It takes some serious cajones to open up a new restaurant in thee middle of a pandemic. Even more so doing it in a city positively lousy with ramen shops.
When I saw the new storefront open up and a couple faces returning time and time again, I figured it was time to take them for a spin. I hadn’t written about ramen on the blog yet, and it’s the perfect weather for a bowl of hot noodles.
After two visits, trying their most popular bowl and a bowl of what they specialize in, I walked away feeling like I had wasted my money. If I am spending money on ramen and “I could have had a better dinner with a pack of Top Ramen and fixings from my fridge” floats through my mind, that’s a bad sign.
Tossing out half of the second disappointing bowl, I decided that the place did not merit a review. Not a bad review, or a complaint on Yelp- that’s not my way.
I don’t give bad reviews, anywhere, ever- and I have good reasons why.
Fish in A Barrel
One of the most quoted pieces of restaurant wisdom is that 60% of all new restaurants fail within their first years and 30% fail within two. Just by reason of the massive amount of overhead involved in opening even a modest restaurant venture, the act of opening a new restaurant is a huge investment and leap of faith.
Given a dead pool of that size, small restaurants that offer legitimately terrible food or service get flexed out of the system quickly. The rules for chains are somewhat different as they aren’t expected to have “good” food per say- instead, they are cheap, convenient, and reliable. No one goes to a Cracker Barrel for the fine dining experience- they go there because it tastes good enough for the money they are willing to pay.
What this means for me is simply that bad restaurants don’t need help failing, and every restaurant deserves to fail on its own merits. If a place is having problems, it deserves the chance to correct them without every putz giving them a hard time. Yelp has the market cornered on bland negativity, and thanks to review sites like it, John Q. Public doesn’t need food writers to tell them what sucks anymore- they need us to tell them where the good stuff is.
Inside Looking Out, Looking In
Your rank-and-file cook tends to have a negative view of critics. The idea that some shmuck with a pen and a newspaper column can sit in judgement over work they trained, sweat, bleed, and live for doesn’t sit well with those accustomed to Noble Toil. To quote Irish poet Brendan Behan:
“Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves.”Brendan Behan
One reason I refrain from writing negative reviews is because I am a cook. I have worked in those kitchens- and when a plate lands on my table, I can look at it and have a good idea of what care and effort went into creating the dish.
None of that is a customers problem, of course. An experts job is to make something difficult look easy. How difficult or time-consuming a given dish is to make doesn’t mean anything to a paying customer- they are paying for the food and for it to be done well. All my experience offers is a bit more forgiveness than someone who hasn’t worked in a kitchen might offer, appreciation of technique and ingredients that might fall flat on the average diner, and context for decisions made that wind up on the plate.
Light A Candle Rather Than Curse the Darkness
Negativity and the hate parade may sell papers and drive clicks, but I’d rather spill ink elevating good food than nailing bad food to the wall.
As already mentioned, the restaurant world is a thriving, fast-moving ecosystem that will eventually flex out the under-performing. Bad restaurants will hit the skids eventually. If they don’t, they can’t be that bad (regardless of your personal feelings, it’s unlikely that every customer has terrible taste.)
Given that, I’d rather spend my time and energy elevating good food and giving places I like a leg up. Good restaurants deserve to stay in the business of making good food, and I’d prefer to help them weather the industry storms (such as now) then pushing the heads of weaker restaurants under water.
Every restaurant, even a crappy one, deserves a chance to learn from screw-ups and improve itself. They don’t need some snarky asshole behind a keyboard (or smartphone) making it harder for them. Good restaurants should be encouraged and pushed into the public eye. Bad ones should get a chance to be better, and if they don’t I’m fine letting them pass quietly and with dignity.
The Worst of the Worst
We can imagine “what if” scenarios that put the lie to my policy- “What if a place is truly terrible? Like you actually feel cheated having handed them money for whatever that nonsense is they call food? Don’t people deserve to know that? Don’t you want to spare your readers from wasting their time?”
Yes, I do. If anyone were to ask me, I’d candidly tell them a list of restaurants in this city that I said “Never again” to. That’s the nature of word-of-mouth, folks- it’s not always positive. The question, though, is whether I want to give that mouth a megaphone the way Yelp has.
Of the cooks I’ve spoken to about review sites, they hold a mixed bag of views. Some reject them having seen their shakedown style of business, others (justifiably) fear review bombing and “cancel culture” for telling the wrong “Karen” the manager wasn’t giving her a free dessert. Others buy in and carefully curate their reviews, valuing the advertising potential above bruised pride.
I’m not here for that. I’m here to tell you stories. They are stories about the good food and good people in this world, and where you can find it for yourself.
If you hear it from me, you know it’s worth trying. Radio silence is about as negative as I ever want to be for people trying their hardest in a hostile industry.
Besides, you can catch my experiences live on Instagram anyway.