Here it comes again: the age-old question of how long a critic should wait after a restaurant is open before issuing a review. This week, the issue arose because of a Hollywood Reporter review of Vespertine, Jordan Kahn's very expensive, very conceptual tasting-menu joint in Culver City. Writer Gary Baum considered Vespertine based on a single meal, which he consumed on the fourth night of service. He was unimpressed.
Eater L.A. reached out to Baum to ask why he thought it was appropriate to review a restaurant so early in its life, and he responded with many of the same points that have been raised for years regarding the timing of reviews. Plays and movies are reviewed upon opening, he argues. Why not restaurants, particularly ones — like Vespertine — that are ticketed events akin to a performance? They charge full price, so “therefore consumers can and should expect it to operate at its full ability,” Baum told Eater. He went on, “The old 'gentleman's agreement' to wait to review a restaurant benefits chefs and their investors. It doesn't benefit diners. In the age of the internet, it's time for that to change.”
And here is where I think the argument goes off the rails. Many people — even people who are defending the policy of waiting a month or more to review — point to that grace period as an act of leniency toward the restaurant; a “gentleman's agreement,” as Baum puts it, that allows the kitchen and front of house time to get their act together. But that isn't the reason that I wait. In fact, my reasons for waiting are specifically for the benefit of the diner and reader, not the chef or investors.
In a perfect world, a restaurant would be exactly as good or bad on day one as it is going to be for the life of the business. In a perfect world, media outlets would have the resources to do a quick first look at every important restaurant upon opening, and then a full review a couple of months in, and then multiple re-reviews to follow the life of the place and its ups and downs. We do not live in a perfect world.
And the fact is, the first few weeks of a restaurant are not reflective of what that restaurant will be like over the course of its life. This is simple reality, and it goes both ways. Sometimes the energy that comes with an opening dissipates, and what starts out as an exciting, vibrant dining experience devolves once the crack team of servers and bartenders and cooks hired on opening move on to the next hot new thing, once the chef and owners turn to other projects. And yes, sometimes it takes a while for a place to find its footing. The point is that a restaurant will be open for years (hopefully). If you're going to take the time to write a review, why have that review reflect a reality that lasts only a few weeks? Why not aim to present an accurate portrayal of what the place will be like over time?
This isn't the first time I've written about this, or even the second time. But in the wake of professional publications putting out earlier and earlier reviews, it deserves to be said again: It serves the public better to write a review that critiques the restaurant as it will be for the long haul, not the restaurant as it is in its first days. (This is especially true in the age of Google, when the review will be read for years to come.) If you want to know what to expect in those first days, based on a diner's single visit, there's this neat website called Yelp that might give you a hint. Do professional critics really want to become more like Yelp rather than offering an alternative?
Plenty of people are happy to show up and pay full price for the newness factor alone. But if you're worried about dropping cash for a meal that's not up to par in the first days of service, there's an easy fix for that, too: Wait.