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November 12, 2009

Musings on negative reviews

ScorpionKingRoll.jpgOther Reviewer Richard and I were e-mailing back and forth just now about the dining out edition of the Taste section, which happens next Wednesday; and he mentioned his review of Sushi Sakura.

I could tell he was facing the same quandry I've been facing in a troubled economy.

You hate to hurt anyone's business; but at the same time, you don't want to steer readers wrong. It's a delicate balancing act. Often you have to hope folks will read between the lines. ...

His review interested me because it addresses another problem I struggle with when I review sushi restaurants, particularly in the suburbs. There are so many of them these days, and so many that seem very much alike.

They are today's equivalent of the neighborhood Italian or seafood eateries of yesteryear. They serve a valuable function in that neighborhood, but don't need citywide exposure.

As reviewers, we don't get to know a restaurant's menu and what it does best. We usually don't find out how nice the owners are to regulars. In other words, we don't know why some of these places are well loved and why people are outraged by our reviews. That's why I like these Monday Morning Quarterbacking and Thursday Sometime Quarterbacking posts. It gives you a chance to tell us -- and others -- why these restaurants are better than we think they are.

(Kenneth K. Lam/Sun photographer)

Posted by Elizabeth Large at 3:25 PM | | Comments (9)


As someone who works near Elizabeth, you can always tell when she's writing a bad review -- she puts on this pointy hat and shoots lightening bolts from her fingertips, evilly cackling about ruining somebody's restaurant.

Hee hee

"It's a delicate balancing act. Often you have to hope folks will read between the lines. ..."

I don't know EL I would think your first responsibility is to your readers, not the restaurant. When I read your review I want to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly. I think you should be fair (and I think you are) but I don't want to have to "read between the lines". I read the review for your honest opinion.

Let me give you a concrete example. I recently described the decor of a Mexican restaurant as almost looking Asian. I had had some negative things to say about the food and drink, so I let readers decide what they thought of that. EL

What makes writing a review like this so challenging is that balancing act of telling the reader everything he needs to know but gently and with a sense of proportion. I freely admit that I adjust my style and and language ad hoc.

A review like this one, of a modest restaurant that was pretty much minding its own business when I came along, and where whatever problems there might be are a matter of guilelessness, can have me sitting for hours at the keyboard before I come up with an approach that strikes that balance. Not complaining -- it's a great workout.

A food critic should not be concerned with the results of the experience he or she has in a given Restaurant. Your job is to let readers of your column know what your experience was like on that given day. Have you ever looked at it the other way, you may have had a great experience in a restaurant that really isn’t that good? Then after your great experience wrote a glowing review that they did not deserve. Any dining establishment is only as good as what they do that day. All (good/excellent) restaurants strive to be consistent on a daily basis that’s all they can do. What you write in your review should not make or break a business. Every day restaurants open and food critics come in we call them customers or guests. The only difference between you and them, you get paid for your opinion. Keep writing it’s your job.

The difference between me and all those other critics you call customers or guests is that they tell 5 other people about their experience and I tell 50,000. EL

I can see where it would be a tough balancing act. I've been in heartbreaking restaurants, where the service was spectacular, the décor was welcoming, the owner came by to ask how things were and the food just was meh. I want to love a place like that, but if the food isn't there, I can't.

Alternately, I've eaten places where the food was mind-blowing, but I got treated like a berserker biker crack whore who wandered in to do business.

Add that Elizabeth and Gorelick have lots more experience eating out and that folks take them a lot more seriously than other folks get taken, and it must be daunting.

Add again that they are professional writers, and aren't supposed to make slips of the pen. This gives even more weight to their words.

So, how does one treat the formulaic strip mall restaurant with nothing all that wrong or right about it? I haven't a clue. I'm just a computer geek.

Lissa wrote So, how does one treat the formulaic strip mall restaurant with nothing all that wrong or right about it? Maybe some places just aren't review-worthy--?

I find myself questioning whether I'm being too nasty more now than I used to.

Part of this change is due to this blog. Even though I use a partial alias, I feel that I'm not completely anonymous, and that makes me not want to be seen as a jerk.

The other part is that I've had a chance to meet a lot of people in the restaurant industry, and it's hard to slam someone when you know how hard he/she is working. Now, this doesn't mean that I stay away from being critical or offering suggestions, but I'm not out to act like a culinary Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olberman either.

I remember reading a study that alleged the following:

If you had a positive experience about a restaurant, you will tell an average of about three people about it.
If you have a negative experience about a restaurant, you will tell an average of slightly over eight people about it.

I think that is true of any negative experience, not just a bad dinner. People are more inclined to call to complain than to call to compliment.

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About this blog
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.

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