Tuesday, April 22, 2014

If You Don't Have Anything Nice to Say...

I sometimes have a hard time with writing reviews on this blog. Restaurant reviews can be the hardest. For the most part, people who run small businesses want to make their customers happy and make money.

Restaurants fail for so many reasons. Sometimes it is the service, or the pricing or it's a bad idea or poorly executed food. I've wanted to start a sandwich business for a long time but the fear of not getting it right coupled with the huge risk has held me back. When I review small places that are trying, I try to remember that.

I doubt too many people intentionally go out and make a bad restaurant. This brings me to yelp! and other such microblogs. Too many times there are comments that don't help me decide if I like a restaurant or not. Too many of the "they don't make the steak right" said of a spaghetti house. There is often no context of the reviewer or the restaurant. Going into a coffee shop and complaining about the tea just doesn't make sense.

It is sometimes hard to separate individual tastes for things that are really bad or really good. I don't like fish but I can tell when it tastes good. However, I probably wouldn't go to a seafood restaurant and dish it because I didn't like the fish.

A second type of review is along the lines of "The food was nice. The tablecloths were nice so therefore the food was good." It tells me nothing. There are tons of tricks used by restaurants that make food taste better. Presentation, different colours, and evocative descriptions influence the way we taste. Slathering a dish in fat, salt and sugar also work. Sometimes these tricks can be employed to make marginal food taste "good". Without all the frills, it probably tastes ordinary or mediocre. By definition, most food will be mediocre. So what does that leave a reviewer to do?

While there is a postmodern argument that all views are valid and everything is taste, I just don't buy it. Yes, you can take the average of all Yelpers and determine that if everyone is saying something is good then it probably is. My favourite reviewers of stuff whether it be movies, food or books offer me an insight into the experience that it is reviewing. Maybe some history on the place or the chef, shedding some light onto their dining and what prejudices and bias they brought to the table and how the meal affected it. Foremost, the writing needs to be "good" writing. It has to capture my attention.

This can be done with snark, humour, intelligence, sparkle, literate, engaging or a bunch of different ways. It cannot be just I had a good nomnom burger. Not enough. Unfortunately, food writing like most restaurants is at best mediocre. I'm no better than the average writer but I strive to, at least once and a while, be better at my craft. Sometimes, I really like what I write. It is with this perspective that we should look at restaurants. Most are just trying to make a living. Try to illustrate what you like, what is truly remarkable and where the place falls down. Be fair and give the benefit of the doubt. Be clear and obvious when you have bias and explain it. Constructive criticism is best.

This does not mean that if you feel a place truly deserves to be trashed because they are only in it for the money then that is okay too. My rule is that I won't write anything that I wouldn't say to an owner and couldn't defend.

All this soul searching was caused by the fact that I really want to write about one of my favourite coffee shops where I have become a regular. I really should have written before but didn't get around to it. I'm trying to figure out what is fair and what is not. I'm also thinking about embarking on guest writing for a few blogs to get my chops up and wonder how writing for someone else will change my thinking. So, if you don't have anything nice to say, find a diplomatic and constructive way of saying it.

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