One of the out-of-state publications I used to write for occasionally threw me a restaurant review. After a particularly memorable Sunday brunch, I submitted this review:
Going to Sunday brunch at (restaurant) is like going to Sunday Brunch at the home of a well-liked great-aunt who never *quite* mastered cooking but is so very pleasant that no one minds. The food is okay – standard hotel “FREE HOT BREAKFAST” fare – but the atmosphere is lovely: welcoming, loud, and *very* child-friendly, in a room more suited to wedding vows than a waffle bar. Save the crab-Benedict-and-caviar-omelet brunches for anniversaries; brunch at (the restaurant) is where you go with rambunctious grandchildren.
Some hours later I got a note from my editor:
“Any way I could get you to rewrite this? I know it’s difficult writing something good about something that wasn’t your favorite, but could we focus on the positive? Hate to ask, but this just reads super sarcastically”
There’s an art to restaurant reviews. It’s not literary. It’s diplomatic. I’m pretty good at writing nice things about places that I don’t love, because reviewing restaurants is a tremendous responsibility. If you review movies, say, and you pan one, that’s okay. The movie isn’t only playing one local screen. Your one voice won’t make or break it. But to crush a restaurant…that’s just mean and unnecessary.
It’s also unfair, and not just because reviewers of restaurants have a much more powerful impact on their subjects than movie reviewers do on theirs. Everybody sees the same movie. But restaurants are run by humans, not projectors. And humans have up and down days. No one needs me marching in on a night where two line cooks no-showed and the dishwasher broke and the Alfredo sauce scorched because the busboy trying to work the line burned himself. Running a restaurant is hard enough without me sneering in print.
Back to my exchange:
“I didn’t mean to be sarcastic. I was focusing on the positive. This place…I’m sorry, but there’s no way around it: This place was awful. I’m not being food-precious, here. I *like* low-rent. But this wasn’t low-rent, this was bad. Imagine a buffet run by a down-market Denny’s. The sole positive I could find was that you can totally take little kids without worrying about their behavior. Plus they’ll like the food. Outside that, I’m not going to be able to be any nicer without lying.”
We spiked the review.
The annoying thing is, bad reviews are WAY more fun to write. Here’s what I would have liked to have written about that brunch:
Sunday brunch at (restaurant) is roughly what I would expect from Sunday brunch at summer camp. The food was all slightly stale and presented at room temperature, as though it had been prepared and set out the night before. I needed a steak knife to cut the eggs Benedict, which had been resting on the warming tray long enough to turn the English muffins into hardtack. I shouldn’t have bothered, as the only flavor present was salt. The “prime rib” the advertising bragged accomplished the rare exacta of being both overdone and undercooked at the same time. (The meat was gray, but the fat remained unrendered.) The only thing that was hot and fresh were the waffles, which you were permitted to make yourself on their hotel-style wafflemaker. The waffles produced would have been delightful had there been maple syrup for them, rather than the four squeeze-bottles of dessert sauce (“raspberry”, “chocolate”, “caramel”, and “white chocolate”), can of whipped topping, and bowl of chocolate chips presented. There was no service except to hand me a check—once I went walking around looking for one.
I would say that I would not return under any circumstances, but that would be untrue. I would absolutely go back once. You see, (restaurant) is like a 1950’s B-movie: Gloriously awful. I want to call a handful of friends, fortify ourselves with a few drinks, and spend $15 each for the pleasure of making fun.
But, y’know, why be unkind for the sake of laughs? If I wanted to do that, I’d go back to ABC News and resume covering politics.