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  • How to Critique Food and Restaurants

    There is a problem that arises once a person gets tagged with being a ‘foodie’ – the tagged person then becomes a benchmark figure in any circumstances when the discussion turns to food or restaurants. The other day, in the middle of a business meeting where the conversation turned to what restaurant to take visiting guests, my boss’s boss suggested a place, and then turned to me and stated, “I really enjoy this place. I’d love to hear your take on it.”

    His request had asked of me something that I had learned to avoid doing years ago, namely to give my opinion outside of the right context. When I started reading, writing, and (most importantly) thinking about food, I quickly decided that it was not in my best interest to offer contrary positions on places that friends, co-workers, and anyone who generally aren’t looking for opinions on places that have already decided that they enjoy. It is not my role in life to poo-poo set opinions of others. Of course writing them down at this blog, where you, the reader, have volunteered to read my opinions, or hanging out with fellow food writers who do the same thing I do, that’s different. But more often than not, I believe that my non-foodie friend’s opinions are just as valid, and who am I to either imply, or explicitly state that they are wrong?

    The thing is, there is a difference between critiquing a restaurant and having an opinion on it. Anyone can have an opinion. See yelp, if you’re not convinced of that fact. But critiquing, true critiquing is the ability to come to an objective conclusion about something, be it music, art, a restaurant, or even a style of cooking, based off of observable evidence, rather than opinion.

    Or to put in another way, critiquing is the ability to pay respect to a topic you do not like, and challenge the assumptions of a topic that you do like.

    It is a difficult line between forming an opinion and offering a critique. Stating that “I don’t like McDonald’s” offers the reader or listener nothing in the way of value. Stating “I don’t like McDonald’s because the burger to meat ratio on their hamburger is off, that they aggressively market to children, and that they underpay their workers”, is far more helpful, and provides the consumer of these facts much better context for them to come to their own conclusion about a place.

    This came up again at the business dinner that I referred to at the top of this post, where I was asked to review the place. By this time, the majority of the participants of the meal had already decided that they place was little more than mediocre, and me offering a full listing of the things I found wouldn’t challenge anyone’s take on the place. So I went to work.

    “The place is loud, and it’s difficult to have a conversation, making this a poor place to socialize unless you like shouting. The design in confusing, as they can’t decide if they want to be a traditional Italian restaurant, or have a modernist take on it. The menu was stained, and has about four entree’s too many upon it, meaning that there are likely some dishes that are ordered less often, leaving the back room less likely to have them at the ready. The dessert menu is a cliche. The wait staff in one room has limited site lines to the chef’s window, so they all tend to congregate around one table to keep an eye on if their orders are ready. The food is overpriced – if you’re offering $18 dollar spaghetti and meatballs, you better be offering something new or different to the dish, and adding a sliver of low-quality black truffles isn’t it. The risotto was dry, and the breaded veal came out below temperature, meaning it cooled quickly upon your plate. Oh, and the entrees should arrive all at the same time. “

    We continued the critiquing to the point where we started a conversation on what we would have done differently, and it was clear that my dining companions were now thinking of aspects of a restaurant that are typically taken for granted. How much is a good price for stuffed mushrooms? What makes a good wine list? What makes a good host? All of these things combine together to make a restaurant experience, and the more that are ignored, the better the probability of leaving a poor impression.

    Opinions are fine, and certainly everyone is entitled to their own. But facts make for a better conclusion. It’s never enough for me to hear “I like this place” or “I hate this place”. It’s far better to understand the facts behind what made those opinions.

    But at the same time, it’s a lot of work. Most times it’s far better to sit back, and enjoy the ride without thinking of every nuance that made it happen.