Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Reviewing Restaurants, Part I - The Restaurant Experience

This is a guest post by Cristin Hoover, Restaurant Reviewer for the Brookline Patch and blogger at Be sure to check out the second part as well! (If you'd like to write a guest post for, please email Rachel.)

Photo by Cristin Hoover
People tell us restaurant reviewers that we have the best job in the world. The truth is: it’s not that easy. We’ve all read the reviews breathlessly declaring “OMG! This place is SOOOOO good!” But a thoughtfully-crafted restaurant review is so much more than just grabbing a quick bite and deciding publicly whether you like it or not.

It can be difficult to put a sensory experience like eating into words; it can be even more difficult to convey the emotion behind the words without resorting to emoticons and exclamation points. Here I offer some tips on restaurant reviewing—in the first part, your experience at the restaurant, and secondly, the actual putting of pen to paper—that I hope will open a dialogue on this forum about reviewing, and give you a starting block for fabulous, witty reviews.

The Restaurant Experience

Know thyself. First, define your likes and dislikes—do you gravitate towards burgers and fries, or are you a caviar and foie gras type of eater? Are you a vegetarian? Do you put emphasis on any culinary attribute (do you write, for example, a blog focusing on local or sustainable food)? Are there any foods you don’t eat (I’m looking at you, cilantro)? Now, think about your ideal restaurant—is it dim and intimate, or bright and busy, or stylish and modern? When you’re at the restaurant, examine your mood: are you tired or feeling particularly critical? Knowing your own particulars will help you define the boundaries of what you consider “a good dish” or “a good restaurant,” thereby making it easier to remain objective.

A Merry Companion. Choose your dining companions for your trust in their palate and their culinary opinions. If you’re a vegetarian, think about inviting a carnivore. If you’re going to a place famous for their oysters, but you can’t abide by those particular mollusks, bring an oyster enthusiast. If you’re going to a restaurant that boasts authentic Chinese food, bring a Chinese friend who has eaten “authentic Chinese food” her whole life. You get the idea.

Your dining companion is an important part of the restaurant review equation; he or she can notice things that you fail to notice, or put a different spin on an aspect of the evening. I nearly always bring my husband, whose palate I trust even more than my own.

Choose Your Own Adventure. Put some careful thought into what restaurant you choose to review, and make sure your blog or other medium has a good variety of cuisines and establishment types. (This doesn’t apply, of course, if your blog focuses solely on cheeseburgers or something of that ilk.)

When it comes to reviewing a brand-new restaurant, the Association of Food Journalists’ (AFJ) guidelines for critics suggests that reviewers wait at least a month before visiting. Review a new place the day after it opens and you’re just asking for a hit-or-miss experience; wait until the dust settles for a good idea of the consistent level of service.

To Dine or Not To Dine. A sometimes hotly debated topic that has graced online forums like Chowhound is: how many times should you visit a restaurant before writing a review? Most professional reviewers at the biggest publications eat at a restaurant three times, sometimes twice, before writing it up. That’s all well and good (I’d probably go three times too, if I were earning a professional salary), but often not an option for those of us working at a more amateur level. I agree with Boston Phoenix reviewer Robert Nadeau when he wrote in this post that you visit “until you have a good sample of the menu.” A place with a short menu might require only one or two visits, depending on how many dishes you are able to sample during those visits. I’ve heard others comment that because a restaurant’s food and service should remain consistent every night, you can in good conscience review a place after eating there only once.

I’ll let you decide on this one, but I do have one opinion, which I’ll share: don’t write a strong negative review based on only one visit. It’s not fair to the restaurant or to your readers. (In fact, before writing any negative reviews, read the good, the bad, and the ugly in tomorrow’s post.)

