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What's your criteria in reviewing a restaurant?

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Cooking, and everything that goes along with being a 'foodie' - dining out, planning trips or vacations around the restaurants, pre-ordering cookbooks 9 months out, spending a lot of money on kitchen gadgets etc, DVRs full of cooking shows and Top Chef, has become such a passionate hobby for me.

I unfortunately live in Western Massachusetts,which isn't exactly a culinary hotbed. There are a few great places, sure, but it's chain restaurant heavy and most of the local places do the same uninspired dishes like baked stuff scrod and chicken marsala. I went into a Vietnamese restaurant and asked for a banh mi and the server never heard of one before; the Lebonese place is always advertising specials for NY Strip; a Greek place in CT made me a gyro with store bought tzaziki. The great restaurants, I feel, are big fish in a small pond and while good I'm not sure where they'd stack up in a bigger city.

I like reviewing restaurants but my friends and family are constantly telling me I'm way too critical, that the area I live in isn't a New York or San Francisco. I guess I view things on one scale - while I have never been to a Thomas Keller restaurant, lets just pretend for conversations sake it's a 5 star dining experience like everyone says. Well how would you rate my local restaurant that uses all Sysco foodservice products and hasn't changed it's menu in forever? I don't know if it's fair to use for comparison sake but look at movie reviews. There's a very easy ratings scale so while Dumb and Dumber is still one of my favorite movies, it's only getting a one star review from critics.

I understand food is subjective and I don't look down at people who eat at Applebees or the local family owned place that hasn't changed the menu in 20 years. You like what you like, and sometimes for a lot of people, including my family growing up, even going to a chain is a big deal in terms of fast casual convenience and price.

I was inspired to write this post after reviewing a new donut shop in the area. I haven't necessarily sought to snuff out the best donuts in the country but have happened to have visited The Doughnut Plant in NYC, Dough in Brooklyn, Top Pot in Seattle, Voodoo in Portland. I feel like I've had a decent donut. They have different flavored glazed donuts here and none of three we tried delivered on the flavors promised and the donuts themselves, in terms of shape, size, and 'mouthfeel' were very similar to Dunkin Donuts. The apple fritter had crunch but no fluffy, pillowy middle. Now how do you review this place? Where I live, most people wouldn't care about anything I'm saying. And is there such thing as a bad donut? They weren't inedible. But I've tasted some of the best donuts in the country and these pale in comparison. There's a part of me that feels awful writing something bad about a place that seems so popular.

I also had a recent dining experience at Talde in Brooklyn that let me down, but after rethinking things, while the food wasn't necessarily bad, I felt the flavors were very average for a guy on Top Chef. Is that unfair to say?

What's fair grounds for criticism in your reviews?

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  1. I always base my "critique" on the restaurant category; always compare oranges to oranges

    (for example) A good chain-restaurant gyro might get the same grade as a lobster mille-feuille at a high-end restaurant.

    Always be fair and consistent.

    In the case of the apple fritter, you could simply write something:

    "The apple fritter was good, nice crunch and flavor, but I like them more fluffy"

    People who follow you and read your critiques will learn to know your own taste and they will know that if you like something (or not) that they might either like or dislike it.

    Max.

    3 Replies
    1. re: Maximilien

      You're a glass half-full guy, Max! Seriously though, I think it is important for me to remember to be positive, especially in my area of the world that's not known as a foodie paradise and gently critique where it's fair to.

      1. re: vchase

        If there are only mediocre/chain restaurants in your area, why write about them ?

        I go to a lot of restaurants that are mediocre (for various reasons) and do not feel the urge to write about them.

        They do not want to achieve any sort of foodie status, and are just happy to have a regular clientele.

      2. re: Maximilien

        Restaurants, in the words of a former restaurant critic (paid, newspaper), set their standards by the way they price themselves. If you're the most expensive restaurant in town you ought to be the best. But while I can enjoy a good gyro as much as that lobster pastry, there's a lot more work involved in one than in the other unless they're making their own pita and gyro log. This is a really complicated subject.

        Bad food is not the server's fault. Neither are dirty toilets. But readers - I assume you are writing these to be read, right? - need to know that one particular server or the lot of them have Attitude and/or that the restrooms were atrocious. For folks like us, food is probably the leading thing. But I know folks for whom a great server will make cottage cheese and pineapple taste like ambrosia. And I know even more folks who wouldn't even enter a spot that they understood to be less than immaculate.

        And that's not even going into the subject of noise, which these days probably oughta be a consideration like decor and service.

      3. As an FYI the "Sysco foodservice" thing is no longer accurate because Sysco provides product at all levels of dining including fresh and organic produce. They gotta keep up with the times.

        2 Replies
        1. re: ferret

          Thanks for this, and this brings up another question for me: is there 'bonus points' for restaurants who buy locally? Should there be more credit given to a chef who hand-picks all his produce, rather than a Sysco driver dropping off a delivery?

          1. re: ferret

            Sysco still also sells their mass-market, frozen, processed crap as well. Of course, if one were to watch cooking "reality shows", one may fall for their new marketing.

