The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Critiquing Online Food Critics

Once upon a time, food critics were a breed apart. They were employed by print and broadcast media for their ability to express their opinions in a manner that was informative and at least somewhat entertaining. Revered and reviled, feared and fawned over, loved and hated; such was the life of the professional food critic.

Then came the Internet. Suddenly, anybody could be a food critic! All it takes is a mouth and an opinion. How bohemian! How democratic! How frightening!

Of critics in general, it was once said, “If you can do – do; if you can't – criticize.” More appropriate of the modern online critic is the axiom, “Opinions are like belly buttons; everybody's got one.” (Instead of "belly button," you may substitute an orifice located posteriorly and a little lower, if you prefer.) And therein lies the problem.

In the “old days,” critics of any stripe – food, wine, movies, books, television – offered educated opinions based upon knowledge and experience. Although some of them fit into the “can't do” category, many were very qualified to comment on the subjects upon which their opinions were based.

No more. “Joe Average” is the new critic of the information age. Armed with an opinion and an Internet connection, he “tells it like it is” to anyone who takes the time to click on his link. Whereas the professional critic is usually erudite and possessed of a writer's command of grammar, spelling, and punctuation, “Joe” is frequently incapable of expressing himself in words of more than one syllable and usually cannot string more than three of them together in a cohesive sentence. He often writes in “text speak,” the moronic mode of abbreviated communication commonly employed by those who simply can't be bothered by capitals, periods, commas or properly spelled complete words.

His valuable contribution to society goes something like this: “this place sux.” The more cosmopolitan “Joe” may actually include a reason: “ I didnt lik the food an the dood who wated on me wuz rely rood.”

Jeffrey Steingarten and Frank Bruni are turning in their graves – and they're not even dead yet.

Now, I'm not saying that these people don't have a place and a purpose. But let's take a look at what that place and purpose might be.

There are new sites popping up everywhere that cater to self-proclaimed critics and encourage submissions and reviews from the general public. Yahoo!, Menuism, and TripAdvisor are a few that come immediately to mind. They all serve a noble purpose: guiding your decision regarding where you should spend your valuable time and hard-earned money. But how do they fare at serving that purpose?

Online reviewers can provide a useful service. The pros – like Jeffrey and Frank – can't be everywhere and even local newspaper critics have to pick and choose from among hundreds of choices. So everyday people directing eyes, ears, and – most importantly – palates toward everyday places can prove valuable. But “caveat lector” (let the reader beware.) Apart from the functionally illiterate, there are two other types of online “critics” of which to beware: the “phony reviewer” and the “ax grinder.”

Phony reviews are often posted by unscrupulous owners and/or their agents in an attempt to gin up business for a new or failing establishment. “Phony reviewers” are usually friends, relatives, or employees who may have been promised rewards of some sort in return for boosting a business online. PR firms are notorious for this trick, too. On a recently aired episode of “Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares,” Gordon Ramsay “googled” the place he was attempting to assist and found a number of inappropriately glowing reviews for an obviously inferior restaurant. It didn't take him long to persuade the struggling owner to admit to authorship of at least one of the “reviews.”

An “ax grinder” is an individual who has a personal grudge against a place and spares no effort to make it look bad, no matter how many outright lies he has to publish. “Ax grinders” can often be disgruntled customers, former employees, business competitors, or even ex-spouses. The beauty of being an “ax grinder” is the fact that you can hide behind your anonymity and never be held accountable for your libelous comments.

How do you spot a fake review? Well, there is no hard and fast method, but there are a few things to watch for.

Fake critics all have the same goal; to make a restaurant look as good or as bad as possible. In so doing, they usually sacrifice content for hyperbole, ranting or raving in very generic terms without ever citing specifics of why a place is heavenly or hellish. Generic reviews that are based on extreme opinions without benefit of substance or fact are often fake.

Conversely, phonies frequently go over the top in their efforts to pull you in or drive you away. Shills will paint such a brilliantly glowing word picture that you'll need sunglasses in order to read it. Ax grinders will slam not only the food, but the service, the d├ęcor, the architecture, the music, the cutlery, the tableware, the chef's attire, and the owner's mother. Question extreme reviews.

I like to write positive reviews. Some people may think I'm a shill because I hardly ever rip a place apart for anything. That's probably genetic. I've had exposure to restaurants on both sides of the family for a couple of generations. My son is a waiter, my sister, several aunts and a wife were waitresses, my grandparents and various aunts and uncles were cooks, and long before I became involved in cooking or catering, I was a dishwasher. So maybe I see things a little differently, I don't know. I didn't even savage the careless waiter at an upscale place in Florida who once dripped olive oil all over the front of my khaki pants. I guess the manager's profuse apologies and offers to pay for cleaning were sufficient. That and watching the klutz get verbally flogged in Italian. I didn't need to write about it. An “ax grinder” would have made the incident the focal point of his review.

Oftentimes, fake critics will post several reviews at the same time. If you see four or five reviews all bearing the same date stamp, they may have all been written by the same person.

Watch for similarities in phrasing. If several consecutive reviews all seem to focus on the same kudos or complaints, they could be fake.

However, as already stated, if a review doesn't offer any specific point of praise or condemnation, it, too, could be bogus. Real critics are usually very specific in their likes and dislikes.

If you spot an absolutely scathing review posted among numerous positive ones, you've probably found an “ax grinder.” At the same time, an uncharacteristically sunny review amidst a sea of dismally cloudy ones is probably fake, written by somebody who wants to divert the focus.

