Bloggers, Internet Posters and Restaurant Criticism

The internet has become a forum for anyone to say anything about everything. I am not in favor of stifling criticism or abridging first amendment rights, but I do think that as diners we have certain obligations. Dining is not a passive experience. It is an interaction where I am in control of the experience as much as the staff and the kitchen.

So, I think there are so many ways that a diner can maximize his/her dining experience.

ENTHUSIASM

I remember the first time I went to the French Laundry.  My husband had to work and I was lucky enough to secure a last minute reservation. I was by myself and although I am knowledgeable about cuisine, my wine expertise is marginal, at best. Laura Cunningham, at that time, was acting as sommelier and I decided to be completely open and honest. I said that this was the first time I had ever dined alone in a “fine dining” restaurant and I was somewhat intimidated. Also, my husband always ordered the wine and I would appreciate a lot of help. Laura suggested that I just let Thomas cook and she would pick the appropriate wine. I got there at noon and didn’t leave until 6 pm when diners were being seated for dinner. That was the beginning of a now long-term relationship that started with a very nervous diner.

The first time we went to El Bulli, Juli Soler, the GM, immediately picked up on our appreciation for cuisine coupled with the joie de vivre that we bring to dining experiences. From the start there was an extraordinary feeling that they “knew us!”

This is something we experience in most restaurants. I do not think it is because we are that much more knowledgeable (although after years and years of fine dining experiences and almost as many years in the kitchen, we do understand food). I think we approach each dining experience with excitement. I am never jaded or give the impression of “show me what you can do.” I really want to have a wonderful time and love and respect the profession to the utmost. I do not expect the “last meal on earth” experience every time we go out. Instead I so appreciate the effort of both the front and back of the house that I think this sense of “I am ready to enjoy myself and truly love what is served” conveys itself to the staff. Because we are so willing to let ourselves be willing participants in a restaurant, the restaurant willingly tries to give us their best. Also, if one dish doesn’t live up to expectations or there are missteps along the way, I am willing to chalk it up to experience. We try not to put a staff on edge or give the impression that you had better “wow” us. I think because we are so enthusiastic that enthusiasm generates even more enthusiasm from the staff. At one restaurant we go to frequently, the chef commented to us, “we love seeing your name on the reservation list.” I think the reason he feels that way is that we are ready to try whatever is offered.

A RELATIONSHIP

Establishing a relationship with a restaurant is actually very simple. If you are a regular, you will get better treatment – reservations at the last minute, reservations at prime time, understanding of what you like, specially designed tasting menus and other perks. This might seem unfair and politically incorrect, but a regular is the bread and butter of a restaurant. They know you will come back again and again and as a result, your loyalty is recognized and rewarded. If there is a restaurant you really like, go back often. Every single time we dine at a restaurant, even those we have been to over 100 times, we always write a thank you email. We are very specific about those dishes we particularly loved, a server who was outstanding or anything that made the dining experience memorable. You would be surprised how few people write a complimentary email, but are quick to complain.

I think the biggest mistake diners make is to assume that you can have an instant relationship with a restaurant. Sometimes there is “love at first glance”, but generally this is a slow process.

HOW TO CRITCIZE

Chefs and staff are human and do make mistakes. How you handle those mistakes can turn an iffy situation into a win-win for both the restaurant and you as the diner. Waiting until you get home to write a nasty review on the internet might make you feel better, but you still had a lousy experience so how did you win? I don’t know of one chef or FOH person in the restaurant business who sets out to have unhappy customers. After all this is a business and these people have to make a living. Bring up your concerns when they occur. Being nasty won’t win you any awards and threats about blogging your dissatisfaction is unethical, to my way of thinking.  The expression you get more with honey than vinegar is apt and true. Honey is not only easier on the service people in this world who are just doing their jobs, but it is less stressful for you. Patiently, quietly and calmly mention your concerns to either your server or the manager.

ACCURACY

Bloggers expect the chef and staff to faithfully execute their responsibilities. I think restaurants have the same right to expect their customers to accurately report their experience. I can’t tell you how many times I have read descriptions of dishes that I know well that have a list of ingredients that isn’t even close to what was on the plate. Someone, writing that they were disappointed at FL and recommended that you “save your money”, described Keller’s cornets as “The small cone with tuna tartar and crème fraiche was plain and uneventful.” For the record, it is actually a Cornet of Atlantic Salmon tartar with sweet red onion crème friache. Another person writing about Manresa with the warning “awful food for an absurd price” described the famous Arpege Egg dish as “This odd egg muse(sic) had some really bad sour cream on the top layer (it was served inside a partically (sic) cut egg.)

