I was a spy. My weapon was a pen, and my pay was a full stomach. In fact the Lettuce Entertain You empire recruits about 200 savvy, observant spies every year to eat at its restaurants–for free. The food is free, the valet parking is free, the coat check is free, and if you have to wait a long time for a table, your drink is free.

Ever since I was young, I’ve had a talent for consuming all things free in large quantities. Needless to say, I signed up fast for my free grub-and-lots-of-it. But before you snarf down an extra salad or dessert just cuz, remember that nothing is really free. The catch is a ten-page survey to be filled out and sent back to headquarters within 24 hours of dining. And it’s no multiple-choice quickie but a detailed examination of the food and service that keeps the pen scratching well into the night. Plus, if you get that free drink while waiting for your table, you have to fill out a separate form for the bar service.

Only one page at the end of the form is devoted to the atmosphere of the restaurant–Lettuce focuses on what you eat, aiming for consistency, and how well the servers get it to you. The very efficient Lettuce ratings program, now nearly 20 years old, is corporate light-years from mastermind Rich Melman’s original restaurant, R.J. Grunts, which opened in Lincoln Park in 1971 (and remains open today, reveling in its outdated decor and salad bar). That restaurant’s early siblings–Jonathan Livingston Seafood, Lawrence of Oregano, and the Great Gritzbie’s Flying Food Show–became even more popular than their predecessor.

In 1976 Melman reopened the Pump Room in the Ambassador East, introducing finer dining to his empire than what had been offered in his gimmicky restaurants. Just a few years later he was opening true dining destinations like Ambria and Avanzare while quietly shuttering his goofy themed restaurants after long runs. These days the Lettuce organization owns and licenses over 70 restaurants in Illinois, Arizona, Georgia, Minnesota, Virginia, and Japan. In fact, if you’re a rater with a fondness for shopping, you should let Lettuce know about your next trip to Mall of America–you may find yourself eating a free meal at the Minnesota version of Tucci Bennuch.

But remember the price tag. About half the rating form is given over to large blank spaces to be filled in with detailed descriptions of every item ordered, from appetizers to entrees to desserts. Rate the appearance. Rate the freshness. Rate the flavor. Rate portion size to value. Was it the right temperature? I was always perversely pleased when the food didn’t measure up because filling out the form would be simpler. It’s a lot easier to say what’s wrong with an item (it wasn’t hot, it was too salty, capers topped the item but they weren’t on the menu and I hate capers) than it is to justify giving it a perfect five, the highest mark.

The task of describing just one menu item will quash restaurant-critic envy instantly. Your tongue becomes a sleuth, hunting down the most subtle clues. Thyme. No, wait, it’s rosemary. Or is it marjoram? Kent Rayhill, who owns a graphic-design company, felt the ratings program might be too good to be true. It was. “I had a very hard time coming up with the right descriptions for the food, and out of desperation would end up describing a crab dish as ‘crablike’ or lemon sorbet as ‘lemony.'”

Perhaps Rayhill wasn’t paying attention during the three-hour training session required of all raters who get interviewed and make the cut. Not only do the Lettuce trainers painstakingly review every page of the form, they offer a list of adjectives to help describe your food. “We can write this stuff down at the table, right?” a misguided rater asked at the training session for the first of my three stints. No writing at the table, no winking at your partner, no rater argot about “check-backs” and “crumbing” within earshot of the servers. But even with Lettuce’s assistance, Rayhill found the forms daunting. “It felt like taking the SATs every week, but taking them in a car late at night on a full stomach.” He did the 15-week program of 13 restaurants once.

Whether you’re dining at Big Bowl or Brasserie Jo, the rules are the same. Raters can ask to dine mostly close to home. And there are plenty of places to choose from–Foodlife or Mity Nice if you’re shopping, Everest or Vong if you’re feeling fancy.

After three tours of duty, I have been ruined when it comes to eating out. And I’m not the only one. “I think I’ve become a chore to dine with,” says film editor Deb Schimmel, who now fills out the rating form in her head no matter where she eats. “I wish I could reclaim my dining innocence.” It’s easy to understand her regrets if you’ve been through the program. I have to bite my tongue to stop myself from reminding my fellow diners that at a Lettuce spot this waiter would be in big trouble. I fret if the server hasn’t appeared within three minutes (a strict Lettuce rule) or the hosts don’t say “thank you” and “good-bye” (another law graven in stone).

