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If you follow this column you probably read my recent article entitled “In Vino Veritas,” where I discussed some of the pitfalls of relying upon shelf-talkers, i.e., those little tags on wine shop shelves espousing written reviews of the wine. I’d like to apply that same scrutiny to restaurant reviews. We’ve all dined in restaurants highly lauded by some reviewer only to end up scratching our heads wondering what they were thinking. Allow me to share some of my own examples.
A new Italian restaurant of mid-level status opened near me and was quickly hailed by a reviewer who awarded it two and a half out of four stars. Yet when my wife and I ate there my veal Marsala was so tough and chewy, I couldn’t even force it down and feign satisfied smiles to the waitress. It was an execrable piece of meat that was also thoroughly overcooked and I was forced to return it. The properly cooked replacement was chewable but the underlying quality of the meat hadn’t changed. Resigned, I ate it along with the insipid mashed potatoes that accompanied it, and concluded this eatery was by no means worth the prices they were charging. By the way, there was only one other table of patrons in the restaurant; so ixnay on blaming the overcooked meat on the business of the kitchen.
Next up is a supposed upper echelon establishment that was given the top rating of four stars; a theoretical palace of haute cuisine with white glove service. Well the gloves are off because the service was no better than your average diner. The most egregious error was my trio of lamb chops which I ordered medium-rare. Two were medium rare, and one was blatantly well done. In the restaurants I worked, sending out a plate like that would have generated a screaming, incensed reprimand from the head chef.*
A final example is a restaurant named one of the top ten in the state, which also holds a Wine Spectator award for its wine list. When my party of four dined there not a single person finished their meal. Not one of us liked the food and we all ordered different items. Friends of mine wished to try this eatery despite my warnings, (apparently they didn’t trust my review). As expected, they ended up just as disappointed. So much for the “top ten.”
How do these stark disparities occur?
How can a restaurant receive such accolades from putative professionals and then turn out to be so unsatisfactory? I think there are many reasons.
First and foremost the reviewer’s experience and the diner’s experience are each isolated events. Most restaurants wax and wane and it’s entirely possible that the reviewer caught them on a good night and you shared their company on an off one. Or maybe you sampled one of their lackluster dishes while the reviewer enjoyed their best efforts. Reviewers also tend to appraise restaurants when they are new. It is extremely common in the restaurant business for new enterprises to start off like gangbusters only to have quality slowly decline. It is the rare establishment that has the diligence to maintain superiority over time. Thus, if the reviewer visited them at their height and you patronized them some time later, contrariety is not that surprising.
As always, subjectivity and the idiosyncrasies of individuals’ palates are an inescapable factor. Regardless of a reviewer’s opinion of any food, there will always be people who view it oppositely. Genetic differences in taste buds, childhood food history, food experience and knowledge, personal biases, and outright mental aberrations about food are all compounding variables. All of these elements combine to create different standards about food amongst individuals. As a chef, I am utterly abhorred by disparately cooked lamb chops on the same plate. For me this is an inexcusable error, (especially in a place where the charge per person is in the three digits). But I’m sure there are those who would insouciantly disregard it.
But I also have to question the integrity of some reviews.
Purportedly reviews are conducted anonymously. But many restaurants, especially in major metropolitan areas, eventually come to know the reviewers. This is why some reviewers have even used disguises to ply their trade. Ergo, it is not out of the realm of possibility that some reviews have been biased by the restaurant’s recognition of the reviewer. Needless to say he will receive the utmost attention to detail; the best server, the best cut of meat, extreme conscientiousness as to how it is cooked, and so on. This scenario happened one night in a restaurant I worked in. The owner came in, corralled the staff, informed us that a professional reviewer was in our midst, and ensured that everyone, from the chefs down to the busboys were on their toes.
I am also of the opinion that newspapers frown on printing poor reviews for fear of losing potential advertisers and disaffecting readers, or should I say subscribers? After all, this is someone’s livelihood you are evaluating and a scathing review can potentially spell a restaurant’s demise. The last thing a newspaper wants is affronted business owners, diminishing readers, and declining advertising dollars. One reviewer from a major newspaper whose reviews I routinely peruse has never printed a bad review as far as I can tell. I’d love to be a fly on the wall in his editor’s office. I myself was once solicited by a newspaper to perform restaurant reviews but “only the good ones” as a means of attracting those restaurants’ advertising. Their cabal never materialized and it was just as well. I doubt I could have constrained my honest opinion for the sake of a monetary ploy.
Finally on a deeper note, and at the risk of getting too political, are the effects of our current socio-political environment. It’s practically a cultural faux pas to express a negative opinion, especially in the mass media. To quote the syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. our country is the: “United States of the Aggrieved……..with a cadre of lobbyists and lawyers hyper-vigilant for any suggestion of mistreatment or actionable discrimination.” The point is we have become an exquisitely sensitive society, prone to outrage and retribution in the face of the slightest public inpugnment. I can’t help but wonder how many reviewers nationwide, (not just restaurant critics but theatre, books, movies, etc.) curtail the extent of their judgments for fear of the backlash they may engender.
I suppose it could be argued that since a restaurant review can inflict potential financial harm, that it’s gracious to only publish the positive ones. Let the people discover on their own who the inferior eateries are. But my final question is this: Are the publications that only print positive reviews merely not publishing the negative ones, or does every restaurant they sample receive a positive slant for all the aforementioned reasons named here? If it is the later, then the whole process of restaurant reviewing is meaningless. The point of having critics in any genre is to provide the public with some degree of professional guidance about the product to be consumed. Otherwise, let’s just amass all the restaurants owners, have a giant group hug, recite some empowering self-statements, and go on our Pollyannaish way.
To summarize, a myriad of factors can create a disconnect between any restaurant review and your personal experience of the establishment. Be it a restaurant, a movie, or a bottle of wine, the reviews must be considered a rough guideline, and your own judgment the ultimate discriminator.
*For those of you unfamiliar with restaurant kitchen procedures, allow me to explain why this is such a flagrant error. One well done chop and two medium-rare ones on the same plate is glaringly obvious. In any restaurant the chef should notice the inconsistency. In better restaurants the head chef or sous chef will also inspect every plate before it is served. A final fail-safe is the server, who would normally bring such an error to the chef’s attention. For all of these measures to fail, especially in a “four-star” restaurant is virtually unthinkable.