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.

23 thoughts on “Going Back”

  1. Great post! You’ve made some very good points. However, I have just a few comments :). Michael Bauer certainly has “the leg up,” but what I like about food bloggers’ restaurant reviews is that they single out dishes/servers/ambience (i.e., the state of the bathrooms) at all. What you’re (specifically) talking about here is reviewing food; not a restaurant. A lot of food bloggers write reviews more for themselves than for an audience so they are more likely to be less “safe” in their POV. And, after a while, readers are able to match their wallets and their palates to the food bloggers they come to realize they can “trust” best. I feel that a newspaper’s restaurant reviewer is more of a “food critic” while a food blogger is more free to act as a “restaurant critic”. A lot of us can make good food, but not all of us can run a good restaurant!

  2. In the US critics are lucky to have the budget and time to be so thorough in visiting several times. In Australia many critics only visit once and then they are on a tight budget. In Melbourne there are two daily papers and two main critics each with their own bizarre quirks. The local Murdoch one does it in one visit. The Melbourne Age critic may do three but only because he also writes for The Melbourne Magazine and the local Gourmet Traveller magazine, which leads to a lack of diversity of opinions. The problem is that the reviewers are also well recognised and even have poster sized pictures on the walls of local restaurants (such as the recently opened Nobu). Many bloggers, myself included, review because they are fed-up with having such a different experience to what they read about in the newspapers and are the only way to get a real feel for the experience.

  3. I should have said that IMO, a newspaper restaurant reviewer may feel more pressured, and thus more inclined, to act as a “food critic” rather than an overall “restaurant critic”. I’ve seen many a reader’s comment saying, “Get to the point please! (aka: Get to the food please!).” Plus, the pictures that food bloggers include in their reviews are always so much quirkier and more interesting (which translates to me as “more real”)!

  4. I think very few newspaper reviewers are able to go to a restaurant more than once before giving it a grade. Perhaps in NY, Chicago, DC, LA, but certainly not Baltimore (my hometown). Besides, I prefer to think that when I talk about a restaurant on my blog, I am giving the high and low-lights of my meal there, not actually reviewing the place. I agree that a true review needs to be written based on several experiences, not just one.

  5. Adam, dont be so hard on yourself and other bloggers! I can only speak for myself, but personally I judge a resteraunt after only one visit. I read food blogs for possibilities, I dont expect my experience to echo yours or anyone else’s. When it boils down, bloggers and professional critics, really are just giving a personal OPINION. At least when I read your blog, I get an idea of what your tastes are, by the other things you put in your blog.

  6. Thoughtful post. As Kathy mentioned, I think it depends on what the food blogger is trying to do. Often I will report on a place after one visit, but it’s less of a critque/review and more of a report on my experience with tips I think would be useful for my readers–the range of prices on the menu, the atmosphere, some of the dishes, etc. And unless I’ve had something truly disgustingly awful happen to me, I rarely mention a bad or so-so experience on my blog for precisely the reasons you outline–I don’t feel that it’s very fair.

  7. I think you left out the fact that newspaper critics also have a leg up in that everyone knows who they are. More often than not, they are recognized so that a good experience is more likely than not. I suppose I can only speak for the critics here in Columbus, but I’ve waited on enough to know.

  8. The only reason you’d put up a defense of blogs post is because there’s an attack on bloggers. You make great points, but those attackers are not going to back down. The main problem is that the attackers are logically flawed in their thought process. Mario Batali for example seems to think that bloggers just write whatever for the sake of ripping restaurants. Granted, when there’s easily accessible opinions of your livelihood, you get defensive. But, what Mario is proposing is that opinions, unless validated by numerous visits for consistency, simply should not be made widely available. That’s basically a slap in the face of a reader. We’re discerning enough recognize opinions come from all over the place.

    Let’s just play user scenarios:

    1. Potential Customer A (PC A) reads ONE review and the review is bad or lukewarm. PC A decides not to go.

    2. Potential Customer B (PC B) reads MULTIPLE reviews and some are good, some are bad. PC B decides, “I want to live life instead of read blogs all day and I’ll try this food myself.” PC B goes.

    Mario Batali would have you believe that the greater percentage of the world falls into the PC A pool. But you know what? I think more people fall into the PC B pool.

