After Jennifer's post on the reviewing in her native Syracuse, I began thinking it's time again for some more thoughts on reviewing. I have long maintained the fine citizens of Columbus are cheated out of fair reviews by the fact that all restauranteurs know every reviewer in the city; some "reviewers" call ahead to announce their presence, eat in the restaurant in the afternoon when it isn't open, and get everything for free, including wine. They shall remain nameless but their opinions, of course, are suspect.
So here are a few thoughts I have about reviewing. I realize some people in the city only believe something if it's in print and the writer is being paid to do it, and that bloggers shouldn't take themselves seriously, but I do take it seriously, for better or worse.
- I base my review on at least 2 visits; I believe the industry standard is 3 visits, but no one is paying for my dinner, and that can be prohibitive. I'd rather have a full experience twice than skimp 3 times; furthermore, I work 4-5 nights a week and it could take up to a full month to review a single restaurant. Occasionally I will get so excited about a restaurant that I will write about it after one visit - such as the Refectory, or Kihachi - these are special places who are nearly always on top of their game, and are kind of above petty criticism. An aquaintaince once whined to me about their dislike of the plating at Kihachi. Japanese cuisine has an entire set of guidelines surrounding plating of food which I am only beginning to understand, and therefore I have absolutely no leg to stand on to complain they served something is a manner which I found displeasing.
- I would not review a chain, at least I don't think so. Of course, there are some local "chains," such as Hunan House and Hunan Lion, but these are local operations with an in-house chef and they aren't the same as say, the Olive Garden. For instance, I happen to love Potbelly Sandwich Works, but, being that it's a chain and just a sandwich joint, I wouldn't give it a full review. It's enough to say I love it, especially the giardinara, yum.
- I will admit there is a certain amount of Columbus bias which I think is unavoidable when writing about a smaller big city. Would some of the restaurants I love stand up to others in Vegas or New York? Probably not, but I like to use Columbus as my point of comparison whenever possible. Otherwise I might never eat out. There are a few restaurants and food operations which are media darlings which I happen to really dislike, or have had bad experiences in, but I hesitate to write unfavorable reviews about them because I know they have honest intentions. There is one restaurant in particular where I have eaten a few times, kind of hoping for a good experience, but haven't had one; maybe one day I'll get up the nerve to write about how bad their shrimp & grits are. That should narrow it down.
- I have worked in the restaurant business for a long time. It's easy for me to assess the inner workings of a restaurant very quickly, to see where the managers and servers are going wrong, to notice how everyone works together; I can tell if my food has been sitting under a heat lamp, has visited the microwave, waited for other dishes to be completed, etc. I can tell if the server is bad or just inexperienced. In situations like my La Tavola experience, it can be hard for me to sit and relax during dinner because I can literally see the staff coming apart at the seams.
- Whenever possible, I like to visit small ethnic restaurants, and will eat anything at least once. I don't pretend to know if they are "authentic," as I have never travelled to Japan, Vietnam, etc. As far as I'm concerned, if the proprietor of the restaurant came from said country of origin and uses recipes s/he learned there, it's authentic. Who am I to judge.
- I will always be biased towards chefs who source out unique ingredients, support local agriculture, encourage me to try something new, or otherwise invigorate my appetite and food-related curiosity. This is why I love Alana's so much; even if a dish is a miss, Alana will be the first to get locally-grown fresh black lentils, for instance, or to use an Indonesian spice blend purchased in a marketplace and smuggled back into the States by a regular.
- I would never, ever call ahead to announce my presence. Not that it matters because no one knows me, but a few times, people have called to make reservations at the restaurant where I work and have said things like "I own Blank restaurant." If you were that important, we'd already know. One local restauranteur did that recently and it has totally tainted me towards his restaurant, which used to be a favorite. His business partner has eaten in our restaurant about 20 times in the past 2 years or so and has never called ahead to announce his visit; he usually gets special treatment anyway because, although we do we know who he is, he's also nice and he tips well. Those are the keys to getting good service in a restaurant: being nice and tipping well. Take note, all of you self-proclaimed wine and food aficionados out there.
- If ever I should get a freebie, should know the chef or owner of a restaurant (beyond sight recognition), I will make it known, in the interest of full disclosure.
There we have it; further thoughts on reviewing. Feel free to challenge me.