“I never realized how much effort and thought went into every aspect of their restaurants,” says Sonja Melcher, a grade school teacher in Palatine who was sent to places like Rolling Meadows’ Gino’s East, Oak Brook’s Maggiano’s, and a Corner Bakery in Skokie (restaurants Lettuce no longer owns, though it still manages Maggiano’s and Corner Bakery). “The servers have so many rules they have to follow, down to the minute.” Melcher says she could never work as a server at a Lettuce establishment. “At any time, at any moment, to know you might be judged would be awful. At least I know in advance when the principal is coming in to watch my classroom.”

Robbi Kramer, a manager at Peoples Energy Services, played the role of principal to a very poor server one evening. After filing her report she received a call from Lettuce management wanting more details. “The most surprising thing about filling out the forms,” she says, “is that Lettuce reads them and really pays attention.” She says the call she received was “of the ‘tell me more about how this could have been a better experience’ variety rather than the ‘you’re too picky’ variety.”

Lorri Cox was the ratings program manager for about a year and a half before she left at the end of July (Stephanie Smock has replaced her). “The managers go through the form by themselves first,” Cox explained. “Then they go over them with the individuals involved.” A manager may choose to share a really laudatory report with the entire staff at a shift meeting. But what about the overzealous, extrapicky rater just looking for trouble? “We get every type of guest in our restaurants,” said Cox. “It’s only fair to bring in a mix of these people as raters.”

One would think that such a regimented approach would give birth to a utopian chain of eateries where the water glass is always filled and the coffee is always hot. One would think. Very important in the hierarchy of rules is the check-back–the “Is there anything else I can get for you?” that’s supposed to follow the entrees. Schimmel says that on one of her visits “the waiter came up to us after 30 minutes–most of which he’d spent hanging out by the table of blond sorority chicks across from us–and asked, ‘So how’s that chicken treating ya?'” That form must’ve been fun to fill out.

On my third go-round as a rater, my partner and I–you must sign up with someone–were elevated to the hallowed fine-dining program. One of our first spots was Nacional 27, the Latin American place that’s risen from the ashes of Hat Dance on Huron. This was fine dining? The server didn’t arrive at our table for what seemed like ten minutes, mixed up our order (a no-no anywhere), couldn’t describe menu items (a broken rule), and never checked back, which was especially annoying since we needed to return the food to the kitchen. Eventually we were allowed to eat our entrees and were even promised free desserts–a nice gesture if we’d ever gotten them. The table next to us loved their desserts. In fact, they loved them so much they ordered seconds–and got them–while we waited for our freebies that were really free anyway. We used a lot of ink on that form.

But we found it’s no accident Lettuce Entertain You rules the local restaurant scene. When we got sent back to Nacional 27, our service was perfect, our food was perfect, the experience was perfect–except for coffee refills, but no restaurant will ever master that. In a few short weeks Lettuce management had transformed the new eatery into a miracle of organization. Every server was followed by an assistant, and an army of bussers hovered nearby.

Kramer had a bad server at the same restaurant. She notes, “We were certainly not the only people to write a bad review, but the specific things we touched on were better on our second visit. The true beauty of the program is that we would never have gone back there again. After our return visit, we were recommending it to others.” Rayhill notes the sense of satisfaction when he received bad service: “You knew that your server was going to take a bit of a beating.” At the same time, “It was equally nice knowing that when you had great service, your server was going to get great marks.”

And a bonus. In my three times through the program, I gave perfect scores to only two servers, who then received gift certificates from Lettuce. Managers pay particular attention to the ratings since their own bonuses–and even the chef’s–are based on the restaurant’s weekly reports. That means the bathroom maintenance card on the back of the door had better be kept up to date, and the salt and pepper shakers clean and filled.

Those who think they’re up to the challenge of the rating form–which Rayhill describes as “absolute torture”–can E-mail Lettuce Entertain You at raters@leye.com. Cox said that only about one in four applicants is accepted into the program. “We’re very limited by how many can go through the program at one time.” Those picked are “very observant people who are detail oriented.”

Kramer offers one other piece of advice: “Choose your partner carefully.” After their first meal together, Kramer asked her partner to describe the food. “It’s good” was the reply. “I went into this whole thing,” says Kramer, “about how she needs to describe its flavor, its consistency, its aroma, its feel, its bouquet, blah blah blah. She’s nodding the whole time I’m saying all of this. I finally finish talking, and she looks at me and says, ‘It’s really good.'”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.