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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Grazie mille!

Friday, April 13, 2012

How To Write An Effective Restaurant Review

I realized the other day that I have expended a lot of virtual ink slamming bad restaurant reviews on the Internet, but I haven't put forth much effort in explaining how to write a good review. In this instance, I am not speaking of the content of the review being good or bad, but rather of the structure of the review itself.

Too many would-be reviewers take to the blogosphere and write things like, “This place rocks!” or “This place sucks!” These aren't reviews, they're ejaculations. (Look it up. It doesn't always mean what you think it does.) In fact, most of the “reviews” that appear on a plethora of increasingly popular social media sites aren't really reviews at all; they are merely comments. “I recommend Restaurant X. The food is really good” is a nice statement, but it's hardly a review.

There are rules and procedures involved in writing a proper review. You don't have to go on for pages and pages – as I sometimes do – but you do have to cover the basics.

In order to be useful, a review must be objective. When warranted, it's okay to be effusive with your praise, but it's equally important to be constructive with your criticism. “Reviews” that do nothing more than blatantly trash a business are pretty transparent. Most people can detect an ax being ground and will ignore overly and overtly negative pieces.

Rule number one in writing an effective review is to know your subject. I write about Italian food. I keep my mouth shut on other cuisines because I don't know enough about them. Therefore, I would not breeze into a Thai restaurant, order a dish about which I knew nothing, and then baldly proclaim, “This place has terrible food.”

In the same vein, be specific in your commentary. Don't make blanket statements like, “this place has bad food” or “this place has good food” until you've had a representative sampling of the menu. Ever watch any of those “restaurant rescue” shows like “Kitchen Nightmares” or “Restaurant: Impossible?” Notice that Gordon Ramsay and Robert Irvine order several dishes off the menu before they declare the food delicious or unfit to eat. (Usually the latter.) You may say that a particular dish is good or bad, but you can't praise or lambast all the food on a fifty-item menu based on the one thing you ordered.

When talking about the food you ate, don't just say “it was good” or “it was bad.” Why was it good or bad? Was it cooked properly? Was the temperature what it was supposed to be. Cold soup and a hot salad are good reasons to complain. And when it comes to discussing flavors and textures and such, if you don't have the palate to back up your opinions, shut up. There's nothing more annoying or pretentious than somebody who lets Chef Mike – as in microwave – do all the cooking at home, then goes out to a restaurant and suddenly becomes an expert on taste and texture and seasoning. Unless you really know what you're talking about, stick to the basics – too salty, too spicy, too sweet, etc. Don't over analyze. “The spaghetti was cold and a little overcooked and the sauce was too sweet for my taste” is a good, concise statement. No need to load up on adjectives and metaphors.

Talk about prices. Be specific. Generalities like, “this place is too expensive” are useless. You may consider a ten-dollar entree to be too expensive. I may not. Quote a specific price for the specific dish you purchased and include a price range for other offerings on the menu. “I paid $14 for my entree. Other entrees ranged from $12 to $18.” Let the reader decide whether or not the place is too expensive.

Discuss value. How were portions in relation to the prices? And was the quality equal to the cost? Again, know what you're talking about. Don't mouth off and say something was “canned” or “boxed” or “cheap” unless you can back it up. If necessary, qualify your statement. “I thought the sauce tasted canned” is a much safer declaration than “the sauce was canned.”

There's more to a restaurant than its food. Talk about those other things that affect your dining experience. Was the hostess friendly or surly? Was the waiter or waitress efficient and attentive or did they slop water on your table and otherwise ignore you? If there was music, was it too loud or out of character with the surroundings? Nothing goes with a nice Italian meal like a little Def Leppard played at earsplitting levels. How about the lighting? Did you need to keep your sunglasses on or were you required to use a flashlight in order to read the menu?

Pay attention to other details. Were you there for lunch or for dinner? Was the place crowded or empty. These things are important because they affect the overall service.

Some social media sites cover the nuts and bolts so you don't have to. But it's not a bad idea to note them just in case. Where is the restaurant located and what is the address? What are the hours of operation? Do you need reservations? What's the phone number? What constitutes appropriate dress? Is it a good “date” place or is it “family friendly?” How's the parking? Do they have a website?

As to the writing itself, first and foremost, use good grammar and spelling. People really do judge you by the way you speak and write. If you come across on paper as uneducated, your review is weightless. If you can't spell, punctuate, and form complete coherent sentences, why should I pay any attention to what you say?

It's okay to inject a little personality into your review. Be funny, be sarcastic, but above all, be intelligent. And don't be vulgar. Don't say, “the waitress was a bitch” even if she was. Don't say, “the food sucks” even if it does. When you make the statement, "this tastes like s**t," the first question that comes to my mind is "How does he know what s**t tastes like?" And “text speak” should be reserved for texting with your friends. “You” is never expressed as “U”. “R” is not an appropriate substitute for “are.” Such may be acceptable among your peers, but posting to the Internet opens you up to a wide audience. You may think it's sick to LOL with your peeps, but most of your readers will just think you're immature.

Despite the fact that I frequently criticize them, I can see the potential value in social media review sites. But as most of them stand now, they are of little merit due to the questionable caliber of their content. More effective reviews from better informed reviewers will go a long way toward increasing their viability.

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