One of the publications I write for with some regularity occasionally throws me the bone of a restaurant review. There’s no pay for them; the compensation is that I get to expense the check. So a few weeks ago I went to Sunday brunch. Monday, I submitted this review:
“Going to Sunday brunch at [the 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 OK — 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.”
There’s an art to restaurant reviews. It’s not literary. It’s diplomatic. Every restaurant I’ve ever reviewed — hell, every restaurant I’ve ever been in — has good points and bad points. 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 OK. The movie isn’t only open in one local location. 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, and then snorting in print two months later about how the fettuccine wasn’t authentic. People who run restaurants have enough problems. For Christ’s sake, they run a restaurant. That’s hard enough.
So I spike bad reviews. Boosting a good restaurant is of more benefit to the food world than trashing a sub-par one anyway. If a restaurant really is universally agreed to be just horrible — something I have never once seen in 20 years of dedicated fatness — there isn’t any need to run to print and tattle on it. Word will get around fast enough.
The annoying thing is, bad reviews are way more fun to write. Here’s what I would like to have written about that brunch:
“Sunday brunch at [the restaurant] is roughly what I would expect from a 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,” of which 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 un-rendered.) The only thing that was hot and fresh were the waffles, which you were permitted to make yourself on their hotel-style waffle maker. 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”), room-temperature 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, [the restaurant] is like a 1950s 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, Mystery Science Theater 3000-style:
SEE! The dessert table composed entirely of unwrapped and re-portioned Sara Lee treats!
EAT! Cold, soggy, toasted ravioli with all the filling gone!
TASTE! Sausage gravy with the texture of soft-serve ice cream!
But y’know, why be unkind for the sake of laughs? If I wanted to do that, I’d go back to covering politics.