In food writing of days gone by, when print was king and critics were well-known enough to warrant disguises and pseudonym-emblazoned credit cards, an unspoken “grace period” for new restaurants was honored.
Some said six weeks, others said eight, and some even said three months should go by before a professional critic set finger to keyboard.
But with new restaurants opening by the day, the blogosphere buzzing by the nanosecond, and an insatiable frenzy to be the first on the scene, can reviewers stand to wait for the dust to settle anymore? Should they?
Anyone who has worked in a restaurant knows that opening night can be absolute chaos. Even the most experienced restaurants can have an off night if the grill guy called in sick or the dishwasher walked out, or one of the hundreds of other details that make a restaurant run smoothly goes awry. Indeed, a single plate sent back to the line for an underdone steak can send the whole system into disarray for a long time thereafter.
But if restaurant reviewing at its best is supposed to be indicative of the general public’s experience (hence the disguises and fake credit card names), then why should reviewers wait for the perfect moment to dine? I’m on the fence about the question myself.
Having spent years on the other side of the table, I err on the side of forgiveness, arguably not the purest quality in a critic. I’ve watched as my non-restaurant industry dining companions criticize every tiny detail of an eating experience, from untempered butter to a spot on a fork. I’ve often joked that my regular dining companions tend to be the true critics.
I know all of the things that can and do go awry because I’ve been there. Getting crushed on a line is one of the most demoralizing feelings I’ve ever experienced, and it’s brought me to tears more than once. It’s like being buried in a pile of sand, scoop by scoop, faster than you can dig out, until you’re entrenched for the duration of the night.
In other words, I feel for the kitchen.
On the other hand, no discounts are offered (or at least, very rarely) for new restaurants getting their sea legs. The dining public still has to fork over a hundred percent of the bill, whether or not the experience was spot-on. So, if full payment is expected, then shouldn’t a fully formed experience also be expected?
I recently went to an opening of a relatively high-profile place that had table tents advertising a 20 percent discount for bearing with their opening jitters. I thought this was an interesting approach, and while one might argue it pre-supposed that an apology would be necessary, I liked it anyway. Knowing that you’d be offered a little kickback for patience took the sting out of an experience that was less than stellar (but still pretty darn good all things considered).
With narrow-thin margins, most restaurants could not endure such a widely distributed discount. But neither, they’ll argue, can they endure the too-early review. And yet, the dining public with their itchy Yelp trigger-fingers are the most pervasive restaurant critics of the moment. They abide by no grace period; they have no qualms about telling it exactly like they see it. In fact, the general public doesn’t have a pocketbook padded with an expense account, so they are likely to feel (and express) a subpar experience more acutely (and with more exclamation points) than the average professional dining critic.
In the City Pages dining section, we write what we refer to as a “first look,” to get a jump on early buzz. Intended to be photo heavy, the first look is meant to give a snapshot of a place in its early days, along with a general sense of its vibe and value. But if something goes terribly wrong (or conversely, extremely well), conversation about quality might creep in.
An admitted problem with this approach is that many readers will think of these first snapshots as full-on reviews. How does the casual observer of restaurant criticism differentiate between that first snapshot and a full review? Typically, they don’t. Everything from Tweets to Facebook comments can be considered by the general public to be “reviews.” I’ve even had restaurateurs and chefs say, “Hey, thanks for the review!” when my blog post was never intended to serve as such.
I recently stopped into a place very early on and found it to be overpriced, strange, and not very good. Though the space was attractive and the service friendly, I didn’t feel comfortable even writing a first look. A couple of weeks later, the place was already shuttered. It barely lasted a few weeks. By keeping my mouth (and laptop) shut, did I do a disservice to other diners who spent their hard-earned money there and found it similarly lacking? In this case, we’ll never know.
Of course, restaurant quality can and does go in the opposite direction. Some open very strong, and then through attrition or corner-cutting get a lot worse as time goes on. After a solid start, Oxcart Ale House lost its way by the time I got around to the full review. I was criticized by some readers for my enthusiastic first look.
Naturally, restaurants are eager for press and praise whenever it arrives, and reluctant to accept criticism in any form, though there are gracious exceptions to the rule. Chef Andy Lilja of Oxcart is one. He thanked me for my honest negative review when it was released. And had I never given Oxcart a first positive snapshot, Lilja never would have received what was at that time the honest praise he deserved, and some diners may have missed out on his excellent sausage making and unique deep-fried sweetbreads.
I’ve had more mature chefs (in the business more than 20 years) tell me that their strategy is to under-promise and over-deliver. For instance, start with a very conservative menu, then grow more ambitious as time goes on. “There are no great opening restaurants,” one told me. Young guns, he sighed, don’t always get that.
Cooking food for people is a vulnerable thing to do, fraught with all kinds of peril. To do it at all you have to be a little bit mad, usually in a good way. A thick skin is useful. Those of us on the receiving end would be wise to remember to be as gracious as possible. Things made with human hands can be messy, but sometimes transcendently so.