    And if Babbo loses customers of the same type as PC A, oh well. You still get PC B type customers. And if he really wants PC A type customers, who’s to say that the inconsistencies wouldn’t be replicated? Completely possible.

    There is no need to defend the opinions that you rightly have.

  9. When I wrote food profiles for newspapers, we only went once. Food reviews, however, we went twice and always with a companion in order to get an array of foods. If I didn’t like the first visit, I was prepared to be more critical on my second, so then they really had to impress me. I agree, if the average customer has a poor initial visit, especially if the service is subpar, they will not return. In any given American market, there’s just too many offerings to return to a place that didn’t wow the customer.

  10. Good column Adam, and well-put. It’s one of the reasons that the vast majority of chef’s interviewed for the current edition of TimeOut abhor food bloggers but have great respect for Frank Bruni, NY Mag, etc.

    And food bloggers are a far from consistent lot. I mean Restaurant Girl is now a food critic for the Daily News? C’mon, everyone knows she just pimps for restaurants that she reviews – there’s no honesty in that.

    But what I really wonder is this – what’s the difference between what a food blogger says about a restaurant and what a poster on chowhohnd or egullet says about a restaurant? In some cases, I’d rather read the poster that frequents a place many times and reports the results. A

    The worst case scenario is the one you already alluded to – the one-visit slam – nothing could be more unfair to a reaturant. But a lot of food bloggers, in their rush to be first, employ this technique, and in so doing lose the respect of readers like me.

    Good for you for thinking about this – shows real journalistic growth on your part.

  11. I place bloggers single experience with a restaurant above a critics multiple experiences with a restaurant. The simple fact is that there are many restaurants and if someone has a single bad experience at a restaurant its best to just go to another.

    And I fail to see how that is “unfair” to the restaurant? If they cannot provide a consistent experience then they are not going to remain in business and shouldn’t.

  12. Yup, Yoshi and Kelley Mahoney are right, as far as I am concerned. The average restaurant goer cannot afford to make multiple visits to individual restaurants to sample everything on the menu. Therefore, ya takes your chances just like any poor schlub off the street. That, for me, makes it more authentic. So if the blogger orders something that you wouldn’t, well, like I said before, just don’t take that into consideration for your own purposes.

    Molto Mario also needs to cool his jets…these celeb chefs are getting too big for their britches, anyway. If you can’t provide a good experience for the average restaurant goer, who cares how the place fawns over a restaurant critic who visits multiple times?

    And word gets around quickly in the restaurant world…no matter how many “disguises” they use, these critics are know to the restaurant world in their town.

  13. As a couple of other folk mentioned, I think you over estimate how much time the average critic gets to spend at any one restaurant. Yes, major papers like the NY Times might send a reviewer in 2, 3, or even 4 times, most professional reviewers do not get that advantage. I’ve reviewed for different papers and magazines, I’ve never been given a budget for more than one visit with two people maximum at the table, anything else was on my own dime.

    A blogger’s opinion is just as valid as any critic’s. What I think Mario objects to, though he paints it with too broad a brush, is that there are bloggers out there who use the fact that they’ve essentially got an unregulated and unrestricted canvas, go overboard being nasty about things that are often very minor – building them into major problems. I’ve seen bloggers rant for two paragraphs about incompetent service only to find that at the end of it, the only thing was that their water didn’t get filled in a timely manner or they didn’t like the shape of the appetizer fork. I’ve seen others who carry on about one under salted dish as if it was the disaster of the century, and then in one sentence acknowledge that four appetizers, three other entrees, and all four desserts were prepared correctly. Magazine and newspaper critics tend not to do that, even if they’d like to, simply because it’s going to get edited into a more balanced view whether they like it or not (and, remember, critic’s columns get edited, proofread, and rewritten – most bloggers’ don’t).

  14. This is definitely going to be an ongoing debate, for sure. But my take on this is basically readers of food bloggers take “restaurant reviews” with a grain of salt (or pepper). I think the readers realize the blogger may not have had a full dining experience, so they may read your review more for a hint of what to expect as opposed to a critique. Also, descriptions of the food can give an idea of what to order or not. I see benefits of both types of reviews– from the newspaper critic to the food blogger. Both add value, IMHO.

