Food bloggers are ruining the restaurant business. Eventually something will have to be done about the power of the internet. A bad review from a blogger who had a bad meal has the same power on the internet as a good review from a respected newspaper food critic.
Nah. Just kidding. Those are not my words. I omitted quotation marks from the statements in the first paragraph to increase the impact. Those are all sentiments expressed to me recently by a young talented Houston chef. I was on my second visit to the restaurant and had asked to be seated alone in the bar. If possible, I prefer to sit alone so my camera and flash, if necessary, don’t interfere with others’ enjoyment of their meals. I had really enjoyed most of my meal at the restaurant the previous week.
I desperately wanted to write a review to spread the word about what I expected to be a fun exciting place to eat. But one dish bothered me. The dish was the reason I had gone to the restaurant in the first place. It had bothered me enough that I was willing to pay for it twice to prove to myself that the skill displayed in the preparation of the rest of the meal carried over to the focus of my visit. I am deliberately being vague about the restaurant, its owners, its chef, and the dish.
The (courteous) server commented that I had “ordered an awful lot of food for one person.” I knew that I had been busted, as my camera was on the chair beside me. Shortly after I stuffed a reassuringly tasty bite of the subject entrée into my mouth, an “owner” appeared across the bar from me and asked me what I was doing. I introduced myself and explained the situation, assuring him that I was very pleased with a visit to the restaurant the previous week but wanted to try a particular dish again to confirm that my original thoughts were incorrect and to photograph it for a review. I also told him that I was impressed and intended to say so. He let me know that the restaurant likes to control what is said or shown about it in the press and doesn’t generally allow reviewers to do what I was doing, but that he was making an “executive decision” to allow me to do a review. I thanked him for his cooperative kindness to me (I’d already had the experience. I liked the food and already had the photographs in my camera).
The management, however, wasn’t through with me yet. The chef/co-owner came out to my side with arms crossed and explained that there had been hundreds of reviews written (“350”) about them and that everyone was a critic these days. I was then chewed out for not sending the subject dish back on the night I was there in the first place. Sorry! I may write about my meals, but I pay for my food. I am a customer, and if I want to pay twice for a meal to confirm whether my first experience was an anomaly, that’s my right (isn’t it?). While I was being taken to task by this thirty-something culinary phenomenon, I was thinking “I’ve been a published writer/photographer, traveling and dining for a living for over 35 years now and my first article about food/travel was published before this chef was born.” My ego isn’t served by writing reviews to drive diners away from restaurants I consider not to be up to my standards. I write reviews about restaurants I like and attempt to guide others to enjoy a similar experience. After all, it’s no more than my opinion, is it not? I believe that anyone reading my reviews will agree that I don’t take myself nearly as seriously as I take my food and restaurant observations.
One thing I DO know about the Internet and bloggers, who benefit the foodservice industry here, is this: in a metropolitan area with over 12,000 foodservice licenses, restaurateurs/chefs are pretty lucky to be reviewed in the Houston Chronicle, the Houston Press, or any other print medium in their first year or two in operation. They can thank their makers if Alison Cook or Katharine Shilcutt makes it around to them early in their careers, due to their heavy workload. However, while they’re waiting, do you think they’d mind if I say a few good words about them? God knows that if I am unhappy with my meal, I’m not going to waste my time and web space writing an article. And I’m not going to waste a reader’s time by warning him/her to stay away from a restaurant when I have a better suggestion (in my opinion) anyway.
Anthony Bourdain once pointed out that this new crop of food bloggers is no worse than the “doddering old farts” currently writing as newspaper and magazine critics today. That’s certainly not the case in Houston, as our most widely read print media food writers are younger and less pompous –oh, yes, and they’re mostly female… and they write with humor and perspective. They hardly fit Bourdain’s characterization. Thus a “doddering old fart” must be a man… some priggish fop with a wine tasting spoon around his neck.
By the way, in this day and age, even our print media food writers are also bloggers. I suggest that restaurateurs and chefs accept the fact that overall, food bloggers are good for their businesses. They should embrace the fact that this phenomenon will likely never change, except to grow. Readers consider the source when reading a reviewer’s opinion… I suggest that restaurateurs and chefs do, also. After all, it’s just one person’s opinion, isn’t it?
In the words of Houston food blogger, Albert Nurick of H-Town Chow Down, “We eat almost every day.” No one realizes what a chore it is to churn out a steady stream of articles (print OR blog) about food. You have to kiss a lot of frogs –or scarf many frog legs — to meet a prince.