Watch the time frame on online reviews. I see reviews all the time that were posted four and five years ago. A lot can change in four or five years. I once saw online reviews for a little place in Atlanta about which I was curious. Those that were around four years old were universally effusive in their praise. But then I noticed the reviews from the last six months to a year were dreadful. Seems the place had changed location and had spiraled downward rather rapidly. But I wanted to see for myself. Turned out to be a mixed experience. A lot of what the downers said was correct, but much of the praise in the older reviews was still justified.

I was hunting an eatery in Orlando and found one with an impressive website. I was on the verge of making a reservation when I decided to look a little deeper. I found one hundred-six reviews posted on one site. After the first forty were all derogatory and all derogatory for the same reasons, I opted to look elsewhere. The place I ultimately chose had a huge number of complimentary reviews and they all turned out to be deserved. So in the final analysis, I guess majority often rules. If you find an equal ratio of good to bad reviews, you pays your money and you takes your chances. But if literally everybody says someplace is bad or good, you can make some pretty safe bets.

Watch for clues that tell you something about the writer. On most sites dedicated to this kind of activity there is an option that allows you to read the reviewer's previous posts. If there aren't any, you don't necessarily have to bring out the red flags. After all, everybody's got to start somewhere. But at the same time, take the criticism for what it's worth. The more reviews the poster has posted, the more credibility his work gains. This is also a good way to weed out phonies and grudge-holders, neither of whom are likely to post commentary about different restaurants. They'll stick to either puffing or slamming the place in which they have a vested interest.

Actually, considering the source is just a good idea in general. Sometimes “Joe Average” isn't the guy on whom you want to base your big night out. Take a look at the places he usually frequents and decide if maybe he's writing outside his comfort zone. Let's say “Joe's” idea of fine Italian dining is the local pizza joint or spaghetti emporium. Now, let's say he winds up at Bricco in Boston's North End. I guarantee that the octopus or the stuffed zucchini flowers or the Veal Valdostana or the Pappardelle al Cinghiale are going to be somewhat unfamiliar to his palate. And then there's the price. A meal of Mozzarella di Bufala Caprese as an antipasto, a primo of Amatriciana Garganelli, a secondo of Veal Ossobuco with Chick Pea Frittelle as a contorno, and a dolce of Torta di Ricotta totals out at just under a hundred dollars – without beverages, taxes, or tips. So here's “Joe's” likely review: “I like Italian food. Back home, me and my wife go to Guido's Spaghetti House or Big John's Pizza Palace every week. When we were in Boston, we went to this place on Hanover Street that was supposed to be Italian, but they didn't have any pizza or spaghetti and the weird stuff they did have costed more than I make in a week. I won't ever go back there again.”

Of course, “Esquire” magazine's John Mariani says, “"Worth every penny for what I consider ... the finest Italian cooking in the country right now." But what does he know?

I'm not saying “Joe” isn't entitled to his opinion. However, having read up on “Joe's” experience and given the choice of whose opinion is going to influence my decision, I think I'd have to go with John. Especially since the New York Times, the Boston Globe and several other respected sources agree with him. Sorry, “Joe.”

Another example: in my city, there is a little Italian place downtown. It's not part of a chain and it's kind of tucked away where you might not notice it if you weren't looking. It's a “must go” spot for my wife and me, especially when we entertain visitors. On a whim, I looked at a few reviews online. Out of eleven reviews on Yahoo!, nine were four or five stars. Two were one star reviews. Here are a couple of observations from the negative reviews: “There were no offerings for a toddler. No bread is served with dinner which is really weird for an italian restaurant.” I'm sorry, did you ask about a kiddie menu before you sat down? And a lack of free bread is not really all that “weird” in more upscale Italian restaurants.

Another “average” reviewer opined, “ I felt like I could have gotten better pasta for less money at Olive Garden. I think it was too bland or something.” Since when is Olive Garden the standard for fine Italian cuisine? And “too bland or something”....come on! Was it too bland or wasn't it? This is an educated opinion upon which I should make a decision? No way.

On TripAdvisor, some goof complained because the restaurant didn't accept reservations and had difficulty accommodating his group of fourteen when they invaded it on a busy post-graduation night. Excuse me, did you call first? Or did you just assume you were that important? This one was especially grating because the “reviewer” admitted that he had been there before. And he didn't notice that the place was not set up for large groups?

As I said, everybody has an opinion. Unfortunately, not everybody has a brain to go with it. You don't have to be a gourmand (I hate the term “foodie”) to write a review, but it does help to know a little something about your subject. If your idea of haute cuisine is the “Rooty Tooty Fresh 'n Fruity” at IHOP, you probably shouldn't be offering critical commentary on four-star restaurants.

Look for these elements in a well-constructed review: time frame and restaurant conditions. Was it lunch service or dinner? Was the place packed or empty? What was the ambiance? Noisy, quiet, romantic, family friendly? Comments on service should be all-inclusive, covering not only waiters and waitresses, but hosts/hostesses, busboys, bartenders, and any other ancillary waitstaff. “Food was good/bad/okay” is not sufficient. A reviewer should discuss specific aspects of specific dishes and/or courses. What did they eat? What did their companions eat? Was there something else on the menu that looked interesting? Discuss portions -- too big, too small – and prices. Reasonable or too expensive for what was being offered? It's okay to mention negative points in a generally positive review and it's okay to introduce a high point into a negative commentary. It's called balance. A good review should conclude with a summary and a recommendation. A comprehensive review includes location, hours of operation, proper attire, reservation status, parking and basic contact information.

Now, with a fork in one hand and a pen in the other, go forth and mangia! The world is waiting for your opinion.

Buon Appetito!

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