For the record, the actual recipe is here:

http://whatscookingamerica.net/Eggs/ArpegeEggs.htm

 If I personally don’t care for a dish, I have a responsibility to say that it wasn’t to my liking, but not that it was executed poorly. The ethic for blogging should be, in my opinion, not based on  personal judgements, but rather specifics reported accurately.

I have given you a sense of where I am coming from as a blogger, but thought it would be beneficial to hear from chefs and restaurateurs. How do they feel and deal with food sites and people writing about their meals?

So chefs, restaurateurs and staff members, I look forward to your take on the situation. You are free to comment anon.

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11 Responses to “Bloggers, Internet Posters and Restaurant Criticism”


  1. 1 Jerome W. August 23, 2008 at 10:54 am

    Agenda. Almost all of them have agendas and almost all of them are clueless.
    Facts wrong, subjectivity written as if it was fact.
    Superficial knowledge of food, history and tradition. they are like groupies blowing Led Zeppelin backstage….

  2. 2 Aaron August 24, 2008 at 9:51 pm

    Liz, as always, a thoughtful and experienced analysis of the issue. I’m really glad you took the time to post this.
    As you mentioned, dining is not a passive experience. Far from it. Like any other human interaction, it is a two-way street. You only get what you give, and enthusiasm goes a very, very long way. For one thing, enthusiasm is disarming, often immediately breaking down any sort of uptight or shy or uncomfortable feelings(in either the diner or the staff). Enthusiasm is also endearing. Humans are, by nature, pleasure seeking. We want to smile, and we want to make others smile. We want to laugh, and we want to make others laugh. If you show a restaurant, by word or by action, that you are happy and excited to be there, they will be happy and excited to make your experience the best they can. There is a simple sense of satisfaction on both ends. Back of the house and front of the house.
    Also, many bloggers seem to approach dinner as a mere financial transaction. You cannot buy good service. Indeed, you cannot buy the enjoyment of food, either. What gets put on your plate is meaningless if you approach the meal with a bad attitude.
    And restaurants do not have the luxury of serving only the customers that truly want to be there. Frankly, I feel sorry for people sometimes when I glance around the room and see grim expressions during dinner in a restaurant where I am having a fantastic time. How, I wonder, are these people not enjoying this as much as I am?
    This scenario is not limited to high end dining, but is certainly felt most acutely there. The people who don’t allow themselves to truly enjoy a restaurant experience are the people who feel the sting of the price, or the ones who call a great restaurant “awful”, “overrated”, or “past its prime”, or the ones who tell you to “spend your money elsewhere”. When one of these people starts blogging, it’s like reading the diary of the Ebenezer Scrooge of dining! They sound bitter and often just plain uninformed at the same time.
    In the ridiculous race to become “somebody” in the world of internet journalism (if we can label blogging as such), some people’s bad attitudes lead directly to their bad experiences (and, for that matter, they drag down the experience for everyone they have contact with in the restaurant). And in doing so, to the restaurants themselves and to the readers who later come across this cynicism and negativity in the writing, the bloggers have essentially made themselves “nobody”, and they will promptly be treated and regarded as such.

  3. 3 charlie fu August 26, 2008 at 12:09 pm

    Is blogging nothing but an opinion? There is a fact or fiction if the food is poor, if the preparation not executed well. Why does it have to be someone uninformed to heavily critique a restaurant? There are restaurants all over America that are overrated and overprice, not unlike wine.

    We live in an age where we don’t have to sugarcoat everything with “it’s not my preference but…”. Feel free to say what you want to say, you pay for the privilege of eating, you ought to be able to say what you want without having some restraint put on you because you don’t want to insult a chef (one who may have cooked you a horrid meal) whom you don’t even know.

  4. 4 lizziee August 26, 2008 at 3:33 pm

    Charlie, I disagree with you. You feel you have the right to say whatever you like because you paid for a meal. What happened to addressing the situation when it occurs? Also, Internet postings are very, very subjective couched in objectivity. “The duck was barely edible, it was red.” Duck executed well is rare. Someone who doesn’t like rare duck complains about poor execution. This is personal preference, not objectivity.

    Informed opinion is one thing, but the Internet is riddled with “What a rip off”, “Not worth it”, “Worst meal ever”. If the person is specific and has critical comments, I have no disagreement with that. I do disagree with the hidden agenda of some people, the person with the axe to grind, the person who uses the Internet to get a freebie and sometimes the slanderous statements that are made. (Trust me they are made which I can confirm from personal experience.)

