Sky Full of Bacon


Not a Review of Not a Restaurant

In the past few weeks, I’ve had several occasions where I’ve tweeted the existence of a post and someone has shot back critical comment with some degree of indignation. This is always startling to me because blogging, unlike Tweeting, had until recently been fairly anonymous; if I did get feedback, it was rare and calm and usually well after the fact, a missive delivered with the relaxedness of snail mail. Where Twitter is like your phone ringing two minutes later— “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU THINKING?”

In this case it had to do with my post on The Purple Pig and Ceres’ Table on Monday. Someone who is in the biz, if not at a restaurant, shot back thusly:

How can u call this a resto review after (A) visiting the resto once & (B) only trying 3 very small plates–4% of the menu?

I sent back this response, within the 140 character limit of Twitter:

Because it’s not only upfront about those facts but incorporates them into my views. Welcome to the post-Vettel world.

To which she responded:

It’s one thing to write about your experience, but another to call it a Restaurant Review!?

There’s an important point to get out of the way first, I think. If you object to the idea of a review after one visit and three dishes (though I’d guess they represent more like 10% of the menu, by the way), you certainly can’t say I hid those circumstances in the piece:

…after my interview at Crain’s I popped in there for lunch and had three things…

Now, admittedly, maybe I just didn’t have a large enough sample— if one thing wowed me on a typical visit to Avec, say, it was probably one out of six or seven things ordered. Three may not have been enough candy bars to get a golden ticket….

So disclosure is not the issue— the issue is whether the title “Restaurant Review” carries with it the assumption of certain time-honored dead-tree-media responsibilities on my part. (Actually, the only place the actual phrase “Restaurant Review” appears is in the tags, but I’ll accept that given their placement in the format, this piece is, indeed, labeled a “Restaurant Review.”) I’m sure we can all recite what those responsibilities are— multiple visits, anonymous dining, pay my own way, and so on. At this point I’d like to show you a building:

That is what Sky Full of Bacon does not have: a big-ass media institution behind it. Nor does my opinion have the imprimatur and represent the august opinion of a large media institution. And I’m pretty sure people are in no illusion about either one of those.

They also know that the world of media is changing.  So I just don’t see, in that changing world, why the thing that’s replacing something, or at least growing up as an alternative with its own rules, is required to adopt all the characteristics of the thing it’s replacing/alternative to.  Why would what’s coming up want to copy what’s going down?

Which is not to say that some of the old values shouldn’t be maintained, either. I do believe in those values to some extent— I’m not always anonymous and I don’t always pay, but I am scrupulous about disclosing those things because you shouldn’t have to wonder about that as you read. But if you’re going to think it’s unfair that pipsqueaks like me get to pipe up about a restaurant after one visit, I think it’s important to recognize that something else has always been unfair in some ways: the fact that the Trib or Chicago Magazine gets to issue one opinion carved in stone, based on a mere two or three visits, which will hang around the neck of a restaurant for years.

The flip side of pipsqueak reviewing is that reviewing has become this constant fluid thing. A thread at a site like LTHForum, or even Yelp, may be made up of single visits by nobodies with less expertise and experience than one name reviewer (I said “may”), but it almost certainly represents more visits over more nights by more people with different life experiences eating a wider variety of what the restaurant has to offer over many seasons and many evolutions of the menu. And I for one think that’s a pretty great improvement; but even if you don’t, it’s not obviously and grossly inferior to the old way. (Well, unless you’re used to the old way only throwing softballs.)

It’s a little less obvious when it comes to a blog where there’s only one voice, but still, I just don’t believe there’s anybody coming here thinking of it having the officialness of a big media dining guide.  It’s a diary of one guy’s adventures in food, as random in what gets talked about as my own life seems to be to the guy living it. And I’m going to write about what I eat, right after I eat it (and I’m going to do so frankly, I’m not interested in boosting the scene, or any restaurant, though there are plainly some I like and encourage). Then— this is the benefit— if I go there again, I’ll write about it again, unlike a newspaper reviewer. And if that gets labeled “restaurant review,” I wouldn’t take it to mean that in the same way that the Tribune or Chicago Magazine or The Boonesville Picayune-Troubadour means it.

Well, that’s my take on it, anyway. But maybe you think the words “restaurant review” do come freighted with all those old media things, and I’d be better off deleting the tag and making “Mike’s freeform diary of occasional dining” be more clearly that. If you have an opinion, put it in the comments, and if you have a long and involved enough opinion that you think it should get rebuttal time above the fold here, then let me know and I will… probably… give you equal time and space to tell me I’m full of it. (How often does a newspaper do that, I ask? Depends how many lawyers you bring to the meeting, I’d say.)

