Food critics is what they are typically called. In the spirit of this topic, they are more accurately titled ‘Restaurant Reviewers.’ The dependability of their guidance is directly connected to the motivation for their work. Are they truly independent? Are they truly dedicated to accurately informing you, the reader, about the qualities offered by the establishments being reviewed? How can you determine if this is their goal or if they are vicious gossips, out to extort advertising revenue for their rag periodicals or media programs? Your cause must be the cause for their forages into the restaurant world or what they write is of absolutely no value.
First of all, the reason you or I look into a restaurant review is to eliminate the risks inherent in a dining adventure. We are going to spend some money and want to minimize the risks. So, we’re going to check reviews before we go out. That is o.k.
Some prefer the unknown, since it offers greater delight in a ‘real find.’ Sometimes they take equal delight in finding a place where they can complain a lot. It takes all kinds. Since people who seek reviews are generally seeking guidance on where to ‘play it safe,’ publishing scathing reviews that rip already struggling restaurateurs to shreds is a bullying waste of time and copy. Your readers want to know where to go. That is, unless they belong to the small group that likes to complain a lot.
Over forty years of observing ‘food critics’ has taught me that most of them are gluttons and petty extortionists with delusions of grandeur and a sadistic streak. The minority, usually from larger media markets, have to protect a valuable reputation. Unfortunately, these same individuals are far more powerful and recognizable to the beleaguered restaurateurs. When these pashas arrive, the whole operation is on ‘high alert.’ “King Clyde Gutstuff, from The International Goheere Guide is coming in tonight! It had better be perfect, or else!” Now I ask all of you who work for a living. How accurate do you expect the report to be, when a reviewer arrives with a small entourage, often eating for free, the best the house can offer, with every member of the staff dripping with adulation?
This is a topic that I’ve devoted no small amount of daydreaming to, over nearly half a century. As a restaurant professional and a fine dining enthusiast, I’ve fantasized about the ideal reviewer often. Would you like a profile of the optimal, ideal, honest, restaurant critic? I hope so, because this is my article and you can stop reading now, if you don’t want it.
Ideally, since two heads are better and the heart of a food operation beats in the ‘back of the house,’ the optimal critic would be a team of two. One a true ‘food critic’ with deep knowledge, by taste, of what goes into great culinary creations. The other is, for consumer sake, the service, cleanliness and ambiance expert, with an eye for what is going on in the immediate environment. Wine related evaluation could be shared. They collaborate on the content of the review. Arriving anonymously, they use technology to record thoughts and reactions; not a note pad. For a dinner only house, they visit twice. One short visit to the bar/lounge area before or after dining is important. For a lunch/dinner house, twice at dinner, once for lunch. If it is a three meal operation, four times, to include breakfast. They pay the check with anonymity and tip a customary amount. If the experience is going to lead to a terrible review, they drop it immediately and start over in the next location.
This kind of structure eliminates any motivation other than an accurate evaluation of a restaurant. The reasons for this follow.
Two people is a common number for a party and wouldn’t tend to draw attention like a lone critic. The best restaurant in the world can mistakenly hire a dolt in a pinch, as a replacement on a busy night. Reservation handling can fail once in awhile. Kitchens can get a log jam once in awhile. These events, though ideally rare, can give a distorted view of a fine operation if they are coincident with a critic’s visit. An accurate review should include two visits. Choose a slower end of the week for one and a busier night for another. Make one night about a special occasion, to see how sensitively it is handled. Make the other night one of special questions about the food or special service requests to test staff flexibility and attitude. Returning clients are valuable. The second visit reservation can be made before departure from the first. This is an opportunity for ownership and management to reinforce patronage with recognition. If a restaurant passes muster, positive information is important to potential diners. Positive and negative comments are extremely valuable to the establishments reviewed and are a superb source of guidance that owners, management and staff can use to make improvements. It is a win, win.
Unfortunately, few publishers and broadcasters are willing to carry the overhead for an honest, independent restaurant feature. Paying the critics for their contribution, coupled with the cost of two to four anonymous restaurant visits can be prohibitive in small markets. So, until or unless this happens, don’t count too heavily on restaurant critics. The job draws flies.
If a large market medium sees the wisdom in this evaluation, I’m ready to cut three holes in a brown paper sack and don it for some nights out on the town.