    I feel strongly that diners have to be responsible and paying for a meal doesn’t negate that responsibility.

  5. 5 Loving Annie October 29, 2008 at 8:00 pm

    Thank you for the helpful post, Lizzie. I am a beginner at this, and the background from your perspective was intelligent and good common sense. I’ve always been treated well when I go to a new place for precisely the reason you stated – I am excited to be there, and appreciative of all I see and taste that is good. If I’m not ‘wowed’ by something I say so, but really try to be fair and explain why and what – and make it clear these are my preferences.

  6. 6 mattatouille November 21, 2008 at 11:09 am

    Lizziee, I was refered to your blog by kevin from KevinEats. Wonderful post about the nature of blogging and dining out. I look forward to reading your posts, past, present and future. Keep up the great writing!

    As for this post, I will say that diners have a responsibility to reflect the whole of a restaurant, which doesn’t just include the food, but the personalities, the cooks, the service, the decor, and the concept. A wholistic approach to looking at restaurants helps people to really understand the point of fine dining. I think blogging isn’t just about reporting but about taking in the experience of a meal and projecting it based on our personal experiences and background. Of course many bloggers, Yelpers, Chowhounders and various type of foodies probably aren’t as knowledgeable; having such a powerful medium such as a blog perhaps inflates their ego and sense of entitlement. I think this is the wrong way to approach food blogging. Instead, food blogging should be a well-rounded effort to highlight what’s notable and interesting about a restaurant in all of its aspects. If certain things didn’t fare well, then it’s worth mentioning, but if the overall experience was memorable, then that restaurant is probably worth someone’s time and money.

    We have to remember that restaurants are selling experiences. They’re selling pleasure, both to the palate and to the other four senses. They’re meant to be enjoyed communally with friends, family, and loved ones. If restaurants don’t succeed with even that basic principle, then they’ll never succeed.

    I disagree with Jerome’s cynicism. I don’t see how bloggers have an agenda when they’re usually spending their own money to dine out. That said, many bloggers/foodies don’t know enough about food to truly understand the whole gamut of fine dining, but I think everyone has an innate sense of what tastes good. Those tastes are subjective, but isn’t everyone’s taste subjective? Just because a blogger doesn’t know as much as Frank Bruni or Sherry Virbila doesn’t mean they can’t have an opinion about a restaurant. Readers should know that in this day and age, they’ve got to know who they’re reading and how credible that source is.

  7. 7 lizziee November 21, 2008 at 5:58 pm

    mattatouille, I agree with you and also enjoyed reading your blog. I think what I try to do with this blog is to give the reader a sense of the restaurant experience so each person can judge for themselves if this is for them. Yes, a restaurant is a selling experience, but if you are sour grapes buyer, there is nothing the seller can do. I just can’t tell you how many times I have seen this happen from the high end to the hole in the wall. My purpose is neither to educate or inflate my ego. I only want to share my experiences, keep a diary for myself and hopefully help others get the most from their dining experiences.

  8. 8 mattatouille June 30, 2009 at 5:49 pm

    I find reading my comment here over 7 months ago highly entertaining 🙂

  9. 9 lizziee June 30, 2009 at 5:54 pm

    And it is still true!

  10. 10 Frank Nerney May 19, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    Lizziee

    I wandered onto your blog somewhat by accident yesterday afternoon. Although I took time out for sleep and to actually accomplish a few tasks at the office, I am still reading with great enthusiasm. I make no pretense in understanding or appreciating fine dining the way you do. I enjoy food and wine and joining friends for a fun evening of sharing both in the Philly/South Jersey area. I write my blog from that perspective. I am not an expert, I am just one guy writing about last night’s meal.

    I read your posts on “bloggers” and their responsibility as “pseudo-critics” and how important it is not to attack a chef or restaurant based on my reaction to what I was served. I just wanted to say that, I think, I have always had those same thoughts in my mind when I do my reviews. I try to find something enjoyable about every meal. Afterall, I am out with friends, drinking wine, conversing, sharing laughs and food. How bad can it be?

    I just wanted to thank you for your wonderful blog. Six of us are headed to Napa and Sonoma in a few months and you have been a big help in providing restaurant advice for that area. I’d like to ask your permission to post your “Bloggers” piece on my website, crediting you as the author, naturally.

    Again, thanks for your very readable culinary posts and I wish you many years of continued great dining!

    Frank

    • 11 lizziee May 19, 2010 at 1:44 pm

      Absolutely, Frank. I do this for fun and don’t make a dime – just spend them! Have a wonderful time in Napa and thank you for your kind comments.


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