It bears saying: restaurant reviews are opinions for the reader’s benefit. Not the restaurant’s, and definitely not the reviewer’s.
Restaurant reviews offer perspective, experience, and a whiff of the general vibe. As a reader, I need astute descriptions for what I can’t taste, smell, see, or hear. As a writer, I want rollicking turns of phrase. As a PR, I distrust skeevy marketing spin. As an eater, I’m leery of sycophantic accolades and egomaniacal sneers. As a rather greedy cook, I want enough fork prodding to tell me what’s what.
I’m here for the food. And a good time. But mainly the food. My rules of thumb are simple, and do evolve over time:
1. Go in without prejudice but expect to be fed and be treated well.
If you go in expecting to be disappointed, you’ll find every fault. If you go in starry-eyed, you’ll sweep problems under the carpet.
2. Experience the food through its own lens.
This isn’t about one cuisine being better than another, or trying to get one to conform to the expectations of another. Food is part of culture, so assess it on its own terms, not someone else’s.
3. Pretty food must be tasty food.
I believe food should be eaten, not stared at like an installation piece at an art gallery. I want my dishes well plated, but those zhuzhy bits need to complement the dish, not distract from its flaws.
4. Cheffy names, overdesigned rooms, and flashy whozzits ain’t excuses for bad service or mediocre food.
Buzz is important, but frippery and “names” don’t mean much if service is lackadaisical or if the food is boring.
5. The bigger the bill, the smaller the room for error.
A meal’s bumps—those glitches and hitches—can be magnified or diminished when the cheque arrives. $20 for a six-bite leathery starter that sat in the kitchen for 30 minutes is more problematic than a $4 bowl of soup that slopped on the way to the table. At the same time, cheap gluttonous servings only mean you get a lot of food at a low price, not necessarily a lot of good food at a low price.
6. Restaurants are people’s livelihoods, just as someone’s hard-earned dollar pays the cheque.
Just like the rest of us, restaurants have off days. But eating out can be expensive—especially if you travel a distance or hire a babysitter. Whatever the final bill is, the total experience shouldn’t feel like a waste of time, energy, and/or money.
What do I look for?
The kitchen is skilled—whether it’s getting the best out of a deep fat fryer or applying molecular gastronomy techniques, but those skills are for naught if the ingredients aren’t good. The cooks understand chatpata/umami and know taste includes bitter, sour and spicy—not just sweet and salty. Aroma, texture, and temperature aren’t afterthoughts. Simple food need not be boring or uninspired. And veggies? They’re more than an abused, obligatory afterthought of a side dish: they are celebrated.
Restaurants are a service industry, meaning it’s about person-to-person interactions. I don’t believe in stop-watching my server and I’m not asking them questions designed to a) trip them up and b) give me an ego boost. Servers are the human, public face of the business. Staff is friendly, efficient, and know how to handle problems (communicating issues from the kitchen, dealing with accidents and spills). Importantly: They treat everyone well.
The everything else
Communication is key—their website (including social media) provides information diners need, not just shrieks the owner’s marketing bumpf. Calling in for reservations (or information) should be a doddle. First impressions—the room, the vibe—are important. Accessibility includes AODA standards, lighting and noise levels, table height and spacing. Restaurateurs who spend more time, energy, and money on the concept (including décor) than developing a solid product and training their staff well receive well-deserved hard stares.
At the end of each review supper, I ask myself three questions:
1. Did the cheque reflect the overall quality (food and service)?
2. Could I cook it better (and would I want to)?
3. How happy am I after eating there?
Each restaurant gets scored on food (50%), service (30%), and ambience (aka everything else (20%)) while keeping in mind the eatery’s goals and experiences at similar spots.
The Waterloo Region Record’s forks rating is based on the Association of Food Journalists’ restaurant review guidelines. Our reviews are based on a single visit (unless otherwise noted) and the restaurant isn’t given a heads up about our visit, and they don’t pay for any part of the meal (or our writing fee).
My forking guide
|—||0: Not recommended. I ate there so you won’t have to.|
|1: Fair||1: Misses the mark. Overall food and service issues.|
|2: Good||2: Cromulent. Accomplishes their goals.|
|3: Excellent||3: Hits every note solidly. Sometimes perfectly.|
|4: Outstanding||4: Goes beyond expectations. Incandescent, sublime, faultless.|
“The goals of a critic should be to be fair, honest, to understand and illuminate the cuisine about which he or she is writing. A critic should look beyond specific dishes and experiences and attempt to capture the whole of a restaurant and its intentions.”
~Food Critic Guidelines, Association of Food Journalists
Click here for an archive of my restaurant reviews.