Critical Distance: The New Rules For Restaurant Reviews—There Are No Rules
I was trying to get to the restroom during my most recent visit to Graffiato, Mike Isabella’s new neo-Italian starfucker clubhouse, when a photo-op blocked my way. Isabella and fellow Top Chef alums Carla Hall and Antonia Lofaso were huddled for a snapshot.
As it happens, you see a lot of these snapshot sessions at Graffiato. Give it five minutes, and Spike Mendelsohn will probably show up. Oh, wait: Here he is, trademark fedora, facial scruff and everything. Spike, over here!
No wonder Graffiato has gotten so much attention during the brief period since its June 23 grand opening.
By earlier this week, there were 100 reviews of the place on Yelp (“I’ll start by saying that the staff here is hot!” one excited reviewer exclaims). Local food blogs were all over the place: “After just one dinner, I can confidently say that Graffiato has not only lived up to all the hype, but has exceeded my expectations,” declared Dining in DC. “I haven’t spoken to a single person who wasn’t wowed by the food, and my two experiences have proven that this place is here to stay,” added Eat More, Drink More.
But here’s one person who hadn’t reviewed it: Me.
I’m not alone. The place went unreviewed by fellow Washington professional food critics like Tom Sietsema of The Washington Post and Todd Kliman of Washingtonian.
This isn’t to say I haven’t sampled Isabella’s signature chicken thighs with pepperoni sauce (delicious) or his “Jersey Shore” pizza (a decent use for soggy fried calamari) or found myself underwhelmed by the hugely hyped house prosecco on tap (it literally falls flat, and even a bartender told me that “you can do better”).
So why not write at length about it? Convention. In fact, I shouldn’t even have been there on the night of Isabella’s restroom-blocking photo-op, which took place less than a month after the celebrated grand opening, which was actually my third visit in three weeks.
Under the traditional standards of restaurant criticism, I should have waited another week or so before even darkening Isabella’s doorway for the first time.
According to the official critics’ guidelines espoused by the esteemed Association of Food Journalists, “reviewers should wait at least one month after the restaurant starts serving before visiting. These few weeks give the fledgling enterprise some time to get organized.”
In the abstract, the rule seems fair. Restaurants are not films, after all; there is no post-production period to iron out the kinks before unveiling the finished product to the public. With food service, adjustments generally take place on the fly in real time. Critics ought to wait long enough to let the joint get settled before telling the world whether it’s worth the trip.
And, back when big-city restaurant critics strode the earth with a bag of lightning bolts—in that long lost era when print publications ruled and ordinary schnooks had no way of sharing their enthusiasm for sweet corn agnolotti (“best thing I ever ate,” declares one of Graffiato’s Yelp admirers)—wait they did.
After twirling their forks elsewhere for the first month and then finally dropping in for a bite after the 30-day grace period is up, proper critics would then need to come back at least two or three more times, spaced out over several weeks, to round out the observations. After a couple of months, they’d get around to rendering a verdict.
According to executive director Carol DeMasters, the AFJ’s guidelines haven’t changed since they were first written about 10 years ago, before the rise of TV chefs, social media, or food blogs.
The guidelines, it seems, are about the only aspect of food media that hasn’t changed. These days, a new restaurant is able to access vast new media resources in order to pump up its reputation from day one—or even before it. The Web lets foodies learn about new restaurants before a lease is even signed. Blogs offer sneak-peak photos of the décor as soon as the dust settles, posting the full menu the moment it becomes available. Many places are packed on opening night; long gone are the days when a restaurant didn’t see a packed house until a newspaper chimed in.
The restaurant industry’s PR people have taken advantage of the change. Which makes me wonder whether the pros ought to change their rules, too. Given that many professional food critics used to see themselves as the paid protectors of said diners—zealously guarding their culinary dollar against mediocre food and subpar service—are those who still follow the traditional timetable essentially fighting with one fork tied behind their backs?
DeMasters says her organization is pondering that same question. “This will be a topic at the Association of Food Journalists annual conference in Charleston in October,” she says.
In the meantime, D.C.’s highest-profile critic says he values the old standards. For the past 11 years, Sietsema says, he’s largely stuck to the rules, at least when writing the coveted starred reviews for the Post magazine: One month before visiting, then return three or four times. “None of those ‘rules’ has changed and I hope they never do,” he says via email.
Sietsema’s paper has, however, created a loophole: “First Bite,” published separately in the Food section. Not a review in the traditional sense, the preview-ish column provides the critic’s early take on a place and its food—while feeding the public’s vastly increased appetite for scoops on the new spots in town.
“First Bite is our way of saying, ‘Here’s something new, something you might be interested in, something to tide you over until a formal critique comes out,’” Sietsema says. “Our snapshot is typically based on one but sometimes more visits. I feel free to visit new establishments as soon as their doors open to paying guests, although I’m not big on going the first night, when the paint is still drying. Generally, I wait one or two weeks to drop by a maiden restaurant, in part because a lot of tweaking goes on in a restaurant’s first few days and I’d rather report on details that have survived that tinkering.”
The conflict arises if and when the critic comes back to write a more formal review. It’s not easy to just erase the memory of that early visit in the name of ethics.
“For the most part, I try to start fresh with a restaurant that I’ve previewed, although there are exceptions,” Sietsema says. “For instance, I might include a dish in a magazine review that I ate during a First Bite visit but didn’t highlight in the column.”
Kliman, a Young & Hungry alum, is more agnostic. For most of his career, the Washingtonian critic has clung to an initial three-week waiting period. But in some recent high-profile cases he’s made an exception. On at least one of the times when he’s gone in early, he’s caught flak—including from restaurants, the same businesses that stoke early hype from informal critics.
Back in May, Kliman wrote a takedown of D.C. chef R.J. Cooper’s 24-course preview of the forthcoming restaurant Rogue 24. The concept was not your standard subject: this was essentially a temporary pop-up restaurant, with a lifespan less than three weeks, albeit one with a more permanent setting several months down the road. Still, the critic was himself the subject of some criticism, much of it from the chef, for not adhering to the conventional rules of wait before you write. On another occasion, Kliman reviewed opening night at Alain Ducasse’s Adour via a series of posts on Twitter.
Kliman says the timing was fair in both cases. The big-name hugely hyped venues these days simply open themselves up to early criticism by ginning up so much online hype. Kliman also sometimes comments at length on first-meal experiences as part of his weekly Web chat, including an initial positive take on Graffiato, which was not meant to be taken as a definitive or comprehensive review. In that particular case, he probably wishes he’d waited. A subsequent meal at Isabella’s place was not as good, Kliman later revealed on Twitter.
Kliman endorses no set rule, per se, other than the usual journalistic tenets of “being fair, doing a thorough job of reporting, trying to do the right thing by your reader and trying to produce a good piece of writing,” he says.
For rookies to the restaurant-reviewing game, the rules are even less apparent. “I think a hard-fast rule is dumb,” says Scott Reitz, a former Young & Hungry contributor recently hired as the critic at the Dallas Observer. Reitz took the job with the notion of sticking with a more traditional six-week gap between a restaurant’s opening and publishing a review. Then he asked his superiors. “It’s totally my call,” he reports.
Reitz, like Kliman, says he’ll evaluate on a case-by-case basis.
“I think you can ‘feel’ when a place has settled in. Sometimes it’s a few weeks, sometimes it’s a few months,” he says. “Hammering a place that still in that early phase, with a full-on formal review, is kind of a dick move.”
Which is why I’m reserving judgment on Graffiato’s tiny-sized full-priced cocktails. For now.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
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