Outstanding Exposure? Rave reviews prove elusive

Northern Exposure is one of my favorite restaurants in Charlottesville: I like the food, the West Main Street location, and the gorgeous mural by Eli Frantzen. I also like the giant, black-and-white pictures of New York City landmarks. Clearly, owner Robert Weitzner wanted to infuse the restaurant with the flavor of Manhattan.

But has he gone too far? An investigation into his advertising claims suggests that he may have.

For some time now, ads for Northern Exposure have included this alleged rave, purportedly from the New York Times: "An outstanding experience."

But when did the review run? I faxed that question to Weitzner on September 18, and although I repeated the request during a phone call to his assistant, no documentation ever arrived.

I faxed my question again earlier this month, along with a request for verification of another rave for the restaurant, this supposedly from the Toledo Blade: "A gem."

Still no reply. Online searches in both newspapers' archives failed to turn up any mention of Northern Exposure– although in both cases, the restaurant has been in operation longer than the online archives, so it's conceivable that such review exists. If so, why not show?

Weitzner's reticence is in marked contrast to most restaurateurs' eagerness to display the full text of favorable reviews. Take the C&O, for instance, where excerpts from a number of its reviews are mounted on an inside wall. In the C&O's case, the rave from the New York Times– penned by Craig Claiborne, no less– was not only genuine, but the basis for a chapter (or at least a footnote) in Charlottesville literary history.

The story begins in March 1976, when co-founders Sandy McAdams and Philip Stafford transformed the long-neglected space across from the old C&O depot into an oasis of elegance. A month or so later, Claiborne– the legendary food writer and critic– arrived in Charlottesville. Stafford thinks Claiborne may have been headed for the rare books collection at UVA, where he hoped to research some aspect of Jefferson's cuisine.

He also planned to visit the literary duo of Peter and Eleanor Taylor, whom he knew through their mutual friend Jean Stafford. (Stafford had been married to Robert Lowell, Peter Taylor's roommate at Kenyon College.) "I was terrified," Eleanor Taylor recalls, "of any possibility of cooking for him," so the two men struck out on their own.

Taylor knew that his friend Claudine Cowan was helping to train the C&O's new chef, so they headed downtown. The restaurant hadn't yet been granted its liquor license, however, and, because they wanted a drink, the two promptly left.

"There goes the chance of a lifetime," Stafford remembers thinking, "vanished in 10 seconds." Not so: They came back and had dinner, and the rest is history.

"It was our first review," McAdams said, "and it led to all the others"– which, at last count, stood at 19 and included Bon Appetit and Food and Wine.

When McAdams and Stafford told me about their near-magical visit from Claiborne, it was obvious that they were describing a memory they cherished, and rightly so: They earned that review, and all the reviews that followed. Did Bob Weitzner earn his alleged mention in the Times– or, for that matter, the blurb from the Blade?

If the quotes are genuine, Weitzner ought to be willing to prove it. If not, he should remove them from his ads. I like many things about Northern Exposure– but I never like being deceived.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.