Bar Toma and the trouble with a negative restaurant review

Bar Toma and the trouble with a negative restaurant review
Photo via Chicago Mag.

I'll admit I'm not a particularly talented food reviewer.

I certainly enjoy eating food and writing about it as evidenced by my posts on Balena, Pie Hole and The Counter, but I also realize I simply don't have the palate for reviewing food well. I try my best, but restaurant food to me falls into one of just three categories – YUM! (a large portion of my meals); meh, but I'm going to finish it anyway (most foods not in the YUM! category); and yeah, I'm not going to eat this (very, very rare and usually involves avocado or feta cheese, neither of which I can handle in bulk.)

When I was editor of the Kane County Chronicle in St. Charles, part of my job was to occasionally play the part of the Mystery Diner – the newspaper's shadowy food reviewer. I always found the reviews ridiculously tough to write well without devolving into caveman speak. ME LIKE. ME WILL GO BACK AGAIN. SUBSCRIBE TO PAPER, MAYBE?

I'd finish the reviews, certainly, but I can't think of one I was particularly proud of. And then there were the restaurants that were terrible. I still feel bad about sending one of my staff members to review a now-defunct restaurant in which the tastiest thing it probably had in the entire place was the toy train that motored across the dining area.

As such, I have the utmost respect for those who review restaurants for a living and do it well. Furthermore, I don't like writing negative things about the food at a restaurant because – as I just detailed – who am I to judge, really? This, finally, brings us to Bar Toma, 110 East Pearson St., which my wife and I ate at recently.

Bear in mind, I'm not a particularly talented food reviewer. Bear in mind, I put food into one of just three categories.

But Bar Toma served me the sole margherita pizza I've had in Chicago that ended up in the "meh, but I'm going to finish it anyway" category. This might not sound bad to some, but for any pizza I eat not to end up in the YUM! category speaks very ill of that pizza. Very ill.

It was just … off. (There I go with my excellent food description.) The crust was good, but the rest fell flat. I didn't really like the sauce. I didn't really like the cheese. And the basil was either lumped together or non-existent.

Yet, even I know that one mediocre pizza does not a restaurant make.

My wife had the treviso and goat cheese crostini – which was creamy and delicious and easily landed in the YUM! category – and actual food reviewer, Phil Vettel of the Chicago Tribune, positively glowed about the restaurant in his three-star (excellent) review.

It seems – in this case, at least – that maybe I just ordered the wrong thing. Bar Toma is worth another shot, or as I might say in my soon-to-be-patented caveman food reviewer speak: ME WILL GO BACK AGAIN.

• Joe Grace is a writer and journalist who lives in Chicago with his wife. Write to him at

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