Introducing “First Bites.”

With the advent of the Internet, food reviewers have faced a new problem­: people want reviews of new restaurants now. Chicago Magazine food critic Jeff Ruby said in the 2010 issue, “Anthony Bourdain told a crowd at a Manhattan Barnes & Noble that I was dead. My cause of death was Yelp.” Readers can turn to sources like Yelp (a site where anyone can review a restaurant) and bloggers, if food critics aren’t willing to give reviews immediately. Reviews start popping up immediately. Some times too immediately; according to an August 3, 2011 CNN article by Sarah LeTrent, one restaurant started getting reviews even before it opened! Surely, traditional journalistic food reviewing has faced many issues before–anonymity, who pays, fairness–and came out just fine. What will, and what is happening to the industry in the face of such pressure to release reviews immediately?

The industry standard has been to wait to review a new restaurant, so as to allow the restaurant to work out the kinks. The Association of Food Journalists guidelines state, “To be fair to new restaurants, reviewers should wait at least one month after the restaurant starts serving before visiting.” It further states that this gives the venue time to organize. The guidelines suggest that to deal with time pressures, reviewers offer “first impressions,” which should be descriptive but avoid judgments, providing a sneak peak. Waiting to review a restaurant gives patrons an accurate view of what they might expect. As Bloomberg News food critic Ryan Sutton explained to CNN, “A critic is a journalist. We’re reporters and journalists first – it’s not ‘I like this’ and ‘I don’t like that.’ The critic is a hard-working reporter trying to impart knowledge and protect the consumer.”

Not everyone is onboard though. Blogger turned Daily News food critic Danyelle Freeman had different opinions. “If you are open for business and charging your clientele full price, you are open to judgment,” stated the review policy on her blog according to a Columbia Journalism Review article tilted “Everyone Eats…” The same article says that Frank Bruni, former New York Times food critic resisted this. “He could afford to, since his review, no matter how tardy, continued to be the most influential,” said the article.

Some media organizations have found a halfway point. At the LA Weekly, Pulitzer Prize winner Jonathan Gold tells readers his first impressions in a “First Bite.” He says this is because it’s news. He believes that kitchens need 6-8 weeks to “shake out kinks.” But sometimes restaurants that get a first bite don’t necessarily get a full review. The Flying Pig got a First Bite back in August, but as of February, has yet to receive a full review. Gold seems to follow the AFJ guidelines though he pushes them a bit. take for example his First Bite of Sotto:

Sotto is a somewhat different kind of Italian restaurant, you understand, a place where the bread comes with pureed lardo instead of olive oil, the ramp-fava bruschetta is sprinkled with crisp cubes of housemade pancetta and the crispy lozenges . . . And the pizza? Not quite sublime yet — maybe the oven needs a few months to break in.

Mostly descriptions make up the short reviews, which run about 250 words. He gives Sotto a bit of leeway saying with time things may change. It a generosity not afforded in all of his first impression articles. His judgment of a certain dish at Fat Spoon is rather clear: “Do you want the spaghetti with cod roe and seaweed? Probably not. Save those cravings for Spoon House in Gardena.” And again his opinion is evident in his first impression of the Luggage Room, “Is Luggage Room the divine pizza sweeping in from the desert? Not quite.” Nonetheless, his articles are usually descriptive and he does give restaurants time to settle in before reviewing them.

Meanwhile, at the New York Times, new food critic, Pete Wells says that waiting is “More a tradition than a policy.” For full reviews he waits about two months, but provides shorter reviews sooner. At the New York Times, these first impressions are filed under “Dining Briefs,” and run about 350 words. Just like Gold, Wells gives some restaurants room for change as he does in his recent brief of Allswell, “But the restaurant is young. Mr. Smith might still slow down, pare back and make sure that all is indeed well again.” Wells too, makes occasional judgments, “On the bewildering side: so many pastries, so few worth it,” he wrote of Caffébene. Information seems to be key though. In his short review of Calyer he writes, “This snug wood-paneled spot that opened last summer is the new restaurant from the team behind Anella, a few blocks north.” His writing paints scenes, showing readers what they will experience.

So where is this going? Back to me and you of course, silly!

I’ve been frustrated here because I have  a file folder full of review notes from places I’ve been to but not been to enough to review. So we’re going to play the First Bite here two ways. First, with established restaurants, they will serve as pre-reviews, which allow you to get the information faster. Second, with new restaurants, I will do my best to follow Association of Food Journalists guidelines, and be descriptive as opposed to judgmental.

We shall start later today with the ever-amazing Nib.



One response to “Introducing “First Bites.”

  1. Pingback: First Bite: Little Big Burger « Two Pots of Coffee and A Slice of Pie at Midnight·

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