Like politicians, some restaurant critics get a palpable thrill from going negative. English writer A. A. Gill, who never goes anywhere without the word “acerbic” attached to his name, once referred to a Jean-Georges Vongerichten dish as “fishy, liver-filled condoms.”
Me, I try to avoid writing negative reviews. I don’t mean to be holier-than-Gill. I certainly understand the appeal of writing a good zinger. But I think readers are better served by being told about someplace good than someplace bad. However, sometimes I have no choice–maybe the restaurant is highly anticipated, or has changed ownership, or is in a visible location.
And sometimes, I have to admit, I write a negative review because it would be infeasible for me to do otherwise. If I decide a restaurant is unreviewable, the newspaper doesn’t reimburse me for what I spent there, and you know, caviar don’t come for free. Okay, I’m on the cheap eats beat, so when I say “caviar,” I mean fries.
The first negative review I ever wrote was of a place called Best Toast, which served grilled bagel sandwiches. For some reason I will never understand–possibly the owners were not from Earth–the sandwich maker squirted a large quantity of cheese sauce on the top surface of the bagel before lowering the top of the panini grill. You’d think this would result in crusty burnt cheese sauce, and you’d be right.
The primary role of a restaurant critic is as a consumer advocate. Most people are not going to demand their money back after a mediocre meal, so my goal is to try to steer you toward places I like and that I hope you’ll enjoy, too. The secondary role of the critic is to raise the bar, to elevate the average level of quality. You can’t deliberately make this your beat, though, or you will be ineffective and insufferable. Restaurant reviews that lecture the restaurant are tedious to read, and I try to avoid doing that.
People often ask me what kind of response I get to a negative review. Generally, I get a couple of emails from fans of the restaurant telling me how wrong I am. Sometimes I get an email from the restaurant owner, defending his restaurant. Usually my editor gets a copy of those, too. Mostly the owner will blame me for the bad review and indicate that I’m biased, incompetent, and unprofessional. I totally understand this response. If a Roots and Grubs reader told me that I use too many adjectives, my first impulse would be to call the writer a malodorous insufferable boorish jerk rather than to examine my own work.
Thankfully, I’ve never gotten a reaction like my colleague Bill Daley of the Chicago Tribune. Bill once said that he used to cover the mafia, but never received a death threat until he started reviewing restaurants for the Hartford Courant. He wasn’t joking.
The only response I truly dread (other than an armed response) is one telling me that I got a factual detail wrong. Once I reviewed an Italian gelateria and restaurant, found the gelato good and the food unacceptable, and said so. I also described the restaurant has having wood paneling and tourist posters on the walls. It had neither, and the owner said that my error called the credibility of my whole review into question. He was right. Later the place stopped serving food, and then shut down altogether, but it was hard to feel vindicated after such a dumbass mistake. Since then, whenever I go to a restaurant, on duty or off, I spend a lot more time looking around.
I have received two totally unexpected responses to negative reviews.
Last year, I reviewed a hot new Belltown bar called Black Bottle. I thought the wine list was terrific and the prices very reasonable, but found problems with a lot of the food, particularly a certain broccoli dish:
One of the most, well, interesting items on the menu is a crime scene of a dish called Broccoli Blasted. Take a bunch of broccoli florets and place them in a red-hot oven until the flower buds are burned to charcoal and the stem sides are still raw. Then throw on a handful of salt and serve. I envy the person who got “blasted” enough to think this was tasty.
I gave the place 1.5 stars. After the review ran, I got separate phone calls from both of the owners. When I picked up the phone and heard, “I’m one of the owners of Black Bottle,” I cringed, expecting a tirade. Instead, both owners thanked me for the review. Admittedly, they did want to gloat that all sorts of people were coming in to try this broccoli for themselves. I’m still a little puzzled by their response, but they seem like savvy businesspeople, so I figure they concluded that my review was unlikely to do them any harm.
They were right, of course. As someone wrote this month on Chowhound, “Unfortunately, I’m now in the Yogi Berra camp: ‘Nobody goes there anymore – it’s too crowded.’ “
But the most unexpected response to a negative review came from Zak’s. Zak’s is a burger joint in Ballard, next to Cupcake Royale on the same block as the Majestic Bay theater. I reviewed Zak’s in December. The service was fantastic. The decor was fun. The milkshakes were good. The burger was not:
The toasted bun, studded with sesame and poppy seeds, looked great but tasted of some kind of grain that should not be in a hamburger bun. The toppings were piled too high. I asked for my burger cooked medium; it came beyond well done and had almost no meat flavor. And rather than crisp strips of bacon, this burger sported something like a mushy bacon spread, with crumbly chunks of what was once thick-cut bacon.
I hated to give Zak’s a negative review, since they were so nice, but what could I do? A couple of months went by, and then I got an email from Larry Johnson, owner of Zak’s:
I thought you might be interested to know that I reacted objectively and sought out honest opinions from my friends and family about our menu items (asking them to spare my feelings and just let it out.) I did have a few mention that they too thought our burger was on the dry side, although most liked the rest of our menu items enthusiastically. I have since changed the fat content of our meat specs and worked to get my kitchen line more adept at not letting items sit too long on the grill.
He also said he’d dealt with the bacon problem. I’d never heard anything like this from a restaurant owner before. I promised Larry I’d go back and give them another try.
Last night, I did. If the previous burger was a grainy “before” picture from a plastic surgery ad, this burger was the bodacious “after” shot. The bacon was crispy. The meat was juicy. The toppings were well-proportioned. I still didn’t like the bun–I think it’s the poppy seeds that bother me–but this is well into opinion territory.
The review column I write for, Dining Deals, only awards two ratings: Recommended or Not Recommended. Here’s my standard for deciding between them, if I’m on the fence: if a friend called me up and said, “Hey, we’re going to Zak’s. Wanna come?” would I tell them I’m busy washing my hair? If not, it’s recommended. Zak’s burger makeover puts them well into the recommended category.
Great–now you, my twelve readers, know about this. But that negative review is still out there on the Times web site, and it’s no longer valid. How could I make this right?
I emailed my editors, and they cooked up a new feature called Second Helpings. It will enable the paper to offer a revised opinion when a place has improved or changed but it’s not time for a whole new review. Look for the inaugural installment of Second Helpings in an upcoming Friday paper–I’ll post when it runs. In the meantime, have a burger.
Zak’s: A Burger Joint
2040 NW Market St.