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AucklandMay 26, 2017

Suck it up: why critics are good for restaurants

Photo: Pixabay
Photo: Pixabay

Now more than ever, says Simon Wilson, critics are good for restaurants and good for their customers too. The real problem in media coverage is the exact opposite: it’s uncritical feel-goodism and the lack of critics. 

Everyone’s a critic. It’s always been true about restaurants, because we all eat so we all know what we think, right? And everyone really is a critic now thanks to Facebook. Which, you might think, would have given restaurants a whole new appreciation of the value of the real critics, the people who write about them for a living.

Because Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all the socials, they can really chew you up. Social doesn’t often do nuance, or context, or complex. Social does love and blazing scorn. And conversely, when it’s a social feedback site like TripAdvisor, a lot of things come out average. The wisdom of crowds, when it comes to reviews, is not wise at all: it sinks to the middle.

All of which means it’s not just restaurants that should appreciate real critics now, it’s everyone. Real critics do knowledgeable considered judgment and they write better too.

Well, ideally. Truth is, critics are like restaurants. Some are really good, some are really bad and the great majority are pretty good but really should be better. Just like everything else. And it’s as true for critics in the arts and entertainment as it is in restaurants.

The standard of reviewing isn’t helped by media outlets that dole out reviewing gigs to anyone on staff who wants them. They wouldn’t ask any old reporter to cover the budget.

Although that argument doesn’t go far these days: lifestyle content has become extremely important to most media, which means they have journalists writing about food, fashion, homestyling and all that stuff all the time. Many of them have built up substantial expertise.

Strangely, though, when restaurants complain about critics they invariably call them know-nothings, but they’re rarely talking about the true know-nothings. The critics they complain about are usually the experienced ones, the experts.

Coco Cantina’s now-deleted Instagram post

So Coco’s Cantina has announced a ban on critics, and the owner of Harbourside and Botswana Butchery has joined the owner of Mekong Baby to complain about missing out on Metro’s Top 50. In their case, a couple of their friends (“acting on their own”) have spoken up for them.

Let’s unpick all that a little.

Coco’s, famously and very publicly, wants to keep the customers it likes and who like going there, and it doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. From time to time they get into flaming rows with customers on social media. They’ve got critical comments from TripAdvisor posted like badges of honour on their own Facebook page.

Posting those comments is funny, and brave too, and it’s a really good way of putting TripAdvisor in its place. But there’s a problem. Some of those criticisms will be right. There isn’t a restaurant in town that gives all of its customers, all of the time, a great experience. I know this from years of reviewing and hearing criticisms from others. Not one restaurant always gets it right.

So, sure, lots of TripAdvisor complaints are the idiotic and ill-informed ravings of smugly entitled wankers. But not all of them. A good restaurant – like a good anything – will look to criticism to see what it can learn. And a restaurant – again, like anything – that listens only to its fan club, will in time turn into an insular and decidedly second-rate outfit.

The customer is not always right. That’s so true. But it’s a pretty good rule of doing business that the customer should always be happy.

At this point I should say I really like Coco’s Cantina, and I really like Renee and Damaris Coulter, who own and run it. We’re not friends but we get on well, and I don’t think that’s just them being professionally friendly because I’m a critic. And although I don’t go there much, I’ve always had a good time there. It’s one of half-a-dozen restaurants in Auckland that I recommend often. I rate the food, and the service, and the atmosphere.

Damaris (left) and Renee Coulter of Coco’s Cantina. Photo: José Barbosa

But when they say they don’t want the critics in, that’s just weird. The Coulter sisters are darlings of the Auckland restaurant scene. They really don’t get a hard time from critics. On the contrary, other restaurateurs often complain snidely that critics favour them far too much.

And, problematically for Coco’s, if they ban all the critics they recognise, they’ll risk dropping out of the conversation, and the ratings and awards, and they’ll be written about by inexperienced reporters – the ones who really may not know what they’re talking about. It’s called jabbing yourself in the eye with your own fork.

As for the owners of those restaurants that missed out on this year’s Metro Top 50, get over yourselves. They’ve complained the process isn’t transparent and they don’t know what the criteria are and blah blah blah.

The process is plain. Judges eat at the restaurants and pay for the meals. Where possible, they do so anonymously. Judges pool their experience and when necessary restaurants are rejudged. The criteria – well, what would anyone think the criteria are? Quality of food, service, the place itself, etc: it’s obvious. What I always used to ask judges was, how much do you want to go back? It’s a great question for sorting out how good a place really is.

