I've had a ton of great mail since soliciting reader feedback in my first Fork Lift column, including an amazing letter that began "Dear Sir! Thank you for your article in the L.A. Weekly about working as an restaurant critic. I think you have the very right approach, when you go to test the food at a restaurant." It wasn't even from a Nigerian prince who wanted to share his fortune with me, but rather a lovely Danish fellow.
Another letter that caught my attention was this one, from Bob Wollman, who brought up the issue of how long it takes for a restaurant to really hit its stride.
"One thing I would like to mention to you regarding your statement, 'I like to wait until a restaurant has been open for a month.'
That is not enough time for lots of great places. I guess there is some pressure to 'scoop' in your business, but I would caution you against that here. I find it takes most places about a year until they are firing on all cylinders. Take Red Medicine; right now they are serving the best, most creative food in L.A. The first 10 months they were spotty as hell ... Qquite disappointing, actually. One could detect a diamond-in-the-rough but barely ... There are so many overlooked gems that I would review while waiting for some of these big names to get it right, or not."
The question of how long to wait before reviewing a restaurant is something critics stress about quite a bit. I know critics who used to have a hard-and-fast six-week waiting period who now stop in pretty soon after openings, sometimes so they can post a "first impression"-type piece, sometimes because now, with bloggers posting full reviews within days of places opening, it seems like the review has to be fairly instant to be relevant.
My monthlong waiting period came from tradition -- most of the critics I knew and respected when I began the job waited at least a month, sometimes six weeks. The Association of Food Journalists has also been incredibly helpful and influential to me. In 2001 it published a list of restaurant critic guidelines, which covers everything from anonymity to how to go about making reservations. In the part about new restaurants, the guidelines say:
"To be fair to new restaurants, reviewers should wait at least one month after the restaurant starts serving before visiting. These few weeks give the fledgling enterprise some time to get organized."
Last year, the Washington City Paper's Chris Shott wrote a blog post on this very same topic, arguing that the AFJ guidelines had not been updated in the 10 years since they were written, and the rise of the Internet and the prominence of bloggers had such a huge impact on the whole enterprise that those guidelines are now outdated. I have no problem with whatever a critic decides they want to do, as long as they're upfront about it (as Shott is), but the reasons I stick to the guidelines as they were written 11 years ago is exactly the same reasons Shott argues he doesn't stick to them. There are so many bloggers and Yelpers and Tweeters out there doing basically the same thing I get paid to do, I figure one of the main ways I can distinguish myself is to maintain some fairly strict professional standards. The public will have access to a lot of first impressions in the first month a place is open -- the Internet is full of that. But those first few weeks are generally the time it takes a kitchen to get its timing down properly, and to work out service issues. A professional restaurant review is built to last. The first few weeks of service are never a good indicator of what the experience will be like in the long run.
I've heard the (fairly convincing) argument that if a place is up and running and willing to take money from the public, then they should be ready for a review. But I've worked in enough restaurants to know that there is simply no way to figure out the intricacies of making a restaurant run without an unpredictable public to test it. If restaurant owners could afford to do a month's worth of friends-and-family nights, perhaps they would. And we'd have a lot fewer interesting restaurants, because only zillionaires would ever open anything.
To many customers, the thrill of newness makes it worthwhile to eat in those first tumultuous few weeks. But to go and expect a smooth operation from day one is unrealistic.
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But what of Bob's email, which argues that even after a month or two, a restaurant is unlikely to have truly hit its stride? I think he's probably right, and many restaurants I've reviewed over the years have shown promise far beyond what they actually are achieving in those first months. I think the mistake some critics make (it's super tempting to do) is to write the review as if the place were already what you know it could and likely will be, rather than what it is. Instead of that, I've always written the review and been honest about where the restaurant is. Then, six months later I'll revisit. A few times a year I do a roundup of places that fall into that category -- a two- or three-part re-review of places that have gotten significantly better, or worse, or should have advanced but haven't.
Thanks to Bob for his email, and to my lovely new friend from Denmark, and to everyone else who's written. Keep 'em coming: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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