Wednesday, January 20, 2010

To Review or not to Review

Cleveland has a couple of restaurants that have recently opened, Dante Buccuzzi's Dante last weekend and Zack Bruell's Chinato tonight. Much like the arrival of a newborn baby, everyone is anxious to see the latest addition to the Cleveland restaurant family.

As people scurry to see the "latest and greatest" that two of the more well known chefs in the city have to offer, there will inevitably be an avalanche of blog posts chronicling the ups and downs of the decor, the dinners, and the service. Opinions typically run the gamut from gushing to gruesome. For some diners there is a sense of realistic expectations for a newly opened establishment; while others are much less forgiving.

Is there much value in a review of a restaurant that has been open for two weeks, or less? I think it's fair to say that the only thing such a review is apt to reveal is how prepared management was for the grand opening. If there is a restaurateur out there that hasn't had these growing pains I'd like to know who it is. In the first few months there are numerous additions and subtractions in trying to strike the right balance in the entire staff.

I think reviews from patrons have very little value if they're on the extreme end of the critical scale, especially early on. If someone writes an absolutely gushing review, the expectations are going to be next to impossible for an establishment to meet. I've heard on a number of occasions where people say, "I went to such and such a place because people raved about it. I didn't think it was that good." In some cases maybe they might have had an off night. I, however, would argue that the food was fine, but the expectations were way out of line. Rave reviews should be reserved for places worth raving about.

The other end of the critical spectrum is the person that nitpicks at every little thing and ultimately brands the entire experience a monumental failure. An excessively negative review does nothing to educate prospective diners as to what they can expect. I have eaten at quite a few restaurants in my life and I think I count on one hand how many abysmal dining experiences I've had in my life. If such bad experiences are as commonplace as the one I've had, I can't help but to believe they will be in business for long.

The worst possible review is when a place is skewered during that period of time when they're still trying to iron out the kinks during the first few weeks. The chances are that this review will continue to get referenced well after all of the problems have been worked out. How fair is that?

When I read a post I want to know what the general vibe of the place is, what level of skill the food is at, where the good and bad places to sit are, and what some of the recommended dishes are. There was a point in time when I used to give the play-by-play of the entire meal, complete with pictures. Coming to the realization that this whole thing was turning into uninteresting and poorly photographed story that no one found all that interesting, I severely pruned the pictures and food descriptions. In the end I think painting a general picture of a restaurant's flavor is much more appealing (and useful).

How long are people supposed to wait before they're "allowed" to post on a restaurant? I don't think there's any set time period; just a different level of expectation dependent on how close you go relative to the place opening. Do I have the same expectation for the service after one week versus one month versus one year? If it takes forever to get food after a month then I think there's a problem. If there's still a problem with food coming out after a year, there's a good chance they're on the verge of failure, or on Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. This information only becomes useful once it's put into the right context.

At the end of the day these are people's livelihoods. Extreme posts don't help anyone, be it gushing or ghastly. The ridiculously positive sets unattainable expectations for future diners. Extremely negative reviews never give the restaurant a chance to win prospective patrons over in the first place. I will actually add an update to a review from early in a restaurant's life if they've corrected a problem, like here. The important thing to remember is that long after our posts are up these businesses still have to deal with these words after we've forgotten about them.

19 comments:

  1. Well said! Let's do our best to SUPPORT the local guy that has put it all on the line. They really do WANT to succeed, and at times, will fail... but give them an opportunity to learn and grow, and most importantly, if something's BAD, tell THEM, if something's good, tell the world.

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  2. I couldn't agree more. It takes a couple of months for a restaurant to hit its stride. You have to tweak your service system to meet the requirements of the flow of business which you cannot anticipate until you actually open. Also, some of the menu items may not work as you had had thought, and they may need to be adjusted or
    removed.

    There may be some restaurants that I can't wait to go to, but I wouldn't review them right away. I might give impressions tempered by the youth of the establishment, but would make clear that good or bad, the restaurant still has to evolve to what it will eventually settle in to.

    Monsieur Anton
    www.atthepass.wordpress.com

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  3. I also agree with Joe and Anton. Having worked for Dante and knowing what he has gone through to get his restaurant open, it isn't fair to judge after such a short amount of time.
    Every restaurant has its glitches, none more apparent than when you open.
    Let's give him and Zack time to iron out what will become two of the best restaurants Cleveland has to offer.
    -Keep it local. Buy and support local business-

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  4. Very well-written post. I guess we don't shy away from what could be considered "gushing" reviews, but we also try to be specific enough that something we really like (e.g. spicy food) could reasonably be read by someone else as a pitfall rather than a benefit.

    Perspective is also important. New restaurants will be reviewed, and people like reviewing them. But one can be more charitable for what are likely "growing-pains" type issues. We also don't give full-on negative reviews, especially to places small enough that the review might really hurt. That's not to say we'll fudge things; we just won't review the restaurant. I can't get myself motivated to write a middling review anyway.

    Thanks for some really good thoughts.

    -Ben

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  5. I don't think a 'pass' should be given to new restaurants who don't deliver. I'm not saying that things might in fact improve over time, but if I'm willing to spend my hard earned dime the first month a place is open why should I not expect things to be perfect.

    Are you implying that it's ok to pay $100 for a $80 product because a place has only recently opened? If I go to a new gas station should the gas not be good? When I buy the new Iphone should I expect it to only work right some of the time for a few months?

    When a restaurant opens there is plenty of training, foh and boh. Plus you don't go out and hire a bunch of knuckleheads...Most new restaurants pull from the cream of the crop when it comes to new hires. Specificy in the case of Dante and Chinato these are seasoned veterans.

