One of the publications I write for with some regularity occasionally throws me the bone of a restaurant review.  The reviews for this particular periodical are only a hundred words at most, so there’s no pay for them; your compensation is that you get to expense the check.  So a few weeks ago I went to Sunday brunch at (the place assigned), and Monday, I submitted this review:

“Going to Sunday brunch at (the restaurant) is like going to Sunday Brunch at the home of a well-liked great-aunt who never *quite* mastered cooking but is so very pleasant that no one minds.  The food is okay – standard hotel “FREE HOT BREAKFAST” fare – but the atmosphere is lovely: welcoming, loud, and *very* child-friendly, in a room more suited to wedding vows than a waffle bar.  Save the crab-Benedict-and-caviar-omelet brunches for anniversaries; brunch at (the restaurant) is where you go with rambunctious grandchildren.”

Some hours later I got a note from my editor, Lauren:

“Alan-

 Any way I could get you to rewrite this? I know it’s difficult writing something good about something that wasn’t your favorite, but could we focus on the positive? Hate to ask, but this just reads super sarcastically.

Lauren”

There’s an art to restaurant reviews.   It’s not literary.   It’s diplomatic.  Every restaurant I’ve ever reviewed – hell, ever restaurant I’ve ever been in – has good points and bad points.  I’m pretty good at writing nice things about places that I don’t love, because reviewing restaurants is a tremendous responsibility. If you review movies, say, and you pan one, that’s okay. The movie isn’t only open in one local location.  Your one voice won’t make or break it. But to crush a restaurant…that’s just mean and unnecessary.

It’s also unfair, and not just because reviewers of restaurants have a much more powerful impact on their subjects than movie reviewers do on theirs. Everybody sees the same movie.  But restaurants are run by humans, not projectors.  And humans have up and down days.  No one needs me marching in on a night where two line cooks no-showed and the dishwasher broke and the alfredo sauce scorched because the busboy trying to work the line burned himself, and then snorting in print two months later about how the fettuccine wasn’t authentic. People who run restaurants have enough problems. For Christ’s sake, they run a restaurant.  That’s hard enough.

So I spike bad reviews, and use the space for someone who deserves the praise, because boosting a good restaurant is of more benefit to the food world than trashing a sub-par one. (The one thing I will call a restaurant out for in a review is when wonderful food is repeatedly marred by poor service.   Looking at you, Prime Steakhouse in the Bellagio.)  If a restaurant really is universally agreed to be just horrible – something I have never once seen in twenty years of dedicated fatness – there isn’t any need to run to print and tattle on them anyway.  Word will get around fast enough.

Back to my exchange:

“Hi Lauren-

I didn’t mean to be sarcastic. I was focusing on the positive.  This place…I’m sorry, but there’s no way around it: This place was awful.  I’m not being food-precious, here.  I *like* low-rent.  But this wasn’t low-rent, this was bad.   Imagine a buffet run by a failing Denny’s.  The sole positive I could find was that you can totally take kids, and not worry about their behavior, and they’ll like the food.  (Especially the whipped cream next to the waffle-maker, the one with the bowls of chocolate chips and sprinkles next to it.)  Believe me, this was a glowing review for this place.  Honestly, if you think this review seems sarcastic, spike it. I’m not going to be able to be any nicer without lying, and also, if readers go here on (the publication’s) recommendation, they will be pissed.

Alan”

She agreed, and killed it.

The annoying thing is, bad reviews are WAY more fun to write.  Here’s what I would have liked to have written about that brunch:

“Sunday brunch at (the restaurant) is roughly what I would expect from a Sunday brunch at summer camp. The food was all slightly stale and presented at room temperature, as though it had been prepared and set out the night before.  I needed a steak knife to cut the eggs Benedict, which had been resting on the warming tray long enough to turn the English muffins into hardtack. I shouldn’t have bothered, as the only flavor present was salt. The “prime rib” the advertising bragged accomplished the rare exacta of being both overdone and undercooked at the same time. (The meat was gray, but the fat remained unrendered.) The only thing that was hot and fresh were the waffles, which you were permitted to make yourself on their hotel-style wafflemaker.  The waffles produced would have been delightful had there been maple syrup for them, rather than the four squeeze-bottles of dessert sauce (“raspberry”, “chocolate”, “caramel”, and “white chocolate”), can of whipped topping, and bowl of chocolate chips presented. There was no service except to hand me a check—once I went walking around looking for one.

I would say that I would not return under any circumstances, but that would be untrue.  I would absolutely go back once.  You see, (the restaurant) is like a 1950’s B-movie: Gloriously awful.  I want to call a handful of friends, fortify ourselves with a few drinks, and spend $15 each for the pleasure of making fun, Mystery Science Theater 3000-style:

SEE! The dessert table composed entirely of unwrapped and re-portioned Sara Lee treats!

EAT! Cold soggy toasted ravioli with all the filling gone! 

