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The Great Debates Critiquing Restaurant

Original Article:

POINT/COUNTERPOINT - The Importance of Restaurant Reviews
By Ken Alan

It is fact: When dining at a restaurant, if you were to clandestinely listen in on most conversations at the tables around you, I guarantee that at some point during their discourse, patrons topics would ultimately fall upon the restaurants they have recently visited, followed by an extensive elaboration and evaluation of each. My wife and I dine out very frequently and I admit that I do my share of eavesdropping when the subject I overhear is the culinary adventures of others. Not long ago, the commentary from a four-top next to us had me fascinated:

Wife #1: "We had dinner at that new place - that Pan Asian spot that just opened in Old City."
Husband # 1: "I loved it but she hated it and..."
Wife # 1: "That's not true dear. I liked the food very much, I just didn't care for the fact that I was being served by young people in what looked like their pajamas. If a restaurant expects me to look fashionable then I want the waitstaff to look somewhat dressy as well."
Wife #2: "Oh, we had that happen at a place in Chinatown. Honey, what is the name of that restaurant?"
Husband #2: "I don't remember but I'll never forget that they put chili peppers in everything. I thought my tongue would burn off! Even the desserts were spicy. I had heartburn for days!"
Wife #2: But never mind that. We had the best dinner ever last month with Herb and Sarah at the Four Seasons..."
Husband #2: "The best ever! And we've been to Guy Savoy - in Paris!"

In the span of about a minute, the four of them had succinctly reviewed three different dining establishments!

The public as a whole is an armchair restaurant critic, and as much as we enjoy chatting about our own dining experiences, we have always appreciated the good, the bad and the ugly, dished out each week by the savvy, legitimate restaurant reviewer. It is this salient fact that has made names like Mimi Sheridan, Ruth Reichl and Elaine Tait, renowned throughout the world of journalism.

Never mind the veiled advertisements written by "critics" at smaller local papers, the real thing fulfills a niche that is pervasive throughout American culture. Whether it is the new Bruce Willis movie, an entertaining Broadway show, our town's professional football team or the latest sport sedan from Chevy, the public as a whole lives by and trusts in the all-important critiques we read in print; those that categorize and measure most every product and service we may consider using at one time or another. And just because "Consumer Reports" has given your electric razor a fair to midland review, it doesn't mean that no one will ever buy that particular model ever again. It's just good sense in knowing how it rates compared to the others out there on the market.

The same may be said for restaurant reviews. They serve as a true and valid evaluation of a property and ultimately, can serve in the overall improvement of a site being focused upon. From the honest dining report, management will glean perceptions of their establishment from the viewpoint of the everyday patron, as reported through the eyes of the critic. Hence, one can better understand the positive and negative variables of his or her site and work to amplify or correct them.

A good example of this is the fairly recent review of one of Philadelphia's top French restaurants. The critic had great praise for the chef and his gastronomic masterpieces, but he harshly and repeatedly criticized the service staff for a series of inexcusable gaffs. From that column, the general manager now surely realizes where to further initiate training procedures and what is needed to rectify the problems he may never had known before.

Ultimately, the public enjoys and expects to read and hear the truth about a restaurant - warts and all. And for all the arguments stated against dining critics, especially from the restaurateurs themselves, the proverbial proof is in the pudding: People swear by the stars, diamonds, bells, numbers or spoons the reviewer bequeaths upon an establishment. Just ask Nina and Tim Zagat. The covers of their survey guides may be red, but you can bet it has put them well into the black.

COUNTERPOINT/The Detriment of Restaurant Reviews

Rather than elucidate on the many pitfalls produced by the food critics critique, I relate a true story regarding such; one that I feel illustrates the title of this piece perfectly. The counterpoint here is in the very last line, so please bear with me as I give it due buildup:

This past July, I decided to tour several dining operations in and around the Wilmington, DE area. The region was a bit foreign to me and as a concierge, I felt it was high time I became more familiar with that culinary territory, so that I might feel more comfortable with my Delaware dining suggestions. Besides, with the advent of the popular Nickolas and Alexandra exhibit, I knew my clientele would soon be bombarding me with queries on where to eat before or after the exhibit.

I visited five different yet thoroughly enjoyable restaurants during my two trips down to the area, but it was my last stop that captivated me most of all. It was there I met with the owner and general manager of a highly rated, very popular and wildly successful restaurant along the outskirts of town. Being my first visit to the property, I entered without too many preconceived notions regarding the site.

The food was fabulous. It was creative, satisfying and affordable without being too haute, or in contrast, simple or basic in taste and preparation. The decor was convivial yet sophisticated, but most of all, comfortable and relaxing. The service, while not formal by any means, was friendly and genuine and I noted that my server, along with most of the others present that evening, knew a great many of the patrons by name. It was a very enjoyable experience.

More importantly though, literally everyone dining there that night seemed to be having a really good time. And while I surely did not go to tables taking polls of people's own impressions of the place, I believe that the consensus would have been unanimously positive which is why, on a hot Tuesday evening at 9PM during the slow summer season, the restaurant appeared to be booked solid.

Through all the revelry that night, I spotted a man who looked vaguely familiar to me. "I know you." I remember saying to myself, but couldn't quite place a name with the face. I forgot about this until a couple weeks later when I opened the Sunday paper, turned to the Dining Out section and read the abysmal headline and following commentary that basically annihilated every aspect of this same restaurant. I realized then that the man I could not recognize was this very same critic, mercilessly relating his own experiences from that Tuesday night.

Three thoughts went through my mind at that moment: 1. If a restaurant is that popular and successful, shouldn't it mean that people are, for the most part, quite happy with their overall experience there? 2. Literally everyone seemed most content that night. Whose reviews should I believe; the praises sung to the owner by dozens of his clientele that night, or the lone remonstrations from the man with the food column? 3. I was there too, sampled many of the same dishes as he and enjoyed them all. Am I that uneducated a diner or did he simply stumble upon a singular kitchen lapse compounded by a server who had an hours worth of bad mood in him?

Fast forward now to a convention and visitors bureau food show. Staffing a booth there, representing his restaurant was the affable general manager of this aforementioned property. I had not seen him since that infamous evening, over two months prior.

"Nick" I said, " I'm sorry to have read such a negative review of your restaurant." "Oh that's okay Ken." He replied cheerfully. "It really didn't hurt us. If anything, business has been better than ever!" "Maybe" I retorted, "but what if you were a brand new restaurant just starting out, with no prior allegiances built up with clientele over the years?' He looked at me solemnly, his voice lowered. "Then I would probably not be here talking at this show with you right now"

And then..."That review would have killed us"

Ken Alan is a corporate concierge and president of the Philadelphia Concierge Association.

Reader Feedback:

Page One  (Bonnie Boots, Phil Nieukirk, Joan Stewart, Paul Buck, Rosie Saferstein)
Page Two  (Evan G. Spiegler, Trevor Hamilton, Maren L. Hickton, Leslie Bartosh, MH)
Page Three  (Jennifer S., JH, Zac Robertson, Michelle Roach, Dan Gage)
Page Four  (Eric Oest, Massimo, Colleen Terra, Thomas Wagner, Alan Simpson)

Related Feature Articles:

A FOOD CRITIC LOOKS AT RESTAURANTS -- Do You Ever Look At Yours? - By William Fox

Your Turn:
If you've got something to say, we would love to hear from you. Please visit the Great Debates Feedback Page to send in your comments.

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