When is a restaurant ready to be reviewed? How long should a critic wait before visiting a new restaurant? That’s the issue in this Slate article titled “Critics Need to Stop Coddling Restaurants.” (So you can probably guess the stance of the writer.)
When I began my career as a professional critic, my mantra was, “If the restaurant is open and charging full price, it’s ready to be reviewed.” I likened it to a Broadway play that would go through a period of previews, usually at reduced prices. Famously, plays were reviewed on opening night with the article appearing in the next morning’s paper. (Though for a very long time now the actual performance that critics are invited to is a few days before that; gone are the days of the critic dashing back to the typewriter to file a story in time for the morning edition.)
Although I operated on that theory, I rarely visited on the first day or even the first week. But many of my fellow restaurant critics in the Association of Food Journalists disagreed with my view, and when they drew up guidelines for restaurant reviewing standards, it was suggested that a minimum of four weeks should pass after the restaurant opened its doors before it should be visited for review.
I accepted my colleague’s reasoning and followed that guideline for most of the rest of my tenure with the newspaper.
But times have changed. Even in the theatrical world. Reduced pricing for previews is laughingly quaint. And theatrical critics have caught on to the ploy by producers of extending preview periods to avoid what they know will surely be a negative notice. Think “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” the Broadway musical that had a record-breaking preview run of 182 performances — nearly seven months — before its official opening night. As it dragged on, the New York critics, one by one, broke with tradition and bought the full-priced tickets to a preview performance to write a review. (All also wrote a review of the revised show that opened after the preview half year.)
Things have changed in the restaurant reviewing game, too. While I was at the Sentinel, I enjoyed the bully pulpit of only a few critics covering restaurants. And for most of that time the reviews came with the rest of the news, at the snail’s pace of print. Now there are dozens of voices, many of them worth listening to, and reviews can be “published” while the reviewer is still seated at the restaurant.
So there comes a race to be first, to be the one to lead the pack. I’ll admit I’ve joined them. I’d like to think that my 25 years of experience have informed me to determine what can be attributed to opening jitters and what is out and out incompetence in those instances where the restaurant is clearly faltering. But I certainly feel a bit of guilt in dinging a new business without the traditional waiting period.
But it has always come down to this when I write a review: Is the restaurant offering an experience worth the price it is charging? That’s true even if the restaurant has just opened, so to me it’s fair game. I wish a lot of things could go back to the halcyon days of reviewing — I especially wish I had the luxury of an expense account again! But those days are gone. Reviews are going to come to you fast and it will be up to you to cull through them to find the voices of reason that you can trust.
What do you think? Should critics wait for a specific period of time before reviewing a new restaurant? If so, how long should that be? Could you do me a favor? Please leave your comments below so that we can keep the discussion in one place.