Over-Exposured: My quest for truth at Northern

I seem to be heading for an extended relationship– in print, that is– with Robert Weitzner.

First I wrote about him in his role as a landlord ["Weitzner Properties: All three refunds– MIA," September 26, 2002]. Then I wrote about him in his role as owner of Northern Exposure, a West Main Street restaurant ["Outstanding Exposure? Rave reviews prove elusive," January 16, 2003].

Now I'm going to write Chapter Two in the Northern Exposure saga. Here's the story so far.

Last summer we received a tip that Weitzner was indulging in wishful thinking when he claimed, in newspaper advertisements for the restaurant, that the New York Times had declared Northern Exposure "an outstanding experience." When I was researching my September column, I asked several times that he provide some documentation. None ever came.

Not only did he fail to confirm the Times quote, but he added another, this time supposedly from the Toledo Blade ("A gem").

In December, I tried to get him to show me some proof for either or both reviews, but again he didn't.

When my column appeared last month, I was surprised to hear that he'd posted it on the restaurant's front window– or at least, the part that raised questions about his integrity. (After discussing Northern Exposure's ads, I went on to describe the history of Craig Claiborne's semi-legendary review of the C & O in the New York Times.) People asked me if I thought that Weitzner didn't get it– i.e., didn't understand that the column suggested he was being deceitful– but I don't think that's possible.

The theory I favor is that because the column opened with my statement that "Northern Exposure is one of my favorite restaurants," Weitzner figured the positive would outweigh the negative– and in any case, there's always the theory that there's no such thing as bad publicity. (I should say here, however, that I have extremely limited food tastes and am the last person anyone should consult on culinary issues.)

Weitzner's exuberance didn't end with posting the column for all to see; he also sent me a $25 certificate for a free meal, which, reluctantly, I returned with a thank-you note.

I dropped by one morning to see if the column was still there and lingered to read something else he's got up in the window: a tongue-in-cheek history of the restaurant that plays fast and loose with the truth. For instance, there's no mention of former partner Stu Rifkin, who is widely recognized as having played a pivotal role in the restaurant's creation.

Even odder, however, is the writer's claim that his "cousin Naomi" painted the restaurant's mural, which in fact is by well-known local artist Eli Frantzen. When I spoke with Frantzen about her dealings with Weitzner and told her about cousin Naomi, she exclaimed, "Is he losing his mind now?"

Perhaps Weitzner painted Frantzen out of the picture because of an ugly aspect of the mural's history. In 1998, a woman drove her car through the wall of the restaurant and caused extensive damage. When the wall had been repaired, Frantzen repainted the mural, and Weitzner submitted a claim for damages to his insurance company.

According to Frantzen, Weitzner later gave her a check for $500. Unbeknownst to him, however, the insurance company– after asking Frantzen how much her work was worth– had agreed to pay her at least twice what Weitzner was giving her (she can't remember the exact amount, but says it was in the neighborhood of $1,200). When Frantzen confronted him about the discrepancy, she claims, he declared, "We can no longer be friends."

"I had to hound him to get the rest of the money," she says, adding that a "friend" wouldn't have done that in the first place. "I would never in a million years think he would screw me like this."

Weitzner declined to comment. But who knows? Maybe he'll stick this one up in his window as well.

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.