    As for a review...from a blogger, take it or leave it. People who write reviews for a living seem to police themselves on this topic. In my opinion reading a blogger review of a restaurant is the same as talking to a co-worker about what they did last night. I listen, but don't really hear much.

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  6. @Michael - thanks for taking the time to comment. I wasn't aware that new gas stations made their own gas, but maybe you know something I don't - I'm not familiar with the industry's inner workings.

    Your iphone example probably proves my point more than yours. I get software updates almost every week because there are certain problems that arise with the device that need to be addressed,

    As it was explained to me by a chef/restaurateur, the biggest problem with opening a new restaurant is hiring staff. He compared it to baseball. When the league expands, there are only so many all stars to go around. When new teams come into the league they might be able to get a few good players, but you're not going to get an entire team of them. If you can't get stars from other teams, you have to raise the talent yourself - and that, unfortunately, takes time. If you're naive enough to think that everything's go to be perfect the first month of opening then that's your opinion.

    This post came out at nearly the same time as Cleveland Foodie's Dante review. It was pure coincidence. I was responding to the glut of reviews on B Spot (one that was over-the-top positive and one that I thought was ridiculously negative) in anticipation of the impending avalanche of Chinato and Dante reviews.

    As far as reviews go, people who write them for a living don't do so in the first month of a restaurant's existence. And why do you think that is?

    As you can see I don't write this for income. There isn't an ad on the entire site. I do it because I enjoy it. Whether you read it or not makes no difference to me. I don't win or lose, either way.

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  7. Dine-O, I'm having to disagree with you here on a few points.... while a gas station doens't make it's own gas, are you ready to pay $1 for 80 cents worth of gas, weather they make it, or just measure it.... should we wait for their measuring devises to adjust to a new place... it'a a null point in any case.

    I greatly disagree with you that a new restaurant like those of symon, dante or bruelle deal with below average employees. If they hire sub par employes it is managements fault. There are the best of the best running head over heal to work at these places when in fact it's a who's know who kinda bull shit that got this shity server hired. i hate to be the one who brings the bad news.

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  8. Whatever you say, Big Boy. Your latest post seems more alcohol soaked than the last one. At any rate, I appreciate you breaking the bad news to me; just don't quit your day job for law school.

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  9. I apologize for not agreeing with you. I miss understood this opportunity to engage in a sensable dialoge. It won't happen again.

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  10. 1) If someone has their own experience at a restaurant, either extreme or middling, isn't it their right to report on exactly what they experienced?

    2) Isn't it then the reader's job to decide if the review is worth taking into account or not?

    It is not too far from hubris to tell people not to write their own truths about experiences that they have and to try to act as some sort of moderator for other peoples' opinions, and to imply that a food blog's review is somehow definitive. New restaurant or not, a bad experience is a bad experience, and a good experience is a good experience. Writing that and posting it online doesn't mean that it's reality - it's opinion.

    It's a blogger's responsibility to not let the ownership of a free blog go too much to his or her head.

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  11. 1) You aren't going to any argument from me on this point.

    2) You aren't going to get an argument from me on this point, either.

    I suppose in order to be considered a moderator I would need subordinates to such moderation, wouldn't I?

    I stated an opinion, which according to you, I have right to. Some agree with it, some don't.
    My post is not so much about the review as it is the timing. I don't think there's anything that is going to change either of our minds, which is fine. I don't have a problem with that.

    It stimulates discussion which I find to be quite interesting. I actually appreciate salient comments like yours because they're concise, well thought out, and offer a logical point of view - even if it doesn't agree with mine.

    Does this mean if I pay for the domain name I can let it go to my head?

    Again, I appreciate the comments and hope you continue to read.

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  12. 3) Don't negative reviews offer management the opportunity to improve what is lacking? Can't they learn more from negative reviews than positive ones?

    4) If bloggers should be allowed to write about their own experiences, and the readers decide which opinions are valid or invalid, why even propose any time period for bloggers to "wait before they're 'allowed' to post on a restaurant"?

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  13. I stated my opinion,I'll let you construct your own as to whether it's valid or not.

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  14. Of course, opinions can be valid without being reasonable or logical!

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  15. Damn! I have 2 cents too. It's the internet. People could say whatever they want. Me, once I pay for food I think I get the right to evaluate it, internally or through a loudspeaker. That doesn't mean I'm gonna, but hey, the place put the food/service/decor out there . . . As for anyone else with a blog/twitter/column, say what you want--I don't care if you've ever even eaten at the place. If a reader can't separate wheat from chaff, while I think that sucks for the maligned restaurant, it's just the way thing are now. "Publishing" is cheap. (I think maligning anything after a comped friends and family meal is a cheap shot, but whatever, keep the invite list close).

    I'm all for unimpeded free speech. How to educate the listeners is something else. I don't think crying about it helps.

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  16. Oh, and please note my online restaurant reviews are very limited, maybe too detailed, and nearly always from out of town places.

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  17. I went to the "soft" opening of a new Tremont restaurant on Wednesday. The owner asked me to wait on reviewing it; instead, he had questionnaires to help the restaurant improve, and we wrote detailed answers and observations on everything we could. The meal was also free; we only paid for drinks.

    The thing is, that meal was free. However, as soon as his restaurant, or any restaurant, starts charging full price for the meal, then it's open season. If a restaurant wants a grace period then they should reduce or eliminate the cost to the customer in exchange for the customer's understanding and withholding of judgment. If they expect their customers to pay full price, though, then they submit themselves to full judgment and the customers should get what they pay for.

    Best,
    Beau

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  18. Doug Trattner's most recent review (http://www.clevescene.com/cleveland/big-flavors-in-little-china-restaurant/Content?oid=1836298) seems to start with a nod to this discussion.

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