Going Back

I’ve defended food blogs many times in the past–I’m practically the Alan Dershowitz of food bloggers–and yet, lately, I’ve become more and more sensitive to a concern that’s often raised about food bloggers and our practices: namely, our tendency to review restaurants after only one visit.

Obviously, food bloggers don’t have the resources that professional critics do. We don’t have a newspaper picking up the tab when we go out to eat, it’d be impossible for most of us to eat our way through a menu without spending half our savings. So we go, our cameras in tow, and snap pictures of the two or three dishes we consume at this one meal and then scurry back to our computers to write it up. If you click “Restaurant Reviews” in my menu bar you’ll see I’ve done this well over 100 times.

I’m begining to understand why this isn’t the best way to go about things. This occurred to me when I returned to Chiles and Chocolate in Park Slope for the third time a few weeks ago. The first time I wrote it up, I praised the flan, shrugged over the quesadilla and dismissed the mole as too bitter. The place, I reckoned, was pretty good but not great.

Then I went back for lunch and had the chile relleno which I really enjoyed. Not only that, paired with the watermelon agua fresca, the fresh pico de gallo and tortilla chips, my lunch was significantly more enjoyable than it was on my first outing. Plus, the service was incredibly attentive: they asked me if I liked the music, they replaced plates and silverware with zeal. It was a rainy day in Park Slope, but it felt like a sunny day at a four-star restaurant uptown.

Then I went back again. And I gave the mole another chance and you know what? I hated it. I hated it more than I did the first time. Its bitter qualities totally overwhelmed the sweeter components; it paled in comparison to the mole I had at La Carta de Oaxaca in Seattle. PLUS–and this is what really did it in–the waitress had asked whether I wanted dark meat or white meat. I chose white meat–stupidly, I admit–and the chicken breast that the mole was served on top of was way overcooked, painfully dry, a horror show.

What do these three experiences have to do with food blogging? Well, if that third time had been my first time at Chiles & Chocolate in Park Slope, I would have written a savage review. If the second time had been my first time, I would have written it a love letter. But since my first time was my first time, I gave it a half-hearted nod and that’s the review that remains in my archives.

That’s a problem. Those three experiences add up to a fuller picture of the restaurant. Now I know that Chiles & Chocolate is inconsistent–a word that professional food critics use all the time. I know what stands out on the menu: the agua fresca, the chile relleno, the flan. And I know what to avoid: anything with chicken breast. If I were to write a review now, it would be more thoughtful, more measured, more complete and ultimately more useful.

The truth is that I often re-visit restaurants and have new reactions. Like Stand, the Union Square burger joint that I two-starred back in May. I went there recently with my friend Jimmy and we had a great experience: the burgers were perfectly done, the buns, this time, weren’t too daunting. I liked it way better than that first time around.

Other times, going back reconfirms what I suspected the first time. Like this place in Park Slope that I don’t want to name because it’s truly adorable and the people behind it seem like really good people, but God help me if I don’t think it’s the biggest rip-off joint on the block. The sandwiches cost $9 and they pile mediocre chicken salad on to seedy multigrain bread, top it with a mealy tomato, and put it in a plastic container. It’s bad and it was bad the second time I went there. Going back confirmed that.

Where does that leave us, then? Food blog restaurant reviews are still defensible in that they share the average person’s experience at a particular restaurant on a particular night. As I told Michael Ruhlman for an article he’s writing for September’s Restaurant Hospitality Magazine: “The average customer doesn’t return to a restaurant if they have a bad first experience, and I think that’s why food blog reviews are important. At their best, they offer very thorough accounts of a first impression of a restaurant and, for many people, that’s useful.”

It’s useful, but it’s not ideal. And I’m starting to recognize that. Food blogs will never displace newspapers because of the newspaper critic’s capacity to be thorough–to go back several times to a restaurant, to sample all of the items on the menu, to examine how a restaurant changes on different days of the week, at different times of the day. Maybe the aptest metaphor is sexual: a newspaper critic gets to sleep with a restaurant over and over again; the food blogger critic gets one shot. So when a reader asks, “Is the restaurant good in the sack?” both perspectives are valid–the food blogger might describe the experience with more gusto, there might even be pictures–but the newspaper critic can answer you much more assuredly. And that, I shall admit, gives the newspaper critic the leg up. Literally.

You may also like