Yesterday’s news that Vespertine had already been reviewed by the Hollywood Reporter sent a wave through the food media zeitgeist, at least locally. How long should a critic wait before giving a proper (and in some cases, starred) review to a place? And does that waiting period constitute little more than a “gentleman’s agreement” between media and restaurants — particularly when customers are paying full menu prices from day one?
First, some backstory. After visiting Vespertine only once, on the fourth night of service, Hollywood Reporter writer Gary Baum came away with enough of an impression to put down hundreds of words on the place, many of them not so nice (he called the entire meal “intentionally joyless,” for one). After all, Baum argued, customers are already paying well over the advertised $250 a head, pre-ticketed, for the right to eat Jordan Kahn’s food, so why give the chef and his staff time to find their footing, whatever that means?
When asked directly by Eater about the choice to review a restaurant he had only been to once so early on, Baum kindly replied with the above sentiment regarding full-priced dining and handshake agreements for food media to hold off, while also adding:
[Vespertine’s] concept alludes to that of a performance. Stage reviews are timed to opening night and screen reviews to premieres. Consumers should be informed now, not weeks or months from now.
On Twitter, a number of names across the media spectrum came out on both sides. Some, like Downtown News writer Eddie Kim, say an early review does nothing to dissuade get-there-first diners, and does not accurately reflect what a restaurant will look like in the months following its opening. That’s a tack that LA Weekly critic Besha Rodell agrees with, in penning a piece today for the publication arguing that critics should wait at least a month in order to provide a fuller picture of a place’s future.
The point is that a restaurant will be open for years (hopefully). If you're going to take the time to write a review, why have that review reflect a reality that lasts only a few weeks? Why not aim to present an accurate portrayal of what the place will be like over time?
Others, like cookbook author Josh Scherer, say that at its core “criticism is consumer advocacy” (a sentiment Rodell also acknowledges), and that anyone ponying up the kind of bucks it takes to squeeze into a seat at Vespertine deserves the right to know what they’re getting into — especially when the restaurant doesn’t let people photograph the interior of the space itself, or the food. Someone’s personal Yelp review can be helpful on that front, but doesn’t carry the weight of a media personality with (presumably) a background in critiquing.
As for a restaurant getting its kinks worked out on someone else’s dime, as Kahn reportedly admitted to Baum when he dined at Vespertine, that’s its own ball of wax. So-called friends and family nights, where close guests and partners of a project get to enjoy a place (usually for free) in exchange for said restaurant working out some service and back of house kinks, are nothing new. But the average consumer doesn’t have access to those reduced-price meals as they happen, so instead they wait for full-priced opening day and are presumably then expected to help take on the burden of a restaurant’s growing pains.
It’s a tricky question, and thanks to slim margins and high turnover in the restaurant world, one without easy answers. Sari Sari Store in Grand Central Market, as one example, did two days of unannounced open service for anyone who stopped by last week, and comped every meal in the process. Many restaurateurs and business models simply can’t account for that amount of lost revenue, even if they are asking for feedback and tinkering with their service models in the beginning. Plus, with the fluid nature of cooking itself, of produce and staffing, there is simply no way for a restaurant to become freeze-frame perfect, every night, at any point in their long history, so perhaps the early diner vs. late-comer debate misses the point entirely.
Jonathan Gold over at the LA Times eventually weighed in on yesterday’s Twitter thread as well:
4-6 weeks has been the standard since the beginning of time. Gourmet was 6 months, but that was a special case.— jonathan gold (@thejgold) July 18, 2017
Though that’s not exactly a condemnation of Baum and the Hollywood Reporter’s choice to pull no punches early with Vespertine, it’s not much of an explanation as to why waiting matters (other than it being “the standard”) either.
In no uncertain terms, the Hollywood Reporter’s decision to review Vespertine first, and rather prominently, is good for them as a media organization. That review gets to live on, and keep drawing eyeballs, endlessly — and it’s even sparked its own media narrative spinoff pieces (like this one) that circle back to the original source. A media company’s own gains, many noted yesterday, should also be taken into consideration when asking why a review happened in the first place, and when.
Rodell, currently one of the few critics awarding reviews on a star-based system in Los Angeles, knows this whole conversation intimately herself. After all, she’s had it many times before. In this morning’s LA Weekly piece, she says simply:
In a perfect world, media outlets would have the resources to do a quick first look at every important restaurant upon opening, and then a full review a couple of months in, and then multiple re-reviews to follow the life of the place and its ups and downs. We do not live in a perfect world.
Indeed, restaurants, critics, and food media types do not live in a dining utopia. Chefs and operators need to make money by opening their doors to the public (sometimes before they’re as ready as they could be); food media needs to make money by providing interesting bits of content that people will look at; critics need to keep their jobs and their local status (read: make money) by thoughtfully offering readers their perspective on a restaurant of relevance. As for the timing of all those moving parts, that’s still very much up for debate.