My mouth is watering, and there’s not a thing I can do about it.
I’ve spent the past couple hours listening to drool-inducing descriptions of delicious food, from fall-off-the-bone ribs and foie gras mac ’n’ cheese to steaming mussels and shepherd’s pie.
But instead of running out to quelch my hunger, I have to be very, very quiet.
I’m at a taping for “Check, Please! Arizona,” the local restaurant review show that airs weekly on Eight, Arizona PBS. The set, on the sixth floor of ASU’s Cronkite Building in downtown Phoenix, is quiet as host Robert McGrath gets the go-ahead from producers in the control room.
At their signal, McGrath smiles and launches into the greeting viewers of the show, beginning its third season Jan. 3, have come to recognize: “Hello, and welcome to ‘Check, Please! Arizona.’”
In the green room
Since it went on the air in January 2011, “Check, Please! Arizona” has reviewed 78 Valley restaurants. Producers have received about 800 nominations, says producer Suzanne Guery, all from everyday people. The show also accepts nominations from around Arizona.
Three restaurants are covered in each half-hour episode, with guests discussing each eatery’s food, atmosphere and service.
Interested to know who applies to the show and what it’s like to be a guest, I arrive at the Eight studio one cool winter morning and am shown to the green room. It’s where guests — who have dined at each other’s favorite restaurants in recent days but have never met — hang out until it’s time to shoot their episode.
On the program this time: a pharmacist and a lawyer from Phoenix and Mary Len Wright, a nurse at Mercy Gilbert Medical Center in Gilbert. Like them, I’m sworn not to reveal their chosen restaurants until the episode airs.
Wright, 43, says her family of five eats out regularly at places close to work and their Chandler home, such as Dilly’s Deli, Floridino’s, Señor Taco and Joe’s Farm Grill.
Guest Heather Doyle, 40, also likes to uncover local gems.
“I’m from a small town in Nebraska. When we moved out here, it was like, ‘Wow! There are so many great places to go!’ My husband and I are always looking for the local places,” says the Phoenix pharmacist.
As we chat, each guest takes a quick turn in the makeup studio next door, getting a dusting of cosmetics made to look good on high-definition TV screens.
The chatter grows louder as three more guests, just finishing the taping of their episode, come into the room.
“It’s like sitting around the dinner table, just having a conversation. It’s not a rushed thing at all,” Kelly Madison, a guest from Tempe, reassures us.
Minutes before it’s my group’s turn to go in front of the cameras, Guery and producer Scott Wallin enter the room, giving the guests a flurry of instructions:
“Look at Robert or at each other, but not at the camera.”
“Don’t touch your mic.”
“We’ll go through your meal — appetizer, entree and dessert.”
“When the introductions are going, look at Robert, and give a nice smile.”
Before anyone can feel nervous about keeping all that straight, Wallin disarms us.
“Don’t worry,” he says, as we head out the door to the studio. “If you’re really bad, we have a little electric shock in the seat.”
On the set
On set — which is smaller than it looks on TV — the lighthearted mood gets even more buoyant, thanks to McGrath.
The 58-year-old winner of the culinary world’s prestigious James Beard Award and founding chef of Roaring Fork and Renegade Canteen restaurants in Scottsdale is affable and funny — and very good at establishing rapport with the guests, who he’s meeting for the first time.
“It’s trying to put them at ease and, also, use that time to suss them out a bit, try to figure out the different personalities,” he says. “You want to hit them with something right before the cameras roll so they all end up laughing and they’re loosened up. It becomes more fun and more gregarious and helps set the tone at the beginning of the show.”
McGrath, who rises at 5:30 a.m. on taping days after working late into the night at his Market Street Kitchen in Scottsdale, says he’s benefitted from the show as a diner.
“I’ve learned about a lot of restaurants I probably never would have known of, tucked into small places.”
And he’s not afraid that, at 13 episodes per season, “Check, Please! Arizona” will run out of restaurants worth featuring.
“There is growth (in the Valley dining scene), and there’s growth from within the community. These are chefs that have been working here for a while and have been sous chefs for other chefs. It’s a generational thing, an ongoing progression,” he says.
Just before the three giant cameras roll, he slips in a split-second line to surprise us: “Now is the time to get scared; now’s the time to really freak out!”
How it works
In order to be on “Check, Please!” viewers must submit an online application nominating three of their favorite diners, lunch trucks, cafes or fine-dining restaurants.
Guery, Wallin and other staffers give the most promising applicants a call, trying to discern who would be a good fit for the show.
“When people nominate their restaurants, they’re very eloquent and passionate. But we can’t tell if they spent three weeks writing (their application). Talking to them, we can see how they think on their feet,” says Guery.
“We’re trying to get three people together who will make for a lively show, trying to get a feel for how someone talks so we don’t get someone who freezes up on camera. And we want it to be a mixture of restaurants and price points.”
Once selected, applicants receive restaurant assignments. They must dine at all three eateries without revealing to the restaurant staff or anyone else that they’re on a mission for “Check, Please! Arizona.” They’re sworn to secrecy until their episode airs.
Guests are not paid, but they are given a modest stipend after their episode is taped to help cover the cost of meals.
Guery says most guests have one thing in common: “They’re a foodie. They like to talk about food.”
Dishing on local places to eat
A thread evident with my group was an appreciation for local establishments.
“I wanted to share a really good thing with others,” says Kathy Lange, a Phoenix interior designer and guest on the show. “When someone is doing something right, doing something so well, they deserve all the accolades they can get. I want to share that with someone else.”
Dominic Verstegen, 37, an attorney, says he’ll drive from Phoenix for good, local barbecue, such as Joe’s Real BBQ in Gilbert.
And some just like to eat.
“... (W)hen they called me, I was excited — and (my husband) was super excited because he got to go to all the restaurants with me,” says Wright.
She was pleasantly surprised to learn how many of her friends and relatives watch the show.
“You know, PBS isn’t quite NBC. So I was telling people (about being on the show), and I had a lot of people say, ‘I thought I was the only one who watched that show!’ Let me tell you, this show has quite the following. People love it.”
McGrath thinks “Check, Please!” is a hit for the way it dishes on local places to eat.
“It’s a grass-roots perspective on restaurants in the Valley,” he says. “There’s no food professional. There’s no food critic. Essentially, I’m a facilitator, so the guests are the ones doing all the discussion, and I think folks are more likely to identify with that than they are with some expert telling them, ‘This is how it’s supposed to be.’ It’s not intimidating to people. It’s comfortable, it’s casual.”
See for yourself
New episodes of “Check, Please! Arizona” begin Jan. 3, 2013. The show airs 7 p.m. Thursdays and 3 p.m. Saturdays on Eight HD.