After my recent entry about Quince restaurant in Bangkok, Nathanael (NVPhotography) asked my advice on writing restaurant reviews, since a local paper had asked him to review on new restaurant in town. Never having given it much thought, I asked for a few days to consider my response.
Let me say that I don’t consider most of my entries about restaurants to be true reviews. I just share some pictures of the food and offer some comments. A proper review is more in depth and thoughtful than my musings normally are. That said, let me share five thoughts about what makes for a good restaurant review.
First, have no conflicts of interest. You cannot offer an objective review if you have been paid by the restaurant, have received any complimentary dishes, or have any financial stake in the restaurant. It is customary for some restaurants to send an amuse bouche, a tiny bite before you dine, to whet your appetite. This does not count as a complimentary dish, as it is given to all diners.
Second, provide a context. This means explaining a bit of the history of the restaurant and/or the background of the chef. Now, this may be more applicable to a higher-end restaurant than to a local diner, but even in the later case, the fact that it is a local diner owned by a family of Greek vegetarians might help us understand what they are trying to accomplish. Think of it this way: when you watch a local high school drama department’s production of “Anything Goes,” you have very different expectations than when seeing the debut of a new opera by a professional company.
Third, explore the menu, especially specials. A good reviewer will either dine with a group or will return to the restaurant several times, in order to sample a wide range of dishes. It isn’t just the number of dishes that is important, though. What also matters is the type of dishes. If a chef is known for his charcuterie (prepared meats) then be sure to order the tripe, the head cheese, and the blood sausage. If the restaurant specializes in seafood, order a lot of fish and not much steak. Most of all, be sure to try any specials. These are meant to reflect the chef’s talent and creativity, often using seasonal ingredients. This gives the restaurant a chance to shine in the area they claim to be their best.
Fourth, be fair in your review. Everyone has their bad days and your dining experience can be influenced by factors that are out of the control of the chef or the restaurant staff. A table of rowdy drunks may ruin the ambience, but it isn’t fair to criticize the restaurant for their behavior. Even poor service from a waiter should be put into context. If possible, make a follow-up visit to see whether the poor service persists or was possibly unusual.
Finally, when you write, try to be as specific as possible. Instead of simply saying that a dish was good, try to explain what you enjoyed about it. This fifth point has helped me pay more attention and be more thoughtful when I eat. When I think about the flavors and notice how they contrast or complement each other, I get more out of the dining experience. If you can convey that thoughtfulness in your review, your readers will get more out of the review.
Of course, I’m sure that if we poked around in my previous entries about restaurants, we could find plenty of times when I’ve broken one or more of these guidelines. As they say, do as I say, not as I do!
What are your thoughts about what makes a good restaurant review?