Young and Hungry

When Should a Critic Just Trash a Place?

lamb chops

Not the lamb chops in question but a nice picture for you to enjoy.

My first bite of the crawfish beignets forced me to immediately take another. Not because the bite was so tasty but because it was so bland. I couldn't believe my palate. How could something so fried and golden be so flavorless? Best I could tell, the problems were many: a lack of seasoning, a gummy dough, barely a hint of the signature ingredient.

My meal didn't get much better from there. The miniature lamb chops were decently grilled but were almost without a grain of seasoning; even worse, they were paired with a spicy pesto that all but killed whatever charm the chops had to begin with. The baby back ribs certainly didn't taste like they were "grilled to perfection." They tasted like they were roasted to death, til all the meat just fell from the bone in loose, easy chunks. The tuna sashimi was drenched in soy, which at least provided some flavor, if way too much salt.

It was one of those meals that, as a critic, presents a dilemma: Do I trash the place and prevent you, the readers, from wasting your money or do I spare a small, independent restaurant from a vicious attack and let it die on its own (assuming it will)? I mean, it's not like this place is a new José Andrés venture that must be reviewed.

This isn't the first time I've been confronted with such a dilemma. It happened recently at a small Indian restaurant and at a tavern, both of which didn't seem strong enough to withstand an attack. I was explaining this problem to my colleague Ruth Samuelson, aka Housing Complex, and she made an excellent suggestion: Throw it out to the blogosphere.

OK, blogosphere: Where do you stand? Should the critic never hold back and just tear into a restaurant, regardless of the consequences? Or should there be times when restraint is in order? Should the critic, in other words, just let the restaurant die on its own failings, without an assist from the professional palate?

I want your honest opinion here, but I also don't want you to suggest that I tear into a restaurant out of pure Schadenfreude, just so you can watch a place writhe in pain. Your motivation must have a higher purpose.

Photo by via Flickr Creative Commons, Attribution License

  • Richard


    This is a real moral dilemma. Let me begin the discussion by suggesting that "it depends." If a celebrity or near celeb opens a restaurant, and it is really lousy, then critics should review it honestly. But if it is a mom-and-pop neighborhood place, it might be better to hold your fire. Word will get around by word of mouth,and the m&p will either try to improve or find another line of work.

  • Raisa

    I would leave it alone. It will fail on it's own. If you print the review they can throw the blame your way. What I would do is write the review and mail it to them and tell them you will be back...

  • RP

    I just had an experience exactly like this at another venue.
    I chose to email the owner(s) about the total disaster meal and service in succinct detail that evening, stated I did not wish to return, and requested how they would like to resolve the issues.

    The next morning, just before lunch service, I received a friendly and grateful email, stating their intent to immediately address and rectify the issues I presented and asking me to call as soon as convenient. I did within two hours and was thanked again, reviewed the problems, was offered a total refund of the tab and a complimentary dinner for my party in the near future.

    I couldn't ask for anything more. Though I offered to split the tab because I know it cost the restaurant money to serve even bad food and service he refused and credited the entire amount ($130). I also declined the complimentary meals, but he insisted.
    A stellar response in my estimation, and one that demonstrates true committment to professionalism.

    We will probably go back and give it another chance, though I will not tell them when I will return.

    Overall, I think this is a better approach than just panning the place....we see/experience things as diners that even the most caring owners don't. They deserve a chance to be told about and rectify problems.

  • Orr Shtuhl

    That's a real tough question, and one I've thought about when reviewing craft beer, too. The question "must it be reviewed?" is easier to answer for beer, though, because all of craft beer makes up just 4% of U.S. sales, while the other 96% is dominated by a few giant corporations.

    If I taste a craft beer that's bad and readers aren't asking about it, I'll keep quiet. My logic is that I have finite space in the paper each week to review beer, so I might as well use it to highlight something good. But again, craft beer is such a budding part of America's beer consumption that I don't have to strive for completism the way a restaurant critic might.

  • Don Rockwell


    I know exactly what restaurant you're talking about (it begins with an "S" (*)).

    This is a fine balancing act, and a very difficult line to walk. In the general case, you'll never regret waiting a few days (although some of the edge may come off of your post-meal fury).


    (*) And no, I'm not talking about Station 9, although I think you could probably look back at that review and let it guide you, one way or the other.

  • Melissa

    Food is an extension of identity. I'd focus criticism accordingly. Even if someone is a trainwreck, It's too harsh to tell someone they suck or they're an ass. The nice thing about blog piece of print media is, it could make reviews from critics much more fluid and updated if a place warrants it.

  • Maria

    Wow-- really, a moral dilemma.

    I must confess I am curious about the restaurant's identity, and yet I think a piece such as this one is the way to go. Surely if the food is as terrible as that (and now I reeeally want to try the bland beignet nastiness), the place cannot go on for much longer.

