Is The Turnaround On Reviews Getting Too Fast? We Asked Insiders What They Think

Those were the days.
Those were the days.

One month. That was the standard time reviewers tended to wait before reviewing new restaurants, to give them time to settle in, and when the mainstream reviewers were the only ones out there, it worked. Needless to say, it’s a different world with people racing to be the first ones to tweet a picture of a hot new place. People want info now, so they can hit the hot places as soon as possible, and they’re willing to dispense with the niceties of the traditional reviewing process to get it. And it’s not just those internet ragamuffins bending the rules; even Phil Vettel recognized that Next’s unique nature forced exceptions not only to the timing, but to the anonymity and the at-least-two-visits rule of the traditional review. To see where this new world is taking us, we spoke with an eclectic group of folks involved in some way with the reviewing world, from reviewers (Michael Nagrant of the Sun-Times and CS, Julia Kramer of Time Out Chicago, and now-retired Sherman Kaplan, who reviewed for WBBM and North Shore magazine from the 70s through the 2000s), to editors (Anthony Todd of Chicagoist, Lisa Arnett of RedEye), both of whom also review on occasion, to observers of the scene (Steve Dolinsky, Ari Bendersky of Eater Chicago, former publicist turned social media entrepreneur Ellen Malloy). Here’s the first part of what they think; the conversation will continue on Monday.

This subject comes up again because, it was one thing when we were talking about the internet jumping major media’s gun, but now we have the media breaking down the wall too. RedEye, for instance, has clearly decided that its younger readership is less interested in a critic’s judgement for the ages than a quick take on what to do this weekend, and so it publishes previews, which seem to be shading more and more into reviewing dishes and the restaurant experience, basically as soon as places open. And Chicagoist published a review of Embeya this week, which is basically in its first week or so, depending on what you want to call its official opening, but while couched in appropriate language about it being early and so on, nevertheless made some clear critical judgements.

So the give-em-a-month policy seems to be in decline, if still adhered to by more traditional publications. Does it still have a point, or is its death inevitable, and even right and proper, in our instant internetty age?

Michael Nagrant, Sun-Times/CS: My personal standard and the one I follow at the Sun-Times is generally to wait at last three weeks. In most cases, I can’t remember going somewhere before a month had passed. Still, I believe that if a restaurant is charging full price, has made no mention of a soft opening etc, it’s fair to critique it early. Lots of paying customers will walk through that door in the first couple weeks like any critic and decide based on that one experience never to return or to become a regular. If the experience will truly be significantly less than when the place “hits its stride”, than the restaurant should offer a reduced price to compensate and also to ward off early critics.

However, there’s definitely no advantage to going much earlier than three or four weeks, except towards validating some silly arms race, that no one cares about, to say you were the first publication. In my experience, there have been few places that have significantly changed such that a review six months vs two or three weeks from opening would be much more than a star different.

Lisa Arnett, RedEye: Thanks for including us in the conversation; I wanted to reply on behalf of RedEye.

At RedEye, our reviews are “first looks.” If a bar or a restaurant is open to the public and charging customers for food and drinks, then they’re ready for a first look from RedEye, and that’s the approach we’ve taken for the past several years. Because we visit restaurants and bars within a week or two of opening, we have a non-traditional ratings scale that reflects the early nature of our reviews. Ratings range from “Proceed with caution,” or “Give it some time” to “Off to a good start” or “Already hot.”

Our readers want to know right away what our first impression of a venue is. Does it live up to the pre-opening hype? Is it worth their money now, or would they be better off giving it a few months? We also revisit bars and restaurants that have been open for some time if there’s a noteworthy change–such as a new chef or a change in concept–that we think would interest our readers.

Julia Kramer, Time Out Chicago: The give-em-a-month policy continues to be in place at Time Out Chicago. David Tamarkin and I review all new restaurants almost exactly one month after they open. There are many reasons for this, but here’s a personal one: I find that it is much easier to get lost in the cloud of hype—including hype that I/TOC may have had some role in creating—when visiting a restaurant on opening night or in the first few days. You’re so caught up in everything you’re supposed to already know about the restaurant—the chef’s resume or the bartender’s popularity or the owner’s other successful restaurants—that you see the restaurant for what the press/publicists/etc are telling you it is or is supposed to be rather than realizing, oh, actually, these small plates are way too expensive or this concept doesn’t really make sense or whatever it might be.

Though a month is still a short period of time, any buffer I can give myself against the hype bubble helps create, I think, some critical distance.

Anthony Todd, Chicagoist: We don’t have any official policy on the question of when something is reviewed, so opinions are definitely MINE, not the site’s. I feel like the waiting should decline, with some reservations. I understand the objections - the place isn’t at full capacity, training isn’t complete, and so it’s not a fair assessment. But here’s the thing: They aren’t charging 50% less because they aren’t up to snuff. A customer can still walk in the door, and when they do, they won’t necessarily have any idea that the restaurant is new.

My position is this: if a restaurant is soft-open (for example, not taking reservations/no press releases) I’ll hold off. They are clearly putting money into training and preparation, and I want to respect that. If they are on OpenTable, sending out information to news outlets and otherwise trying to drive business, they are fair game AFTER opening night. Opening nights are a mess, and not fair for a review. I’d probably even give it a couple of days or a week. But, after that, it’s fair game.