 TASTE! Sausage gravy with the texture of soft-serve ice cream!

But, y’know, why be unkind for the sake of laughs?  If I wanted to do that, I’d go back to covering politics.

Speaking of negative reviews, as a general rule, I avoid anonymous reviews online, because I think they’re mostly garbage. It’s a nice idea in theory.  Very democratic, the open public review.  But I lived in a tourist town for a while, and trashing the competition anonymously on tourism websites was in an awful lot of job descriptions.  The idea of open-source restaurant (movie, hotel, book, sex, toy, apartment building, doctor, etc.) reviews has been usurped and annihilated by people who think that hating everything is a mark of sophistication, disgruntled former employees, people with grudges, pedantic snobs, and shills.

So why, then, should you bother with professional restaurant reviews?   Excellent question.  Truthfully, I’m not sure.  Transparency?  Qualification?   At least, I guess, when I read a published review, I can reasonably assume some standard of knowledge/impartiality that I cannot take for granted when reading a review online.  If I write a glowing review of a place, you can safely assume I’m not the sous-chef.   If I critique the service, you can safely assume I was not dumped by a waitress. (I’d be fired for either offense.)  If I compare the food selections at a tiny barbecue shack unfavorably to Famous Dave’s, you know enough about me to know that it is not because I have disproportionately weighted Famous Dave’s larger selection of sauces.

I’m not meaning to sound like a “bloggers-sit-in-Mom’s-basement-in-their-underpants” professional snob here.  I’m confining my hatin’ to Yelp and TripAdvisor and the like; anywhere where the reviews are an anonymous sentence or paragraph.  There are lots and lots of local, amateur restaurant critics out there who are MUCH more qualified to judge restaurants than I am.  You can tell who they are by the thought and effort that go into their reviews.  Seek them out.  Learn their histories.  Email them.   Be fans.   Learn their tastes, their preferences, their biases.   It’s worth it, because their stuff is often better and more knowledgeable than that of the best “professional” reviewers, because they do it out of a love of food and of sharing the experience.

(Interestingly, that’s also the best reason to run a restaurant.)

 

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ALAN BROUILETTE is a freelance writer of magazine articles, comedy, and scripts. His career peak thus far is his inclusion in the anthology "Best Food Writing 2011." He prefers to writing about food and sports to writing news - which he used to do - and prefers Gonzo journalism to the responsible kind. You can find him, and some of his writing, at brouilette.com.

7 responses to “Worst. À La Mode. Ever.”

  1. Alanna says:

    I’d like to see more humorous bad reviews out there- the fact of travel writing is that so many of these people get comped! Of course they aren’t going to write a single bad thing about the place that just comped them in a weekend in the honeymoon suite (speaking from personal experience there). Food reviews bring a little bit of levity to these overblown “reviews” that we see everywhere these days. At least food reviewers generally sneak in and don’t announce they’re reviewing anything. At least they usually have a history of knowing something about good food. But still, we need to hear when something’s bad. Instead it’s always the money that talks- “That restaurant advertises with our paper/blog/TV station- we can’t write that they’ll pull the ads!” Some places won’t remedy that poor service, or look at re-vamping their managerial style, unless someone says something about it.

    I thank Yelp and Yahoo for just the fact that people can talk about their bad experience. I haven’t been steered wrong too often by reading Yelp reviews- you can tell when people are on there who have only posted one review in their Yelp career, or are just generally angry. And of course, you take it all with a grain of salt.

  2. I completely agree with you about comps being a huge problem in travel writing. (And, as a lot of food writing is also travel writing,there’s a lot of bleed-through.)

  3. Lauren says:

    I will say, I definitely agree that negative restaurant reviews can be more fun to read. The problem is space. In a printed publication, you have finite space. So, it doesn’t make much sense wasting your space telling your readers about an awful restaurant they should never go to. The space should be used for recommendations. Online, this is rarely an issue, as there is infinite space for both positive and negative reviews.

    Glad we killed this one, Alan. : )

  4. Gail says:

    Now I totally want to have a few drinks and do brunch. 🙂
    I don’t know what place you are writing about, but it sounds like one I have been to…

  5. LauraK says:

    In general, I use Yelp as a guide. It’s pretty easy to see the thoughtful reviews from the schmoes. I want to know what place this is, if it is local, so I can avoid it, unless it is for irony

  6. Big says:

    I agree with Alanna – we need someone to start a bad review site as a home for the funniest, snarkiest, cleverest bad reviews of restaurants, movies, products, anything. Authors would proudly put their name on their work, but the guilty would be protected by anonymity. (Instead of “Captain McBriny’s Fish and Chowder Shanty”, the review would only reference “a mid-price seafood joint in southeast Wisconsin.” An editorial board (volunteering!) would review submitted bad reviews for quality and re-write for anonymity as necessary. Who wants to do this? I’m so in.

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