On Restaurant Reviews, Anonymous or Not (and more)
I started reviewing restaurants at the very start of 2002. And it was a good gig for the next 15 years. But now those days are over, and I’m okay with that.
The budgetary considerations on meal costs (which the Packet reimbursed me for) simply became too much during this time of print retrenchment, and I understand. Truth be told, I enjoy writing my monthly In The Kitchen recipe column more than reviewing anyway.
That wasn’t always the case, but over the years I heard more about the recipe columns than the reviews from readers who were often searching for something good to cook at home. Our one-time love affair with convenience is giving way to DIY wholesome delicious meals for our families, although we may creatively mix convenience (say pre-cut ingredients or a purchased marinade) with home cooking. So, for now, I will just write my monthly In The Kitchen column and share my own – often impromptu – creations on Facebook and on this blog.
But I have some thoughts about restaurants and reviewing to share with you, thoughts that have been swirling around in my mind quite some time.
Number one is that many people still don’t understand the difference between a “real” review conducted anonymously (what the Packet did and the Times of Trenton still does) and a solicited (feed me for free and I’ll write about you) or amateur write-up. Yelp, as we know, is open to all comers, so while you can get a general idea of how well-liked a restaurant is, you do need to keep in mind that many yelpers may not know much about the food/cuisine they’re writing about (much less the realities of restaurant operation), especially where ethnic food is concerned.
Less easy to discern is whether many of today’s online “reviews” are, in fact, real reviews or just a promotional piece written in exchange for a free meal. Things like that should be CLEARLY labeled as far as I’m concerned because you can bet your booty that with advance notice the chef will put their best foot forward using the best quality (and best looking) ingredients, the most careful preparation, and gorgeous plating. (When I’ve been recognized during a review dinner, I’ve made sure to say so in my review. And I usually avoided opening parties, because of the increased chance of being recognized when I return for a review dinner later on.)
There are many new food and dining related websites in our area lately, and I admire the time these sites and bloggers have put in to design an attractive site, perfect their photography, provide useful information and, ultimately, to monetize the website. But it can be hard to tell if a write-up is the result of an anonymous or announced visit. I don’t appreciate coyness here. I want to know. I actually had a restaurant owner contact me once for my take on a person who’d told the owner (in effect) “I want to review you and will come in to eat and do a photo shoot.” It was difficult to parse the true meaning of her words until I did a deep dive on the internet, but I did eventually figure out this would be paid advertising as part of a advertorial “spread” on local dining the “reviewer” would pay to place in a daily newspaper.
Some of the New Jersey websites that cover dining that I’ve come across in recent years are below.
The Grazette is a charming website about all things food in Central New Jersey and Eastern PA. And when the writer travels, we get a glimpse of that destination too. All very nice, but not sure these count as reviews (nor do they claim to be), especially since there’s an invitation on the About page for chefs to get in touch if they have something about their establishment they want to promote. But you will get a good idea of a restaurant’s ambiance and menu offerings.
Striped Spatula has a statement about declaring when posts are sponsored, but that seems to refer more to product reviews. I’ve done that myself here, with Hoboken Farms and Finlandia, for instance. It’s clear in those cases that we’ve received free product, because we say so up front, but the opinions really are our own. I tend to be frank, but if I got some free product and just didn’t like it, I’d demur about writing about it. So I try to do some research online before I let them ship me stuff, or go buy one type of the product at a local store first. I’ve told more than one promotions person not to ship me a product that was clearly highly processed, over-salted food.
Jersey Bites, a collaborative online publication of New Jersey food writers, does specify if a recipe, for instance, is a sponsored post. And I notice they’re careful to say up front if a review is from an invited visit, as opposed to anonymous. On their “write for us” page, it states: “Restaurant Reviews: Our policy is to recommend restaurants we have personally enjoyed. We do not post negative reviews. Our writers do not get compensated for their meals.”
I’m thinking it’s time to be more specific by mentioning when a visit has been anonymous, as has been the case with my reviews for the Packet. People ask me all the time if the restaurant knows they’re being reviewed. Not if I can help it. Only when I’m nearly finished writing do I contact the restaurant to check details and give them a heads up. (Sometimes an owner will invite me to come back and eat for free to try more dishes, but I explain that’s just not how it works.)
Now, a word (or several) about ordering in restaurants. I do this because over the years my dining companions have often wished they’d ordered what I did, and sometimes asked “how did you know that was the thing to order?”
Almost any (non-chain) restaurant will have a couple dishes that are especially close to the chef’s heart. Ask your server what those might be. If the restaurant specializes in dishes from a certain country, or region in that country, try one that really is characteristic of that area.
Many Americans have little knowledge about traditional (or “authentic”) Chinese or Mexican food, for example. So while some diners might be enticed by a description of enchiladas smothered in melted cheese, others know that’s not how it’s really done in Mexico.
I have friends who love to go out for Italian food, but their idea of Italian invariably involves sauces on everything, even meats. When I see phrases like “a brandy cream sauce” or “rich demi glace” all over an Italian menu, that is to me a peculiarly French-influenced approach to Italian food. Not everything needs sauce, folks! A good grilled steak or chop or roast just needs its own natural juices and (maybe) a drizzle of olive oil and spritz of lemon. So, while I might not order this: T-bone steak with a porcini mushroom Frangelico demi-glace creme sauce (too much going on here for me), I love the same cut of steak prepared the more traditional Italian way, char-grilled and served with a drizzle of olive oil and herbs, as it’s done in Florence, Italy (and at the Homestead Inn).
The same goes for “specials” that are often aimed at the customer who wants prime ingredients to which a lot has been done. Fancy cuts of lamb in pastry with brandy sauce in a Greek restaurant was not worth it, as one friend of mine discovered. Ditto expensive beef tenderloin in a Chinese restaurant that had been cut into strips and bundled up with enoki mushrooms and tied with scallion. I think that kind of food is aimed at a certain type of diner (often female) who likes everything gussied up.
People also ask me about the worst dining or service experience I’ve had. The worst service was when a hapless waitress answered a personal call on her cellphone as she served my first course of risotto. My companion and I were so shocked we started laughing, and an alert manager quickly swooped in and hustled her away with an apology. Generally, though, I am happy with the service I receive. Sure, there are occasional lapses, but to stay in business today you must please the customer. Giving staff in a new establishment time to settle in and find their groove is a good argument for not rushing to review a restaurant until they’ve been open a few months, although that has fallen by the wayside lately, thanks largely to the pressure of “instant feedback” sites like Yelp.
My biggest service peeves are 1) Removing one person’s plate before all diners are finished with that course, and 2) over vigilance that means constant interruptions to check in, fill water, etc. And 3) “Are you guys still working on that?”
Danny Meyer, the New York restaurateur and CEO of the Union Square Hospitality Group, is known for the excellent, caring service in his restaurants. He really does believe in “hospitality” and refers to his customers as “guests,” although New York Times critic Pete Wells recently wrote a column about that, saying that the term “guest” implies that there’s no money changing hands, and that “customer” is more accurate. No matter what you call it, though, we all want the same thing in the end. Good food, pleasantly served, and – times being what they are – fair pay and means of food production.
Dine well my friends, it’s been a pleasure to serve you.
p.s. Just about every review I’ve written, going back at least several years, is on the Packet website, just use the search feature.