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.)