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Let’s Discuss: When is it Too Early to Review a New Restaurant on the Web?

Yesterday Sarah Reiss posted a First Take Review of Sutra, Vijay Sadu’s new contemporary Indian food spot in Plano. Last night I received an email from a colleague in the food writing business. The note reads:

It would seem that if the first outing so soon after opening was that bad, someone would have the grace to give him a chance to get things together…It seems really out of line for a publication of D’s reputation to do such a hatchet  job two weeks after a place opens, no matter what the web demands.

First, a short explanation. First Take is a segment Sarah writes for our website, not SideDish or D Magazine. A First Take review is different from a D Magazine review where we go back several times over the course of how ever long it takes to get a feel for what is going on in the new restaurant. Today the review rotated to the SideDish site.

If you are a regular reader of SideDish, you know that we have written many posts about Sutra. Andrew Chalk reported on a friends and family dinner, a preview a week before it opened, and he was the first to announce opening night (Feb.15).

A week later I noticed mixed reviews from followers on the SideDish Twitter feed (DSideDish).

Let’s get to the point: Has the web changed the rules on a publication’s web or blog pages? Are blog reviews replacing magazine or newspaper reviews? If people are walking into restaurants and announcing they are Yelper’s or Foodie’s and demanding extras, I think we can say the axis has made a dangerous shift.

Put in your ear plugs, put on your eyeshades, and let’s decide where to put the cork.  Discuss.

49 comments on “Let’s Discuss: When is it Too Early to Review a New Restaurant on the Web?

  1. I don’t post negative service experiences in the first 6-8 weeks as they are no guide to the reader going after that time. If a restaurant hasn’t solved the service issues after two months then it is a point of discussion.

    At 10 days all you can do is articulate the establishment’s intentions and appearance and comment, with qualifications, on the execution of the food.

  2. It is never too early to do this kind of visit. If a place is open and accepting peoples money, then they should be equally as open to paying customers opinions – good and bad.

  3. I agree with joeat and will repeat: Restaurants such as Sutra and Kamali, etc. hire p.r. people to beat the drums so that there is much anticipation by the time of the first day they open. If they want a few weeks to fly under the radar to work out food and service issues in the hopes of better first-time reviews, then they need to tone down their self-promotion.

  4. Its wrong I been there three times and every thing was good… You need to know more about Indian Food I guess (writer)

  5. Joeat is right. Practice on family and friends if you aren’t sure of your service and food quality, prior to serving the public.

  6. Andrew it is obvious you are friends with the chef. Where do write reviews where they don’t know who you are? I agree on the hype this place got all over town. I went and found it good but expensive. You only have one time to make a good impression on me.

  7. i thought the “first take” was very clear in explaining that it was in fact a…first take. and the web absolutely necessitates real time reviews. by the morning the newspaper is behind the times. its a real time world.

    i can’t wait to try Sutra out (Tabla in NYC opened my eyes to what Indian could be, Samar reinforced it)

    This review wasn’t condmening the place. it just was a snapshot of what the place is like today. which is helpful if i’m making dinner plans for this saturday night. because even if the restaurant deserves 6-8 weeks to get it right (they do), the diners don’t get their money back in those first 6-8 weeks if they aren’t satisfied.

  8. Describing Sarah’s piece as a “hatchet job” was particularly bizarre. While I wish she had the enjoyable experiences that I’ve had at Sutra, Sarah’s writing seemed honest and not the least bit malicious. She even opened with the old “I really want to love it” angle.

    This conversation has been over since the second comment. Joeat nailed it. If money is being charged, the public has a right to know what they’re getting.

  9. As the wife of a chef I believe I can offer a fair opinion, so I would like to throw my spatula in. We spent weeks preparing for opening day. If the staff is not ready to go, then this is the chef’s, GM and floor manager’s fault.
    However, I want to throw a fresh made lasagna at the wall when I hear another reviewer say, “I don’t review until they have been open for at least 2 months”
    (Ahem…rhymes with Presley Henner)
    But when you get down to the nut cuttin’- the staff should be ready and aimin’ to please.
    This is why my husband’s staff hates me.

