I've given a lot of thought to the dilemma of blogging and reviewing restaurants. Unlike professional reviewers (or perhaps I should qualify that--unlike old media, print reviewers), bloggers eat on their own dime and share their opinions for a number of different reasons. Mostly they write because they want to be heard and they think their opinion matters. A lot of other people in the food world take them seriously too, and even the New York Times felt compelled to cover the advent of the food blog-o-rama in their story Sharp Bites on Sunday.
There's a slightly affronted tone to the story, as if the reporter still can't quite believe the audacity of bloggers like Ben Leventhal and Lockhart Steele of Eater to stare coolly into the eyes of such an exalted personage as Frank Bruni, the Times' own restaurant reviewer. The mad blogger dash to be the first in New York to cover the opening of a new restaurant online, is unique, like so many other things, to that city. For now.
But is it fair, ultimately, to a restaurant to judge them within the first fifteen minutes, the first night, or even the first week of opening? The Times thinks not and I have to agree. Since becoming a reviewer for Style, I've halted my online reviews. Style generally waits a good three months to cover a new restaurant and when I go, I usually visit three times or so, depending upon how many visits I can squeeze out of my budget. The Times' reviewers are rumored to have an unimaginably lavish expense account and usually visit a restaurant up to five times before rendering a verdict. Although usually I (and other reviewers) write a review as if the meal happened during one night, that's really just a structural conceit; every review is an amalgam of experiences.
In doing so, we get an overall sense of how the restaurant operates and how the consistent the food might be. For instance, the first night I visited Rowland, black smoke billowed overhead from the kitchen. The next few times I came, however, everything was perfectly fine--no smoke anywhere. Ipanema Cafe had an unknown and unpleasant smell my first visit, but never thereafter, and Can Can has done an impressive job to completely transform, what was, in the beginning, notoriously bad service. Readers of a review expect a restaurant to perform in a similiar way when they visit and the majority of diners, I've been told, generally order the same dishes as the reviewer did in the week or so following publication.
Everybody has a bad night. Sometimes awful nights. Restaurant owners have nightmares about reviewers coming in during those times and later publishing their condemnations for everyone to read. That's why I always go back. I don't print it unless I'm sure and I think I've given the restaurant a whole lot of chances. Or a whole lot of rope.
As a blogger, though, I do get offered free products, get invitations to restaurant openings (never in Richmond; always in New York or L.A.), and lately have been fielding emails from a bunch of companies that want to put ads on my site (the Home Shopping Network!). I don't accept anything, with exception of review copies of books, and even though it would be nice to get some free stuff and maybe make some coffee money from ads, I don't see how I can do that without questioning my own motives when I write.
And yet . . . and yet . . .I still think there's a place for blogger reviews. We all want that first-hand account, that narration of a surprise visit to a restaurant unaware that this particular customer has both an opinion and access to a computer. We've all been treated badly and we've all been disappointed with our food from time to time. Blogging is a way to hold a restaurant accountable to its customers--daily. And that's pretty profound. I think if both the writer and the reader are clear about the terms of a review, that it is, in fact, just a snapshot of one experience, there's a legitimate place for blogging in the wider food/restaurant world.
Most bloggers genuinely love food and really do want to spread the love. And, despite the worst fears of restaurant owners, so do print reviewers. Print reviewers will always be held to higher standard, as they should be. After all, the paper or magazine publishing is paying for both the past experience of the writer and the present research into a particular restaurant. And I haven't even mentioned editors; good writers can become great under the gaze of an all-knowing, omniscient-like third party who genuinely has their best interests at heart. Bloggers just pray they caught all the typos before they post. Nonetheless, the free stuff needs to remain just a fantasy for both bloggers and their print counterparts, tempting as it is. As Hume said, the corruption of the best things gives rise to the worst (I managed to take a philosophy course or two in between restaurant shifts). You're not going to make friends with this job and if you're doing it for free, you need to make sure that your boundaries are defined--clearly and distinctly for every reader to see.