Is a restaurant review opinion or fact? Some of both, most readers would assume; they trust the reviewer to know the cuisine in question and be able to judge a well-cooked dish from a sloppy one. Along with being well-informed in brain and palate, though, restaurant reviewers get paid to be opinionated in a smart, thoughtful, and entertaining way.
As a former restaurant critic, I’ve received my share of angry letters from restauranteurs and diners who disagreed with my opinions; one restaurant owner went so far as to flyer all the cars within a three-block radius from the newspaper with a ten-point list of rebuttals after what he read as a negative review.
Snark can be fun to write (and even more fun to read), but any professional writer paid for her opinions learns fast that reviews impact business, and that a snappy comment always needs to be based in knowledge and fact. It’s tricky, because nothing is as subjective as taste; as Ruth Reichl once exclaimed when told to be “less personal” in her New York Times reviews, “But it’s about what goes on in my mouth!”
Michael Bauer, the longtime lead critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, broached the isse of free speech in restaurant criticism in his blog recently, after the BBC News reported on a Irish jury awarding a Belfast restauranteur 25,000 pounds in damages after a “hatchet job” review in a local paper. (Among other faults, the critic cited a “flat Coke” served at the restaurant; as one waggish commenter pointed out, what was a critic doing ordering a Coke with her meal, anyway?)
And as reported in Eater, vitriolic New York City restauranteur Jeffrey Chodorow attacked the credentials of the Times’ critics after his latest multi-million dollar venture got a dreaded no-star review, claimed that the paper’s critics were pursuing a personal vendetta against him and his establishments, and vowed to start “reviewing the reviewers” in a personal blog on one of his restaurant’s websites. Still, the Times had the last laugh: Chodorow expressed his vehement opinions in a full-page ad in Wednesday’s food section, which must have boosted the paper’s ad coffers by at least five figures, if not more.