For several years my son and I teamed up and were restaurant reviewers for a local twice a month newspaper. Many people still ask us what a restaurant reviewer does.
A food or restaurant critic visits the same establishment several times. Sometimes the visit is accompanied by a group of people and sometimes alone or with one other person, but always anonymously.
The critic usually takes apart the menu and uses a star or fork count rating system to show their pleasure or displeasure. Some critics end up becoming personalities who go on to write about their experiences in serious books or as Phyllis Richman, a longtime restaurant critic for The Washington Post did, turning her experiences into fun culinary mysteries or publish their memoirs like Ruth Reichl, who was restaurant and food editor for the Los Angeles Times for quite a few years.
Chefs and restaurant owners dread the critics, since the critics, with a flourish of their
pen or a few words typed on the computer can make or break a restaurant. I heard of a critic who awarded ‘pans’ rather than stars or forks. To him, the food was never good enough to award a star.
On the other hand, there is the restaurant reviewer, who will write about the food, the ambiance, the service and the overall impression of the place, but though they might give praise and point out the good, if there is any, they will mention the bad in a way that will not be scathingly critical….and they will not award a rating.
We were reviewers.
To start, we or sometimes the newspaper editor chose a restaurant to review. We made a reservation if it was needed, but we did not give our real names to make the reservation.
To be able to review the whole experience as a regular diner would, we did not let the restaurant staff know what we were doing until afterwards, if at all. Sometimes just an e-mail or phone conversation with an owner or manager a day or two after the visit is all that was needed to get the information wanted and still maintain anonymity.
We noticed and made notes of décor, ambiance, cleanliness and quality of the accouterments at the table and cleanliness of the restrooms, whether it shows up on the review or not.
What contributes to the overall enjoyment of a restaurant meal?
Is the staff friendly and helpful? Do they wear too much cologne or perfume that distracts from the aroma of the food? Are they dressed appropriately for the type restaurant? Do they wear too much jewelry, chew gum or act patronizing when questions are asked of them? Little things like that can damage the image or impression a restaurant is trying to project.
The paper for which we wrote might have sent a photographer to take pictures, or we would make an appointment with the owner, manager or chef a few days later to go by and take their picture…but always after the fact. We never wanted to influence our service or food preparation in any way by letting the staff know what we were doing beforehand.
Of course, not all restaurants are fine dining and not all are very casual or take-out, so the way we approached each review depended on the impression or image the restaurant was trying to project.
If the restaurant was trying to project an image of fine dining and it was reflected in their prices and the ambitiousness of the food they served, then the rest of the experience had to come up to the expectations they had set for the diners.
Fine dining is more than consistently good or excellent food and higher prices. The image, ambiance, décor, table settings, and wait staff has to back it up also.
For example, you wouldn’t expect ‘fine dining’ if you walk into a place and the tables are covered with only place mats and paper napkins or casual oilcloth draped over the table, even if the food was excellent would you? When we visited that type restaurant, even if the food was excellent, in our minds we ‘rated’ it a 2 or even a 3 out of a possible 5.
As I said, we didn’t outwardly rate it for the public, but we set some standards in our minds and we ‘rated’ each place depending on how these restaurants or eateries met our standards.
Our standards for fine dining included heavy linen tablecloths and generously sized linen napkins. Tablecloths should always be white, but the color of the napkins can reflect the colors used in the rest of the room to set the ambiance. If candles or flowers are used as centerpieces on the table, they should be unobtrusive and odorless.
We also expected to feel a hefty weight to the flatware, good porcelain dishes and crockery, preferably all white and of course, nice glassware. For this last, whether heavy or fragile depends on what is being served in it.
Another criterion we used is the service staff. Are they friendly without being familiarly so? Do they reflect the image the establishment is trying to project? Are they solicitous of your comfort without being intrusive? Do they leave empty dishes on the table too long? Also, their knowledge of the menu should be deeper than just letting you know what the specials are.
All of this is noted before the food even makes an appearance at the table!
…then of course…there is the food. Is it average or out of this world good? Is it presented well? Is it paired well with other sides, like vegetables? Is it too artfully presented or does the presentation do justice to the food? Some chef’s food presentations could aspire to be architectural feats when they actually should pay more attention to the preparation and taste!
Is the price too high for what is being served? What is too expensive? This is where a reviewer who is also comfortable in the kitchen and is knowledgeable about food and cooking and market prices can make valuable contributions to the review.
A restaurant reviewer or critic is not just a taster of food. He or she should have at least some culinary background to know what it is they taste. They should be able to know if the seasonings are well balanced or how a dish should look or taste.
We loved being restaurant reviewers. What is not to like in a job that lets you indulge in your passion for food, and get paid for writing about it?
(All images from public domain)