I’ve been hearing a lot of chatter on social media about a dearth of “real” criticism in Indianapolis. Everyone has a theory on why no one offers starred ratings to accompany full-page, authentic, honest reviews in printed publications. The reasons are both simple and complicated.
- The post-internet news cycle (and budget) won’t wait 6 weeks for a restaurant to find its feet, or for farm-to-table menu changes.
Everyone wants to know how the food is the first week a restaurant opens, which, as any experienced restauranteur knows, is rarely what the food is truly like once the place gets rolling in its first two months. Unless you’re repeating a chain concept, a reviewer risks raving (or ranting) about a dish — or beer or cocktail — that might get refined or removed in the first six weeks a restaurant is open, leaving angry patrons asking for something that might not exist in the 2-4 months it usually takes the average busy working person to get around to trying a new place. But the thing that gets the clicks online (9 whole cents per view!) for a publication is to tell everyone about the new place as soon as you possibly can.
Not to mention that a large portion of our best restaurants in Indy are farm-to-table, so their greatness lies in ever-changing menus. But readers and editors like specificity, so you ultimately end up writing about food that probably won’t be on the menu tomorrow, next week, or next month. And the less “shelf life” a piece has, the less likely you’ll be allowed to spend the money it takes to write it.
Remember that 9 cent number from the first paragraph? Do the math on that one. You write a bad review of a restaurant, a real Pete Wells style gouging with all the petty, viral-ready bon mots, and it gets 10,000 clicks. Great! You’ve just banked $900, and it only cost you $100 in food, $150 to pay your freelance reviewer, $80 for still shots by a photographer, and about $10,000 in advertising the next 5-10 years.
2. Honest, positive reviews don’t sell ads. Bad reviews drain publications of money.
Even great restaurants have their obvious flaws that affect the dining experience, but writing about those flaws makes the job of the ad sales department infinitely more difficult–something almost no paper can afford aside from huge, national publications and papers in huge markets. And when you’re pitting a handful of small, unfortunate mistakes against the machine that ultimately produces your salary, an overall positive experience is much easier to write about, even though you know the all-kumbaya-the-time feel of the writing won’t ultimately help grow the restaurant or the scene.
Not to mention that 90% of the people that say they want an honest review of their food are fucking lying through their teeth. When the majority of chefs say they want “real criticism,” what they really want is a full page of praise next to high res glamor shots of their food. If these folks are so desperate for “real criticism,” there are plenty of markets nearby where they could stage. Show me your average chef-owner, and I’ll show you someone who will yank their ads for a bad review and never buy another even if they’re sold out of tables every damn night for 10 straight years. There are owners still refusing to buy ads in certain local papers because they got a bad review in the fucking 90s. Ultimately, it’s not worth risking not just current ads but, and this was far from an isolated incident, your future ad dollars for years into the future.
3. Writing bad reviews sucks
There is no more gut-wrenching feeling you’ll have as a food writer when you meet an eager, bright-eyed young chef at their first job manning his or her own kitchen, and you can tell they’ve never wanted anything more in their lives than to go the big show. And then the meal that follows is a weirdly-seasoned, overwrought mess that they lay down on the table with such graceful care, beaming with pride. It’s like planning a fun weekend trip with your bff and running into your mutual friend’s husband and his side chick at the hotel’s continental breakfast.
WHY GOD?! WHY ME?!
It sucks to write those reviews. As my brother in law once said, “I could never be a traffic cop, because you’d wake up every morning knowing you’re going to ruin so many days.” You’re ruining one person’s day for sure, every time you write a negative review, and it might be the guy making $10 an hour on the hot line or the bar manager who came up with the cocktail that tastes like bathtub gin infused with cheap perfume. But they work their asses off every day, and a negative review makes it that much harder to keep doing the unpaid emotional labor of a thankless job.
But there’s no crying in restaurant reviews, and those people deserve to know they burn shit and think too hard about their flavors. The real problem is that bad reviews kill diner curiosity.
I love a shitty bar. I love it when the seats are cracked and the food is greasy but you can get a High Life in a frosted schooner so fuck it. There is no amount of opinion of a place’s shittiness that will keep me from a place that looks like I might like it, but I’m a hard-headed, strong-willed son of a bitch, and I am not everyone. For a lot of people, reading a bad review is all they need to cross a restaurant off of places they are curious to try, and as a connoisseur of “bad” bars and, my true favorite, tacky hotels, I think bad reviews keep people from possibly discovering their next favorite place. Because ultimately, restaurants, whether they are chains or indies, are enormous moving machines that employ a lot of people and circulate a lot of cash through our local economy. Every time a bad review is published, it opens a little drip valve in that restaurant’s cashflow, which sometimes they might never recover from.
4. Readers think they’re “mean”
Readers don’t really understand the point of reviews anymore, and they don’t like to read what they see as “pointless negativity.” Why can’t we in the “lifestyle” sections just write more positive everything! Writing about anything not positive invites a chorus of “who the fuck do you think you are!” Readers don’t care about our opinion of the food, they just want a flowery food porn description they can jerk it to while they’re “meal prepping” boiled chicken breast and salted sweet potatoes and planning their “cheats.” (Mmmm, anhedonia!)
When a food scene is on the upswing that it is right now, when it needs honest criticism more than ever, is when people want to read honesty the least–because the upswing is built on fanatical cheerleading no matter the quality. And because food is such a personal and emotionally fraught fulfillment of base needs, perhaps second only to sex, readers take this shit personally as fuck. I used to get hate mail/mean tweets for 3 things: making fun of Republicans, mislabeling a neighborhood by 5 blocks or less, and not putting everyone in the fucking city’s favorite spot on some 500-word “best of” listicle. Some people would sooner slap you for writing that their favorite pizza joint is a greasy mess than writing that their mom gave parking lot handjobs to pay for it.
5. Ultimately, all reviews, whether paid, published or Yelped, come out in the free market’s wash
I’ve said it before, but anyone who gets into the foodservice business because they want to “be their own boss” is already either independently wealthy enough to lose some money, or completely delusional. Regardless of any reviewer opinion of any variety, good food, good traffic, smart distribution, great management, and good marketing prevail every time, and it doesn’t really feel like a reviewer’s opinion matters more than a large rock might matter on a beach. It’s just an amplified version of the inevitable: it’s good enough to stay in business for more than a year, or it isn’t. Reviews are nothing more than a mirror of a business. What used to be a fairly even 3- or 4-way mirror in the pre-Internet age has been fractionated into a billion little opinions bathed in an era of identity politics. Still, extrapolate the “I like its” and the “I don’t like its” out to a large enough group, and you’ve just got a market research study, to which one opinion, no matter how experienced or knowledgeable, bears very little on the end outcome. And if the choice is between predicting the obvious doom or boom of a restaurant and losing enormous money and friendly connections in a community that requires good relationships to get good reporting done, it’s easy to see why papers and writers aren’t lining up to give the up or down.
So there you go. That’s why no one writes “honest,” authentic reviews in publications anymore outside of markets that have the competition to afford it. Because it has outlived it’s purpose in the post-publishing era.
Now, who wants to upack this whole naan pizza bullshit for me?