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Everyone’s a critic: Operators adapt to surge in online reviews by patrons

Everyone’s a critic: Operators adapt to surge in online reviews by patrons

Jay Fagnano had been out of the fine-dining business for a decade, so when he opened the Larchmont Grill in Los Angeles last summer, he was struck by how much the world of restaurant criticism had changed.

In the early ’90s, he recalls, a Los Angeles operator could expect to find his restaurant reviewed by a predictable group of publications that included major daily newspapers, alternative weeklies and city magazines. But over the years that field has shrunk as print periodicals succumbed to competitive pressures and changing consumer trends.

What stepped in to take their place, Fagnano observes, is a host of websites and blogs, populated by both amateur and professional reviewers who pose their own particular set of critical challenges for restaurateurs.

“We first opened the Larchmont Grill for lunch one day in late August,” he says, “and by 3 p.m. that same day there was a review on Chowhound [an online food and dining website]. It was a very nice review, but it was a little shocking. It was instantaneous.”

Long recognized as the principal arbiters of excellence for restaurants, reviewers working in print media have gradually lost a portion of their once-exclusive authority to counterparts plying their Craft on the Internet.

Moreover, that elite, and sometimes erudite, corps of ink-stained critics has had to make room at the table for a new everyman breed of reviewer who may or may not be able to tell a Vidalia onion from a Maui onion but who enjoys dining out frequently and sharing his or her opinions with like-minded folks.

Reviewers abound, but what’s the impact?

This democratization of restaurant criticism—which began to gain traction in the 1980s with the now-ubiquitous Zagat guides—has exploded across the Internet, propelled by such websites as eGullet, Eater, Citysearch, Chowhound, John Mariani’s Virtual Gourmet Newsletter and dozens of others.

At the same time, powerful newspaper and magazine reviewers have hearkened to the siren song of electronic media by supplementing their printed output with informal blogs that provide them with a presence in the rapidly expanding global online village.

This media revolution has triggered a tectonic shift in how reviews influence the restaurant business, adding some surprising new dynamics to the segment’s love-hate relationship with critics. Whereas previously one or two influential individuals held undisputed sway over a city’s fine-dining scene, some observers now maintain that power today is being diluted.

“We just don’t see reviewers who have the kind of power Craig Claiborne or Mimi Sheraton [of The New York Times] had years ago,” says Danny Meyer, founder of the Union Square Hospitality Group in New York.

“Each incremental review seems to be less powerful to one’s business.”

In fact, several high-profile publications—including the New York Post—have gone so far as to pull the plug on traditional restaurant reviews. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that individual newspaper and magazine reviewers are an endangered species. Some observers maintain that while the Internet has altered the critical playing field, it still exerts only a modest level of influence on the business of individual restaurants.

John Mariani, food and travel columnist for Esquire magazine and the publisher of the electronic Virtual Gourmet Newsletter, is skeptical about the impact of food-and-restaurant-oriented websites and blogs on the average diner.

“I question whether most Internet sites will influence the person who is planning to spend $150 at Gordon Ramsay,” says Mariani, who has been publishing reviews online since the late 1980s, most recently in his Virtual Gourmet Newsletter. “There are so many blogs and websites out there, and they think they all will be taken very seriously. Some are very popular and some are very funny, but I’m not convinced they have all that much impact on a person going to a fine-dining restaurant.”

By comparison, he says, “when the Best New Restaurants of the year comes out in Esquire, it has considerable impact on those businesses.”

Tom Head, the former executive wine and food editor of Washingtonian magazine, acknowledges that while there are an increasing number of websites and blogs dedicated to dining out, their number is in no way reflective of their true power. “There are lots of websites and blogs and opinions on the Internet,” Head says. “And that’s created an illusion that everybody can be a restaurant critic. But I think in general people tend to be careful about what they read and trust.”

Business is born in the virtual world

What appears to be beyond debate, however, is that the transformation continues to be fueled by a more profound sea change in the way people receive their information. The day of relying exclusively on the printed page is waning, experts point out. Instead, a growing number of younger consumers are seeking information from online sources.

Even Time magazine acknowledged the trend when it named “You” as its 2006 Person of the Year, declaring: “You control the Information Age. Welcome to your world.”

More specifically, a study conducted by the National Restaurant Association found that some 46 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 34 used the Internet to find out about restaurants they had not patronized before. By comparison, 33 percent of adults aged 45 to 64 used the Internet for that reason.

The Zagat Survey, which in its formative years relied strictly on the sales of its little red guides, now has a large stake in a growing Internet presence. The company says subscription sales of $25 per person for its online service have tripled since 2001, and the New York-based firm expects to expand more rapidly on the Internet in the future.

This growing appetite for information also stems, in part, from the ongoing evolution of American dining habits. Dining out has become more a part of the American lifestyle, says Tim Zagat, co-founder of the Zagat Surveys, noting that 65 percent of American women work today compared with 40 percent in 1979.

