Monday, May 10, 2010

other people's food for thought

At the recent food blogging conference, where I was given the generous opportunity to talk about how and why I blog, restaurant reviewing was a hot topic. It’s something I’ve always felt uncomfortable about. I’m caught between the role of review as public service (vegetarian-friendly, caters for vegans, has healthy food, great food but under-patronized etc), or conversely not wanting to add to the publicity of an already hard to get a table at local favourite. Because I have a limited dietary range, whenever I’ve actually reviewed an eatery I’ve made it clear how this filters my experience of the menu.

Holidays are different. Reverting back to blogging in it’s original form as a web log/online diary, I’ve seen documenting dinning experiences in places like Bali, Malaysia or New Zealand as a way of sharing holiday highlights rather than an actual review. Just as I’ve found some delightful meals in out of the way places thanks to some nifty googling, so too are the many hits the blog has had for eating in Gili Air or Melaka.

An event late last year, which I haven’t written about before, crystallised my discomfort with reviews. That being, negative aspects of reviews can potentially impact on individuals who own or cook in such eateries. I think that a fair review is not gushingly uncritical nor an unnecessarily negative one and that balance lies somewhere in the middle. If I have an issue with the food, service or overall experience, I’ll own it if it’s due to my own mood or picky eating habit.

Out of the blue I answered the phone at work late last year to hear an aggressive man bark down the line “Are you the person who writes a blog called Confessions of a Food Nazi?” As you may have noticed, the blog is anonymous, though even before speaking at the conference it really only took two clicks of a mouse to work out my identity. It’s not so much that I want to be anonymous so I can write nasty reviews; the issue is that blogging is my hobby and I don’t like to blur the boundaries between work and my non-work (I am so not an entrepreneur!). While writing under a pseudonym I accept that I'm still accountable and identifiable and don't do anything to subvert that.

On the other end of the line, entirely out of context, was a chef/restaurant co-owner who had a beef with a response that I’d made to a series of untraceable comments* regarding a follow up to my original review of his restaurant. The place was getting quieter by the week and I dared suggest that unless all his ardent supporters ate there more often that they’d be out of business in a few months.

“How’d you like it if I said that you’d be out of business soon?” he shouted. He had a good point; I’d be very upset if unsubstantiated comments about my service were published on the internet. But the point he missed entirely was that I’d asked people to eat there and see what they made of the place, I’d asserted the good lineage of the restaurant and that although I didn’t have a huge choice the food was ok. It was just that it seemed to have an identity crisis and for some reason it didn’t work as a whole. Neighbours commented on a similar issue. I had a bundle of feedback from his target user group that I was happy to share with him on the phone but no matter how often I said, “I’m on your side – I want your restaurant to work” he kept shouting over me.

And clearly the restaurant wasn’t working. My predictions were correct. A few weeks after the verbal assault down the phone the place shut up shop and last week in Epicure I read that it was sold and the new owner had reopened under a similar name. I cycled past it on the weekend and observed a friendly looking chap serving a large table of relaxed looking people. They had the look of those who’ve just eaten a satisfying meal – a marketing tableau that money can’t buy.

Back to the phone call, two actually, with the chef who was most likely haemorrhaging money and understandably stressed. The reality is that a low traffic blog such as this, would have no real influence on the success or failure of his business. Interestingly, though there was one anodyne review in The Age shortly after it opened, nowhere else on the net was a review of any kind. It was flying under the radar and attracting no interest, no buzz. I called him back a few hours later after rereading my posts and the comment in light of his criticism, to point out that I’d qualified what I’d said and in fact done everything at the time that he’d later requested (i.e. “why didn’t you tell people to come and try it for themself?”). We ended up having an interesting conversation about the restaurant business. Though unfortunately he spent most of the time blaming other people and the location. We never actually touched on the fact that his menu seemed out of synch with the clientele he wanted to attract. It was not bad food, just priced higher than the locals were willing to pay for it. Only time will tell whether the new owner can make a go of the enterprise or the location is the "lemon" he asserted it was.

