What is a Food Critic? A Restaurant Critic? In most parts of the civilized world these individuals control the fate of both established restaurants and struggling eateries. These people put your favorite watering hole on the map or condemn your regular oyster bar to unredeemable limbo. With the mighty pen, they inscribe truths and half truths to let the public know how that new diner on the corner will change the dining world as we know it. It is amazing how these writers can shift the movement and inspire revolutions by simply sitting at a table with a notepad for an evening. Do you know anyone who has as much power?
In Manila, sadly, it's another ball of fetid wonton. The last ten years we have been witness to the laucnhing of thousands of restaurants, both good and bad. And of course, the ones that come to the forefront are what you initally see in glossy magazines and broadsheets and of course in blogs. And then people flock to the venues, either to be seen or to genuinely treat their palates to what the writer has to say about it. A Thai restaurant I read about in one newspaper boasted great food and great streetfood ambiance, which prompted me to make detour. According to the owner, when the write-up came out, they were overwhelmed with the patronage the next day. The food was indeed good. And eating alfresco was a treat. Service though leaves much to be desired. But something was missing. So I asked the owner if he knew the writer. I saw it in his face even before he opened his mouth. Relative. Hmmmm. And this is not limited to restaurants. Want a box of your home made chocolates be made famous? Ask a prominent blogger to write about it. Your burgers are not selling so well? Ditch the R&D. Treat the editorial staff to dinner.
Which brings us to the question: Who reviews the reviewers? Are there bonafide restaurant reviewers in Manila? I can name a few individuals who are on the take when they write about restaurants around the metro. Either through X-deal or payola. Or maybe worse. They could take it against the restaurant for not bowing to their cravings. Write a bad review. Or not write at all, because they do not get anything in return. A lot of restaurant owners follow this train of thought. Don't offend the writer when they come around with their hands stretched out. I scratch your back, you scratch mine. That great restaurants and the patronage they enjoy are only so because of the politcial undertones that one takes into consideration when choosing the plate to eat off of. How can you believe these writers? And the reviewers let these establishments know in advance when they are dining. And usually meals are prepared in advance. How can you believe the plusses on their review? Reviewing food and restaurants is mostly subjective, but the following are what I think are the primary characteristics of a bonafide reviewer:
They have to write well - obviously. It goes without saying. Unfortunately a lot of the reviewers here are either inclined to be flowery in the description or they were absent when brains were being passed out.
Know how to do a report - from background checks, source checking up to verifying facts. The reviewer should be able to back it up.
Have a passion what goes into your mouth - Of course every reviewer should have an above average level of knowledge concerning food, beverage, service and industry trends. If you profess to be a food critic, you have to know how to cook. Really. How can anyone begin to trash a dish when they do not know how it even got to the plate in the first place.
Don't expect a free meal - especially in exchange for a glowing review. That is like selling your soul to the devil. Or the boy crying wolf. Sooner or later the so called critic will be just labeled as a hired gun if he is lucky. Meals are usually a budget allocation for their reviewers to try out restaurants and other dining establishments. It should never be in exchange for a glossy spread.
The readers are the reviewer's bread and butter - not what the restaurant provides in a basket. We are speaking metaphorically here. Have the readers' interests at heart, at the top of the list. Not the reviewer's editors, not the publications' shareholders. Not even for self-glorification. It is the readers that are the lifeblood of any publication.
For the avid readers and diners. I have but one suggestion. Be vigilant. It is your money that restaurants want to attract. Would you really want to spend a night away from home because of a perverted form of advertisment in the guise of a paid review? How can you really identify who the good reviewers are? Scanning through countless publications both here and the lands beyond our borders has revealed significant differences. Some which are notable. None of which applies to the reviewers in Manila in general. So. Arm yourself, dear readers, before heading out to that restaurant now in fashion and spending your hard earned cash. Not that I warn that you would be disappointed. But only because you went to the restaurant on your own well-informed volition and not that you were nudged to take the drive after reading and salivating after a paid write-up. Here are a few things that should catch your eye when reading a restaurant review. Keep and open mind. Review the reviewer.
Activity photos - The pictures on the review, if any, actually show guests in the dining room enjoying themselves. It is funny how restaurants featured in publications are never occupied in these photographs. Are we really attracted to the restaurant simply by the decor? Devoid of any patrons? Are we such shallow eaters? To see a guest in animated conversation with other patrons, to see the wait staff professionally milling around, to abide by the that saying 'a picture is worth a thousand words', would have the same effect as those restaurants you see in movies.
Opposites attract - in other words, the reviewer has mentioned the plusses AND the minuses. With no inhibitions. Brutal or just being cute, the goods and bads are what makes the restaurant INTERESTING. No restaurant is perfect. Perfect restaurants usually don't last. It is their quirks that make it attractive. And the reviewer should be able to write about this. The good reviewer is usually very specific, so here you can hook your lines in and digest what came of the dinner. It may include recommendations, suggestions. All in a positive and constructive format. Details come into play here. From the stains on the table cloth to the gleaming pans seen through the display kitchen window. Or how the waitstaff move, talk or interact. The pros and cons are balanced, and relayed in a way that is most helpful to the prospective diner.
It must be a good read - a narrative, if you will. Not a long list of celebrity names, socialites and the who's who peppering the review. It should have beginning, a middle an end. It should progress. Much like how you would eat out. You really don't go out just to do 'I Spy' with celebrity spotting. It should focus on the restaurant, the ambiance, everything that would sum up to the elusive dining experience. A descriptive assessment of all the elements will definitely be a major draw.
Personal in the first degree - After all, the dining experience is a personal one. Subjective or otherwise, the reviewer will relate his feelings, his passions, his mental state even, just to relate what it's like sitting at a table as a guest, because this is the closest thing they could get into the readers' shoes. If the reviewer has an aversion to tripe, it doen't make the review bad. It just provides options to the reader. It's an opinion that the reader can take into account. Opinon. Personal. Goes hand in hand. And the opinions in the review are evidence that the writing is genuine. The reviewer's personality comes across.
So. lets' go back to the question: Who reviews the reviewers? Of course, it would be the intelligent readers. If you blindly follow what the reviewer says without any reaction, then you should listen to Obi Wan Kenobi "Who's more foolish: the fool, or the fool who follows him?" Have a reaction to the review. Do not be a passive reader, diner, foodie. Whatever. Just react. Be informed. Weigh the plus and minuses, the pros and cons. This way you will be one step closer to a great dining experience.
Can you add to this list please?