Is there one right way to review a restaurant? Critics through the years have had distinctive voices and signature flourishes, some more successful and loved than others. The New York Times' Frank Bruni was known for more than an occasional good turn of phrase, but excelled when he took down a restaurant. His successor Sam Sifton often needed several hundred words to get anywhere near discussing the food, but had a penchant for cultural references and a great kicker. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, but when developing your style or just sitting down to write a review, consider these factors.
First, think of writing a review like a writing a story, though not necessarily a story about you — there's a beginning, a middle, and an end. Each has elements compelling readers onward, but essentially, you're telling a story about the restaurant and experience there.
The Beginning: Where Are We and Why Are We Here? Set the scene. Where's the restaurant? Been there forever? Is it an impossible-to-score reservation? Who’s the chef? Some absent TV personality? An anonymous cook who slings hash that tastes like it should cost a million bucks? Is the chef at work in the kitchen or glad-handing in the dining room? Speaking of which, what's it look like? Décor? Wobbly tables? Is there attitude at the hostess station? What kinds of personalities are sitting nearby?
The Middle: Food and Service This is the entrée, the main course , the crux of the review. How was the food? Same stuff as everywhere else in town? Subtle variations? Something you've never seen? Sight, taste, sound — here's your chance to share the meal, its pitfalls and transformations. How was the service ? Hovering? Food with attitude? Did platitudes abound? Also, consider that while food may be the "entrée," it isn't the whole enchilada. The service, the way it looks, the whole feeling of the place are what will ultimately determine whether you'll want to return or not (or if readers will follow you there), even if not all the food is four-star stuff.
The End: Don't Just Tell Us What You Ate, Tell Us Why It's Important to Know What You Ate Imagine you had to impart the most important points about the restaurant to someone who had saved money for months to afford it but had to rush off or they'd miss their reservation. Wrap it up. This is the review in a nutshell. Think about writing three lines that sum up this restaurant. Be clever, be funny, be pithy, be memorable. Lois Dwan, who was the Los Angeles Times critic for about a century, used to end every review with a "Why?" The answer could be, "The cheese blintzes," "Because it's open late," "You're dining alone," or "It's near the Coliseum," etc. Now there’s an idea.
A few other things to consider: length, color, clichés and over-adjectivizing, and writing in the first person.
Review Length How long are the restaurant reviews in the country's most anticipated publications each week? Let's take The New York Times (Pete Wells), LA Times (Jonathan Gold), and New York Magazine (Adam Platt) as examples. Whether you think they're the best writers to hold these posts, or the gravest assaults on the food and beverage industry ever, they have one thing in common: a word count. Guess how many words they averaged while penning their latest smackdowns and exultations? Less than 1,000.
In fact , in recent reviews, Wells (1,075), Gold (783), and Platt (953) averaged 937 words. Now, this may vary on a weekly basis; they sometimes have slightly more space to describe a few extra courses. And while there's the time and place for writing long, you're not likely to find them straying too far. Generally, neither should you. You might be the most interesting person in the world (and the best writer, too), but set boundaries. Remember, just because you set a 1,000-word limit doesn't mean you have to write that long! Try it. You may find than what you write within those limits gets better because of them!
Color Even 1,000 words can seem like a lot of real estate. One way of keeping attention is to incorporate into the review what happened around you. Quotes and perspective shifts keep things engaging. Note: This does not mean recounting the conversation you had during dinner. Snippets of eavesdropped conversation, the way a server described a dish, how menus convey the fare, this is good stuff — but what's the saying? Don't say it, show it.
Clichés, Adjectives, and Cute Abbreviations Decadent desserts, perfectly cooked scallops, melt-in-your-mouth whatever, sammies... the Internet is rife with examples of what not to do. Learn what's been done. Lacquered layers of drizzled golden goodness overlapped the aromatic orangutan-like blah, blah, blah. If adjectives sorely outnumber nouns and verbs, you've overdone it. Speaking of which, beware overused words! Unctuous, toothsome, pillowy, luscious, delectable, plethora... don't do it!
First Person It's fine to write a review in the first person, this is an opinion piece after all! But if you're going to recount everything you thought, felt, or discussed, be sure it's interesting. What's not? Susan deciding on the mojito because of the way summer and the rain make her feel. The fact that you've never had enchiladas suizas, but these were the best you've ever had (especially when you asked for them without crema). Know what you're talking about, and don't take for granted the reader being as interested in you as you are.
Are you a bad person if you don’t do everything above? No (well, maybe). Can you write a great review by ignoring all the advice above? Sure. Jonathan Gold recently spent a paragraph talking about his own biscuit-making and his review was an engaging 783 words long. But if you stay in the vicinity of the rules above, you have a chance at keeping your reader all the way through, and getting your review promoted on The Daily Meal. Whew, that's less than 1,000 words.
So, what are you waiting for? It's time to get started! Go find a restaurant or bar to review!