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Restaurant Reviews


Busboy
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Give me a Michelin guide. A couple of stars, or a smiling Bibendum (aka "The Michelin Man") or maybe some pocket chnage in the margin next to the restaurant. A little dog if dogs are allowed, a bunch of grapes if the wine list is distinguished. One sentence about the ambiance, another about the chef's specialties. After reading restaurant reviews faithfully for 30 years, that's about all I need, certainly all I want.

Is there anything more tedious to plough through than a full-lenth restaurant review? All those adjectives. Catty comments on interior design. Reviewers who might be (and often are) pretty decent writers tying themselves into knots trying to make this review sound different from the 80 thousand other reviews they've written and succeeding far too rarely. (And this is the big dogs: try reading the smaller town or community papers where the reviewers are seemingly all either shills for the local food scene/advertisers or pseudo gourmets trying to prove how sophisto they are). The forced bon mot . The cute alliterative phrase. The revealing anecdote, usually involving a server's ignorance or snobbery, or an ill-prepared morsel of fish. The family tree of the owner and chef. The "on the one hand, on the other hand," formulaic attempts at fair and balanced reporting. And I guess I'm just stubborn, but I'm just not the type to memorize the review to the point where I'm going to sit down, weeks later, and say to myself "the pike, pork belly and potato souffle are wonderful, but the turnips soup, tournedos of beef and truite amandine suck."

I say, free the Frank Brunis (or, in deference to his many critics on this board, fire him) and Tom Sietsemas of this world from their daily beats and let them write about food, and dining and big picture stuff. Something interesting. Something more interesting than: "Varietal isn’t just a restaurant. It’s an epicurean Advanced Placement exam, with a dollop of Oscar acceptance speech." (bon mot and alliteration -- a twofer!)

As for me: "Two stars, sleek modern decore, specializes in fish with excellent vegetarian options," is about all I need.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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I agree with half of that. Or maybe a third.

Restaurant reviews suck, with that I agree. And for more than just the reasons cited.

I disagree, however, that the Michelin one-sentence-plus-symbols approach is any good. Even Michelin disagrees, and is bulking up its verbiage in the newer guides.

Then there's the question: do restaurant reviews have to suck? Maybe not.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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The problem may be that there just are not many good restaurant reviewers.

Symbols and numbers and any other forms of shorthand can never provide a reader with a real sense of what a restaurant is all about. They can not convey what the experience of dining in a given establishment is like.

Most diners want to know--"if I dine there what kind of experience will I expect to have and what is the food like?"

Toques and forks and numbers simply can not convey these things.

I am not sure a restaurant review needs to be entertaining. Its primary purpose is to convey important information. The entertainment factor is secondary. There are few restaurant critics who can excel at providing this information and being witty insightful and entertaining all at once. Unfortunately, in this age of the internet and video games, a large chunk of society has difficulty dealing with information that is not delivered in shorthand and/or a manner that holds their attention long enough to convey that information.

Thoughts and opinions need to be quantified and summarized. People seem to have trouble drawing their own conclusions and subtlety is giving way to the painfully obvious.

Style is becoming more important than content or substance.

So, I believe that restaurant reviews are important as long as people dine out.

The definitions and thus the roles of reporter, investigative reporter, critic, reviewer, writer, humorist, diarist, blogger, etc etc etc --are all blurred. They (the media) are confused and we the audience are equally confused.

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Three data points in the discussion of the death of the restaurant review:

1.

In 2005, Steve Cuozzo, the restaurant reviewer for the New York Post (and also the paper's executive editor), announced that the Post would no longer be publishing restaurant reviews and would instead focus on news, trends and multi-restaurant comparative pieces:

Mr. Cuozzo began by saying:

Restaurant reviews are over. History. Outta here. It’s time to report on restaurants in a new and better way . . .

His primary argument (though probably not his strongest) was that restaurants are too ephemeral to review with any accuracy:

Welcome to the zany new world of dining out, where eateries change moods and menus in the blink of a wine-soaked eye. Back when restaurants were smaller and more stable, a review might hold water for years. Today, once critics have moved on, the house mutates without any press attention.

