Critics Under Review

Restaurant reviews, like movie reviews, can make or break the commercial ambitions of their subjects.  Highly anticipated openings in the culinary world are usually followed by a parade of media hype and scrutiny.  “Review season”—as we affectionately refer to it—is a stressful time.  Influential food critics arrive with their scorecards the moment we open for business—their mugshots plastered to the kitchen line and wait-stations like wanted criminals.  We understand that major periodicals have a responsibility to their readers who are hungry for the skinny… but why the rush?

Most major news outlets with a commitment to covering culinary arts will file a review within the first three months of a restaurant’s infancy.  Critics risk being perceived as out of touch if they are slow to weigh in.  But new restaurants are like toddlers that need time to shed their baby fat; they must learn to crawl before they can walk or—in the most hyped cases—learn to fly up to their lofty expectations.

The unfortunate result is that many restaurants with real ambition never get a chance to grow into adulthood without judgement already having been passed.  In most cases, if the quality of a new restaurant improves after review season has ended, it will happen without much recognition from the press.  With as many technological advances in mobile communication it’s puzzling that a critic’s views would not evolve over time.  Is it really fair to file one definitive review based on a few early experiences and be done with it? Isn’t this akin to reviewing a piece of theater based on the quality of its dress rehearsals?

Restaurants are complicated ecosystems with a lot of moving parts.  We make it look easy when the machine is well-oiled but the choreography isn’t as easy as it looks.  Like a sports team, it takes time to develop chemistry.  Expecting immediate success in the restaurant’s first year is no more realistic than a winning season in a new franchise’s first year in a pro sport.  It takes time to fine-tune systems, to get individuals with diverse levels of experience to act in concert.  Why do so many new restaurants prefer a “soft opening” where they can assure themselves of greater control of the elements with minimal fanfare?

In sports as in restaurants, assuming that a team that loses its first few games can’t turn things around and win a championship is a mistake.  But most new restaurants don’t have this luxury after their review season has ended.  For the ones that begin to pull things together and start firing on all cylinders, sadly, it may be too late.  The book on them has already been written and closed with very little chance of changing the narrative.

Let it grow, Let it grow...
Let it grow, Let it grow…

The flip side is that many restaurants flourish in the early going, are showered with accolades, then take their eyes off the prize and decline.  After a string of positive reviews, many restaurateurs use the press as a springboard for new projects while the older ones are set to auto-pilot.  But while this occurs, it’s unusual for a critic to risk embarrassment by revoking his stars or periodicals to issue revisions to their earlier praises.

As consumers we have a very short attention span and so we rely on simple metrics for evaluating restaurants.  Perhaps it harkens back to the days of potty training, but we’ve unanimously embraced the star system as the de facto measure of success or failure.  It’s not about a memorable dish or a knowledgable staff, it’s about how many stars you have pinned to your lapel.

Ultimately, the current system ignores the complexity of a restaurant’s development.  It is a living organism and diners should learn to be more forgiving of its formative years.  Over time, should an adolescent restaurant turn into a tempestuous brat or a defiant teenager, it should answer for the quality of its performance and be subject to reassessment.

Perhaps this is why services like Yelp have become so popular—the crowd-sourced feedback loop is much more efficient.  Of course, Yelp has its drawbacks, too, but its success represents a sea change in the way diners get information about restaurants.  The traditional food media should recognize this and stop fumbling over each other to get the scoop and start worrying about serving up a better dish.

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