Of new restaurants and restaurant critics

Vikram Doctor points me to an interesting couple of blogs posts, one from a restaurant chef, and the other from a restaurant reviewer.

The first post is by Alex Sanchez, a young chef from the US who’s now cooking at this new restaurant in Colaba. He complains about how restauarant reviewers in India don’t give the place a chance to settle down before reviewing. Mangal Dalal responds in Mumbai Boss making the point that restaurant culture is different here and you better get ready to hit the ground running.

Having been a restaurateur, I agree with points on both sides.

Sanchez is right; no matter how well-trained the staff, how organised the kitchen, handling a full house of customers in a new restaurant is stressful, and it is impossible to get into the flow of things for at least a month. This is why I generally don’t visit new restaurants until a month has passed since opening.

Let me share a personal experience: when I moved Shiok to a new location, my original plan was to open with not only a new look, but also a new menu. As delays hit the setup process, I also figured that things would be slow enough with a new restaurant, and there was no need to aggravate it by changing the menu as well. Despite this, things took the usual 2-3 weeks to run smoothly, and this is for a restaurant with largely the same service staff and entirely the same kitchen staff.

That said, as a paying customer, I firmly agree that if a restaurant is taking a customer’s money, they are entitled to a proper dining experience, especially in a high-end place. When Gautam and I visited Edo, the expensive Japanese restaurant in ITC Gardenia in B’lore, we had an excellent experience, despite the restaurant having been formally open only for a week or so.

My recommended way around this for restauranteurs is to not start with a big bang on day one. Restrict news about the opening to only a few connected people, and let a couple of weeks go by with low-traffic before embarking on a publicity blitz. It gives the staff time to get used to the workflow and settle down. This may not sit well with investors, but it’s the best way.

As for the other question of restaurant reviewers, I agree whole-heartedly that most don’t know their mouths from their asses. If it’s college kids writing most reviews (as Mumbai Boss points out), then they possibly don’t know enough about either restaurant reviewing or food. Every restaurant, even the best of them, can have a bad day, and it’s not fair to assess a restaurant till you’ve dined there a few times. You say you don’t have the resources to do that? Well, don’t do restaurant reviews then. You say there are too many new restaurants? Well, don’t review every last one of them. And if a critic is knowledgeable enough, he/she can surely make a judgement call on whether a screw-up is due to general incompetence of the staff or just them having a bad day. The incompetent ones need not be visited again.

Let’s face it, the whole “restaurant review” business in this country is fucked up. The “reviews” for most major newspapers are arranged by PR people, and the critic will happily turn up after informing you in advance. You will make small talk with them, make sure your best waiter is at their service, and the head chef himself handles the food for their table. If you’re a Page 3 person who has been added to the restaurant management for your celebrity value, you will schmooze with them too – so, essentially, nothing like a typical guest’s experience. They will then partake of your free food and booze, and hopefully give you a stunning review. They may even write wonderful things about food they never tasted (a newspaper critic wrote about my fragrant Beef Rendang despite not trying it, and only reading its description in my menu.)

Restaurant “awards” from major publications too are usually a matter of who has more publicity clout or is a major advertiser, and I have often gone, “you can’t be fucking serious!” after seeing a particular restaurant win a category award.

Unfortunately, the average Joe is heavily swayed by such reviews and believes them to be authoritative. And that is the real tragedy of it.

(A post about the uselessness of “user/community reviews” web sites will have to wait for another day. That much vitriol in one blog post may be too much to handle.)

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11 Responses to Of new restaurants and restaurant critics

  1. Jagdeep Kaur says:

    i so completely agree with you. i was recently talking with a (dear) friend about this great place where we go for lunches and all from work, and he said it sucked. apparently, all he’d had was a lassi (which all regulars know is horrible there) and decided never to go again and mouth the place all over the city. i did try and talk him into visiting the place again and have FOOD. hope he does.. :)

  2. Pradosh says:

    I would LOVE to read your views on the “user/community reviews” web sites :)

  3. Karthik S says:

    Excellent point of view. But again, isn’t this true of just about anything else that is ‘reviewed’ in mainstream media, besides restaurants? Music, movies, automobiles, gadgets…

  4. Maximus Toxicus says:

    Spot on dude! The anything-goes-as-a-review is not limited just to the restaurant/food space. Art, books, movies… everywhere. A food reviewer needs to have at least burnt his/her fingers (literally, too :-) ) by cooking at least a few times. He/she needs to know how different ingredients, flavours, etc and the most important, needs to have wide (and deep) subject matter expertise especially when reviewing specialty/exotic/whatchamacallit cuisines. But as we know it, in India, most “specialty” restaurants follow the ASMC (Andhra Style Multi Cuisine and variations thereof) template.

    Good one! Keep ‘em coming :-)

  5. MadMan says:

    Karthik/Toxicus, A movie/album may have layers to it that are revealed on later viewing or listening, but it stays the same product. A restaurant experience can vary each time you visit.

  6. Uma K says:

    Great to read your blog! I’d like to read your opinion on user/community reviews too! I have a few such reviews on burrp.com, and I generally choose a restaurant based on the reviews I read there. I can’t think of a better person than you to review restaurants, having been a restaurateur yourself. Will follow this blog regularly now :)

  7. Premshree Pillai says:

    User/community review sites work remarkably well for restaurants in the US. Yelp, for example, is pretty damn good.

    I’ve never fully understood why such sites in India are not as useful. Perhaps it is that the average Indian doesn’t have a palette suited to a lot of different cuisines (but Indian)? I have also noticed that most reviewers on Indian sites tend to review when they have had a bad experience.

    It’s unfortunate how fucked-up the whole thing is.

  8. Peter Klein says:

    Of restaurant critics, here’s an interesting article I’d recommend everyone to read:
    http://tinyurl.com/3tgdzkf
    (untitled ‘learn to know your food reviewer’, I found this to be a precious guideline for all opinions on food critics)

  9. Kalyan says:

    Yes. I think that sums up things pretty well.
    I think it is important that critic reviews should mention whether they were anonymous or organised/ sponsored reviews. Post which the reader can take a call. If a reader follows a reviewer over time then the reviewer’s credibility or the lack of it will be apparent soon. And, if the critic, has a point of view on things then these biases should be stated in the open so that the reader can decide whether their views are likely to coincide
    Re: bloggers, folks need to understand that bloggers write about personal experiences and not reviews. If a blogger claims to be a ‘reviewer’ then he or she needs to ascribe to the norms of multiple visits, trying out the full range etc. Or be open about it being a personal diary.
    Post which it is up to a reader to decide just as in any other case in life. For example, Master Chef Australia could be very popular but there are many who watch Food Food too. It’s a question of individual choice and preference. I prefer Bourdain & Nigella to both.
    If confused then I am sure Kapil Sibal can help us out

  10. Kalyan says:

    Re the movies versus restaurant argument on the product being the same…unfortunately no differntial pricing for the latter