* * *

And we have a passionate opposing view:

You can call your posts whatever you like, but I don’t think it’s fair and certainly not a comprehensive “review” if you only visit a restaurant once and only sample a small percentage of the dishes available. That, to me, is more a snapshot of a restaurant than a fully informed appraisal of a restaurant and its consistency over time. It shouldn’t matter if, in this snapshot, you say positive things (if that’s your response to criticism) – you still only got a limited perspective of a restaurant with one visit. I don’t think stating that “things are changing” exempts you from attempting to be fair and as objective as possible when writing about any business, and I think that excuse is a cop out.

If I were blogging about a restaurant based on only one visit, I personally don’t think it would be ethical to call it a “review,” with the comprehensiveness that title implies. I guess you can make up your own rules if you like, but be prepared to take hits if people disagree with the way you pick and choose how to apply said rules as you see fit. This isn’t about “old media” versus “new media,” or being tied to old school ideas or what have you, it’s about basic fairness and how your voice, as a well known persona on the Chicago food scene, is seen as authoritative. With that comes a certain responsibility. It’s on you if you reject that just because you enjoy ranting against print reviewers or whatever. You absolutely have an obligation to try and be as fair as possible in any review you give, no matter who is paying (and I honestly don’t care about that), and I don’t think you can do that based on a single visit.

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14 Responses to “Not a Review of Not a Restaurant”

  1. Eugenio Says:

    I think I agree that we are free to voice our opinion and our impression of a restaurant based on a single visit. It’s what I do when I talk to a friend when I run ito them the next day (and about the same on my site… as per my page views.) Does a wider readership base have to change that?

  2. Jason Says:

    As a fellow food blogger, I appreciate any “review” whether or not it follows “the rules”. What other type of review has such baggage associated with it?

    People are too concerned with sticking to old media archtypes that they can’t connect the appropriate value to new media. Sure, a single visit rave/rant review may not be 100% accurate, but it’s still useful information. On the flip side, an “anonymous” reviewer who visits multiple times won’t really be completely accurate either. Besides, are old media reviewers really paying their own way? What’s the difference between the restaurant and your employer paying for the meal?

    A lot of reviewing comes down to trust. I trust your “reviews” as a person with a face, a name, and a reputation more than I would trust some random Livejournal fwahgrah69 asshat. Unlike (probably) many other bloggers, you DO disclose any potential shortcomings of your “reviews”. Old media restaurant reviewers have reputations as well… but I don’t think they deserve the kind of value that they’ve always been given. Maybe I’m too young to appreciate an old-fashioned restaurant review.

    People need to understand that most restaurants have uneven service, whether it’s FOH or BOH staff having a good/bad day, the weather, etc. You may have been (un)lucky on your visit, and maybe you have a different palate than the rest of us, we shouldn’t expect to have the same experience.

    I’d like to think that people can be smart enough to take posts like your “review” at face value and not count on that being a definitive roadmap of what to expect at that restaurant.

  3. Michael Gebert Says:

    “What’s the difference between the restaurant and your employer paying for the meal?”

    Yes, that’s one of my issues with the Trib’s Phil Vettel– I think he’s been on the expense account for so long he doesn’t really have a normal person’s sense of what’s good or bad value. Admittedly, a lot of his audience is on an expense account too, but still.

  4. Ellen Malloy Says:

    A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

    Call it what you want and learn to ignore the insanity of the screamers.

  5. Michael Gebert Says:

    I don’t think it’s insanity (and it wasn’t really screamed, either; that’s just in reference to the immediacy of Twitter). I think it’s all legitimate to consider, but I pretty firmly believe that a new day is dawning and the preconceptions of the previous medium are by no means obligatory.

    One other point, by the way: thanks to the previous posts by one-off visitors around the internets, I had a pretty good idea of where the strengths of the restaurants (especially Purple Pig) lay. If everyone’s raving about the pork neck bone gravy and I try it and am less wowed, that’s a lot more precise and informed single visit than if I’d walked in and ordered cold.

  6. Kenny Z Says:

    A thing that might get lost here: your “review” of the Purple Pig left – I thought – quite a positive impression of the place. The lone quote from that review included in this post – then your cooment above – might lead one to think you didn’t like the place. In fact, your review was balanced, fair, and full of significant praise. I especially liked your description of the pork neck bone gravy as “the most simply satisfying” of the dishes you tried. I’m probably one who has been more rapturous in my description of that dish, but “simple” and “simply satisfying” capture my thoughts about it well.

