Our Insiders Continue On Whether Reviews Are Too Fast… Or Should Wait Even Longer

Reviewers used to wait a month before writing reviews; now, it seems, they don’t want to wait at all. On Friday a group of experienced Chicago food media folks, from reviewers and editors to savvy observers, weighed in on this subject, whether reviews should happen instantaneously, what the effect of that is, and how people get new restaurant news in this hyperconnected, instant gratification era. In part two of our conversation, they talk about the practical ethics of reviewing restaurants still starting up, and whether focusing on the new is what reviewers should be doing at all. But first, Ellen Malloy of RIA continues our conversation from Friday about whether early reviews based on a single visit are “fair.”

Ellen Malloy, RIA: In my old life I worked at Lyric Opera and certainly the critics only came one night, opening night, and filed their review. No one questioned if it was fair. It was just the way it was. Now, certainly, they had a lot more practice and dress rehearsals and such — but that is just because the industry worked that way and it was all embedded into ticket pricing, etc. It was expected, all around, that opening night would be flawless.

Restaurants don’t seem approach their opening nights the same way and while I have always thought it was a questionable business decision, in the age of instant news it seems a downright bad one. The loudest buzz comes from industry folks and the early adopters, and capitalizing on their desire to shout out from the rooftops is a surefire way to get your restaurant off to a good start. And frankly, if you have amazing early buzz, you’ll likely find that it has more impact to your bottom line than any bump professional critics can get you.

Take Trenchermen. The TOC review was amazing but that place was a juggernaut on day two. Carriage House, I presume, will also soar before the reviews come in. It is the way it is.

So, I am not sure if I can relate to whether or not it is “fair” but I don’t necessarily think it “matters.” What matters more is being taking the time to train your staff and hone your concept so you can be amazing from day one in every respect. Oh, yeah, if you did that then it wouldn’t matter when the critics came in anyway.

In the first part of this conversation, a number of our respondents said that a restaurant is fair game to review if they’re charging full price, which as a principle of fairness is pretty hard to argue with. It may not necessarily lead to the most insight, though, if it means reviewers only see restaurants when they’re still getting their act together. How do you adjust for that? Which do you feel inclined to give a bit more of a pass to in those early days, food, service or both?

Julia Kramer, Time Out Chicago: Definitely service.

Malloy: Service. LEYE has developed a growing culture of extensive pre-opening service training in Chicago but most independent restaurants approach it as a burdensome pre-opening cost they want to contain as much as possible. It’s really a sad and sorry state of affairs and unfair to customers who are paying full price for Keystone Kops-like service.

That said, I can’t imagine how confusing it would be for anyone to receive precious little training and be tossed onto the floor in the chaos of a restaurant opening. So, if you are a server in this situation and you are able to bring me a crumb of bread I consider you as having achieved greatness. And yes, I can tell when it is the server or the lack of training. So, I would hope, could a critic.

Ari Bendersky, Eater: It’s hard to say, and it could be on a case by case basis. But I feel if you’re not ready to stand by the food, don’t open. When it comes to service, that can make or break an experience. I’ve been places, recently, where the food was outstanding and there were a few missteps in service. I let that slide, they were minor. But if I go back and they’re not fixed, there’s something wrong with management and they’re not doing their job.

Michael Nagrant, Sun-Times/CS: I generally don’t give passes, but no matter when a review comes, the quality of the food is always still paramount. If you aren’t serving good food on the first day, that says something. People may not know how to work a new POS system or where certain wines are kept, but you know if a dish is good or not. Don’t put it out if it sucks. Taste. Taste. Taste. Get rid of the bad line cook. Don’t make do with the bad line cook because you think you have no choice. If you do, you’re saying I’m willing to make compromises to get my doors open, compromises that will likely permeate the business over time.

If you have a delay between dishes, or a wrong dish gets delivered or someone spills wine on you, that doesn’t make a bad experience for me. What makes it a bad experience is when the restaurant ignores the mistake or doesn’t ameliorate it well. If you acknowledge the problem and make amends, that’s still successful in my opinion - even on a single visit. Restaurants have ways of dealing with outliers that can still earn them a great review.

Anthony Todd, Chicagoist: I think it’s very important to acknowledge things that may be due to the restaurant’s newness - service issues, for instance. I also would love to see more publications do return reviews, even if they are shorter, after a place has been open for 6 months to a year.

Sherman Kaplan, formerly of WBBM Newsradio and North Shore: As a reviewer, and as a civilian diner, I have always been more inclined to forgive food mistakes before than service. Obviously, there are exceptions, but by and large the hospitality reflected in service, or how a restaurant deals with problems, generally got my attention, even if the food was perfect. Most of the time, btw, there were very rarely serious service issues.