    As for myself, I can only afford to do looks at restaurants after one visit, but I also probably eat out more often than most people so after awhile you develop a sense of a restaurant and that experience adds to my postings, I believe. Also, if I feel after one visit that I still didn’t get a sense of the food, I do actually go back for a second visit, albeit it might be lunch instead of another dinner. So I try to make sure I’m as fair as possible before rendering an opinion.

  15. I love this debate around the value of reviews. Its especially interesting since my blogging partner N, refuses to review restaurants in NYC altogether as the blogging/review world has become so down n’ dirty.

    In London, things are a little less cut-throat (in all aspects of the restaurant scene) but I never waste my time writing a review on a restaurant where I didn’t enjoy the food. I’m not a food critic, I’m a blogger – and I draw a big line between the two. I’m not out to document and share my judgements of eateries with the world – good or bad. I’m documenting the highlights of my culinary life – whether they be the products of my own hands, or others. If a restaurant is bad – I’m not going to waste my time writing about it.



  16. You didn’t even mention the vast number of sites where all and sundry can review any restaurant they choose without even setting up a blog. (Or review shops, theaters, museums, parks, or whatever has an address).

    Yelp.com is one such but there are many. In some ways, this resolves the one-experience-love-it-or-hate-it challenge: every reviewer reports a separate visit, tries different foods, has different reactions to the service, gives a different POV. It also means it’s trivially easy to vent without much thought — or promote your own establishment.

    This is the web, guys. No experience necessary.

  17. Interesting post. Most of the time, I find that the first experience ends up being a sign of things to come, but that isn’t always the case. When I talk about a restaurant in my posts I give equal opportunity to what was good and what wasn’t very good. It wouldn’t be truthful, otherwise. However, I don’t think it’s always appropriate to bash a restaurant when a person has only been there once because there really isn’t any way to tell if that’s what happens all the time or not.

    I feel that the issue others have with food bloggers is that they think most people won’t have any discernment when reading another’s review, take it literally, and write the restaurant off. It is possible, I’m not saying it’s not, but is that the fault of the blogger? No. It goes without saying, though, that when someone bashes a restaurant it stays with you when you go there, but it is a free country. Think of it this way: Many prestigious movie reviewers bash the heck out of certain movies that end up being pretty good. How many average citizens take to heart what they say? Because in my experience, some of the movies they don’t like, I find absolutely enjoyable.

  18. I read NYT to get a critic’s review on a place. I read blogs to get a mechanic’s, college student’s, hairdresser’s, teacher’s, or ad exec’s or whatever, any average person’s review. I know that big time food critics get a few shots at a place, and I know most bloggers blog on one visit.

    I think most blog readers also take this stuff into consideration, and we like it just fine that way. I read blogs for personal experiences, from average civillians, not paid staffers. I read the paper for a different point of view. I would be less interested in ultra professional polished reviews, from my favorite bloggers. It’s not why I’m here.

  19. Adam – I’ve been reading your blog for a couple of years and enjoying it a lot but lately you’re boring me. The post above and the Ratatouille rant really turned me off. I’m not checking in for a while.

  20. Very true. I try my best not to harshly criticize a place I’ve been to only once, unless I had some horrific experience. Alternately, I realize that I cannot declare a place amazing after one dinner. I’ve been trying to eat somewhere at least three times before I write a review, and to sample something different each time to get as good a sense of the menu as possible.

    While I agree that the Batali’s of the world can get a little uppity when it comes to food blogs, I do see their point. I think a lot of their frustration is born more out of the whole unknown of the food blogs. With newspaper reviews they knew what they were dealing with – with food blogs they really have no control.

  21. A simple solution is for food bloggers to post at the top how many times they’ve visited a restaurant. When they revisit a restaurant, they should feel obliged to update their critiques.

  22. Most newspapers are not like the NYT. Restaurant reviews sound like the advertising arm of the restaurant.

    You put too much responsibility on the author, not enough on the reader. I can tell from a well written account if I might like the restaurant even if the review isnt positive.


  23. The average person and blogger can’t afford to make multiple visits,and most diners will make an opinion about a place after just one visit,bloggers aren’t any different.

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