Thursday, August 30, 2007

Why I don’t review restaurants

August 30

“I really like this restaurant.”
“I love this restaurant.”
“I really love the restaurants in this neighborhood.”
“This restaurant is great. Isn’t it great?”
“I love Gramercy Tavern.”
“I really like this place.”
“This is my favorite restaurant in the city.”
That, pretty much, is what my boss, Nation’s Restaurant News editor-in-chief Ellen Koteff, said as she took me and another one of my bosses, NRN executive food editor Pamela Parseghian, to dinner at Gramercy Tavern.
I sort of snapped, and said something like, “I know you like Gramercy Tavern. Why don’t you think of something interesting to say now?”
She quieted down for a little while, and then asked, “Are you going to write how great Gramercy Tavern is in your blog?”
“No,” I said.
“But you have to!” she said. “It’s so great.”
So I reminded her that I avoid commenting on the quality of restaurants, explaining: “That way lies madness.”
Because for one thing, my job is to write about food trends in restaurants. My readers (not including you, dear blog reader; who knows who you are?) are mostly chefs and restaurateurs who do not care much whether I like a particular restaurant. They want to know what’s happening to give them ideas for their own operations.
Who are my sources for those trend stories? Chefs. So I can’t very well go around bad-mouthing restaurants and alienating my sources.
But most importantly, as I mentioned here, my experience is different from your average restaurantgoer.
And so is Ellen’s.
Take our situation at Gramercy Tavern, which is owned by Union Square Hospitality Group. The head of that group, Danny Meyer, knows us well. He and others in his company are frequent sources for our stories, we chat at industry events, he’s a speaker this year at NRN’s annual chain restaurant operators convention, MUFSO (September 30-October 3 at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza in Los Angeles — tickets are going fast, so order yours now!)
Ellen and Pam aren’t restaurant critics either, and so Ellen had her excellent assistant Janette Clark make the dinner reservation in Ellen’s own name. They know who we are, they knew we were coming. Did we get extra-special service? I have no way of knowing. It’s possible that, every time a customer at Gramercy Tavern vacillates between two dishes, the server brings out the first runner-up gratis for the table to share. It could be that someone from management visits every table to greet the guests warmly and wish them a lovely dinner. At a Danny Meyer restaurant it really is possible, but I wouldn’t know. I only know how I’m treated.
I was reminded of this on Monday, too. The publicists at Tillman’s had asked me to come by and check out their grilled-cheese sandwich menu, and it seemed like a perfect thing to invite my vegetarian friend Kenyon Phillips to.
Kenyon is good-natured and knows how to behave in public. He’s also clean and smells nice (Angel for Men by Thierry Mugler), but he’s decidedly informal, and on Monday he was late.
So I was already in the dining room, which is a separate room from the bar, when he came in with his skateboard — shark-teeth dangling from his ears, wearing a low-cut T-shirt that made many of his tattoos visible.
He said they were abrupt and unkind when he entered, until he said he was with me, and then they were all smiles.
But I didn’t see it. All I saw was a friendly waitress (“I like you guys!” she said at one point) and at least two people from management who stopped by to make sure we were happy.
So what do I know?
I think that restaurant reviewers should be consumer advocates. They should go into a restaurant and see if it’s doing what it purports to be doing and then say whether it’s doing it well or not. They should say whether guests will likely get their money’s worth and have a good experience.
In my current position, I can’t do that, so I opt out.
But my approach to restaurant reviewing is not the only one. The New York food blog world (or more accurately those who comment on those blogs, mostly anonymously) have been having hissy fits over the fact that The New York Daily News has made Danyelle Freeman, who writes the blog Restaurant Girl, its restaurant critic. The Daily News splashed her picture in their pages when they announced it, which wasn’t really necessary because the New York restaurant world already knows what she looks like.
I’ve met Danyelle briefly a couple of times. She seems gracious and good-natured and completely undeserving of the really mean, personal attacks that have been flung at her, mostly, as I said, by people who for whatever reason won’t identify themselves (just so you know, I comment on blogs from time to time and you’ll know when I do it because I use my own name). Some of those people (and Josh Stein and Gael Greene) seem to agree with me, that you can’t be a good restaurant critic without being anonymous.
Others, especially those close to the restaurant industry, would point out that big-name restaurants know what their community’s critics look like, anyway — even the theoretically anonymous ones. Many operators insist that former New York Times critic Ruth Reichl, even with her array of false names and disguises, was spotted more often than not.
And despite the code of ethics that Josh refers to in the link above, many people don’t play by the rules set out therein. Several publications in New York (The Resident, Paper – at least the last time I heard, which was two or three years ago) don’t have the budget to pay restaurant reviewers’ tabs and expect them to eat for free, which obviously isn’t going to happen if you maintain anonymity unless you dine and dash, and dining and dashing is tacky.
My colleague Paul Frumkin and I kind of disagree on the purpose of a restaurant review. I think it should be mostly consumer advocacy, he’s fine with it as an educational piece. And he’s not alone. He cites the late Esquire magazine writer Roy Andries de Groot as taking a completely different approach. He would tell restaurants that he was coming and ask them to do their best — to lay on the most glorious, lavish affair that they could. This, so he asserted, meant that they were all playing on a level field, which may be true, but it’s on a field that most diners will never get to see. But it could be argued that such reviews have their place if you choose to view such dining experiences as more of an elite art form than, you know, having dinner.
Raconteur and Food & Wine magazine founder Michael Batterberry told me once that, decades ago, the critic at Gourmet magazine was told to eat at a restaurant until he liked it and could write a nice review.
I actually have reviewed restaurants before. When I lived in Bangkok I reviewed restaurants there from 1992 to 1997 (I only reviewed restaurants serving Western food for the first three years, but then I branched out), and I dined anonymously and my magazine paid my way, and that’s the only way that I want to review restaurants.
But what other people do is up to them.
“Well, can you write that I love Gramercy Tavern?” Ellen asked.
Of course I can.

