On the food blog for DC's City Paper, restaurant critic Chris Shott asks why, in the Yelp age, critics still obey the rule that they should wait a month or more to visit a new restaurant:
These days, a new restaurant is able to access vast new media resources in order to pump up its reputation from day one--or even before it. ... Many places are packed on opening night; long gone are the days when a restaurant didn't see a packed house until a newspaper chimed in. The restaurant industry's PR people have taken advantage of the change. Which makes me wonder whether the pros ought to change their rules, too.
Schott talks to the other critics in DC before deciding that he'll visit a restaurant any damn time he pleases, but he won't write about it until he feels it's ready. As the Dallas Observer's new critic, Scott Reitz, tells Shott, "Hammering a place that still in that early phase, with a full-on formal review, is kind of a dick move."
I don't know that I agree. Call me old-school, but when it comes to the full-length restaurant reviews that come out in print and online every Wednesday, I still wait the standard 30 days before visiting, which means that my review usually comes out a minimum of seven or eight weeks after the restaurant opens, or about 150 reviews behind Yelp.
Schott's solution -- he'll visit a restaurant from day one but write about it only when he feels it's ready -- seems sensible, if you have the time and budget to keep going back. The thought that I was reviewing Atelier Crenn and Locanda too early gnawed at me as I was writing those pieces. Then again, why should I give one restaurant more time when another restaurant has it together in its first few weeks?
One thing we've decided at the Weekly: When it comes to shorter blog posts about a new place, there are no rules. SFoodie editor W. Blake Gray, for instance, just filed a first-night post about Jasper's, where he did like some things but didn't report it out as a puff piece. I visited the Bacon Bacon Truck on its fifth or sixth day of business. Will the truck sort out a lot of the problems I encountered? Boy, I hope so.
We constantly ask ourselves: In the online era, does a blog post have as much weight as a print review? Perhaps it does. But when Gray and I ponder the thought of refusing to criticize a place before the 30-day period expires, we also ask ourselves: Are we the kind of writers who are comfortable only doling out praise? Not a chance.
So why do I wait, then? Like most alt-weekly critics, I think of the full-length reviews as a form of cultural criticism, like movie or book reviewing, as much as a reader service. I'd rather take the time to think about what a new restaurant is trying to be, and write a review people want to read from start to finish, than be the first to stamp my opinion on a new restaurant.
If restaurants want to pile on the hype before they open to ensure they've got a full house on opening day, they should acknowledge they're open for criticism and praise the moment they start charging customers full prices. But the people who rush out to beat their friends to a new place need to own up to something, too: If you need to hit a restaurant in its first couple of weeks, when the staff barely know each other's names, you pay for your bragging rights in quality. I don't care whether you're a first-time Yelper or a tenured critic -- have the decency to note it.