I wasn’t a judge this year and I have no inside knowledge of what went on. But I set up those awards in their current form and I ran them for many years, and I can assure any disgruntled restaurateurs there were never any prejudices in play and nor was there any sense that advertisers or anyone else had to be appeased.

But it’s tough in this town: there are lots of good restaurants and the standard is rising. If you run one of them and you want to be counted among the very best, my advice is simple: get better.

The food critic Anton Ego from the movie Rataouille

So is there no real problem with media coverage of restaurants? Actually, there’s a really big problem, and it’s the opposite of what Coco’s (and many other restaurants) thinks it is. The problem is the growth of feel-good media.

There’s a school of thought that we don’t need critics anymore, because Facebook and because who wants bad news, and it has infected mainstream media, especially magazines. Advertisers demand supportive editorial for their products and services and very often they don’t want it identified as advertising. Advertisers also want a feel-good environment: celebration of all the good things in their customers’ worlds – the good consumables, that is – and silence about the rest.

Even when they’re not advertisers, many business owners and arts organisations and all the other entities that get written about want only feel-good coverage too. In my experience restaurateurs, as a group, are big believers in this.

Support for this point of view has always been true with some publishers and some magazines, and it’s more true now than ever. Most of the new titles of the last few years, in print and online, are dedicated to it. Critics struggle to exist with integrity in a context where they are expected to be little more than publicists. Some media don’t have critics at all.

Sadly, some readers don’t notice either. I’ve heard supposedly well-informed urban types talk about “reviews” of places that haven’t even opened. So you know: that’s called publicity or it might even be advertising.

Photo: Pixabay

Next time you’re reading about a restaurant or some other kind of retailer, or an arts or entertainment show, ask yourself: is there anything in this to suggest it isn’t paid copy? If there’s not, be suspicious. Is anything in the whole publication to suggest it isn’t all paid for? If there’s not, remind yourself: the writers and editors and publishers are not telling you everything they know.

Publishers also, more than ever, like the feel-good approach because it helps them sell advertising.

And, for the record, I’m not opposed to publicity as such. It’s a legit role for media, telling people about what’s on and what’s coming up, and especially about the things that are likely to be good. But it’s a thin fulfilment of the media’s job if there are no reviews to balance it.

There’s also this. When I was editor of Cuisine, over a decade ago, the rule, which I was not permitted to change, was that the magazine never ran critical reviews. The purpose of a review, the former owner told me, was to act as publicity for the magazine. The aim was to get it pasted in the window of the restaurant.

I thought that was appalling. I still think it. The pretence that everything is wonderful is not a recipe for improvement, it’s merely an invitation to complacency.

There will almost always be good and not so good and sometimes bad things about a restaurant, and a good review should attempt to balance those things. But it’s not just that. Most restaurants, certainly most that are worth reviewing, are pretty good. That is, they are merely pretty good. They would score what AA Gill used to call the dreaded 13/20.

Most halfway decent restaurateurs can run a profitable 13/20 restaurant and many are happy to do so. And most customers are probably happy enough that they do. You don’t have a special night out – but nor do you go away disappointed. Certainly you don’t jump on Facebook and complain.

But customers deserve north of 15. And the people who speak for them, who have the skills and commitment to know how 13 could become 16 or 17 (and how 16 could become 18 or 19), are the critics. It’s critics who counter the mediocrity of the wisdom of crowds. Critics speak to their readers, providing context and a deeper understanding of the experience. They also speak to restaurants, helping to keep them honest, helping them to get better.

Restaurants should love proper critics: they’re keeping it real. Which is exactly what good restaurants are trying to do too. Critics help raise the bar; a decent, considered, insightful critique that weighs the good and the bad in the whole experience is a mark of respect.

Sure, critics get it wrong sometimes. But I’d trust a good critic over Facebook and TripAdvisor – and promotional editorial that might or might not have been paid for – any day. I value living in a city that has good critics, because that speaks to a maturity in the conversation. In my view, we have several good critics. Also, in my view, every publication that doesn’t have them would be better off if it did.

And restaurants that don’t like what the critics write? Treat it like your best soup: get a nice spoon and suck it up.

In his previous lives Simon Wilson was the editor and convenor of the restaurant awards judging panel for both Metro and Cuisine magazines, and was also the lead restaurant critic for Metro. 

The Spinoff Auckland is sponsored by Heart of the City, the business association dedicated to the growth of downtown Auckland as a vibrant centre for entertainment, retail, hospitality and business.

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