          2. I write about the meal I've eaten. And its inherently subjective. I like my food how I like my food and if it doesnt hit that mark, then I'm likely to be critical. As in this most recent review of last night's dinner:
            http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/897596

            Make of it what you will

            1. Hmm. Good question.
              I'd say content, first of all. Is the eggplant parm good eggplant parm? How's the eggplant? The sauce? The cheese?

              Then style. Do they fry basil leaves and capers and sprinkle a few on top? Or is it glopped on my plate?

              Then execution. Is the service good? Is the price a fair value for the what they invested in the content, construction and presentation of the meal?

              I'd say those are my basics.

              BTW...Western Mass isn't Manhattan but it isn't an abyss either. I don't know where you're located (how westerly you are) but there's some cool stuff in Pittsfield, etc.

              1. Well, I ain't a "foodie", I'm a 'hound, possibly even a food dork, but certainly not a "foodie". I think writing reviews, for most folks, is a rather pretentious endeavor. Nonetheless, if I wanna help other 'hounds out with my reflections on a place at which I have dined, I have three fundamental rules.

                First, to paraphrase Ol' Bill Clinton, "It's the food, Stupid". I don't give a sh*t about the decor or how dirty the bathroom is. Lemme have a chance to just tell you about the chow.

                Second, and related to the first, I have on no more than two or three occasions had less than adequate service. Never let the bitterness of a poor server jade your palate.

                Third, if you gotta indulge your inner critic and offer something to the rest of us, do it in a way that is interesting to read. Make it a narrative. Proofread. Use dialogue. Be clever. And, by all means, never use "meh" to describe anything.

                4 Replies
                1. re: MGZ

                  I don't know - a dirty bathroom would give me pause on how the food is prepared. If they can't be bothered to ensure the bathroom is relatively tidy, what are they doing with my food?

                  As for decor, bright fluorescent lights at night aren't my thing, nor are lights so dim you need a flashlight or to put the menu practically at your nose to be able to see what is written. Noise level is also part of the surroundings, and if it's deafening in there and you can't hear your dining partner(s), that factors into what I might write about a restaurant. Ambiance is not why I'm there, but it is a factor.

                  1. re: LindaWhit

                    No sweat. We have different priorities.

                    1. re: LindaWhit

                      Also the bathrooms are used by the kitchen staff. If the people preparing your food have no hot water, or clean paper towels, or are tracking sewage into the kitchen.....I don't care how good the food tastes, I ain't eating there.

                      1. re: LindaWhit

                        LindaWhit, I completely agree with you regarding the bathrooms. Those are open to the customers and something they use and see. If a restaurant does not mind if their bathrooms are filthy and a customer can see that, I seriously wonder what the kitchen or walk-ins are like since the customer cannot see those places within the restaurant.

                    2. I write a fair number of reviews for Yelp, which serves my local market (Northern Indiana; or other smaller cities), and occasionally some reviews on the Chowhound regional boards. (I find that Chowhound discussions are basically metropolitan rather than small market.)

                      My main interest as a reviewer is helping people in the way that I have valued being helped beforehand by others. Reviews aren't ego. They're paying it forward. What's a place like? How good for its kind? How consistent? Standout items or misfirings? Anything one MUST try?

                      Recently on Yelp I gave 5 (full) stars to a kitchen tucked into a local Mexican grocer, because they did everything there as well as I could hope they would. Fabulous Menudo--great tacos (served mild but hot sauces available to taste). In fact, they also cost a BIT more than most super-cheap taquerias around here. But still, firing on all cylinders, and at a good price.

                      I'd certainly hold a cloth napkin, fine-dining place to a higher level of finish and creativity, so I have in fact given such places only 4 stars for being slightly ragged on details (crema-less espresso; merely good vegetable side).

                      1. When I review food, I tend to provide context. In other words, how good the food is, but also how it matches up to what you would expect from that type of restaurant. If a restaurant is expensive or really hyped, I have different expectations for quality than a cheap place, or chain place.

                        So to summarize three Mexican restaurants I might say "Decent, inexpensive food, nothing wildly original, good service, limited vegetarian options" or "hole-in-the-wall with excellent street-food style tacos and home-made chips and salsa, tends to be crowded, not fancy, but great food and good value." or "High end restaurant 'inspired by' Mexican street food - tasty but pretty pricey for what you get. Quiet, good service, good for a romantic dinner."

                        I give reviews mainly for information. So I'll summarize what kind of restaurant it is, and within that, evaluate my experience with the quality of the food, price, environment, selection, service, presence of and English menu and so on.

                        I tend to be descriptive rather than giving star ratings, because I know that the things I like or dislike about a restaurant someone else may take in a totally different way - I've had people rave about restaurants that I thought were mediocre, bland and overpriced, and I love places that I realize might not be other people's idea of a good meal.

                        For me, the food is most important, but the other stuff does matter. I've given up on places where I liked the food because the service was bad, or it was too noisy to enjoy a dinner.

