How soon after it opens should a new restaurant be reviewed? That's the question posed by Amanda Cohen, the much admired chef–proprietor of the Manhattan vegetarian/vegan restaurant Dirt Candy, in the latest installment of her Eater.com column, Dispatches from Dirt Candy.
"These days," she writes, "I feel like restaurants are getting reviewed almost as soon as their doors open. I wonder if that does everyone a disservice…." She points out that in earlier times, critics typically waited a decent interval between an establishment's first night and their own first full-scale review of the place. Some reviewers would give a place a now-astonishing six months before judging it publicly. Today, says Cohen, "The New York Times usually files on a restaurant within two to three months of opening and seems to give restaurants a six-week grace period before visiting for the first time." For other publications, two months or less now seems to be common."These days I feel like restaurants are getting reviewed almost as soon as their doors open. I wonder if that does everyone a disservice." -Amanda Cohen
The problem, says Cohen, is that "The restaurant that opens on day one isn't the restaurant that exists six months, or even six weeks, later."
Of course, that's true. But there are two issues here. The first is a modern-day one: Everybody with a smartphone is a reviewer, and dining at a new restaurant the moment it's open is a badge of, what?, hipness, prestige, influence, passion for dining out? What's the point of getting a table before the craft beer in the cooler has had time to chill if not to let the world know — stat! — that you're there, to show them what you're eating, and tell them what you think of it?
So, first of all, the question of when a new restaurant gets reviewed has nothing to do with professional critics or journalistic practices. Sorry, Ms. or Mr. Restaurateur, but you're pretty much fair (even if it's unfair) game to the world at large the moment you turn on the lights.
But the second issue, which has been with us for as long as there have been restaurants, is that you probably ought to be fair game to professional critics at that moment, too. Six months? Six weeks? No, how about a six-thirty reservation on night number one?
Back in medieval times, when computers took up whole rooms and phones were anchored to the wall with wires and people took photographs with contraptions called "cameras," I was reviewing restaurants for the Los Angeles Times and writing restaurant guides to Southern California. I used to hear sometimes from wounded restaurateurs, men and women whose establishments I had been unkind to in print. The tone and grammatical legitimacy of their comments varied, but the general idea was: "I work hard and this is my livelihood and how dare you, who have never even worked in a restaurant [though in fact I had], write words that will potentially diminish my business?"
What I always pointed out in reply was that: (a) the restaurant critic is a "first eater" — someone who devotes his or her time (typically during three or more visits) and somebody else's money (his or her employer's) to function as a kind of scout, undergoing an experience, analyzing and appraising it, and then reporting on it to thousands or hundreds of thousands of other people so that they'll know what they're being asked to spend their time and money on; and (b) restaurant customers quite probably worked hard for their money, too, and should be able to reasonably expect some measure of value in return for what they paid. If they are greeted rudely, served badly, and given crap to eat, then, sorry Ms. or Mr. Restaurateur, but you deserve to have your business diminished.
Of course, no restaurateur (except maybe those wackos out in Arizona) gives his or her customers a bad experience on purpose, and of course it takes time for new restaurants to work out the kinks — to get all that complex human and mechanical machinery up and running. But why should the paying customer subsidize the transitional period? If a restaurant is operating at, say, 75 percent of what it will be when it's fully up and running (and that's generous, in the case of many new places), then why should diners pay 100 percent of the price?
If you take your shirts to the new dry cleaner down the block and get them back scorched and ripped, are you supposed to just be a good sport about it because they're just getting started? If you go to hear a new ensemble play Mozart and instead of the sublime music you've anticipated you hear a bunch of screeching and honking, do you forgive them because they haven't had time to really practice as much as they should have? Uh-uh.
Broadway shows, some of which have at least as many moving parts as the average restaurant and can cost as much to get up and running, get reviewed on opening night — typically after a string of half-price previews, incidentally, which are not reviewed — and if they get universally slammed, they're not going to be around for very long. I don't see why the same rules shouldn't apply to restaurants. Get your act together before you start handing us the check. Or open with all the imperfections and take your chances. Maybe we'd end up with fewer restaurants overall, but better ones.
Cohen suggests that if restaurants are reviewed early on, then they should be re-reviewed when they're functioning as they were meant to, and I agree. But as soon as an establishment starts running up charges on your AmEx card, it ought to be giving you full value, and if it isn't, your friendly neighborhood restaurant critic — and I don't mean that tableful of 20-somethings with their iPhones and snarky vocabularies — ought to tell the world that it isn't. If you're not ready for Pete Wells or Leslie Brenner or Jonathan Gold, amigo, you're not ready for anyone.