious,” “tasty,” and “yummy.”
** 4. Think about what you would tell a friend about this restaurant. This will go a long way toward helping you come up with your first sentence for the brief, which should run right after the restaurant’s name and basic information. In an “If You Go,” this sentence serves as both the “lede” or “lead” (the word used in journalism to refer to the first paragraph of a story) as well as the “nut graf,” the later nugget that explains the value of the story. In a short “If You Go,” we’re condensing everything, so this tiny sentence needs to pack a lot in.
Now it’s time to put it all together. Start with the basic information, and then add the lede sentence. String together the rest of the pieces in sentence form, with no more than four sentences total, including the lede.
For example, I recently visited Tucson, Ariz., for an upcoming story, and stopped in at a favorite restaurant, Mariscos Chihuahua, to update the information for my “If You Go.”
Mariscos Chihuahua is a small, colorful Mexican eatery that specializes in seafood. There are three locations, but I like the one at the corner of North Grande and Speedway. This is how I will set up my brief…
Mariscos Chihuahua, 1009 N. Grande Ave., Tucson, 520-623-3563. Lunch and dinner.
The five things I want readers to know are: Fresh, Mexican-style seafood is the specialty. The location is right off a main thoroughfare. It’s family-friendly… they serve cheap beer… and the portions are huge.
The two dishes I want to showcase are: Shrimp sautéed in garlic sauce, two dozen of them blanketing thick-cut, golden French fries that had sopped up the heady sauce… and the deep-fried whole fish, as big as a football, and sporting an addictive skin that broke off in oil-soaked, crackly shards.
My lede: “In a city that celebrates its many Mexican eateries, seafood-oriented ones are rare, and good ones like Mariscos even more so.”
And here is how it looks when I put it all together:
“Mariscos Chihuahua, 1009 N. Grande Ave., Tucson, 520-623-3563. In a city that celebrates its many Mexican eateries, seafood-oriented ones are rare, and good ones like Mariscos even more so. Open daily at 9 a.m., the cheerful, nautically themed place serves lunch and dinner to families and anyone else who can find the somewhat hidden spot off bustling Speedway Boulevard. Inexpensive beer by the bottle goes well with fresh shrimp sautéed in garlic sauce, two-dozen of them atop thick-cut fries that had sopped up the heady sauce, or deep-fried whole fish as big as a football and sporting an addictive skin that breaks off in oil-soaked, crackly shards. The already ample entrees come with rice, a simple green salad and tortillas.”
Once you have it written and have fact-checked your blurb, read it again for atmosphere. Does it convey the main ideas you want to share with readers? If so, you’re all set.
A typical travel story should include three to five restaurant recommendations. Keep in mind that there won’t always be room for all of them to run. Sometimes, in order to get all of the restaurants in, the blurbs themselves will have to be cut. But I say the more information, the better. As an editor, I would rather have the option of taking away a sentence or two than be forced to track down a writer to find out if the place is kid-friendly or close to the White House.
Of course, not all editors feel that way, and their preferences are usually reflected in their guidelines, so always check there first before sending in a piece, and tailor each set of “If You Go” briefs for each publication.
[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]