Ari Bendersky, Eater Chicago: While it would be nice if reviewers waited a few weeks or so to allow a restaurant to get into its groove, the reality is that these days restaurants have to be on their game before they open. Diners will tweet, post to Facebook, review on Yelp and more as soon as they dine. And with so much hype and excitement around new restaurants, people clamor to get in just as the doors open and they want to share their experiences. If it’s not a good one, they’re going to let people know. Where professional reviewers are concerned? Maybe they should start reviewing more under the radar places first and let the more talked-about hot spots go for a few weeks before heading in. Then again, if reviewers do that, they’ll look like they’re behind the times. It’s a catch-22.

Ellen Malloy, RIA: I thought [the one month rule] was already dead. Probably because I don’t get my news about restaurants from media but from industry folk who pass along what is interesting and what to ignore. And most of the industry folk go in for tastings, friends and family, or in the first week. Industry buzz is going to make or break a restaurant opening, not reviews, and it often happens before you’ve even opened. No one wonders if that is fair.

Another one of the standard “rules” is that you should visit a restaurant at least twice before reviewing it. But reviews that are turned around in the first week are almost by definition single-visit reviews. Is that fair? If you can try enough dishes to be able to represent a wide swath of the menu, does it matter how many times you went? After all, most diners go only once, especially if the experience isn’t good.

Steve Dolinsky, ABC 7/ I do think reviews are happening earlier than ever, and it’s not really fair to give a full assessment based on one visit.

I can see someone tweeting about a place early on, maybe the first week or so, just to give a gut reaction or a heads-up to followers, but that’s not really a “review.” I’ve been criticized for tweeting something critical (a disaster of a meal at Alimentari) but it’s quite a stretch to call that a “review” of the restaurant, since those comments are limited to 140 characters.

While I do feel that there is truth to the old rule about if you’re open and charging full price then you are subject to review (many places in NYC get around this by offering 10-15% discounts during their “preview” period, and thus protect themselves from being reviewed), if a professional critic is going to go into great length about food, service, etc., it should be based upon no fewer than two visits.

Sherman Kaplan, formerly of WBBM Newsradio and North Shore: Opening a restaurant is a tremendous challenge, and any critic who does not accept that fact, should not be a critic. I always waited several weeks before reviewing. I know that line has become blurred, but I think it still holds true for the genuine professionals, such as Phil Vettel.

I was limited by budget and time issues to only one review, though I would have preferred to have visited at least twice, and in some instances, more than that… especially for complex fine dining experiences. I tried to rationalize one visit on the grounds that that is how most people judge a restaurant. If that first visit is not up to par, chances are it would not get a revisit.

Every now and then, if I was at a fine dining restaurant, and I had enough lead time, I would go back to revisit before writing when I felt my first experience had not given me a true picture. That was very rare, for the above cited reasons.

Bendersky: When you can snap a picture and post it to Twitter and Facebook via Instagram as soon as a dish you like (or hate) is put in front of you, you’re making a statement. Reviewers should caution themselves about jumping to the gun too quickly and dine somewhere at least twice before making a solid judgment. Going somewhere and judging it off one experience is never fair – even if it’s a place that’s been around for years. There can be a number of factors that lead to a poor experience. If it happens on the return visit, you know it is just not a good spot and you can fairly say so. If it doesn’t, you have a balanced review.

If a place is really expensive, chances are a reviewer is only going once. In a few unique situations, they may go a second time. So is it fair to judge on one visit? Yes, because if you’re charging that much money on a single meal, you’re saying your food and service surpass that of other places so you should live up to that statement.

Kramer: The notion that a critic needs to visit a restaurant a certain number of times hinges on the idea that a critic can be objective: That if you try enough of the menu, have multiple servers, etc, you can come up with a precise assessment of a restaurant’s strengths and weaknesses. This would be true if it weren’t for the fact that
reviewers are human beings, not robots, and therefore restaurant reviews are subjective. Critics are not right or wrong—the best I think that we can do is relay our experiences honestly, in a way that engages readers and once in a while provides some insight into dining out. In this case, I don’t find anything inherently wrong with writing about one’s experience after visiting a restaurant once, as long as it’s clear that that was the case.

At Time Out, we visit twice (and occasionally three times) for starred reviews, because it helps us better understand what the restaurant is trying to do. I find it particularly important in judging how consistent a restaurant is; you wouldn’t believe how different meals can be based on a server or the time of night or day of the week, etc. If I go to a restaurant twice and one meal is good and one is terrible, I write about both meals in the review.

Nagrant: I generally visit places at least twice. That being said, while going once may not be fair, it’s certainly a real reflection of how most of the dining public operates. Most regular diners don’t go to a place and say, “This place was promising. I’ll definitely have to come back.” They say, “I can’t believe I wasted my money. Twenty others places just opened. I’m gonna check those out.” While there are mistakes from night to night on any single visit, the really good places rarely have disastrous outlier nights. The good places by definition are good every single night. Most people only go to Alinea, L20 once on a special occasion etc because of affordability and accessibility reasons. Those spots only get one shot and yet, over and over, they perform.

Todd: In my mind, reviews are a guide to consumers. For those of us without infinite budgets to burn on messed up/mediocre dinners, reviews give us a chance to hedge our bets, to try to maximize our chances of a good meal. The number and variety of reviewers further allows for this. In addition, the media market is dramatically skewed towards positive coverage - the amount of non-critical, “news” or things masquerading as such while actually being endorsements, ensures that almost any new restaurant will have positive buzz when it opens.

The bottom line: while we as foodies may forget it, spending $150 on something mediocre is very, very bad. If I can minimize the chance of that happening to one of my readers, rules be damned.

Monday: Maybe a Month Isn’t Long Enough?

Is The Turnaround On Reviews Getting Too Fast? We Asked Insiders What They Think