He also takes a swipe at the "myth" of reviewer anonymity:

The mystique of old-fashioned reviews was built on the myth of “anonymous” visits. They were indispensable in a bygone age of snootier, smaller restaurants. But “anonymity” is now a joke. . . . I hate to break the news - all the New York critics are spotted the moment we walk in.

2.

Also, when Ruth Reichl was in the eG Spotlight, she said the following about Gourmet magazine:

As for the reviews, at first I just wanted to make them real, to make them not be cheering sections, but actually critical. And, of course, to start dealing with ethnic restaurants. But after a while I began to wonder why we were doing real reviews in the first place. And I began to think that nobody needs a national magazine to write a couple of reviews every month, that it would be much more useful to do longer pieces on trends and so forth. I think that came out of my experience at the Times as well.

3.

And, for what it's worth, in the introduction to my book, Turning the Tables, I commented:

Over a five-year period, I wrote more than five hundred

restaurant reviews. They mostly followed the standard format:

a discussion of the various dishes on the menu, plus

commentary on the decor, service, ambience, and wine list.

Ultimately, though, I found that restaurant reviews were a

limited form of expression, because they answer only the

most basic Consumer Reports level of inquiry: “Where should

I eat?” And they answer it in the most generic way, from a

reductionistic dish-by-dish perspective. I felt there were

plenty of restaurant reviews out there, but that there was

something missing. I began to focus my writing on larger

issues, not so much where to eat, but how to dine.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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restaurant reviews serve one important purpose to me. my dining budget is limited. since I can only afford so many $100-300 meals a month I really hate having a bad experience at that price point. over time, a consistent reviewer (which, with all his faults, Bruni is....and Richman, without Bruni's faults, always has been -- compare them to the all-over-the-map tendencies of Platt or Lane or Cuozzo) reveals to me his/her tastes, tendencies and biases. Thus, their reviews reveal to me a lot about whether I will find a restaurant worth it. I know that Bruni has similar tastes to me in Italian or Asian, I know that he doesn't get hypermodern or even French. But I know how he reacts to them so even those reviews are of value.

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I am not sure the restaurant review is dying or even sick.

I think its venue may be changing or evolving.

Zagat and Michelin as well as the internet are all places where restaurant reviews in one form or another are thriving.

I think that local newspapers should provide restaurant reviews. They can also cover the sexier trands etc.

One problem with the Times is it for some time, has been positioning itself as a "national" newspaper. In doing so, local coverage has been changing in subtle and not so subtle ways.

Bruni goes from a position as a reporter on big issues impacting a big audience to a very much smaller position in terms of import and a smaller audience of interested readers. Also given that people go to any number of places for restaurant reviews/information, the role of local restaurant critic becomes even smaller.

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It depends how you define dying. Certainly there are more restaurant reviews now than ever before, and more people reading them. If there is a death, it's more of a dilution or heat-death type of phenomenon. First, the importance of any single review or reviewer is diminishing -- even the New York Times critic, who is far and away the most important American critic, is losing relevance. Second, the form itself is collapsing in on itself, because pretty much across the board it has lost touch with any real sense of purpose and is instead governed by irrelevant agendas. This is so much the case that the people who would make the best reviewers aren't interested in the job -- just try to get a top tier food writer to take a reviewer position; why do you think the Times has to turn to company men like Grimes and Bruni? Now, if you want to define posts on internet message boards and blogs as reviews, you start getting into a different discussion.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I think that Charles's main point about the characteristics of the genre is trenchant. I'd be happy if I could get a recommendation that includes how to approach the menu in general, what to order, what not to order, app, main, and dessert (or whatever) price points, service, etc. I don't need the adjectives, bon mots, insights into chefly genius, decor cracks, whatever, to figure out whether to drop my cash on a joint, and I certainly have not felt any aesthetic epiphanies when reading a review for, well, decades.

