How to Avoid a Bad Review

One restaurant's epic fail is a lesson for us all

How to Avoid a Bad Review
Illustration by J. Otto Susan

Anyone who assumes that restaurant critics go looking for the opportunity to slam an unsuspecting restaurant should have been required to accompany me in the execution of my job last week. Our policy is to make two unannounced, anonymous visits to any restaurants slated for review and to evaluate these restaurants based on what they put themselves out to be and how well they execute that concept. The eatery up next on the reviewing schedule was one of a crop of new spots that opened in the late spring, this one housed in a prime piece of Downtown real estate that's hosted a revolving door of bar concepts over the past few years. None of our freelance reviewers was clamoring to cover it, so that left it to me.

I've been reviewing restaurants for 20 years now, and this had to be one of the most excruciating experiences of my career. When the only thing I liked was a ginger lemonade, and the most positive thing I could say about any of the food was that it could prevent starvation, I knew this wouldn't be a regular review. Rather than simply annihilating the restaurant, I've decided to use examples of what ails this particular spot as an object lesson in how a bad review could have been avoided.

Have a concept: Offering one menu online, another on a blackboard in the restaurant, and a third on paper at the table is beyond confusing. Tacos, fries, quesadillas, duck rillettes, Hawaiian poke, risotto, carne asada, mussels Sauvignon, beet salad, burgers, and panini don't belong on the same menu. A few dishes borrowed from each stop on the inept kitchen manager's résumé don't qualify as a concept.

• Train the waitstaff: Having someone stand at the table and say the food is "awesome" isn't a service model. Basic service includes simple things such as delivering silverware before the first food is served, rather than 10 minutes after; returning promptly with requested items such as drinks, salt, and extra ketchup, instead of 30 minutes into the meal; not standing in the visible wait station chatting with other employees when the restaurant is almost empty and customers at your one table are waiting for silverware, drinks, and condiments.

• Plate presentation: Squiggly sauce paintings on every plate are relatively passe, but for the love of God, the flavor of the sauce should at least be complementary to the dish! The authentic flavors of an otherwise acceptable plate of corn on the cob à la Mexicana were assaulted by a bed of balsamic vinegar painted underneath it, and the large, gummy lump of rice masquerading as risotto was not enhanced by a similar garnish. When the mixed berry pie (in a seriously undercooked double crust) arrived at the table sitting on more dark squiggles, we were relieved it was only an unfortunate, but equally uncomplementary, chocolate sauce.

• Food needs seasoning – and judiciously applied: Items such as ceviche and Hawaiian poke need a bright pop of acid and a spark of salt to be successful; even the best homemade chips, crispy fries, or healthier "unfries" can be improved by a touch of salt; an entire meal's worth of salt should not come in one bowl of soup.

• Bar service: If a large local beer selection is a selling point, keep local beers on the printed menu in stock. And when the restaurant/bar is almost empty and the bartender isn't busy, there is no excuse for it taking 30 minutes for one beer and one cocktail to make it to the table.

• Menu descriptions: Terms like organic and farm-to-table are popular marketing ploys these days, but they can't redeem cheap proteins or poorly cooked food. Also, if a waffle is really supposed to "wow" me, don't send out a pitiful, ungarnished plate of what looks like lukewarm microwave waffles and a ramekin of inferior-grade maple syrup.

• Protocol: It is bad manners for the kitchen manager/chef/owner to stare at the diners at any one table, even worse manners to stand in the vicinity of that table in order to eavesdrop, and a serious mistake to approach the table and demand to know how the food is. That kind of behavior telegraphs desperation. On the other hand, removing the price of an obviously inedible dish from the final bill without having to be asked is a smart move. By the time I returned to an almost empty restaurant for a second meal in the same week with a different group of friends, it was a pretty safe bet the restaurant staff knew we were there for a review. None of the serious service issues improved at all, and the food was only marginally better. I don't feel the need to identify this particular restaurant; after all the trouble they went to discovering my identity, they know who they are, and I honestly don't expect them to be there long.

Should we have named names? Let us know in the comments section below.

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