Decked out in purple hat and veil, rhinestones and pop-it beads, her faithful poodle, Bud, peeking out from her lap, Karen Salkin holds up a Polaroid of herself sipping tea at one of Los Angeles’ plusher restaurants. As the cameraman focuses on her visual aid, Salkin instructs her television audience to study the snapshot closely. “I grabbed what I thought were gorgeous white gloves and when I got there, it turned out they were knee socks,” she confesses. “But I believe in glamour, so I put them on anyway.”
Welcome to the world of Karen Salkin, self-appointed restaurant reviewer and show-biz hopeful. For the past 18 months Salkin has charmed and bewildered the 112,000 Angelenos who subscribe to the Group W cable channel with her breathless monologues about dating, men, her childhood crush on Paul McCartney and her period. (“This is the first show I’ve taped when I’ve been a woman.”) And, almost incidentally, restaurants. Group W is one of the city’s public access stations, where anyone with the $35 it takes to shoot a nonporn, nonpolitical half hour can get the result on the air.
On the same program as the knee-sock episode, Salkin adorned Bud in a black beret and gigglingly referred to him as a “French poodle,” then pulled a glove onto his paw and wondered if he was Michael Jackson. She also made a risqué joke, apologized for it, then retracted her apology. “I mean, classy is boring, unless you’re Grace Kelly,” she announced.
The Salkin restaurant reviewing method, boiled down to its basics, is: “First, you check out the ambience [“ambience” is pronounced with a nasal whine only a Brooklyn native could love]. Like, is it friendly? Then you look for celebrities. Then you check out the waiters to see if they’re cute and marriageable or if they’re gay. I review waitresses too, but I’m more guy oriented. Okay, now you look at the menu.” In particular, the desserts. “The more chocolate, the better the review,” says Salkin.
Salkin, who is 30ish (she admits to 21 and admits it’s a lie), takes her reviews seriously—though she seldom wastes much air time on them. If a place is terrible, she says so. “Bad reviews are funnier than good ones. I don’t like being mean, but it’s gotten so that every time I go out to eat, I’m hoping it’ll be bad,” she says. “Then I can go on the show and say, ‘Oh, boy, was that a bad meal.’ ” In a memorable show she brandished for the cameras droopy carrot sticks, radishes and celery stalks she had swiped from a restaurant the day before. “Would anyone eat these?” she asked. Another time she said she’d consumed what she thought was a meatball only to discover it was blood sausage. “I have never had anything so vile in my mouth,” Salkin said. “It was worse than tongue.” And she took a dim view of the service at a restaurant known for its aspiring actors doing time as waiters. “Aren’t they slow? Aren’t they mean?” she asked her audience. “Everyone’s walking around going, ‘Why do I need to be nice to you? You’re just a customer and I’m going to be a star someday.”
Of course, the program has brought Salkin a certain amount of stardom. Such noted food experts as Carl Reiner, Sly Stallone, Tony Danza and Arnold Schwarzenegger have all told her they’re fans, she says, and she has twice been on Johnny Carson’s show, her lifelong dream. “I’d been practicing for years what I’d say,” she admits.
The daughter of two Brooklyn high school teachers, Salkin always wanted to be a star. Her mother, May, recalls that Karen (“She was always a picky eater”) gave shows for the family and neighbors as a 3-year-old. Although Salkin has a speech and theater degree from Rhode Island College and spent several years as an elementary school teacher in Providence, R.I. and Los Angeles (hated getting up early, loved the cafeteria food), she has for the past several years concentrated on being an actress.
Her hope is that the restaurant show will lead to a situation comedy along the lines of Mario Thomas’ That Girl. Her boyfriend, producer-actor Ray (House Calls and Rhoda) Buktenica, came up with the idea for Karen’s Restaurant Revue as “an inexpensive way to get her in front of a lot of people,” a sort of weekly audition for any Hollywood producers and casting agents who might be watching. Buktenica, referred to on air as Mr. X, pays for the show. “Listen,” says Salkin, “it’s cheaper than a shrink.”