Appetites: For restaurant reviewers, a delicate dance to be fair

The process of a reviewing a restaurant is as much art as it is craft or science, and the ethics of when -- and how -- to review are fair game for critics and diners alike.

After engaging in a spirited discussion with readers following the publication of a negative review, the Heavy Table's James Norton got thinking about the timing of restaurant reviews, and how to ensure that a review is fair to diners and owners alike.

A transcript of Norton's conversation with MPR News' Tom Crann is below, edited for length and clarity.

CRANN: Which of your reviews got people talking about how soon is too soon to write up a restaurant?

NORTON: The Freehouse in downtown Minneapolis opened mid-December, and we visited and reviewed it in early January. We dined twice to confirm some of our initial mixed impressions and get a broader perspective on the menu.

In short: we found a lot of the food to be hopelessly muddled in terms of both conceptualization and execution, and as diner's advocates, we were frustrated with the value prospect.

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CRANN: And this didn't fly with your readers?

NORTON: On the contrary, we always actually receive positive remarks when we publish thoughtful, well-supported negative reviews because there's a perception that this market suffers for a lack of them -- it might be the Minnesota philosophy of "kill 'em with silence" rather than expressing a negative opinion.

That said, yeah -- we get detractors, too, and this piece was no exception. Whenever we publish a negative review on Heavy Table -- a fairly infrequent occurrence, I'll add -- there's inevitably pushback saying that we reviewed it too early. It's simultaneously one of the most frustrating and most interesting pieces of feedback we get about our writing because I think it sidesteps the issues of food and service and takes us down a rabbit hole of process and ethics.

"If you want to duck the review process, stick to a discounted price until you feel rock solid about your offerings, or, better still, don't open until you're ready."

CRANN: But it seems like a fair question: How early is too early to review a place? Do you really want to be awarding stars before the staff has even had a week to get their sea legs?

NORTON: Well, there is a spectrum of belief ranging from the Association of Food Journalists' four-week hold-your-fire guidelines to my own absolutist stance which goes like this: If you're charging your diners full menu price for food, they are entitled to a good value for their money. If you want to duck the review process, stick to a discounted price until you feel rock solid about your offerings, or, better still, don't open until you're ready.

I never walk in to a restaurant a week after opening and expect or demand that waitstaff know the entire menu intimately, or that all our food turns up without delay. But I think it's fair, for example, when you're paying full price to expect that simple dishes like a hamburger or roast chicken will be executed competently, and that we won't be served food that is visibly burnt or salted within an inch of its life. And these are all problems we've encountered, repeatedly, at new places -- they're indicative of a lack of a tasting regime and they're very destructive to the restaurant's own interest -- building loyalty among customers.

CRANN: Restaurants, though, must get better as everyone finds their rhythm, meaning that maybe four or six or even eight weeks in you'll get a better snapshot than the first couple of weeks.

NORTON: That totally makes sense. That said, I don't think it holds water in the real world. For one, I've reviewed a number of restaurants that are spot on at opening -- great service, well-balanced plates of delicious food, good decor, focused menus -- they come out of the gate swinging and are terrific. It can be done and has been done. I was just at the new Sonora Grill location on East Lake street, shortly after opening, and we had a great meal. We were back this week -- still great.

My second thought is that while "hold off on your review while they pull things together" makes sense, so does "review them early while they're fresh and focused" -- the number of restaurants that I've been to that opened strong and then declined in six, three or even one month (in a couple memorable cases) is not inconsiderable.

CRANN: So you'd argue that it's hard -- if not impossible -- to know the perfect representative moment to review a restaurant for posterity.

NORTON: Definitely. When you're reviewing a restaurant, you're really reviewing the combined efforts of hundreds of people, ranging from farmers, to ranchers, to suppliers, to waiters, to owners, to hosts, to chefs, to coffee roasters, and beyond. You're trying to take a snapshot of this enormous collective effort. So the process is never going to be a science as much as we'd like it to be -- it'll always be part craft and part art, and that's part of why I enjoy it so much.

I want to write glowing reviews of every restaurant I go to, and to see them thrive, but I want even more for our readers to feel like they can trust our critical opinion and know that we're going to bat for them as honest advocates. It's a constant struggle, and it's a great deal of food for thought.