What Kenyon and I had at Tillman’s:
Tillman’s Classic American Grilled Cheese (Pullman white loaf, American cheese, basil herb mayo and fresh basil served with San Marzano tomato soup)
Brie and Spiced Pear Grilled Cheese (Brioche loaf, triple crème Brie, spiced roasted pears and black truffle butter)
French Onion Soup Grilled Cheese (country loaf rubbed with roasted garlic and herbs, Gruyère, caramelized onion compote, served with spiced dipping jus)
Vegan Mozzarella (European country loaf, tofu mozzarella, roasted vegetables and pesto sautéed in olive oil)

And what I had at Gramercy Tavern:
Smoked trout with celery root puree and pickled onion vinaigrette
Rack of pork and braised belly with corn and baby onions
Quark cheesecake with blueberry lemon sorbet

Ellen had smoked lobster with cauliflower purée and scallion sauce, the sturgeon special, and warm chocolate bread pudding with cacao nib ice cream. She loved it!

Pam had open seafood ravioli and rack of lamb with zucchini purée, cranberry beans and lamb’s quarter lettuce, and the apricot pistachio frangipane tart with honey ice cream.

Because he thought we might be interested in them, the waiter brought us the daily pasta special of pappardelle in braised beef sauce as well as coconut tapioca with passion fruit and coconut sorbets, passion fruit caramel and cilantro syrup. As far as I know, they do that for everyone.


JB said...

You know who I am.

BTW, my favorite post so far. Passion seems to inspire your best writings, w/ acid flavor but not bitter.

And I love free food too.

Paul Adams said...

Well said.

Bret Thorn said...

It’s true, JB, I do know who you are, although I wonder what you were doing up at 5:05 a.m., not that it’s any of my business

Thank you Paul.

JB said...

Finished reading Heat by Bill Buford and he describes at lengths Mario Battali went through at Babbo's when it opened just to prepare for thier NYT review. To maximize thier score. They operated at 1/3 of thier current capacity. Staff were selected specifically to identify the reviewer no matter what the disguise.

Their best waitstaff was used on her table. They selected music to please her specifically. There was nothing left to chance.

This was highlighted as a contrast to the second review that Babbo recieved by the NYT. The second time, Babbo was the first review of a new NYT reviewer, so many of his visits to the restaurant were unnoticed, since he wasn't the NYT food critic at the time. Much panic ensued because they didn't give him the royal treatment. Fortunatly, in both cases they got thier idea 3 stars.