The characteristics that Charles lists are precisely the generic (in all senses of the word) characteristics of the restaurant review, and both readers and writers suffer from those expectations. I used to write the damned things, and I know about the search for synonyms for "tasty," the desire to create a compelling, non-chronological narrative, the sense that the review must contain a negative critique of something or other... on and on. It sucks having to write this crap, particularly about a good meal.

The varied and intelligent discussions about restaurants throughout eG Forums makes it even more clear that this old-media stalwart is a bankrupt journalistic form that is made even more pathetic by pretentions to the literary. Hell, look at the Brits, who have dispensed with the genre in order to pursue base Swiftian satire instead. Clever bloggy twists don't help either.

Put a fork in it, friends: it's done.

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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When I was reviewing for a city magazine a few years ago, one of the paper's food critics came into the place where I was cooking to do a review. He had me (yes, ME) write down what was in everything, so he could be sure to get it right -- down to whether the olives were pitted and if it was Gorgonzola or Maytag in the salad. Of course I never paid attention to his columns again.

As for the legion of online critics -- I'd be happy if they just got their facts straight. Working at Blue Hill at Stone Barns during their first six months was a real eye-opener. I'd take a look at the reviews pouring in and just shake my head. Most were so far off base it was ridiculous -- and not in their opinions, but their descriptions of the food. I saw things drooled over that weren't on the menu that night, and poetic waxing (is that a real term?) over preparations or ingredients that weren't used. So I don't listen to them, either.

And if just ONE would not say something "disappointed." Who? What? Augh!

Now, if Busboy would put out one of his guides, I'd listen to that. What-say? :hmmm:

"Oh, tuna. Tuna, tuna, tuna." -Andy Bernard, The Office
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As a reviewer some of these points are hard to take, but when I read other reviewers - especially local ones in other publications - I know that I am doing a great job and a service to both diners and the restaurants. I mean, if there is a place in town that is serving great food in a great atmosphere, I want people to know about it!

I try to be fair. I try to learn about things I don't always know about. And I work very hard at not sounding like a broken record, although there are only so many ways one can describe sushi (for example). In other words, I try to be professional.

Perhaps - with the exception of a few who have been there - the comments may have some sour grapes in the mix. Pun intended.

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rconnelly, I'm not sure what you mean by sour grapes.

Your post doesn't seem to me to address the basic concerns that are raised above regarding restaurant reviews. Those concerns aren't about the function or professionalism of restaurant reviewers (all of which are legitimate points, I think). It's the pieces of writing themselves that are under critique here, not the fact that consumers appreciate guides to eating out. After all, you could just write, "there is a place in town that is serving great food in a great atmosphere, and I want you to know about it!" in a few brief sentences, right?

edited to clarify -- ca

Edited by chrisamirault (log)

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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rconnelly, I'm not sure what you mean by sour grapes.

Your post doesn't seem to me to address the basic concerns that are raised above regarding restaurant reviews. Those concerns aren't about the function or professionalism of restaurant reviewers (all of which are legitimate points, I think). It's the pieces of writing themselves that are under critique here, not the fact that consumers appreciate guides to eating out. After all, you could just write, "there is a place in town that is serving great food in a great atmosphere, and I want you to know about it!" in a few brief sentences, right?

edited to clarify -- ca

The remarks from people who have done the job mean someting. From those that haven't, it seems easy to put the genre down. I look at it as ean evolution. Things must change and adapt if they are to remain.

I agree that there are some reviewers who really aren't good, but then overall I think newspapers and even some magazines don't have the qualtiy of writing that once was either.

Does that make sense?

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I don't know. That's like saying you can't criticize the President of the United States or the presidency unless you've been the President of the United States.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I think you're confusing two audiences here: us foodies and everyone else.

Me, I agree with Busboy. I don't need a long review. Just tell me what the place is like and what kind of food they're going to serve. I'm just going to order the tasting menu if they have one, so tell me if there any dishes in particular that I should ask for or avoid. Anything more than that I don't need.

But that's us. We know what we're going to a restaurant for, and we know how to figure out what we want.

