Is It Wrong to Review a Just-Opened Restaurant? A Response to Angry Food Critics
Some of the nation's most influential dining writers object to THR critiquing a new LA hotspot on its fourth night in business. Here, the author of the Vespertine review defends his work — and asks why a decades-old convention can't evolve.
It's been bemusing to survey the reaction to the publication of my generally negative July 17 review of Vespertine in The Hollywood Reporter, the over-the-top L.A. fine-dining restaurant that had opened to much food world buzz 11 days earlier. Exception hasn't been taken (so far) by the chef, management or investors.
Instead, fellow food writers, and in particular the city and nation's most prominent and esteemed critics, took issue with the mere concept of critiquing a restaurant so early in its run. (I noted in my piece that I visited on the fourth evening of service.)
Eater, the restaurant news site, was the first to raise the concern. At its request, I explained THR's reasoning:
My editors and I believe Vespertine is worthy of a serious review — and, more importantly, potential patrons should have the service of a serious review — as early as possible. Not just due to its significantly high price and locked-in ticketing (although those are factors) but because its concept alludes to that of a performance. Stage reviews are timed to opening night and screen reviews to premieres. Consumers should be informed now, not weeks or months from now.
I would add that from the first night of service Vespertine has charged full price. Therefore consumers can and should expect it to operate at its full ability.
The old "gentlemen's agreement" to wait to review a restaurant benefits chefs and their investors. It doesn't benefit diners. In the age of the internet it's time for that to change.
Among others, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Jonathan Gold of the Los Angeles Times spoke up on Twitter, observing that waiting "4-6 weeks has been the standard since the beginning of time. Gourmet was 6 months, but that was a special case."
Of course, the venerated Gourmet folded nearly a decade ago now due to the evolving nature and needs of the food world. Beyond that, one might wonder aloud how the subjective four- to six-week window became an industry standard? (The Association of Food Journalists' guidelines recommend a month's wait minimum; yes, food journalists have a fraternity, and yes, I've been @'d.) This arose in an antediluvian time: the dawn of modern restaurant criticism in the 1950s, when the since-humbled imperatives of print publishing schedules were unquestioned, and what the AFJ dismissively terms "online chatter" would not for decades even be conceived.
The next day, LA Weekly critic Besha Rodell joined the fray with a blog post arguing that "the first few weeks of a restaurant are not reflective of what that restaurant will be like over the course of its life" (italics her own), going on to note that "sometimes the energy that comes with an opening dissipates, and what starts out as an exciting, vibrant dining experience devolves once the crack team of servers and bartenders and cooks hired on opening move on to the next hot new thing, once the chef and owner turns to other projects."
Point taken, but why then not wait four to six months, or better yet several years? There is no scholarship quantifying the virtues and hazards of waiting. After all, restaurants are constantly evolving creatures, their menus and personnel and quality shifting not just shortly after their openings but through their entire life cycles. The idea that there's a just-right Goldilocks moment to review a restaurant is a fallacy.
Professional dining critics — even the most justly lauded — are an anxious bunch. In an already antagonistic media environment, their readers, including those in their own newsrooms, are often intensely jealous of their expense accounts and frequently suspicious of the supremacy of their expertise. It's an understandable instinct to defensively rally around the remaining bulwarks of tradition (however anachronistic), to attempt to disguise a craft of analysis and opinion as one involving some tenuous relationship to the soft sciences (hence the ingrained theatrics of the multiple visitations and invocations of blind subject tests via anonymous visits).
Yet the "standard" way of doing things should still be open to reconsideration — the idea that different approaches may not just be valid, but useful, as food journalism evolves. For instance, in a much-discussed move, Gold dropped his long-held mask of anonymity in early 2015, one that he acknowledged at the time had long been a pretext, since "a hundred waiters know my name" and "at chic restaurants, chefs nervously avoid my gaze." (Rodell, widely known by sight in dining rooms around town, persists in the pretense.)
On Wednesday morning, The New York Times' chief restaurant critic, Pete Wells — best known locally of late for his much-pilloried decision to utilize his bully pulpit in January to savage Locol, Roy Choi's healthy fast-food enterprise for underprivileged communities like Watts — weighed in, too. On Twitter, he characterized my position as "completely wrongheaded and backwards," musing that there is no such gentlemen's agreement: "Restaurants certainly know our schedules and adjust. But there is no proof of collusion!"
Still, that status quo, where restaurants hope for a grace period and critics typically grant it to them, sounds pretty cozy.
THR's mission is to be the first to tell its audience about the things it wants and needs to know about. We mostly critique film, television and theater, and those spaces are instructive. They are (often) artistic but (fundamentally) commercial entertainment that creators put into the paying marketplace for customers to experience. In other spheres of criticism, the agreement is this: As soon as you're open for business, you're open for judgment, because mainstream journalistic reviewing is, at root, a consumer service.
While Broadway producers might prefer the leniency of a month's latitude after opening night, they don't receive it. Neither still can filmmakers wait for later, refined cuts to be reviewed after that first screening at Sundance or Cannes, or showrunners hope to be redeemed by the overall first season instead of a mere pilot.
I look forward to reading other critics' responses to Vespertine, whether in a month or (if the restaurant makes it) a year. But the notion that THR's review isn't a boon to the conversation — or, worse, is an impediment — due to its early publication is absurd. Especially considering the restaurant in question: One which will only accept a reservation that's paid in advance (to the tune of a minimum of $250 per person, although in reality each diner will end up paying closer to $500 or more) without divulging basic details of the experience, including its menu.
Wells also ventured that the earliest visitors essentially deserve what they get, glibly remarking on Twitter, "you pays your money and you takes your chances. (I think people who go in the first week are nuts.)" But there's a certain nuttiness involved in dining at restaurants like Vespertine at any time, as a roll-the-dice buyer proposition, no matter how many reviews you've read (and no matter how effusive they may be).
Vespertine chef Jordan Kahn's mentor Grant Achatz, the proprietor of Chicago's Alinea (currently No. 21 on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list), responded to Wells on Twitter. "I can see both sides," he wrote. "Reality is restaurants need time to be their best. But if charging $ should be ready."