  10. As long as we’re using food metaphors…

    Presley, what is your beef with the “two month” rule exactly? While the exact amount of time may change, most of the major outlets around town adhere to that or something similar for their “official” reviews. This controversy behind Sarah’s piece is that it came out too soon, but you seem to be against waiting.

    What’s up?

  11. Annnndddd. I’m sick so I didn’t finish my thought because my head hurts, but:
    “However, I want to throw a fresh made lasagna at the wall when I hear another reviewer say, “I don’t review until they have been open for at least 2 months”

    And they are there the first day and two more times after that within the two month time frame.

    (Ahem…rhymes with Presley Henner)

  12. I’d expect a real review within a week or two of opening, simply because people want to know whether that buzz they hear about a new place has any substance. You can always go back after six weeks for a more comprehensive look, and link to the updated review, if you think someone months down the road is going to try to rely on your first one.

    I’d feel let down if I went to a restaurant in its third week and had a terrible meal with awful service, then later discovered a reviewer had gone the second week and had a similarly poor experience, but kept his or her mouth shut out out of a misplaced sense of duty.

    Andrew, thanks for your candor. But if I have to look at a calendar to tell if you’re giving me the full story on an establishment, I think I should be looking elsewhere instead.

  13. Sara an advice from an Indian guy. Please before you review any thing please read about the cuisine on internet get some knowledge, than go and do your reviews. Goodluck

  14. Wow this is really interesting!!!! Ok my feed back on the Sutra: I been there twice, yes first time it was not ok but second time it was great both service and the food. I am an Indian so let me give my feed back too please. Cauliflower is good yes it is what it is because they add the sauce so how can it be crispy, and the Scallops well it is a south indian dish so it has to be spicy now the salt well I dont think so. I dont care for the decor really because I think the owner need to make money first then think about the decor I guess. Looks like sadhu has no investors so I dont really care about the decor.

  15. @Sanjay: There’s nothing in Sarah’s review that indicates she doesn’t understand Indian cuisine. Just because you disagree with her opinion doesn’t mean she’s uninformed. It’s a difference of opinion not knowledge.

  16. In her review, Sarah writes, “We were big fans of his work at Samar, at Clay Pit, and, before that, at Bukhara Grille.”

    Sadhu left Bukhara Grille in spring of 2008 and left Clay Pit in winter of 2008. Yet, per her bio, Reiss “moved to Dallas in 2010 from New York City.” Back in 2008, Reiss was teaching creative writing at a high school in Jacksonville, Florida.

    Just how big a fan was she of Sadhu’s cooking in 2008?

  17. What ever happened to a “soft opening” to work out the kinks? When you open the doors to the general public, an establishment should be ready for primetime.

  18. Also, Sadhu left Samar in early 2010. So, Sarah, did you ever eat at Bukhara Grille, Clay Pit, or Samar when Sadhu was in the kitchen?

  19. big props to chef sadhu for posting in this thread. if this thread is a discussion about the changing world of food criticism, the ability for chefs and restaurateurs to be a viable part of that conversation is one of my favorite parts of the “new” style of food reviewing.

  20. Scott – It is our editorial policy to write in the plural; I can understand how it can come off as confusing. So, let me explain. The “we” refers my date, a long-time local and Vijay loyalist, and my D colleagues, all of whom provided valuable historical input.

    Oh, by the way, in 2008 I was in Southern California. Before that I was in NJ. Before that I was teaching writing in FL. But thanks for studying my bio – you sure know how to make a gal feel special.

  21. If you open, you should be ready be ready to go, if you are charging full price for food, the consumer should expect value for money, the day or openeing, 6 months after, 6 years after. Unless you want to offer a cheaper price while you work out the kinks then you should be offereing 100% service and food.