Most readers of restaurant reviews -- the actual audience for restaurant reviews -- aren't like that. They need more information. They need more hand-holding. A good review will make them more comfortable with the restaurant and help them have a better dining experience. I don't get a lot of e-mail from readers -- my wife and I write reviews for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune -- but we regularly get thank-you mail from people who have eaten at the restaurants we recommend. I don't think those people would have tried a new restaurant, or a new cuisine, with a two-line foodie review. They need more than that.

A completely separate issue is the general quality of restaurant reviews. Criticism is hard -- whether it's literary criticism or film criticism or restaurant criticism -- and lots of newspapers get them all wrong. Restaurant criticism is not a menu summary, just as film criticism is not a plot summary.

Edited by Schneier (log)
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The remarks from people who have done the job mean someting. From those that haven't, it seems easy to put the genre down. I look at it as ean evolution. Things must change and adapt if they are to remain.

I agree that there are some reviewers who really aren't good, but then overall I think newspapers and even some magazines don't have the qualtiy of writing that once was either.

Does that make sense?

I don't know. That's like saying you can't criticize the President of the United States or the presidency unless you've been the President of the United States.

Hey, yeah. Or the same with being a chef.

:wink:

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The remarks from people who have done the job mean someting. From those that haven't, it seems easy to put the genre down. I look at it as ean evolution. Things must change and adapt if they are to remain.

I agree that there are some reviewers who really aren't good, but then overall I think newspapers and even some magazines don't have the qualtiy of writing that once was either.

Does that make sense?

I don't know. That's like saying you can't criticize the President of the United States or the presidency unless you've been the President of the United States.

Hey, yeah. Or the same with being a chef.

:wink:

I had a great reply here but then I clicked and something went awry!

Rats!

First, I think we all can critisize the President because he is a public servant who has taken an oath to protect and preserve....do you feel protected?

And I agree. Plenty of reviewers are poor writers and don't know what they are talking about, but then television writing has suffered also. Major mags aren't what they used to be. either.

Hell, nothing seems to be. But to say the genre is dead is a bit of an exagerration.

Reviewing is hard work if you really care. Bad reviewers don't really care and papers are advertiser driven. Put it all together and you've got sucky reviews.

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I think you're confusing two audiences here: us foodies and everyone else.

Me, I agree with Busboy.  I don't need a long review.  Just tell me what the place is like and what kind of food they're going to serve.  I'm just going to order the tasting menu if they have one, so tell me if there any dishes in particular that I should ask for or avoid.  Anything more than that I don't need.

But that's us.  We know what we're going to a restaurant for, and we know how to figure out what we want.

Most readers of restaurant reviews -- the actual audience for restaurant reviews -- aren't like that.  They need more information.  They need more hand-holding.  A good review will make them more comfortable with the restaurant and help them have a better dining experience.  I don't get a lot of e-mail from readers -- my wife and I write reviews for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune -- but we regularly get  thank-you mail from people who have eaten at the restaurants we recommend.  I don't think those people would have tried a new restaurant, or a new cuisine, with a two-line foodie review.  They need more than that.

A completely separate issue is the general quality of restaurant reviews.  Criticism is hard -- whether it's literary criticism or film criticism or restaurant criticism -- and lots of newspapers get them all wrong.  Restaurant criticism is not a menu summary, just as film criticism is not a plot summary.

But yet there are people on THIS VERY BOARD who, before they go to a restaurant for the first time, ask for all kinds of detailed information about which dishes to order, etc.

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But yet there are people on THIS VERY BOARD who, before they go to a restaurant for the first time, ask for all kinds of detailed information about which dishes to order, etc.

Of course. The members of this board include a broad spectrum of the foodie public.

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Let me first say to Mr. Connelly (and others) that I have indeed walked a mile in your shoes.

OK, maybe a block, having dished out a few reviews at a dime a word for a local free paper that stopped giving me assignments when I complained about my check bouncing, and edited out all negative comments about potential advertisers, I have a modest idea what the life of a good critic entails. Very modest.

But more to the point, in no way meant to attack food critics as a group. As a matter of fact, my original post is a call for your liberation, to free you from the hours spent following the roughly the same formula week after week until gout sets in.

