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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