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Does anonymity still matter? Does having an expense account alter your experience of a meal? What makes a good restaurant review? These were some of the questions that came up at a recent discussion of the past, present and future state of restaurant criticism at the 2010 Roger Smith Food Writers Conference in New York.
The questions varied, but every time the conversation seemed to return to the question of power -- how much influence restaurant critics have over their readers' dining decisions, whether the rise in consumer criticism (blogs and rating sites such as Yelp) has decreased that power, and whether that has had a positive effect on critics, restaurants and consumers.
One of the most thought-provoking statements was a comment made by longtime Village Voice critic Robert Sietsema that a good review can destroy a restaurant. His point was a restaurant that is pretty good, even great, when just a small number of people have discovered it, may find itself overwhelmed by the rush of customers that come with a good review from a major New York critic.
In his experience, some restaurants have had a hard time coping with the high expectations of sudden crowds, and quality declines, the crowds disappear, and the restaurant winds up closing, with the positive review at least partly responsible.
Is there any truth in the idea that a good review could damage a restaurant? It certainly sounds like something a restaurant critic might say to help him or her sleep at night.
When you ask restaurateurs, they're diplomatic. Bill Fuller has opened a number of restaurants in his capacity as corporate executive chef of the Big Burrito Restaurant Group.
"We used to hang on every word of every review that came out ... because it's the first time people are hearing about you," he said.
If the review was a rave, they needed to call in extra staff, pick up extra supplies and prepare for a rush. But now the Big Burrito restaurants, which include Eleven, Casbah, Soba, Umi, Kaya and the Mad Mex chain, are established businesses.
"Reviews that aren't grossly negative don't really hurt, and reviews that aren't ridiculously positive don't really help," said Mr. Fuller, because most people already have their own opinions.
John Valentine, who owned Palate Bistro in the Cultural District until he sold it to the Culinary Concept restaurant group last August, had a memorable experience of not being prepared for a positive review.
"When we got our first review, that came out on a Thursday, and that Friday we were so buried with people. That was a horrible night," he said. But that was only one evening.
"As a team we came in early on Saturday, and it all became a matter of organization. We had a hostess prepared, we had the bar prepared, we had the kitchen over-prepped. That way no one waited for their food."
It's possible to imagine a scenario where a restaurant doesn't recover, and bad word of mouth generated by that crowd of disappointed diners quickly cancels out the positive effect of the review. But restaurateurs aren't likely to start hoping for less enthusiastic praise any time soon. And most do worry that a bad review will damage business.
"It's really annoying to have bad reviews. It's really annoying to have anybody, whether a writer or a customer, be unhappy with what you do," said Mr. Fuller.
Still, any review is better than no review at all.
"We always notice a pick up in business after any review," said Cathy Slencak, who manages public relations for Jasmine Mediterranean Restaurant in Scott, as well as the other Culinary Concept restaurants.
Yves Carreau, co-owner and executive chef of the Sonoma Grille and Seviche in the Cultural District and Talara in Baltimore, believes that a negative review can hurt a restaurant, but he doesn't think it could actually close it.
"A restaurant closing is a slow process," he said, and while a bad review could put an already struggling business over the edge, it couldn't terminally damage a good restaurant.
He feels similarly about positive reviews. They can only help restaurants help themselves.
"Someone who is not consistent will only enjoy some short-term benefits," he said. A good review can't guarantee success, but "maybe it speeds up your success."
Today, good or bad reviews from critics may be tempered by what ordinary diners think. Restaurants sites such as Yelp and UrbanSpoon solicit instant feedback and ensure that there are plenty of ways people can get information. But just because these sites are theoretically democratic doesn't mean restaurant owners and chefs don't worry about the effect they have on business.
"The online stuff is frustrating sometimes. I can read online reviewers, and some people just are clueless," said Mr. Fuller.
He hopes people would keep in mind that online comments, unlike reviews, aren't edited, although these sites do typically delete comments that are in poor taste or that they trace to inside sources.
Mr. Carreau doesn't think of these types of online comments as reviews. He thinks of them as customer feedback. "I try to monitor customer feedback from many avenues," he said, including comment cards and interactions between managers and customers.
Mr. Carreau makes a good point -- professional reviewers don't need to feel that Yelpers are "the competition." We all have a role to play in the restaurant scene.
The professional restaurant critic isn't going to disappear, but that doesn't mean the profession won't -- or shouldn't -- change. Perhaps critics will feel freer to try out new methods and styles, to explore the restaurant review as a literary genre as well as a consumer service. What won't change is the importance of an honest evaluation of restaurants. While negative reviews are no fun to write, false praise won't help a restaurant or the critic who offered it.