Crtics have an important job. Or could have an important job if they had more freedom to "criticize" and less pressure to "review." Without getting all pedantic (as though I can help myself) the former involves educating the masses, analyzing trends for brilliance or absurdity, identifying new talent and giving it the recognition it deserves; capturing the broader sweep of the culinary world, if you will and bringing it to us in ways that educate and delight us. The latter tends to involve a lot of grocery-list type analyses: the pasta was...; the beef was...; the desserts were.

Reviews are helpful. If I go to a strange town it's nice to have a go-to list like the Michelin Guide or the New York Times's search engine. And maybe the Michelin descriptions border on the overly-terse, as FG pointed out up thread, but I've never understood the people who post here in search of every conceivable detail about what to eat and what to avoid. Where's the adventure in that?

So, in my perfect world, talented reviewers are freed from the humdrum fromat of a regular review to look deeper into the world of food, and meld their reviews more intriging and informative essays. IF there is a brilliant young Tuscan who's moved into the neighborhood; an overview of truffles or Tuscan food or Barolo or whatever, with a picture of the chef next to it and enough written about him and his place to give diners an amuse bouche even as they accedentally learn more about food itself. For the star collectors, be sure and put three stars next to the address, number and hours at the bottom of the article.

More fun for all of us.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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i think that if you had an honest conversation with most restaurant critics who have been doing the job for more than 2 or 3 years, while they might stop short of Charles' extreme position, would readily acknowledge that writing a good restaurant review is extremely hard. it's not the eating out so much, or even the judgement. it's the writing, which is about as tightly programmed as anything outside a game story on the sports page. the way almost all restaurant reviews work, you've got 2-3 grafs to set the mood and hook the reader, you've got 6-8 grafs of "here's what i ate" and then you've got 2-3 grafs to exit the stage. translated, you've got fewer than a half-dozen grafs to write anything more creative than finding another adjective for delicious.

given that straitjacket, that some writers are able to write consistently entertaining, informative reviews is really close to a miracle (and i would certainly consider my colleague S. Irene Virbila among the few who can do that).

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i think that if you had an honest conversation with most restaurant critics who have been doing the job for more than 2 or 3 years, while they might stop short of Charles' extreme position, would readily acknowledge that writing a good restaurant review is extremely hard. it's not the eating out so much, or even the judgement. it's the writing, which is about as tightly programmed as anything outside a game story on the sports page. the way almost all restaurant reviews work, you've got 2-3 grafs to set the mood and hook the reader, you've got 6-8 grafs of "here's what i ate" and then you've got 2-3 grafs to exit the stage. translated, you've got fewer than a half-dozen grafs to write anything more creative than finding another adjective for delicious.

given that straitjacket, that some writers are able to write consistently entertaining, informative reviews is really close to a miracle (and i would certainly consider my colleague S. Irene Virbila among the few who can do that).

Thank you Russ. Well put!

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Reading through this thread, I think I understand why the Zagat Survey is so successful -- even though it really offers none of the hand-holding that longer reviews provide and (evidently) many diners need.

And if you don't think diners need hand-holding, reflect for a minute on the fact that chain, not independent, restaurants often dominate the dining scene in most of the country's vast suburbs, where the majority of Americans now live. Chains are successful because the diners know what to expect when they walk in the door -- or think they know, thanks to the TV and print advertising. It won't be the best meal they could get for the money they're spending -- nor will it be the worst (though in some cases, it won't be as good as it ought to be). What it will be is predictable. That, for many, counts for a lot. The bulk of restaurant diners, IMO, will take consistent mediocrity over a 50-50 chance that they will have an outstanding meal -- and an equal chance that they will have an awful one -- at a restaurant they know nothing about.

How to provide this hand-holding within the constrictions of a template that's as formulaic as a Harlequin romance without sounding boring and repetitive is the challenge. This discussion suggests that maybe the template needs to be discarded, but the economics of the newspaper biz probably militate against that.

Sandy Smith, Exile on Oxford Circle, Philadelphia

"95% of success in life is showing up." --Woody Allen

My foodblogs: 1 | 2 | 3

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