    A food critic is no different to a regular customer, especially now that everyone is a food critic as long as they have a computer and can string a sentence together (yelp)

    Having said that, I do think its fair that if you are a publication of sorts, you should write what your experience was and then perhaps in 3-6months make a point to revisit and point out the differences from your first visit….that being said, the restaurant mentioned is currently at 4 stars on yelp and I think most of the public visit yelp before D magazine/Observer/Pegasus/DMN when seeing what restaurant to eat at.

  22. I am glad this subject comes up. I almost posted something yesterday when snaps were given to Trailercakes. Now I realize these ladies sought someone at D to bring the word about their product however I felt judgment should have been used until these ladies were truly running on all four wheels. After reading the snippet I was all for supporting these fledgling sole proprietors (I do so love me a good confection) but when I found out it would cost me 102.00 plus tax to sample a mere three flavors I was all out. So in this instance I feel D hurt this new business. I admit I am more concerned when this happens to a sole proprietor vs. a large corporate store. The latter has deeper pockets and can in most cases buy time to get things worked out however the little guy generally doesn’t and in most cases has just one shot.

  23. Raise you hand if you are tired of Nancy. Her ego, like others at D, has gotten way too big

  24. Sarah,

    First of all, it doesn’t come off as confusing. It comes off as misleading. When you put your name to a review, people assume that (unless clearly stated otherwise) you’re describing your own opinions and experiences, not a composite of others’.

    Second, if it’s D Magazine’s editorial policy to write in the plural, you did a shabby job of it, since you use the first person singular (e.g., I, me, my) a number of times in the piece. And is this a new policy? Because, as recently as the February issue of D Magazine, Nancy Nichols’s lead review of Crossroads Diner repeatedly uses the first person singular.

    Third, as to “the plural,” it was your choice to include yourself in a plurality of “big fans of [Sadhu's] work” at restaurants you never visited while he was the chef. You could just as easily said that “some of us were big fans,” while “some of us have never dined at a restaurant where he was chef.” Or you could have used the first person singular (editorial policy, be damned!) as you did several times throughout the piece. The decision not to do so served a rhetorical purpose (i.e., the dramatic contrast between your “big fandom” and your dashed hopes), but was not truthful.

  25. Matt: Sorry, that (non-sequitor) axe you have in your hands and apparently want to grind is too big for me to see you. Are you raising your hand?

  26. OzoneDude, I am trying to talk about reviews on the internet, not print pubs. At the moment there are two mindsets in play. One being the print product goes more than once over a period of time and possibly interviews a chef during the course of gathering information for a review. The web –DUH!–demands more and fast information. Hence several local blogs such as Eats and SideDish do First Takes to give readers a quick, sometimes formatted look into the restaurant. Leslie Brenner named Lucia the best new restaurant of 2010 21 days after it opened and before she reviewed it in the paper. In the link you provide, I took issue with a writer glowing about the Feed Me/Wine Me dinner before the restaurant had a wine list. How could it be the best if it wasn’t available? Our First Take is what it says it is–a one-time look.

  27. @Matt: My hand is raised. And it’s raised also for all the other junk food blogs in Dallas.

    “YELP” tells me a lot more of what I need to know.

  28. Goodness…this was a “first take” people! If you decide not to try the restaurant because the FIRST look wasn’t amazing, I feel sorry for you. You need to start forming your own opinions. I think it’s perfectly fine to give a review like this. jonfromtjs said it perfectly in the very beginning of these comments:

    “I thought the ‘first take’ was very clear in explaining that it was in fact…a first take. And the web absolutely necessitates real time reviews. by the morning the newspaper is behind the times. its a real time world…This review wasn’t condemning the place. It just was a snapshot of what the place is like today…”

  29. jmo, but for a “first take”, this not-a-review spends a lot of time on the execution of a relatively small amount of dishes, while doing a poor job telling the reader about what they can expect to see on the menu or in terms of flavors, style, or what’s different from other places. Maybe it might be worthwhile to think about how a non-review like this benefits the reader (lowering expectations?), unless that’s simply not a priority compare to say, comments, or views.