    Then again, taste is so very subjective.

  • Jenn

    Really? A restaurant can have an off night, but if it is bad multiple times, tell your readers. I think that people who value your opinion will value your whole opinion, and they deserve to hear the good as well as the bad.

  • RT

    It's a new restaurant that just opened on an up-and-coming street. I think it's best to leave it alone. I think their only chance is to turn it into more of a bar than a restaurant. Even if it was good, it'd be hard to have a higher-end restaurant up there during these trying times. Furthermore, the folks are investing in an area that had seen nothing but disinvestment for the better part of 50 years. They mean well and they're doing a service to the community. It doesn't mean I'll ever go there again except to drink, but I find it very difficult to make their "go" even tougher by panning it publicly.

    But to play devil's advocate, some places can really turn it around after some true criticism. Let's hope places like Redwood and Blue Ridge are examples of this.

  • p

    Maybe you give a small place the benefit of one more visit to be sure... but if it really is bad, Tim, I'm counting on you to tell me! I don't have a huge restaurant budget, and I count on critics like you to make sure that I don't waste my money on lousy food.

  • xcanuck

    I would temper my decision based on the machinery behind the restaurant. Some places have so much money and media manipulation behind them that they achieve an overblown status within minutes of opening (think Bebo). Other places open with nary a sound and struggle to survive.

    In the case of the former, I say let 'em have it. I'm assuming you've done your due diligence and found a profoundly strong negative pattern after several visits. These places tend to suck in patrons based on the media they can generate through their star power, money, connections, etc. It's up to you to do your best to counteract that.

    In the case of the latter, temper your criticism with the knowledge that they've come up against plenty just to open. They didn't have a crowd beating a path to the door on opening day. If they truly suck, they'll die a painful death without your criticism. Why exacerbate the situation? Instead, send them an letter saying this is the review you COULD have posted but decided not to. Give them a chance to correct their mistakes.

    By the way, I'd love to know which tavern you're talking about. Send me an email. I have a feeling it's the same one that I was so excited about when it first opened, and I can barely bring myself to visit now.

  • Camrillo Brillo

    You could objectively tell them that they spelled “Giardiniere” wrong and are missing half of the appropriate punctuation on their menu, which reads like it was written with food themed fridge magnets.

  • http://TheAlexandriaDailyPoop F. Allen Norman Jr.

    Come on Timmy. YOU know damn well when to just trash a place. WHEN THE PLACE JUST PLAIN FUCKING DESERVES IT!! There are Vietnamese "Pho" joints that serve dishwater. There are places that serve good-looking but tasteless food and places that advertise say "lucsious crab meat enrobed in a saffron/garlic sauce over a" yummy whatever that turns out to be a few shreds of crab in Knox Gelatin set on wonder Bread toast points and drowned in Kraft Mayo with Old Bay stirred in.
    Lousy food + rude/uncaring/idiot servers etc. = TRASH IT TO HELL!!

  • Johnny Stompanato

    Normally, I trash a place if my weekly protection money has not been paid by the following week. I don't care if the owner lets me bang the hostess in the store room or gives me Giants tickets on the 50-yard line or nothin.' No vig? You're gonna catch a beat. Otherwise, the word gets around and you just get left out on the curb with your dick in your hands, if you know what I mean.

  • whinemedineme

    WHAT if had been the new jose andres place?

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  • Simon

    Print the review; it'll get automatically linked to Urbanspoon; you'll save countless hundreds from wasting money on a bad meal.

  • Sara

    To me, it really makes a big difference how HONEST and good-willed the place is. The places I frankly loathe are those where the food is not exactly bad, but rather mediocre and overpriced. I find it to be a precise philosophy when taste comes last in the scale of priorities: Milan has a few "it" restaurants which are -supposedly - THE places to be, and they're always full. This I find utterly depressing, and I like to read negative reviews focusing on the poor quality of the food served there. I truly think this is a service done to the community. On the contrary, I feel miserable when I read very negative reviews of tiny places nobody even knows.

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  • Missy

    I'd say review it, particularly if there's been more than one visit. You can judge how much snark is warranted, etc., but ignoring it doesn't feel right to me.

    Not sure how interesting a comparison it is, but how often do you think theatre critics decide not to review a bad show from a small company once they've seen it? If they're charging money and they are a professional endeavor, (fair) criticism is a consequence of being in the business, word of mouth or print.

    They'll end up getting plenty of anonymous feedback on the Internet, too. At least you're putting your name and reputation behind it.

  • Former Staffer

    If you're not giving us your honest opinion, you're not doing your job.

    If it has to be trashed it has to be trashed. Hold back, and you only hurt your own reputation.

