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Plat du Jour October 10, 2012: Can a Restaurant Really Be Critiqued After One Visit?

Last week I was discussing with a husband and wife, restaurateur and chef team about the now dozens and dozens of outlets for the media and the public to review their restaurant. I, for one, never support trusting reviews where the merits and critiques of the restaurant are in the typical sparse, harsh “Yelp style:” “This sucked” or “The cake was better than sex.” Why did it that dish suck? How was the cake such an accomplishment?

It’s the fundamental lesson I remember from high school English class: “So, What?” Where is the evidence? What is the point of your argument?

Pepperoni Pizza with San Marzano Tomato, Wood Oven Roasted Onion, and Star Route Farms Wild Arugula at Napa’s Oenotri

The scary part of this story is just how much of an influence the brief reviews on Yelp (or Urbanspoon or Facebook “likes” or tweets or blogs with no responsibility or respect) have on the success of the people running restaurants. Even worse is how much of an influence the “stars” on Yelp actually have on the public. If we can’t trust Michelin stars or Zagat point ratings, how in the world can Yelp’s stars be trusted when the reviews often involve “yummy” as an adjective or a reviewer might not have enjoyed the chicken with prunes because he or she doesn’t like prunes. Well, I like prunes, so maybe I would like that dish?

O.K., enough sounding like the old curmudgeon who yearns for the old days when the waiter at the corner bistro knew your name and your favorite wine. Fortunately, there are actually a very large number of those humble, community centered restaurants with a heart that still exist in neighborhoods worldwide. That is why this conversation last week with the owners of my beloved local cafe made me so concerned about the status of restaurant reviewing today, specifically Yelp.

Professional food journalism is dwindling rapidly, along with professional journalism in general. There are still a select few magazine, newspaper, television, and online critics who are PhD. qualified experts on their beats, how a restaurant should operate, how something should really taste, how a meal should progress based on the restaurants ambitions…Many of those writers have worked in restaurants, whether front or back of the house. They are eloquent with words, turning reviews into beautiful tales. Better yet, they check their punctuation and speling

But most importantly, this is their job. They go to these restaurants at least three times before giving a the final report. They wait at least three months for a new restaurant or a new chef to hit their stride. I know I’m perfect always on day one, but often a restaurant or a sports team or a theatre production aren’t flawless without a few days to sort out the kinks.

For the other 99.9% of the restaurant reviewing community, this is not their job, or at least it’s only the writer who thinks it’s their job, even if they’re the one paying the bill.

Chicken Roulade with Hen of the Wood Mushrooms Tempura, Green Garlic, and Celery Root Purée

This hit home for me a few years ago when I wrote an article as a Southern California newspaper restaurant critic on my one day visit to Salt Lake City and boldly claimed the city as a disappointing dining destination for being an Olympic city and major launching point for skiing.

I didn’t eat at the city’s best restaurants according to many professional food writers because my visit was on a Monday. I only had three meals to gauge the city. And the locals, rightly so, tore me up. How could I judge a restaurant on one visit? How could a judge a whole dining scene on three places?

For the latter, they’re completely right. You can get an impression of a dining scene from a couple of carefully selected restaurants, but that’s barely even skimming the dining scene in a Midwest small town, let alone New York or Los Angeles.

With the concept of a one hit, one visit review, is that really a review? Can a restaurant’s caliber really be determined based on one visit? Unlike with films, restaurants change. They evolve. Every evening is different. The menu often changes nightly, or monthly at least. What if a waiter felt wonderful Monday, but last night just broke up with his girlfriend? What if the man next to you is completely obnoxious? Is that the restaurant’s fault? He wouldn’t be there tomorrow. Or would he?

The point is, of course a one visit review cannot properly determine a restaurant’s caliber. It is a snapshot in time, presenting the pros and cons of a specific meal. A professional review at least gives some more substance. Perhaps the chicken was dry a month ago, but the most recent visit had a terrific chicken dish.

One restaurant in the city I reviewed in literally got worse and worse, the paella dryer and dryer, the service more cold and impersonal, per numerous visits over a year. On the star scale, it started with three. At the end, it could barely receive two.

It has 4 stars on Yelp today with 431 reviews.

Recently, two professional critics wrote about the non-professional critics and their effect today. Pete Wells of The New York Times brilliantly pointed out how the extensive, expensive tasting menus we see today are for chefs to garner the love of the food-obsessed blogosphere and in return, the bloggers want to dine there to add to their “trophy case,” not for a meal.

RDG’s Grill Room

Towards the end of this interview with David Tamarkin, the critic for Time Out Chicago, Tamarkin points out that what food criticism is a form of “consumer advocacy.” He couldn’t be more correct. If a meal at a Noma or Alinea ambitious level restaurant slipped and nobody reported it, what’s keeping the restaurant from cheating consumers? We’re not talking Enron here. But, we’re talking about keeping businesses honest.

So, can you really review a restaurant after one visit? Not in the sense of a real, professional review. You can determine if that meal was special or not from one visit. Then again, maybe your next visit won’t be as impressive as the reviewers.

What you really can judge from one visit is if a restaurant is trying to get you to return. The dishonest, cold food, cold service places don’t deserve anyone’s time.

It’s the restaurants of many, many chefs, owners, and servers who care about their business and your experience, where one visit provides a trustworthy sign of its consistent quality. Let’s ignore Yelp and help these folks instead.

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