Critical Mass

Yes-men don't make good dining reviewers

Aug 28, 2002 at 4:00 am
"I pray every day that you won't write mean things no more," read a plaintive letter buried among the chicken-salad recipes and wine-dinner announcements in my mail packet. The entreaty was written in capital letters with a red Magic Marker, and the sender politely accused me of having driven her daughter out of business.

Like many women, I grew up being frequently admonished, "If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all." But following that adage would render restaurant reviewing a pointless exercise. Sure, every establishment has something going for it. I could focus only on what's favorable, withholding comment on the fishy mussels, the lousy wine list and the soiled carpeting. But I would be doing a disservice to everyone who reads this column. If I sugarcoat my words to spare the chef's feelings or to avoid hamstringing the owner's business, then I'm doing so at the reader's expense. Most of us have a limited amount of time and money to dine out, and we rely on reviewers to help us separate the knockouts from the washouts. When diners head home on Saturday night, I don't want them to feel as though they just wasted a hundred bucks and an entire evening at a place I said was good when I didn't even think so myself.

Most regular readers know that I try to be fair, and I appreciate the letters some of them have written in my defense. If a place has missed the mark but is striving to improve, I say so. Every so often, though, it appears that a restaurant is taking advantage of diners by serving carelessly prepared food, charging stiff prices, neglecting its facilities or showing disrespect for customers. In such cases, my verdict is unequivocal.

Receiving letters to the editor is part of being a restaurant critic. Likewise, being reviewed is part of owning a restaurant or being a chef. Most chefs and owners try mightily to please their customers, and they welcome the publicity of a review. Those who fear the limelight should remember that the restaurant business is not a political appointment: You don't get a pass just for showing up to work.