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Restaurant Reviews: When is it “Legal” to Review a New Restaurant?

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“Talking to myself and feeling old/Sometimes I’d like to quit/Nothing ever seems to fit/Hangin’ around, nothing to do but frown/Rainy days and Mondays always get me down”—The Carpenters

I am feeling so Karen Carpenter today. Not skinny, just beat down. It all started on Saturday when I ended up in lengthy conversation with a veteran Dallas restaurateur on the “rules” surrounding a restaurant review. He/She shall remain nameless.

Anywhoo, He/She had a (loud) question for me: “Hey, since when did it become okay for a restaurant critic to review a restaurant during the first week of operation?” I had no idea what He/She was talking about so I asked, “What do you mean.” He/She raged on incredulously: “Well Leslie Brenner went to Park the first week it opened and based a lot of her review on what happened during the first week.”

“Whoa, hold on,” I said. “I have not read Brenner’s review because I have not written mine. Until I do, I’m not comfortable talking about it.”

“Well, then let’s make this a hypothetical case,” He/She said. “When do you consider it fair to go into a new restaurant and judge it?” My first reaction was to say as long as a restaurant charges a full price, they are fair game. However, I knew that I was dealing with a seasoned restaurateur who was ready to shoot down that standard line so I said boldly, “Whenever the restaurant charges a customer a full price, they are fair game.” (Jump here.)Oh boy/girl, he went ballistic. “What about soft openings!” “It takes months for a restaurant to get systems down!” “Hell, Park hasn’t even finished the landscaping and part of the back part of the restaurant.”

To that, I say: “Charge soft opening prices!” “Practice your systems before you overhype your opening!” “Finish the freakin’ landscaping.” Dude/Dudette, sometimes a new restaurant only has one chance to win over a customer. And that first happy customer is the best advertising that restaurant can get.

I’ve worked in restaurants and I know nothing is perfect when you start out, but there are things you can do to control the opening chaos.  Even if you don’t want to make it a long-term policy, take reservations for the first few months so that the kitchen and staff can learn to work together. Keep your initial menu small and roll it out slowly. Have a sound business plan with enough money in reserve to see you through a good portion of the first year.

I am a firm believer in the concept that, over the long haul, a restaurant critic can not make or break a restaurant with a good business plan. However, I feel it is important for a critic to inform a reader when and how many times the new restaurant was visited. (My guess is Brenner did or we wouldn’t be having this “conversation.”) My strategy is to stagger nights and days of the week, times, and sitting areas of the restaurant over the course of two months. When I start the reviewing process is random. In some cases I avoid going early because the opening has been overhyped (Park, Fearing’s, Rathbun’s Blue Plate). If a restaurant is smaller or not as high profile (Coast Global Seafood, or the reopening of Royal China), I may go a little earlier.

Like my He/She colleague, I sometimes get perplexed by the timing of restaurant reviews. Especially magazines and the time lines used by some publications—a concept I am all too familiar with. We work 6 to 8 weeks out depending on the issue and the time of the year (printer’s schedule).

Theoretically, Brenner has the curse/luxury of writing on Monday and having her opinion on your dewy front lawn the next morning. Even though she and I might have eaten at the same restaurant on the same days, her review has more of an immediate impact. Mine hits four weeks later giving the allusion that I’ve waited weeks or months to visit the restaurant.

However there are a couple of times a magazine has caused me to scratch my head in wonder.  Esquire magazine’s John Mariani’s picked Fearing’s as The Best New Restaurant OF THE YEAR in the October 2006 issue. Fearing’s opened to the public on August 15, 2006. My “drop-dead deadline” to make an October issue is August 15th.  The September issue of Modern Luxury Dallas has review of Park which opened on July 15th.  My “drop-dead deadline” to make a September issue is July 15th. I guess nobody picks up the phone and cries FOUL when the reviews are positive.

Best restaurant in America? How can anybody know that in one visit? Rainy days and Mondays always get me mad.

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