  • Mike

    If you were a random food blogger, I'd say hold back...any restaurant can have an off night. But you're in a different position as a professional reviewer; you can give a place several chances before forming a final opinion.

    Even so, I think a case can be made for discretion on things like this.

    You've got a finite amount of time and energy to devote to writing reviews. I would ask yourself if the meal was bad enough and the establishment likely to be well-attended enough to deserve some of that fixed bandwidth. If it was, go ahead. If not, why bother?

    Or - to put it another way - ask yourself what other restaurants you AREN'T taking the time to write about because you ARE writing about this one.

    Which one do you think serves a greater purpose to the greatest number of readers?

  • B

    CP is widely read and could potentially impact the survival of such a non-descript startup, but other online sources (Yelp in particular) offer few if any filters. You would be better off not reviewing such a place at all rather than panning it, because panning it will likely just be a matter of piling on, and giving it a charitably passable review will not only be dishonest, but easily contradicted by reality.

    On a related note, if you intend to review it, it should only be after several visits. It's unfair to rip or reward a place based on a single meal. As an individual reviewer, you're never going to get real sample size (although Yelp sometimes does), but at least you can present a clear picture.

  • discojing

    If the food was poor (objectively), then publish the review--not only for the readers, but for the restaurant as well. If they're a good restaurant, they already know that food is cooked poorly and it was either an off-night or they are remedying the situation. They should take this opportunity as constructive criticism (since you have facts to back up anything that could be seen as accusations).

    If the food is really good, or your lackluster experience was because of an off-night or personal tastes, then the restaurant will continue to foster.

    Did you talk to your waiter or the managers/owners about your experience? If so, were they apologetic and took responsibility, or no. That could also be a clue as to whether or not to publish this.

  • OTBerbur

    If a neighborhood place is merely mediocre, keep your silence. If it it serves awful food (such as what you seem to describe), I would advocate a footer to your longer features in the nature of "Visited and Dismissed." This would be a two sentence blurb indicating you reviewed a place and the food was substandard, giving a brief description without going into the gory details. That was you inform readers and save your invective for a more deserving recipient.

  • DCBrit

    You're a food critic. This is what you are paid to do.

    You've posted this story as it is obviously bothering you, you should pay another visit. Perhaps this was a one off, perhaps not. If it is you will soon find out if not then it needs to be reviewed with honesty. Obviously the restaurant didn't asked to be reviewed by you, but the moment it opens its doors it does so to the food world and its criticism.

    This poses a couple of dilemma's for you- one, you believe that your review would have a significant impact to their business, and two, you're content in negatively reviewing a more established chef when warranted. Something to think about.

  • Former Staffer

    Going and not reviewing because it was bad does a disservice to your readers. Who wants to read all glowing reviews everytime? If I wanted that I'd still be watching Diners, Drive -ins and Dives. Does Guy Fieri ever eat anything he doesn't like? For instance, when he was in Pittsburgh eating Italian and the mother poured in vegetable oil, after cooking...for "texture". That had to be the grossest thing I've ever seen and Guy was like "yum"! Done. Over. That had no place on television, much less him complimenting it.

    If you don't like it, say so. Because at this point, if I don't see the review panning the place my level of respect for you will diminish.

  • Mike

    Former Staffer - Do you honestly believe that Carman writes about EVERY place he eats?

    If you're a normal person, you're eating at least 15 meals a week. If you're a food writer like Tim, most of those represent potential reviews.

    If this was the most noteworthy dining experience of the entire week, then by all means write about it. But I'm guessing there are at least two or three other places vying for Tim's attention this week.

    I'd be curious to hear from Tim how many restaurants he visits and then doesn't write anything at all about...that would definitely impact where I stand on whether it's worth trashing this place or not.

  • KMango

    "...Your motivation must have a higher purpose."

    Which is actually your answer. Once you have clarified your purpose in why you write reviews, you'll know whether or not to post one for this latest experience.

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  • Scott


    As a small business owner in a trying world, I can tell you that critique is always a welcome tool for improvement. As others have mentioned, every restaurant has an off serving or bad night, for that matter. Providing a unique dining experience and providing joy in a world where everyone wants to do be a food critic is certainly a challenging and humbling undertaking. I would look to you as a professional, setting an example to the many self proclaimed critics. Maybe this example is to avoid being a "trasher" as opposed to a "critic". I would like to welcome you to join me for a drink or a meal, another try, and maybe we can discuss the dilemma further. Please feel free to email me!

    Scott from Social

  • Scott

    P.S. Thank you for doing what you do. It is important to the restaurant industry!

  • Tim Carman

    Scott, thanks for writing in and for your professional remarks. I'll be by for another visit, but I hope when you're not expecting it!


  • Scott

    Good to hear Tim! We look forward to hosting you again as well as your readers! Have a bountiful holiday!


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