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Food in the Media

Sorry, Slate: Restaurant Critics Need to Wait Before Reviewing New Places

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Mon, Aug 19, 2013 at 1:32 PM

click to enlarge The interior of ink. - ANNE FISHBEIN
  • Anne Fishbein
  • The interior of ink.
In recent weeks, it seems as though Slate has laid out a new editorial goal for itself, which is basically to troll the restaurant reviewing profession. Last month, L.V. Anderson wrote an article about how critics should give up on anonymity, her main argument being that many are recognizable anyway, so everyone should stop pretending. Then, last week the same writer made an argument that critics ought to pay their own way, citing the idea that having an expense account makes them unable to understand the cost of the meal.

If you were to follow this logic, the same argument could be made for all journalists on any beat: News writers should have to pay taxes in any municipality they cover, business reporters ought to have to invest in the companies they cover ... perhaps war reporters should have their families move to unstable areas so they fully understand the impact of their subject matter? I'm kidding, of course, but the point is that objectivity is part of journalism; if you can't be objective about your subject matter (including whether a meal is worth its price), you shouldn't be writing about it at all.

And then on Friday, Luke O'Neil wrote an article for Slate about how critics should stop "coddling" restaurants and review them as soon as they open instead of waiting the customary month or six weeks.

This is an old argument, but it's been made more and more since the advent of blogs. O'Neil, like many before him, argues that if restaurants aren't ready to be judged in those first days, perhaps they also aren't ready to take people's money. He advises that restaurants sell food at cost until they're running perfectly.

And, like all of these recent Slate articles dissecting food criticism, he misses the point completely.

First, let's look at the arguments. O'Neil compares restaurants to many other endeavors, including theater productions, football games, books, films and albums. He argues that all of these things must be ready to go on day one, and that restaurants ought to be the same. The argument goes:

The nuts and bolts of the operation -- the composition of the dishes, the competence of the waitstaff -- should be figured out by the time the restaurant's door opens. It's not as though opening night is the first time the chef and team of cooks have cooked, or the servers served, or the bartenders mixed drinks. Presumably they've been doing it for years and are well-qualified professionals.

While O'Neil claims to have worked in the restaurant industry, the above statement suggests otherwise. Dishes conceived of during the creative process might not work as planned during the rush of a dinner service. Every restaurant's floor and equipment are different, meaning the staff must adjust to specific conditions. And even if all the waiters are professionals, service will be the first time they have worked together as a team.

Humans are not cogs in a machine; you can't just get the specifications right and expect the engine to start up perfectly. Some of these things can be worked out during practice runs or friends-and-family nights, but the reason for the professional standard of waiting a month to review is because that's about how long it takes most restaurants to run the way diners might expect going forward.

So why should places charge full price if they aren't operating perfectly? It generally takes months and sometimes years of operating at a loss while building and staffing and training, so once the doors open, it's almost always a financial necessity to make some money. This might not seem fair to O'Neil or the dining public, but it's also just the truth. To propose that restaurants should give food away (or serve things "at cost") until things are perfect is basically to say, "Only restaurants with huge financial backing should open, ever." I'm also not clear on what O'Neil means by serving food "at cost." What cost is he talking about? The cost of the raw ingredients? Or the cost of ingredients, paying people to cook them and giving them a space to cook them in? Because that cost is often exactly full price -- most restaurants don't make much money on food, a tiny margin if anything (booze often makes up the difference).

Most people who go to restaurants in opening weeks do so understanding all this. It's worth it to them to see the place early, to get that newness thrill, to risk some unevenness.

But let's put those arguments aside -- yes, there will be rough patches for most opening restaurants as they figure out staffing and timing and what dishes work and don't in the context of dinner service as opposed to conceptually. That's not the point.

No, the point is what the function of a critic is in the first place.

Believe it or not, despite the rabid blog cycle that only pays attention to newness, most restaurants hope to be around for many, many years. And the review of that restaurant should also stand the test of time. To review a restaurant in the opening days would simply not reflect the reality of what that restaurant will be for most of its life. The whole point of waiting is not to be nice, or coddle anyone. The point is to present an accurate picture of what a restaurant will be like going forward.

And here's the thing: There are plenty of opinions available out there about what a restaurant's strengths and weaknesses are in its first weeks. They're called Yelp and, to a lesser extent, blogs (which are fraught with their own conundrums, but that's for another time).

Many people wonder what the place of Yelp is in comparison to professional criticism, and this is an example: Yelp provides a real-time accounting of what's happening, service- and food-wise, as a restaurant takes shape.

Professional criticism should provide an overview of what the restaurant will be, after it becomes that thing. A snapshot of the opening days might be somewhat useful, and we do sometimes try to provide that in the newspaper world (at the Weekly, we do a feature called "First Look" for that purpose), but the purpose of a review is to look at the place as a whole and give it some context, not chronicle the very time in a restaurant's life that is least likely to be representative of the ongoing experience.

It's nice to say that restaurants should be perfect on opening day, but the truth is that -- for the above reasons -- they simply are not. So to base a review, one that will be read for years as diners Google for opinions, on that would be a disservice -- not to the restaurant but to the reader.

See also:

- 9 Ways Not to Make an Ass of Yourself as a Food Critic


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