I was glad I could justify my criticisms and that it was a fair review, so that once he’d calmed down I could go over each point with him and gain some grudging acceptance. In the end the only issue he had was casting aspersions on the chances of the restaurant staying open. I guess I won that point too but perhaps there was a possibility that the venture could have been a success if he was able to take on board feedback – from a blogger as well as locals who’d stopped eating there.

My question to you the reader, local eater or fellow blogger – what do you think of blog based restaurant reviews? Do you write them? Do they help guide your eating out choices? How do blog reviews differ from print media? Is one or the other likely to be more impartial? Do you ever suspect a blogger or journalist is getting undisclosed freebies for their reviews? Could food bloggers be legitimate restaurant "consultants"?

I do read reviews from a handful of blogs. On the whole, I tend to ignore writers who only give glowing reviews or are too subjective, Gourmet Traveller included! I tend to skirt around simple reviews that merely say I like this or didn’t like that if it’s without context. And of course, being the Food Nazi, the lovers of meat and dairy are not the ones I tend to consult. But I’ll own that. One thing I love reading blog restaurant reviews for is something largely ignored by the print media, those covering dietary niches. I search for new vegan eateries when my sister visits and enjoy discovering allergy-friendly restaurants beyond the hippy ghetto. I love reviews exploring the diverse eating opportunities in my own neighbourhood as well as ones across town that I rarely get to visit.

What are your thoughts?

* a tip for restaurant owners - if you're going to plaster blog reviews with comments under various guises then consider writing in a variety of personas with different "voices" and genders. It helps also if you've commented on other local food blogs under those names too. Just a thought.

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10 Comments:

Blogger steve said...

Hi AOF-nice post.
I dont do review, never have. As a chef & business owner I am too close to the blowtorch of criticism to be able to direct it toward another business.

I will state for the record that I, we, do not get it right everytime so I'm not really in a position to professionally judge others.

I do however have strong views on the subject of restaurants & cafes which I privately express, just not on my blog.

As you point out, one's reviews will always be subjective & seen through the prism of your own interests, beliefs & prejudices.

I think there are a number of bloggers who are canny enough to discern the positives & negatives of a particular place without resorting to defamatory & in some cases very insensitive prose.

No matter how gentle the criticism, it still stings. I dont know of anyone who doesn't get upset when a bad review arrives from blogger or paid journo.

Interestingly, there are very few places, that galvanise a consensus of opinion, even from the paid reviewers, Downes & Lethlean come to mind. If these blokes dont agree on a place then surely this sends a clear message that all reviews are never the last word on the quality of an establishment

1:44 pm  
Blogger Cindy said...

As you know, I write a lot about the restaurants I visit. The purpose has always been to provide info on what restaurants are (and sometimes aren't) vegetarian-friendly, since this isn't a perspective that the mainstream media can cover regularly or thoroughly. As you note, specialised diets are one area in which blogs really come to the fore.

I think, viewed as a community, we have other features. We pay for our own meals and so have a strong sense of value for money. While individual bloggers may not visit a restaurant more than once, our combined output can provide a more interesting picture - which bloggers' tastes did this restaurant suit? Does the quality of service vary or are the same issues repeatedly remarked upon? Is it kid-friendly or quiet or easy to travel to or veg-friendly or...? [As an aside to bloggers, think about linking to all the other reviews of the same restaurant that you can find - this will help readers build that picture!] I don't think any professional food reviewer can hope to represent the diversity of palates and needs that a community of bloggers can.

I don't think any of us is impartial. As a reader I treat every blogged review as the experience of one person, with their own individual preferences, on one occasion. I try to write in a tone that reflects that, and shy away from rating restaurants numerically for that reason. Very, very few outright negative reviews would completely turn me off a restaurant but an impression built up from multiple reviews by multiple people might. Conversely, a single rave review from the right corner could certainly attract me to a restaurant. From this angle, I'd like to think that businesses have more to gain than to lose from blog reviews, however much the individual criticisms might smart.

Admittedly, this rests on the assumption that bloggers are 'fair' in their writing. I think it's enormously important that we're mindful of the limits of our experience and our personal preferences and biases as we write.

5:27 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Steve, your POV as a chef and restaurant owner is very important. We should all remember your line "No matter how gentle the criticism, it still stings", when reviewing. If we criticize we have to make the sting worth it - to inform versus punish.

