Monday, August 19, 2013

Six Weeks? Who Has that Kind of Time?

Robert Sietsema's recent Eater reflections on the current state of restaurant reviewing have sparked a flurry of pieces rethinking the decades-old conventions of the restaurant review. L.V. Anderson, for instance, argued in Slate that restaurant critics should dine on their own nickel instead of expense accounts "to convey what it’s like for a normal schmo to dine at a restaurant." Now, another Slate piece, this one from Luke O'Neil, takes a shot at a different policy: that of waiting 6 to 8 weeks before reviewing a restaurant in order to let it shake out the opening kinks.

O'Neil thinks it's time to 86 that one. Nearly all the arguments for delaying reviewing a restaurant, he claims, "overlook the critic’s primary concern: the reader." He makes some interesting points, but ultimately I don't buy 'em. Here's a few of his points and my reaction:

"We review early drafts of various art projects all the time."Writers write about leaked music demos, rough drafts of books, and rough cuts of movies all the time, and why should restaurants be any different? 

O'Neil here, I think, undercuts his own argument by talking about books and movies. No one writes full-length critiques of a novel based upon reading a first draft and no one writes full-length movie reviews based upon watching pre-edited rushes (I'm struggling to think if I've ever even seen such animals before). Sure, lots of buzz and talk and hype spreads around leaked sneak peeks, but I would bet most of us still want our reviewers to critique the finished product.   

We already do the exact same thing with restaurants. There are any number of "previews"--touring the restaurant weeks before opening when the construction is still underway--and "first looks" based upon a soft opening night or media invites. The bigger the name of the chef or owner opening the spot, the more intense and breathless the early looks are.

Restaurants should have the kinks worked out in advance. "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," O'Neil argues. He uses the analogy that we wouldn't expect a sports team to forget how to play the game when it plays for the first time in a new stadium.

That sports analogy might work if you are talking about a restaurant moving from one location to another, but not for a brand new restaurant opening up. A better analogy would be a bunch of experienced professional athletes playing together for the first time on a brand new team. How many expansion teams have a winning record their first season? Almost none, and it routinely takes years for one to win any sort of championship. 

Analogies aside, anyone in the restaurant business will tell you that there are countless changes and adjustments made in the first few weeks. Restaurants are different from theatre productions, where the whole troupe rehearses for six to eight weeks before opening. One thing you can be pretty sure of: no matter how experienced and professional the staff is, if you want to experience a new restaurant at its best, wait a couple of weeks before visiting.      

3. "Is the money of the first few hundreds or thousands of people to buy a ticket or make a reservation worth less than the people who see a play or visit a restaurant after it’s hit its stride?" 

We could turn that one around, I suppose, and ask whether the money of the remaining thousands of diners is worth less than that of the first few hundred.

The reality of the business is that once a restaurant has been reviewed by a publication, it isn't going to get another review from them for quite some time--typically several years, and often only then if there's a significant change like a new chef or a thorough menu redesign. That initial review is going to be online for potential diners to find, linked to by Yelp and other sites, and pop up in search engines for quite a long time to come. 

All told, the more I think about O'Neil's arguments, the more insulting they seem to chefs and restaurateurs. He's pretty much saying that if a restaurant can't perform flawlessly on the first night, it's a failing on the part of the owner and the staff, who should be more professional. And, his closing assertion is laughable: "if you’re not ready to let critics form impressions about your restaurant, then maybe you're not ready to charge full price for what you're selling." What?      

I think O'Neil is right on one overarching point: that the primary concern of the reviewer should be for the readers and for providing them with useful critiques to help them pick where to eat. Readers will have to ask themselves whether they would prefer to read a review that's based upon an experience that very likely is going to change--perhaps even change dramatically--in a week or two or wait a few weeks in order to get a more solid, accurate assessment.  

But really, is this even a problem at all? Is there any shortage of information and opinions and buzz right now about new restaurants opening up? Is the dining public out there wandering around helplessly, wondering if they should eat at that new Indaco place or not (which, by the way, had a few opening week adjustments of its own)? If only there was an intrepid restaurant reviewer who would be brave enough to knock out an in-depth review the day after opening night!

Plenty of readers complain today about the sped up, buzz-driven, Cronut-obsessed nature of restaurant coverage in the media. Clearly, there are plenty more readers who eat such coverage up. The one thing I've never once heard anyone say, though, is "I wish you guys would review restaurants more quickly." 

There is plenty of reason to wonder, in an age of Twitter pics and instant Yelp reviews and hourly Eater posts--not to mention the never-ending hemorrhaging of traditional newspapers' budgets--whether the long, formal restaurant review will still be around a decade from now. One thing I'm pretty certain of, though, is that the way to keep it alive amid competition from the newer, faster, buzz-driven Internet forms is not to blindly try to ape them.

Popular Posts