Just as an added comment on the current food vs. critic scene, I think blogs can be very unfair to restaurants, which are at bottom line, people’s livelihoods. Amateurs might have a tendency to shoot from the hip, without the experience, critical judgment and temperament to be fair.

For the record, I really do not miss professional reviewing. I enjoy the freedom to go where I want, when I want, without constraints. Having to drive into the city from suburbs on a snowy night for a review, was never my idea of a good time….:-)

Anthony’s comment brings us to another point: maybe a month before reviewing isn’t long enough. Don’t restaurants that hit their stride later or improve with age on get ignored in favor of what’s new? Is there any way to fix that?

Kramer: Yes, with the fascination with new restaurants, older restaurants can get the short end of the stick. This is a challenge we think about a lot at Time Out and try to address. For high-profile restaurants like Graham Elliot or Blackbird or the Bristol, we revisit the restaurant pretty much any time there is a major staff change (chef de cuisine, pastry chef, etc) or even just if we hear that a restaurant is putting out amazing food at a particular moment (e.g., Lula, which we re-reviewed after it had been open for like a decade as part of our Iconic Table series).

Often times, these re-visits do not become full re-reviews; instead, they lead to trend stories, placement on our 100 Best list, Eat Out Awards, etc. Not uncommonly, we revisit old restaurants and find that they’ve declined or simply haven’t changed at all—unless it’s something super high-profile like L2O, we usually prefer to update our listing of the restaurant and spare the place a brutal review. Our goal is to give attention to the older restaurants that deserve it, not issue mercy killings.

Anyway, not all publications have the resources to do re-visits, or if they do, I guess they’d rather spend it reviewing Trotter’s twice in one year. ZING.

Malloy: It is super sad in this town how much established restaurants are ignored. And they are. Everyone wants to write about the new thing— and I get it, the first three letters of the word news are N.E.W. but it is still sad because there is a lot of greatness that can be had in a restaurant that has found its stride, matured and settled into itself.

Bendersky: I like the idea of a publication having a “classic table” type of review. Time Out does it and I wish they’d do it more. Chicago magazine has been doing it more too and publishing that in Dish, which is good. There are so many older restaurants that get pushed aside and their business sometimes suffers when newer, hotter spots open. So if an influential reviewer visits an older spot and has a great experience, they should let people know.

Nagrant: See above about “hitting stride”. That being said, I’ve always felt there is zero value in a review as to when it comes. That’s just a silly ego driven arms race. Most consumers read all the reviews and eventually if they don’t, they only read the ones that are meaningful and interesting, not just because the review is first. All of the value comes from what the review is saying, how it’s written, the approach, the perspective etc.

But, still I get that sometimes people have fatigue. I’m sometimes bored with being one of four people discussing the newest -insert famous restaurant group, famous owner, famous chef- and coming to the same conclusions. That’s why I’ve started to focus on neighborhood and ethnic and long operating places for the Sun-Times a lot more. There’s a lot more story to be told, a lot to learn, and a lot more value for the public.

I do think there’s a responsibility to return to places to see how they’re doing. For example, I was tough on Publican Quality Meats service in my first review. Chef Paul Kahan emailed me and said he agreed with a lot of the criticism and that they’d made adjustments. I returned a few months later and found that indeed, they’d taken out tables to make the dining room more comfortable and they now had table service. I was thrilled. I tweeted about the adjustments and lauded them for paying attention. You might argue that the tweet is not as effective as review, but I think it might be more so. It’s focused for tastemakers and travels quicker than the review. Even if I hadn’t said anything, the idea that they made an adjustment that was experienced daily by every customer who walked through that door has way more impact than anything almost any single critic working in Chicago today could say.

Finally, what I should say that’s paramount to all this, is that I believe I work for the diner, not the restaurant. And because a consumer is just as likely to walk in the door on day one and make a decision as they are six months from now, that’s sort of woven through the logic I’m employing to discuss these issues. That’s not to say I don’t want to give a restaurant a fair shake. I do. But my behavior as a critic will be more reflective of what my readers do and want than what a restaurant thinks it deserves.

If I operated on the other side, I’d probably review very few restaurants. Given a choice, few restaurants want any kind of criticism. So many of them are like Hollywood starlets armed with PR, stylists, clothes-buyers, speech trainers etc who believe everything they do is golden or should be considered golden whether it’s true or not. A restaurant that spends 50K on PR to craft a message is spending 50K less on its dining experience. Many of the truly great restaurants have no PR at all. They don’t need it. The best PR is honest consistent excellent execution, and most spots have proven they can do that within a week or two, sometimes on the first day.

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

Our Insiders Continue On Whether Reviews Are Too Fast… Or Should Wait Even