  30. I don’t see how you can read the article and not feel like you’re reading a standard (albeit poor) restaurant review, versus a “first take” that’s “just a snapshot”.

  31. I expertienced the same issue a couple months ago as Scott-DFW mentions. I thought she was writing a blurb about actually visiting the sandwich shop downtown that served coney islands, and what upset me was that my experience was so much different than hers, and that it wasn’t until I went into the restaurant’s website and saw that the pic she used was the restaurant’s pic that I realized all she did was cut and paste their p.r. It wasn’t immediately clear to me that Sarah had not in fact visited the restaurant and that she was not describing a first-person experience. I would definitely like it to be clearer whether these reviews are actually written by the person who dined at the place, or whether it’s a p.r. piece, or in this case, the experience of several people over a good period of time that the writer had no first-person knowledge of, and which wasn’t made clear in the review. Only good research revealed that fact.

  32. It’s time for professionals to set a precedence – whether it is to lean with the changing, more de-centralized “foodie” “yelper” social-media form criticism or to continue to uphold the old guard of food writing ethics and standards.

    I’m not sure with Sarah’s “First Take” review because it’s clearly confusing the readers of Sidedish. If blogs are replacing official reviews, then her “First Take,” no matter what it claims, has the impact of a review.

    Only those people who have never owned or opened a restaurant think it’s fair game to review a restaurant when it has just opened. As a new restaurant, you don’t know how everyone performs together because your staff has a brand new dynamic and there’s probably a mix of employees that you know and don’t know. Like remodeling a home, everything costs 25% more and takes twice or thrice as long as you expect it to. Many times you have new people working with you, whom you have never managed nor know how capable or reliable they are. You have new software, new equipment that you don’t know how to work, etc. Countless people who have no experience running restaurants invest in and open restaurants. Some become successful, but some don’t.

    The problem I have with Yelpers is their lack of accountability. If you are unhappy, take responsibility, own up to it and have the guts to complain to the manager. Furthermore, their desire to gain “elite” status is driven by their narcissism and desire to be popular, not write about food passionately or professionally. Maybe, in Sarah’s case, it would have helped if her First Take included more of an exchange with the manager, owner, chef, some more insight to the restaurant — would have seemed less like a review.

    And Sarah, yes, it is impossible to find great servers even in a serious recession. It’s not just a temporary job; it is a profession. Perhaps the unemployment rate isn’t high enough in Plano. I know plenty of unemployed people who refuse to wait tables for the sole reason that they don’t want to be abused by customers. Not just anyone can wait tables either because it requires salesmanship, professionalism, class, multi-tasking abilities, memorization, flexibility and being technologically savvy among others — especially the ability not to assault customers when they verbally abuse you and expect everything for free.

  33. I love u “intheindustry”. Everyone does think they are a critic now. And I second the motion that if you are unhappy with something in your dining experience, man-up and say something to a manager or owner. Don’t hide behind your computer or iPhone yelp app.

  34. Hats of to Intheindustry!!! this person is just true guys.. People dont understand what a Owner/Chef/Manager go through in the first month of opening a restaurant.

  35. Intheindustry. well put. i’m in the industry too. had a lady criticize one of my best servers the other night and she wasn’t even being waited on by her. she came to her conclusions by “observation” ??? I’d just love to see her try this job herself. some folks have no idea.

  36. Gee, this is a lot of clicks and posts over some forgettable eatseria. Sarah, are you crazy or crazy like a fox? Some nutty person told me that clicks and posts are the same as money, aren’t they? Awesome, if true.

