Dishin' That: The only restaurant review that matters is yours

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Lately, it seems more and more people are asking why I don’t visit specific restaurants and write the traditional pros-and-cons reviews of food, service, atmosphere and value.

There are many reasons why I avoid that type of column, but the strongest seems to surprise people, even those who have known me a long time.

“But, you’re always reading about this food movement trend or that nutritional wave,” said one exasperated pal who not-so-secretly wants me to plug his place of employment. “You dissect a dining room in one glance and then I have to hear if you think they’re short-handed, over-staffed or how ridiculous the layout is. … You may as well write reviews.”

“Why not call places out on crappy, over-priced food? You never stop doing it when we go out,” said a friend of over 20 years. 

“I just don’t think you can put it off any longer,” wrote the first person to ever send me a reader email, an industry sister who works in an upscale, Old Port kitchen. She recently asked, “What are you afraid of? People already either love your stuff and think you’re hilarious, or hate you and think you’re an industry hack. I’ll go with you and we’ll make a hit list of every place the other guy slammed. We can co-write it, but I don’t want to use my name. I’ll get fired.”

Getting fired for writing a restaurant review is the least of my concerns and I giggle at the implication that I have no other ground to cover. My reasons for shirking the task isn’t lack of basic knowledge, or because I’m usually working in a restaurant during prime review times.

Simply put, I don’t do them because there are few things within the hospitality industry that I am more philosophically opposed to than restaurant reviews. I don’t care if the review is based on more than one visit (as they should be), because stuff still happens.

We all strive for consistency, and many of the greats achieve it most of the time. But, a restaurant is a living, breathing thing that has many moving parts. Just one off night where half the staff has the flu can be the kiss of death. One random time when the chef/owner decides to jump on the line and crank out a special can be a delicious fluke, never to be repeated.

How many times have you seen a laminated four-star review hanging on a restaurant wall and wonder if the reviewer was on the take? Conversely, who doesn’t have their own, non-reviewed, personal four-star favorite place they almost hope the masses won’t discover?

Like most words in print, the observations and subjective opinions of reviews are forever etched in stone. I once worked at a place where the delicious bread and pizza dough was made daily (I’d cleaned the Hobart mixer enough to know), but an elitist reviewer compared it to a third-rate store-bought brand. He said the place used to be good, but wasn’t anymore. Boom. Just like that, business dropped drastically.

So, the bottom line isn’t that I don’t know enough about food, beverage and restaurant mechanics to do accurate (in that moment) reviews. It’s that I know too much, and no matter how disappointed or elated I may be, I find myself making excuses for both.

I’ve said it before, but restaurant reviews should be taken with a grain of salt. Your should forge your own opinions. In the end, you’re the one left holding the check. It’s all about your own experience. And at that point, no one else’s two cents matter.

Peas & Q’s

Someone asked if I’d go back to the Chipotle fast-food chain, which had widespread food poisoning issues. Truth is, I’ve never been, but out of sheer support for their rebuilding efforts, I’m going to give it a try.

Natalie Ladd lives in Portland. When not pecking away, she can be found serving the masses at a busy eatery, or tirelessly conducting happy-hour field research. Hospitality questions or comments should be sent to nladd@theforecaster.net, and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @Nhladd.

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