                        1. Having moved from a large city to a small city (or in my opinion, a moderately sized town), I've struggled with this as well. In the end, I've had to determine what the point of my review was and who it was targeted towards. If the point is to assess the food to the best of your ability and your audience is meant to be national or international, then you should do that, even if it means being very critical of a dish compared to other locations throughout the world where you've encountered better execution.

                          However, if your reviews are meant for other people living in your area and to encourage them to try certain dishes or restaurants, you may want to take a less critical approach, especially if there is a restaurant doing something well. When more people support talent, others begin to see their talents as a viable industry and may be more interested in entering the market. In other words, if you praise a local place for doing something well and that inspires others to patronize this establishment, that may eventually encourage other people to start their own restaurants offering high quality food, as there seems to be a market for it. It's a long process, but it can happen. If that's your goal, there's no need to mention that the doughnuts aren't as good as they were at Voodoo in Seattle.
                          That's my two cents.

                          1. http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/896922

                            But that is just one way...

                            1. Well..there are a few things--naturally, most importantly is the food--but it also goes a bit deeper. I am going to be a little less critical of food in a neighborhood place --the kind you go for a quick bite. I don't expect a place like that to be equal to haute cuisine in quality OR price..so there's a few factors in reviewing the food. I try to be as detailed as possible. Were the serving portions large? Small? Quality ingredients? How was it served? Pricing?
                              Service is also important as well. I always review that. Also..ambience and wait times...

                              1. I think that many responders have covered most bases.

                                I try to focus first on the food. However, I then try to provide informative comments on all aspects of the whole dining experience.

                                We do spend more time in "fine-dining" restaurants, so most of my reviews are along those lines. Still, there ARE "neighborhood restaurants," that we do patronize, and which I will review.

                                I want to try to convey an accurate picture of my entire dining experience, so that others can glean something from the review. I am not big on trying to quantify my experience, but just wish to provide the details, and let others quantify from those.

                                They may not care about the architecture, the interior design, the spacing of the tables, the wine service, or wine selections, and only care about the food, regardless of other aspects. I only hope to provide details, that will help anyone, and everyone.

                                Some of my ultimate dining experiences HAVE come in Michelin-starred restaurants, BUT some have come from restaurants, where I would park down the street, and walk back, as I did not want others to recognize my car out front - the food was THAT good.

                                Still, I try to paint a picture, with all of the details, and let others make the decision for themselves.

                                Hunt

                                4 Replies
                                1. re: Bill Hunt

                                  >>>BUT some have come from restaurants, where I would park down the street, and walk back, as I did not want others to recognize my car out front <<<

                                  Unless you were patronizing an establishment owned, for example, by the mafia, why would you care if someone recognized your car outside of the restaurant?

                                  1. re: Fowler

                                    Well, there could be various reasons. One might be a Grade D Sanitation Rating, etc.

                                    Hunt

                                    1. re: Bill Hunt

                                      If the sanitation rating and food/service is good enough for you, why in the world would you care if someone recognized your car outside?

                                      1. re: Fowler

                                        Pour yourself a glass of wine, sit and contemplate. It will come to you.

                                        Hunt

                                2. Some of my favorite restaurant reviews I have read in the past on this site and in local papers include a specific review of some restaurant that was popular with a certain group of people the reviewer had an issue with.

                                  The review took aim at some point to the spacing of the tables. In an attempt to somehow bring attention to the table spacing, the reviewer said something along the lines of the fact that the tables were spaced so close together and that all through one dinner there the reviewer had to listen to the guy at the next table drone on and on to his girlfriend about the virtues of his wine all night long. (poor girl)

                                  And at another visit to the same place in the same review of the same restaurant the reviewer managed to sit at a table next to a couple discussing the fact that he hasn’t been able to “settle down” with someone and she suggested a certain girl, to which he says, “she seems nice and all, but there’s a lot of mileage on that pussy”.

                                  I don’t even remember if the review had mentioned the food. Or anything else for that matter.

                                  Chowhounds, Got Food?

                                  http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/896922

                                  4 Replies
                                  1. re: Gastronomos

                                    A place nearby has tables very close together - in some parts of the room, almost touching and only separted by a head height divider. I had the misfortune to sit next to one table where the guy was boring the arse off his companions about how he used MS Excel at work. In a clear, distinct and carrying voice. For the whole 90 minutes that we were eating. I wanted to kill him - Gawd knows how his companions felt.

                                    1. re: Harters

                                      Did you write a review of the restaurant at that time?
                                      Perhaps it was a business meeting?
                                      Obviously the tables were too close together and that ruined your meal.
                                      Have you returned to said nearby place?

                                      Just curious about the food . LOL

                                      http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/896922

                                      Ciao!

                                      1. re: Gastronomos

                                        I did do a review - although not on Chowhound. But, if the mods are in tolerent mood, I'll put in a link to the egullet thread. See post #161.

                                        http://forums.egullet.org/topic/68773... malmaison

                                        And, no, we've not been back.

                                        1. re: Harters

                                          Thank you. I find your review proper and on point. A true and informative restaurant review of a single visit. A pleasure to read.

                                          Peace

                                          http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/896922