Role of Restaurant Critic: Helpful Public Servant or ‘Ignoramus with iPhone’?

FREDRIC KOEPPEL | Special to The Memphis News

(Illustration: Shutterstock)

Your new restaurant has been open for a few weeks. The kitchen and front-of-house staffs are working in sweet sync. Patrons react favorably to food, service and atmosphere. There’s a sense of anticipation in the dining room, and you’re taking reservations a month out. You seem to be heading toward a great success story.

And then the review appears.

Few are the newspapers published in major cities that don’t feature reviews of local restaurants. Usually these reviews appear on Fridays in weekend entertainment guides, though the New York Times shifted its restaurant reviews to the Wednesday food section some years ago. The motivations for running restaurant reviews in newspapers (and “city” magazines) are simple: They’re a service to readers, and they provide a method of keeping up with current trends in dining.

Among the complaints that restaurateurs and chefs level against reviewers are that reviewers often have never worked in restaurants, that they don’t have culinary training, that their grasp of the array of world cooking is limited, that they’re more interested in entertainment and wit than objective criticism, and that they cultivate a religion of the ego. I think that about covers it.

So, do the fates of restaurants actually depend on the influence of negative or positive reviews issued by such people?

First, we have to remember that the nature of restaurant reviewing – or “reviewing” – has been transformed by the Internet, or, as John Bragg, owner and executive chef of Circa said, “any ignoramus with an iPhone can take one bite of food and be an instant reviewer.” Certainly entities like Open Table, Urbanspoon and Yelp have provided space for diners to express their thoughts about their dining experiences with startling speed and frankness.

The cynical would say that the only difference between a professional reviewer and a diner with immediate access to the Internet is that the so-called professional gets paid and has a dining budget. The newspaper or magazine critic, on the other hand, would cite experience, knowledge, editorial sanction and back-up and a hard-earned objectivity and authoritative voice as assets, at least theoretically. I mean, we’re all human.

Bragg, who has received excellent reviews but also endured his share of knocks, said that positive reviews bring customers to the restaurant, while negative reviews “should be seen as illustrative, as teachable moments. It’s better from a critic that you can take seriously, someone who’s not in it for entertainment or personal glory. Criticism has to have specificity, so if there’s some detail that was perhaps lacking at the restaurant we can address that.”

As far as people posting to review websites or to their blogs is concerned, Bragg said, “I wish they would understand that restaurants are not in the business of cheating people or ripping them off. That’s counter-productive. But if something goes wrong, they would be far better off trying to find a solution – politely – at the restaurant, instead of not saying anything and then going off on a diatribe on the Internet.”

“Of course I trust a newspaper or magazine critic more,” said Jose Gutierrez, executive chef at River Oaks (and before that Encore and Chez Philippe), “because they are more professional and more objective. People who post their Twitter and things like that, they may be passionate and personal, but they’re not so objective or knowledgeable. Again, though, it’s a matter of taste. Those reviews can be useful.”

Gutierrez, who said that a review “can make or break a restaurant” – ascribing immense power to the written word – asserted that both positive and negative reviews can help an establishment.

“Absolutely a good review is a great thing,” he said. “People read it, they get excited about going to the restaurant, it brings in business. A negative review, well, restaurants do have bad nights, it happens, and when you read about that in a review, you try to take it as a suggestion, something that you can improve.”

Angela Knipple, who with her husband Paul runs the blog From the Southern Table, to which she contributes restaurant reviews, faults magazine and newspaper archives and even blogs with a lag-time in information, while she uses the reviewing sites to keep up-to-date.

“Urbanspoon and Yelp are maybe the best resource we use,” she said. “You get an aggregate of experiences. A single reviewer may only give a restaurant one star, but the average experience is much better. After all, every restaurant has a bad day. And those sites are more current. There’s nothing worse than deciding on a place based on blogs or newspaper/magazine reviews and then finding out that it closed or has completely changed. The important thing there for readers to be aware of, though, is that a restaurant can easily pad its reviews (on a website). You have to pay attention to the dates and frequencies of reviews on those sites.”

In a sense, there’s a generational divide in restaurant reviewing. While the reviewing guidelines issued by the Association of Food Journalists emphasize strict anonymity, adherence to accepted journalistic standards in research, reporting and writing, and absolute objectivity and fairness, young bloggers and reviewers on aggregate websites insist that the personal point of view is more important, more accessible – and fun – than journalistic objectivity.

A disadvantage of public reviews on open websites is that people who post comments about restaurants tend to be wildly enthusiastic or deeply affronted.

“I read those comments,” said Bragg, “you can learn a lot, but I throw out all the five-star and one-star reviews and pay attention to those in the middle range. They seem a lot more serious and fair.”