  37. I’ll begin by adding my kudos to Intheindustry for well made observations. Along with that, I’d like to say nuts to the Nancy haters (go spend your valuable time somewhere else if you feel that way). Finally, to Nancy, thanks for asking and giving us an open forum to respond. What I’m taking away from this is that restaurants and critics alike need to be especially careful during the first weeks of operation. After all expenses are added up the margins are not as great as some would like to think – especially in the first couple of weeks, so giving a 10% discount or free appetizer, drink or dessert during that time equates to giving a look to the first customers at close to cost. Not a bad policy for an entrepreneur seeking to diffuse the expectations generated by too much pre-opening hype. Sarah, hang in there. Be open minded and less defensive. There have been some very good suggestions for formatting future first looks, and if you’re pay attention the bruising your ego may have taken here will make you a better writer.

  38. Sounds like there are lots of whiners from “the industry” that hate the yelpers and food blog readers that make going to restaurants a hobby. Maybe we should all shut up and eat at home.

    I agree that a restaurant is fair game when it is fully open to the general public and this is 10X true for a restaurant that employs PR people to drum up business. Whether it’s in a formal review, a blog post, or just word of mouth by people that have visited, those first experiences set the tone. If you aren’t ready to open and you aren’t confident that all your systems and staff are working as intended, don’t open. If you are forced to open too soon because of cash flow issues, don’t complain when people don’t like having to deal with your problems when they are paying you to serve them. And I say this after having indeed worked in “the industry”.

  39. In the era of amateur writers who can’t tell the difference between walnuts and pecans and imitation crab meat from the real stuff, it is necessary to have professional journalists continue to operate as professionals and support the very industry they write about, no matter what the trends point towards.

    Professionals visit a restaurant anonymously several times before publishing a review. Professionals do fact-checking. Professionals give us a chance to get our ducks in a row before reviewing us.

    Yelpers are bribed with parties with free drinks and food. (Yelp contacts restaurants to donate food and alcohol to their mafia – most of whom never return, these “elite” just hop on to the next free party)

    On ethical grounds, professionals are expected to be reliable. Professionals help educate their readers, not make snarky comments to get “funny” votes and gain “followers.”

    It’s not “whining.” It’s facts used to help enlighten guests who are interested and invested in the food industry. For example, a well-known restaurant in Dallas was lambasted by locals when it opened recently. They made some serious management changes and now it’s getting local and national recognition. Ever notice that most restaurants have a grand opening after they have opened for a month or 3 months? You don’t know what’s wrong until you do open. You don’t know who is reliable or who will flake out until you do open. You don’t know who will sink or swim. You don’t know who your customer base is. Like anything, repetition is important to becoming more efficient and effective. The more practice you have, the better.

    Nancy and Sarah, take a stand! Set your own model of food writing but don’t copy that of amateurs and “foodies” just to be relevant or popular. Your credibility is on the line. You are only relevant if you are responsible and informed about both food and how the industry operates. The amateurs aren’t.

  40. Oh please. Doesn’t anyone watch Kitchen Nightmares? Gordon Ramsey can get people- food critics and all- into a failing restaurant with crappy food and worse service after a six-hour menu makeover and stern talking-to to the chef/owner/manager. Why should the public expect mediocrity from an expensive, hyped restaurant, just because it’s only been open for a week? That’s crap. As Gordon would say, “Where’s your standards?”

    And this is what the consuming public sees and thinks. Yes, we as consumers watch shows like this. We think our opinions matter because, well, they do. This is the internet age, folks, so you gotta start rolling with the times. To stand on some pedestal and speak in platitudes about how “professional” and learned all the *real* food writers are better- meaning that their opinions matter more than mere yelping plebeians who spend actual cash and thus are entitled to actual criticisms.

    There is no “MBA” of food critics. It is a very subjective, er “industry”. The greatest thing about the internet age is that, while we may be “me-firsters”, we are also demanding better and better stuff from the people we pay our money to have all that stuff. We demand accountability. And if you don’t like it because you are a so-called “professional” and hence, should know better and more about food, then too damn bad!

  41. @Mark L: sideline reader here but from this vantage point InTheIndustry sounds like a hardworking industry professional passionate about what (s)he does and this dialogue. It’s you who comes across as bitter as an ounce of alum.

  42. I wouldn’t be interested in a review done in the first month a place is open. You have to let them work the kinks out.