The Order of Things. Keep your audience in mind when ordering your meal. You might be tempted by the fugu tartare with scallop-apricot foam, or the $90 porterhouse, but how many of your readers would actually order those? If you do order an unusual or exorbitantly expensive dish, tell us about some “everyman” dishes as well. I love this question that appeared recently in the New York Times dining section, answered by restaurant reviewer Sam Sifton:
When critics review restaurants, it seems they sample and report on the most exotic items on the menu (tripe, sweetbreads, octopus liver — does an octopus have a liver?) rather than on those that the average diner is most likely to eat. Is that because only adventurous diners become restaurant critics, or because reviewers get bored eating the same, common meals repeatedly, or because those are the specialties of the restaurant being reviewed?
Sam answered:
All of the above. Critics spend a lot of time eating the roast chicken, the mashed potatoes with chives, the steak frites, all the standard meat-and-taties entrees that average diners get all the time. So when a delicate little octopus liver comes along, poached in monkey blood, with a veal-and-cocoa ganache? It’s all they want to try. That’s not to say that we’re not still eating the chicken, only that we’ve fallen for the critic bait the chef put out there for us. Tripe is a terrific example. So is lung. Critics live for lung. And we’re mad for a restaurant’s “specialties,” too. Lamb face? Oh, yes.
The AFJ’s critic guidelines suggest this about ordering: “Reviewers should sample the full range of the menu, from appetizers to desserts… Order dishes that involve different cooking techniques (steamed, deep-fried, sautéed); different ingredients (one orders fish, another asks for beef); different styles (something traditional, something eclectic). Is there something the restaurant is known for doing well? Order it. In general, guests should avoid ordering the same thing.”

Notes on a Scandal. Record your entire dining experience honestly, from start to finish. Be specific with your notes, too; you don’t need to include all of your notes in your review, but they will help you remember the experience and sensations in detail. I very much like this thorough restaurant reviewer’s checklist from Michael Bauer, the Executive Food and Wine Editor and Restaurant Critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, which will give you an outline for your note-taking. One aspect of this checklist that I particularly like is how Bauer compartmentalizes the different aspects of service, atmosphere, and food. “The critic has to be able to separate the elements that go into a dining experience,” he writes, “…and then tie them all back together.”

Don’t Feel Entitled. Keep in mind that not everybody loves a reviewer. In December, a restaurant owner refused to serve the restaurant critic for the LA Times (he also took a photo of her and posted it on the internet to destroy her anonymity, but that’s another issue entirely). The LA Times reported that Noah Ellis, managing partner at the restaurant, decided to turn her away because "Irene is not the person any of us wanted reviewing our restaurant. … This was not a rash decision." It’s true that not all restaurants like being reviewed, and whether you agree with this attitude or not, please don’t go into your meal feeling like anything other than a regular diner on a regular night at a restaurant. That’s the experience that your readers want to know about, anyway.

Signed, Anonymous. I suppose with that last paragraph I’ve opened the door to the subject of anonymity, upon which I don’t have much to say. As restaurant reviewer for the Brookline Patch, I don’t maintain my anonymity because my editor didn’t feel it was necessary. As a blogger, I don’t feel it necessary either. My picture is up in both places, but I’ve never been recognized, not even with my notebook and pen at the table, and I don’t expect to be. It’s a personal choice that you (and your editor, if you have one) will need to make.

(I realize that this runs contrary to the AFJ’s guidelines for critic anonymity, but, as the AFJ states, their guidelines are suggestions, not hard-and-fast ethical rules.)

I do, however think it’s tacky to announce your presence as a reviewer or blogger in exchange for free stuff. Outright asking for free food compromises your integrity. Anyway, you’re there to write about the dining experience of a regular person, not a reviewer for which the server will comp a meal or walk on eggshells, right? If a restaurant approaches you offering payment or a free meal in exchange for a review, make your own decision—just be sure to note the payment in your review. Your readers can then decide how much weight they will give your words.

After all this careful planning and note taking, you’re finally ready to write your review!  Check out Part II, “Writing Your Review.”

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