Cindy - I love a good food niche and I find yours very handy :)

Just remembered I didn't mention the two collaborative review blogs I've been involved with but not posted on for years. None of us took reviewing very seriously.

Very Cheap Eats came primarily out of our frustration that the annual "Cheap Eats" guide really wasn't that cheap any more.

We Do Chew Our Food began in answer to a Melbourne blogger asking "where should I eat tonight". It didn't really pretend to be a proper restaurant review site, more a conversation amongst friends (very few had food blogs).

6:00 pm  
Blogger Plenty said...

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8:30 pm  
Blogger Lucy said...

My grandma always said, "if you can't think of anything nice to say, don't say anything at all."

Whilst I think that's all well and good (and manners are Very Important), truly constructive criticism (as opposed to hidden-agenda "constructive criticism") can be a good thing.

I remember that review of yours and recall it being a plea to not let a small business go under...

Generally, I must say that reviews of restaurants mean little to me. That said, I make exceptions for both Cindy & Michael and your self - there really aren't many sources for veg/pescetarian/gluten-free etc eating available. You guys have voices that I feel are balanced, positive but also realistic. PLUS you guys blog about little spots that might otherwise get overlooked by the smarty-pants high-end dining establishments.

As for the question of reviewers and blog reviewers getting perks? Perhaps. Sometimes I read a review post and think its all a bit Pom Wonderful, if you get my drift ;-)

(P.S. Your word verification for me today is maneater. How funny is that??)

8:46 am  
Blogger Johanna GGG said...

I now find myself reading blog recommendations when I am looking for somewhere to eat out - as you and Cindy have noted, it is so helpful to get a recommendation from a vegetarian so that I know there will be dishes that I can eat. I agree that 'reviews' on blogs do fill a niche that the mainstream can't.

I occasionally write about places I go - it helps me to remember the good places but also is a nice 'diary' moment - as I have said before, I don't think these are comprehensive reviews and lets face it every place can improve and decrease in quality after the best of reviews! It also helps when I want to recommend a place to friends.

Now I am curious to hear how the new place goes after hearing about the happy table of punters that you passed by!

9:09 am  
Blogger Anna said...

I've only done a couple of reviews but abandoned that idea because it was too 'dangerous territory'. The thought of having a heated conversation on the phone with a chef is enough to make me want to retreat into a cave for a month (but I am shy like that).

The one point I would like to make is that it becomes rather obvious when some food review bloggers seem to get much better food and service when they go out to eat. I have to take those blogs with a grain of salt, because their experience has always been better than the one I've gotten (as a 'nobody') when I took reviews seriously and eaten in places the more 'famous' or recognisable bloggers have recommended. I would also consider stopping reading a food review blog if I sensed they were not impartial.

1:08 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Anna - your comment reminds me about some issues to do with impartiality. As the prominent print restaurant reviewers, in Melbourne at least, are not anonymous- it does make me wonder if their service/food differs from the experience that you and I have. So bloggers, or at least the ones who haven't made themselves known to the industry/have a low profile can represent the "nobodies" - which is a good thing. Having said that, I think that waiters in the city are generally better than average. While you expect that at the top end, the care taken by those at mid-priced eateries can be excellent too.

I remarked on twitter recently how we'd had a couple of experiences with waiters suggesting we'd over ordered (the SE's eyes are often much bigger than his stomach), their suggestions for rethinking our choices were perfect - for avoiding food wastage, our budget and our waistlines.

2:22 pm  
Anonymous Jena said...

I understand your sentiments. We all have the right to express our insights. This is what's good with the world today. By the way, if you're looking for the best social media marketing for your online business, then you're search is over. Good luck!

4:21 pm  
Anonymous gary and suzie said...

i also dont reveiw business after eating, i think a blog should be an informative and reference guide to what your experience was, i dont really believe in passing your personal veiw across to you r readers like you are a ma-sire or something. i think some of the best journo's are the one's thats neutral . take a page from matt preston, he has never given a bad review to anyone nor has he pushed his own personal opinion upon people. if the place dose not meet up to his standard he dosn't speak of it.
food bloggers - pull you socks up and get on with your own life worries, support if its good, forget about it if its bad.

5:48 pm  

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