“There’s been a revolution in food and restaurants [in the United States] over the past 30 years,” he says. “When we first started surveying restaurants in 1979, we had trouble coming up with more than 100 in New York. This year we covered 2,000 restaurants in the New York guide and had to pare that down from 2,500.”

Altogether, the Zagat Survey covers the restaurant scenes in more than 85 cities through its guides and its online service.

“There has been a growing interest in food that is fundamental to the way we live,” Zagat says.

As a result, Americans themselves have become more restaurant-savvy and less inclined to invest all of their dining-decision capital in the conclusions of one or two gastronomic gurus. “Food is one of the most important topics today,” says Clark Wolf, a New York and Sonoma, Calif.-based food and restaurant consultant. “Americans are beginning to address it and are not so freaked out by it. They like to hear opinions and then make up their own minds. And it didn’t use to be like that.”

Restaurateurs themselves turn to the Internet to find out what’s new in the industry. Jasper Mirabile Jr., co-owner of Jasper’s in Kansas City, Mo., says he spends several hours a day surfing the web. “I read Chowhound; I read eGullet,” he says. “You can find out what your colleagues are doing around the country. You can even see photographs of the dishes they’re serving.”

Print still packs a punch

But while many believe the Internet is the Holy Grail of future restaurant criticism, there are those who remain bullish on the power of the printed page. The iconic French Michelin restaurant guides, for instance, made a much-anticipated beachhead in New York in 2005 and then extended their reach into San Francisco last year.

Published reports placed the guide’s first year sales in New York at a healthy 150,000 copies. By comparison, the hometown New York Zagat survey goes through six or seven printings and sells some 650,000 editions.

Reviews of the inaugural Michelin guides themselves were mixed. While some applauded the inclusion of brief descriptive sections about each restaurant, others dismissed the guides as being out of touch with American dining styles. “[Michelin] means nothing here,” Wolf says. “They’re judging by a criteria that’s barely even relevant back in France. To get three stars requires a complexity that results in a cost that is untenable and a dining experience that is excessive to modern life. Nobody needs a five-hour meal.”

The San Francisco Chronicle also held the guidebook publisher’s feet to the fire for containing several high-profile errors, including misidentified individuals, culinary styles and menu items in that city’s edition. Commenting on the errors, Michelin director Jean-Luc Naret contritely told the paper: “We regret them, and we will correct them. It’s our first guide to San Francisco.”

Which is not to say that mistakes aren’t made pretty frequently online as well. “Anybody can be a restaurant critic today—fortunately or unfortunately,” Mirabile says, while Wolf declares, “Bloggers need editors.”

Fagnano recalls how an online critique “blistered us” three nights after the Larchmont Grill opened. “The woman wrote a long review of things she ate and things she didn’t eat,” he says.

In particular, the anonymous reviewer found fault with the fact that an appetizer and an entrée included both sherry and honey in their menu descriptions and leaped to the conclusion that the kitchen was running out of ideas. What she didn’t realize was that in one case the honey and sherry were just two of the ingredients used in a marinade and in the other they were used as a glaze.

“Of course, she admitted not having eaten either of those items,” Fagnano says. “If she had, she would have found that they were very dissimilar.”

Accuracy, in fact, emerges as a major complaint about both established print reviewers and their often-amateur colleagues online.

“The reviewer is usually judged on experience, accuracy and track record, and they’re relevant when they get things right and irrelevant when they don’t,” says Drew Nieporent of New York-based Myriad Restaurant Group.

One of the differences between professional and amateur online reviewers is that most professional critics pay more than one visit to a restaurant before reviewing it. Tucker Shaw, the dining critic for The Denver Post, says he visits a restaurant three times before he reviews it—a number many reviewers seem to agree upon.

On the other hand, he adds, “If I think I’m going to write a negative review, I probably visit it more.”

“I’d be lying if I said my job didn’t make me lose sleep some nights,” Shaw wrote in a column. “I toss and turn because I know it’s not just a restaurant I’ve written about. It’s blood and sweat and livelihoods.”

By comparison, nonprofessionals tend to critique a restaurant online after perhaps only one visit.

“Obviously, it lends more balance to a review if a person comes in three different times with four other people,” Fagnano says. “They can get a better feel for the restaurant. On the other hand, I can also understand the point of coming in just once. The average guy will only come in once and form an opinion based on that. Most people won’t come back if they’re not pleased.

“You just have to be as good as you can to every person who walks in the door.”

Learning from constructive criticism

While a single review no longer dictates whether a restaurant will live or die, most have at least some impact—particularly where a new restaurant is concerned. Nieporent equates the process of opening a restaurant to “running the gauntlet.”

“The guy from The New York Times gives you three stars; New York magazine says you’re not that good. Consumers have to wade through what’s been written about you,” he says.

Meyer says that when he opened Union Square Cafe in 1986, a two-star review in The New York Times improved his business by 60 percent. “But that never happened again, and a bad review has never had that kind of impact on any of our restaurants,” he says.

