A critic's quandary: When's the right time to review a restaurant?
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In my first month as the Post-Gazette's new restaurant critic, I've received more mail from readers weighing in on when a restaurant should be reviewed after it opens than on any other topic.
"Let [restaurants] shake out the kinks," wrote a reader.
He continued tongue-in-cheek on the transience of the restaurant industry. He noted ways a night's service can go awry. Someone doesn't show up to work. The burners don't light. A cook spills a vat of oil on the floor. Servers sandbag the kitchen by placing too many orders at once.
The reader thinks critics should give restaurants a break.
Some restaurants attempt to build in a break with a soft opening. This is ostensibly a time when diners understand the restaurant isn't running at full capacity. Staff is in training. The menu is abbreviated. Management is tinkering with the hours of service.
Soft openings are standard procedure for a week or two, though I've seen several since I've arrived in Pittsburgh that stretch a month or more.
Pittsburgh diners have also written to defend a longer wait time before assessing chef change-ups.
"Why not give the new chef more than two months to get his legs before reviewing?" said a commenter following my review on Benjamin Sloan, the new guy who took the helm in July at 17-year-old Kaya in the Strip.
He obviously wasn't happy with my assessment that gave the storied Kaya 1.5 stars for food preparation (out of 4 stars), although the restaurant earned an overall rating of 2 stars because of its service and atmosphere.
Restaurant work can be Sisyphean. The hours are grueling. Finding staff is challenging. Should a restaurant survive its first year, it's a feat. A 10 percent net profit margin in the first year is quite good for a restaurant. Often it's less.
So it's understandable to find controversy in a critic's role. How can a critic have empathy for an industry in which she seems to have little investment?
When I was traveling last year in Denmark, a former chef sized up his thoughts of the profession. "Critics are like seagulls," he said. "They swoop in. They eat and they ..."
You can imagine the punch line.
Despite the quip, critics aren't out to soil a restaurant's reputation. Instead, they work on behalf of a diverse public. Critics must consider diners who want value as well as those who seek refinement. They write for readers who view food as fuel as well as those who revere the craft of cooking. They write for those who are regulars at a neighborhood local as well as residents who crave a nationally renowned dining community.
Would it serve Pittsburgh to offer the crutch of wait time or a blind eye that restaurants in other cities don't have?
"It does the food scene no good to celebrate mediocrity," a food writer reminded me recently. "Diners deserve the straight dope."
When critics review a restaurant is among the most contested parts of the job. The Association of Food Journalists states, "... Reviewers should wait at least one month after the restaurant starts serving before visiting. These few weeks give the fledgling enterprise some time to get organized."
Over the past year, critics have taken a stand in their columns, chafing at the guidelines or reinforcing them. The debate has ensued as social media has challenged the rules written by the association in 2001.
I adhere to the flexibility of many city dailies that have built in loopholes for anticipated openings yet maintain association guidelines for starred reviews.
The Washington Post's Tom Sietsema said he follows the rules by returning three or four times the month after a restaurant opens. "None of those 'rules' has changed and I hope they never do," he told Washington City Paper in an article on review timing last year.
In deciding whether to review a restaurant, Mr. Sietsema writes an objective First Bite column to cover the basics. For these, he dines at a restaurant two weeks after a restaurant opens. Should he decide to review a restaurant, he said he tries to "start fresh" with a restaurant he has previewed.
Phil Vettel, restaurant critic for The Chicago Tribune, also keeps guidelines in mind but does not always adhere to them.
"I'd say that the one-month hold-off is a rule that I break occasionally," he said. "I wait at least a month before making my first visit, and I try to space my first and follow-up visits by three weeks," he wrote in an email. "So my review won't appear until the restaurant is two months old, minimum."
Mr. Vettel defied convention for the opening of Grant Achatz's Alinea and Next, as well as RPM Italian from Bill and Giuliana Rancic and the Melman sons: restaurants with star power and anticipation.
"When Alinea made its debut, I dined there the very first week, and turned around a first-look story that was arguably a review, though it carried no star rating." Mr. Vettel's star-rated review ran six weeks later.
Restaurants with star power are usually paired with PR, which also shapes a review. "If a restaurant comes with a lot of hype, part of the critic's job is spin control," a former critic told me.
Not so for the indie outfit. "Don't kick mom and pop in the chops," said New York's Robert Sietsema of The Village Voice at a food writers conference last year. If dining isn't a redeeming experience, when it comes to independent restaurants, critics move along.
What difference does restaurant criticism make if everyone's a critic? Social media have democratized dining. Yet just because everyone goes to school doesn't mean everyone's a teacher. The same holds true for dining and criticism.
Who can readers trust? It's part of the landscape that public opinion is manipulated through pay for play on Yelp and Twitter bombing. A critic offers an informed view among many discussing restaurants.
Why all this fuss over what's for dinner? "A restaurant meal is not an epiphany," wrote the reader who asked for the wait. "It is a commercial transaction."
It's too bad he feels that way because what we eat can evoke rich memories. The range of restaurants shows depth and diversity of a city. Where a new restaurant lands displays how neighborhoods develop. What ingredients people eat illuminate the economic health of a place. Food also shows our connection to labor, whether it's big agribusiness or local farms.
Pittsburgh restaurants don't need a crutch. For all the hard work, a restaurant and its staff deserve to be assessed in a fair manner through timely reviews and thoughtful readers' responses.
First Published October 7, 2012 12:00 am