  7. Lisa Says:

    You can call your posts whatever you like, but I don’t think it’s fair and certainly not a comprehensive “review” if you only visit a restaurant once and only sample a small percentage of the dishes available. That, to me, is more a snapshot of a restaurant than a fully informed appraisal of a restaurant and its consistency over time. It shouldn’t matter if, in this snapshot, you say positive things (if that’s your response to criticism) – you still only got a limited perspective of a restaurant with one visit. I don’t think stating that “things are changing” exempts you from attempting to be fair and as objective as possible when writing about any business, and I think that excuse is a cop out.

    If I were blogging about a restaurant based on only one visit, I personally don’t think it would be ethical to call it a “review,” with the comprehensiveness that title implies. I guess you can make up your own rules if you like, but be prepared to take hits if people disagree with the way you pick and choose how to apply said rules as you see fit. This isn’t about “old media” versus “new media,” or being tied to old school ideas or what have you, it’s about basic fairness and how your voice, as a well known persona on the Chicago food scene, is seen as authoritative. With that comes a certain responsibility. It’s on you if you reject that just because you enjoy ranting against print reviewers or whatever. You absolutely have an obligation to try and be as fair as possible in any review you give, no matter who is paying (and I honestly don’t care about that), and I don’t think you can do that based on a single visit.

  8. Jones Says:

    Seems fair to me. Disclosure was given. I’m sure most restaurant owners know they often only have one shot to impress a new customer. Why would it be different for a “reviewer”?

  9. mike Says:

    I, for one, enjoyed your essay- I am a lifelong daily newspaper reader who just canceled the daily paper– I am sick of everything about the MSM and know everything important in it before the paper comes- I take this medium for what it is-honest unless proven otherwise-and appreciate your contribution. be not deterred.

  10. Matthew Says:

    I’m young, which is largely to blame for this ignorance*, but if it weren’t for your treatises on “old” media ethics and reviews, I would have had no idea that a) there even was an established code of ethics for restaurant reviews and that b) that code called for multiple visits, anonymity, and impartiality.

    Take what you will from that, but it’s clear to me that the future is in the hands of people who visit once and say, “Hey, I visited this place last night, this is what I thought of it, comment.”

    *That said, I’ve long been a passionate, um, “foodie” in the parlance of our times, so I probably represent one of the most informed of my generation on the topic of restaurant reviews et cetera.

  11. Ellen Malloy Says:

    Matthew. You may be young but you are far from ignorant.

    Mike: I was being flip. And I referred to the tweeter as insane because to quibble about if you were right or wrong to call something a review, on your blog, after just a few bites seems so, well, out of touch with reality.

    There are a lot of professional reviewers who eat at a place once and write up a review. There are even professional writers who eat at a place once, having made the reservation with the publicist, and write up a review. More than one that eats at a place once with the publicist and writes a review. A powerful, business-changing review.

    Of course once called into question, the pubs would say they are not reviews. Are they reviews? Aren’t they? How does it really change things?

    In my humble opinion, after the number of meals in restaurants I have eaten, you can most definitely judge a place on one visit.

    That isn’t to say that I think anyone writing for an established large-circulation anything is doing anyone any good by doing so. People’s livelihoods are on the line and being as fair as possible and giving them every benefit of the doubt is essential. But by golly, a restaurant evaluator of any talent should have the critical abilities to do so if push came to shove.

  12. Michael Gebert Says:

    I may wind up killing the “Restaurant Reviews” tag, since it’s basically redundant with “Dining Out in Chicago” anyway. (I guess there might be a few from outside of Chicago.) The more I think about it the less I feel any need to be tied to an older legacy form; this is, if the name wasn’t already taken, a diary of a foodie, not a review site.

    But also the more I think about it, the more I have doubts about the whole “gotta eat there three times” thing. One, because as Ellen suggests, it’s less true than we think, maybe only the Trib and Chicago magazine. Two, what’s the assumption behind it– that a certain percentage of clusterfark nights is normal, even Alinea has them, so really, you shouldn’t be surprised if once in a while, L2O serves spoiled fish and the waiter spills soup on you and the hostess is crabby? Sorry, I don’t believe that. I think you can order poorly and occasionally just got all things that you don’t like and miss the good stuff, but not that great restaurants simply have totally off nights regularly.

    I was in a Polish restaurant last weekend. The food was quite good, but a dozen other things radiated Soviet indifference. You will never convince me that I didn’t nail the fundamental nature of that place in my first ten minutes there, and 20 more visits won’t change that.

  13. leek Says:

    I do think the term “review” is a bit fraught. We put a lot of weight into the words we use to describe things. Is what you are doing a review? I don’t think it is. Is what you are doing reasonable? Absolutely.

  14. sally Says:

    As a poster and reader of “reviews” I almost expect that they are from discrete visits is they are on blogs or “review” sites like LTH or Yelp. I accept them as such, and take them for what they’re worth. I agree that disclosure is important, but otherwise simply don’t think it’s that big a deal…