Everyone’s a critic

Once the domain of an elite few, the reviewing of restaurants has been taken up by a community of bloggers and patrons who post their experiences online, challenging fine-dining operators to impress a fickle crowd of faceless judges

A restaurant’s traffic figures are not the sole beneficiary or casualty of a review, either. “There are two outcomes of a review,” Meyer explains. “What kind of impact does it have on the team’s morale, and what kind of impact does it have on the restaurant’s business outlook. Morale is the most tangible and most immediate aspect that you can gauge.

“Most reviews don’t really move the needle dramatically in terms of business unless it’s your first time, and then you can go from 0 to 60 overnight,” he continues. “But you definitely can feel the impact on morale almost instantaneously. And that’s important. When a staff feels confident and happy, it’s a lot easier to put out great food and hospitality than when a staff is down in the dumps.”

An excellent review, Meyer continues, also makes a restaurant more attractive to somebody looking to build his career. “Conversely, a less favorable review can not only dry up the pond when it comes to catching new fish,” he says, “it can also encourage some people on your team to jump ship when they see their resume is not well-served by staying.”

In any case, experts maintain, a restaurateur always should weigh what is said in a review and determine what is useful and what is not. “A restaurateur should utilize it to have an internal conversation with the staff, and discuss both the positives and negatives,” Wolf says. “But it should only be taken seriously to a certain point.”

Meyer agrees. “There’s an art to knowing which criticism to tune in and which not to,” he says. “If I receive every signal out there, it eventually becomes static. It starts by knowing what your own ideals are and being open and approaching each day as if it’s yet another day to make improvements.”

Making a good impression

So what is it that reviewers say they are looking for when they visit a restaurant? Mariani insists food is of prime importance. “If the food isn’t good it’s not a good restaurant,” he says.

Reviewers are not necessarily looking to be “dazzled” by the food either. “I think after eating in restaurants every night I’ve become harder to dazzle,” Head points out. “I’ve come to value food that is simply and honestly prepared.”

Head also says he looks for a restaurant in which people are treated respectfully and greeted warmly. “I’m baffled that more restaurant owners don’t pay attention to that,” he says. “They’ll put some oblivious young person at the front desk who doesn’t know the restaurant’s regulars or even care about them. That’s such a mistake.”

Mariani says he also judges a restaurant’s overall noise level. “These days I bring a decibel reader in with me when I go to a restaurant,” he explains. “A good restaurant should be about 65, but I’ve been in restaurants that register 85—a point at which you can sustain hearing damage.”

He also is vocal about absentee chefs, he says. “I try to praise a chef who stays put as much as possible and does not promote himself as the guy doing the cooking, but who actually hasn’t set foot in the restaurant for two years,” he says.

Shaw says that beyond assessing a restaurant’s food, service and decor, he attempts to gauge whether the vision of a restaurant is clear. “You have to ask whether the restaurant has a lucid vision,” he says. “Is the restaurateur pulling it off with success? You almost have to be able to get into the mind of the restaurateur.”

Most professional critics attempt to review a restaurant anonymously, although it’s not unlikely that members of a restaurant’s staff will recognize a reviewer who has been working in one area for a while. Some restaurateurs will even post a reviewer’s picture on the wall.

“When a critic has had his or her job for at least two years, a lot of servers and maîtres d’s know how to recognize them,” Meyer says. “I suppose by recognizing them, you can make a difference, but it may not be a star’s-worth of difference. Maybe you can make a difference between an enthusiastic three-star review and a less enthusiastic one.”

Nieporent maintains, however, that a restaurateur should be aware of a reviewer’s modus operandi. “For instance, if I knew that Mimi Sheraton were reviewing my restaurant, I might want to leave shrimp off the menu,” he says, “because every time she tries shrimp, she writes that they have iodine in them. You don’t want to do the things a reviewer dislikes; you do the things she likes.”

On the other hand, recognizing a critic is not a science. “It’s amazing to me how seldom I was recognized,” Head says. “I could go in on three successive nights and order everything, and nobody seemed to get the idea.”

Mariani says he has been recognized occasionally, which, in some cases, has resulted in the kitchen sending out eight or nine extra courses. “Something like that can rattle you,” he says. “I know they want to show their best, but we just can’t eat eight or nine courses every night.”

Even more occasionally, reviewers can find themselves on the receiving end of either an attempted bribe or a lawsuit. Head says he has been threatened with lawsuits a few times. “Once an owner tried to sue me, saying a chicken dish I had criticized was not even on the menu,” he explains. “What I guess he didn’t know was that his chef had sent me a letter previously saying he was sorry I didn’t like the chicken.”

In general, fine-dining restaurateurs acknowledge that being reviewed—whether in print or online—is simply a part of doing business and has its upside as well as its downside. The key, whenever possible, is to find a way to work with the media, which Meyer, in his recently published book, “Setting the Table,” likens metaphorically to a shark with a “voracious appetite” for dining out news and information.

“On our best days, the media can be extremely helpful to our business,” Meyer writes. “When we err, or are perceived to have fallen short of someone’s mark, or simply fall out of favor, negative press can set back our business.”

In the final reckoning, though, he admits that he has little choice but “to hop on the back of the shark and ride with exceptional care and skill, or I’m lunch.”

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