Written in the stars: the art of the bad review
May 18th, 2012
04:00 PM ET
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Today marks the 50th anniversary of the New York Times restaurant review. We're honoring the art of criticism in a series on the subject.

It took Jay Rayner around 700 words to lay waste to a Russian empire. In a blistering review of famed Moscow restaurateur Arkady Novikov's eponymous London outpost this past February, the Observer critic pronounced the establishment so "astoundingly grim you want to congratulate the kitchen on its incompetence" and compared its cuisine to cheap Chinese food. He was just getting warmed up.

“And so my advice to you. Don't go to Novikov. Keep not going. Keep not going a lot," Rayner wrote. "In a city with a talent for opening hateful and tasteless restaurants, Novikov marks a special new low. That's its real achievement.”

Harsh words, but for a professional restaurant critic, this was par for the course. As with any creative medium, the culinary arts are subjected to critical judgments. With the good, comes the bad. Or in the case of Novikov, the “very, very bad.”

While some readers might think restaurant critics write with sharp knives, a poison-dipped pen and a particular appetite for disdain, those in the field argue otherwise. Their mandate is to be objective, to give an honest appraisal of the restaurant to their readers.

“You still have a basic job to do; you’ve got to get it right, and that’s what people expect,” says Rayner, whose eBook “My Dining Hell: Twenty Ways To Have a Lousy Night Out” will be released on June 1.

Jay Rayner

And part of getting it right means occasionally dropping, what the restaurant industry calls, the “goose egg” - a zero-star review that in essence says, "Take your hard-earned money elsewhere."

“With the negative reviews, I once said they were like chest infections and car crashes – they were things that happened to me, not things I went out looking for,” says Rayner.

Hanna Raskin, the restaurant critic for Seattle Weekly, also agrees critics do not go to a restaurant because they know it’s going to be abysmal. “Not only is the writing not fun, but the research isn’t fun either. We’re the ones that have to eat that bad food again and again and again.”

But before pen is put to paper, critics must get to the marrow of the matter and decide if the lousy restaurant is even worth a review. With a new hot spot opening nearly every week in major metropolitan areas, it’d be an unfeasible - and stomach-straining - task to conquer them all.

“I’ll review it if it’s a restaurant that people are serious about because of a prominent location or well-known chef or local restaurateur behind it. Basically, if it’s something that my readers really want to know about,” says John Kessler, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's dining critic.

Raskin and Rayner also cite the prominence of the chef, location and media campaign. If the venue in question is a little mom and pop place, it’s simply not reasonable.

“The times when I haven’t written about a restaurant at all is when I realize the restaurant is not one that deserves the attention of a national newspaper,” says Rayner.

To put it in stateside perspective, he compares it to reviewing a dreadful restaurant in Boise, Idaho. If no one is planning to go or already going there, the review won’t be entertaining - or more importantly, serviceable to the reader.

A large part of that entertainment value is drawn from how the reviewer crafts the language of “the slam.” That means letting people know how things taste and how much things cost; a full sense of the harrowing experience often with a side of relatively good-natured snark.

“We don’t want to sound like the disgruntled Yelper,” says Kessler, who maintains he’s always a half a grade nicer in print than if he were talking to a friend. “You don’t want to sound offended or bent out of shape if the restaurant is bad. You want to be a nice person about it but you also want to go to town.”

Raskin also says that, in her negative reviews, the reader should infer “that it was probably even worse.” Rayner, however, serves it in the raw: what he says in the review is what he thought.

“The ability of people in the restaurant business to screw things up and find unique ways to screw things up never ceases to amaze me,” he says, adding he’s in the business of selling newspapers, not restaurants.

Kessler admires this cultural candor. “The English people are great because they take such glee in their snarky locution. Americans will never do that. We just can’t. It’s not in our culture to be poetic a**holes.”

But, U.K. critics aren’t the only one finding glee in negativity - the audience relishes it as well. Raskin says she actually gets more positive comments from readers when she prints negative reviews.

“Almost every time I wrote something negative, I get the feedback, ‘I’m so glad you’re telling it like it is. I’m so glad you said that.’ And nobody ever says that when I write a good review,” she said.

To this point, Rayner cites a Leo Tolstoy quote: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” What makes that particular restaurant bad also makes it unique - and uniqueness makes a much more compelling story. There's also a touch of schadenfreude, or pleasure derived from others' misfortunes.

“You start your Sunday morning reading a terrible review of somebody’s restaurant and as long as you’re not the chef’s mother, you’re probably going to feel slightly better for the rest of the day,” says Rayner, who at one point spoke with a clinical psychologist about readers’ penchant for social comparing.

“I often say that my column is read for vicarious pleasure or brackish displeasure,” he adds.

Yet, for every disparaging word written and read, these critics realize the pen is mightier than the fork.

In 2003, master French chef Bernard Loiseau took his own life following a bad review of his restaurant, the Cote d'Or, by GaultMillau and reports that he would lose his third Michelin star – the highest rating a restaurant can attain by the Michelin Guide.

While Loiseau already suffered from depression, some felt the reviews may have been his breaking point.

In 2007, after former New York Times critic Frank Bruni awarded zero stars to restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow’s Kobe Club, Chodorow fired back. He ran a full-page ad in the Times attacking Bruni’s assessment, citing the review as a personal attack and questioning Bruni’s qualifications to be in the critic’s post.

When Raskin was the food critic for the Dallas Observer, she said she received death threats. And Rayner has been invited outside for a go.

“I think most critics realize it’s not just the chef or the owner you’re addressing here, but the careers of the cooks in the kitchen, the dishwashers and the servers all ultimately depend on what you say,” said Raskin. “We take this responsibility very seriously.”

As journalists, they know how it feels to be subject to an outsider's opinion. “To be a writer is an act of great arrogance - to think that anybody would give a damn about what you have to say. You, therefore, have to take what anybody wants to say about you - and it’s not fun,” says Rayner.

Ultimately, critics are paid for how they write, not how they eat - and for restaurants on the receiving end, that’s the bitter truth.

Do you have a favorite "bad" review? We'd love if you'd share it in the comments below.

Previously - For restaurant reviewers, are health risks at critical mass? and Everyone's a critic, some just call it their day job

soundoff (47 Responses)
  1. ZenKimchi

    "You, therefore, have to take what anybody wants to say about you — and it’s not fun."

    Try being a blogger with a comment section. :)

    July 23, 2013 at 9:17 pm |

    I visited skyline while staying at the fenwick inn a few days ago. Where to start. Bad food. I wanted the crabcake sandwich but they were all out. I decided i wanted the steamed ship and they were out of that too so i ordered a burger. My burger was over cooked. I ordered medium it was burnt and well done. There were no tomatoes. My fries tasted like old fry oil. The waiter acted uninterested. The food took forever and I was one of two tables. I probably waited almost a half hour. It was 12:30 and lunch had just begun. My waiter seemed more concerned with his customers at the bar. The burger and fries were dry like the waiter left it under a warmer too long. The carpet was dirty, the silverware had spots. The bathroom had no paper towels. I came back later the next day to the bar. I ordered buffalo wings which smelled funny and tasted weird. Later I had a stomach ache and I only ate half the basket. They didn't even come with celery. There were a bunch of rowdy people at the pool tables. The place has zero atmosphere. The tall really overweight bartender was rude when I told him about my burger the day before and the wings. He begrudgingly offered to take the wings off the check but complained I ate some. I ate at other restaurants for the rest of my stay. Next time I will stay at another hotel because of skyline. Sorry fenwick inn. I like to be able to eat without leaving the hotel when I am in town for business. Travelers stay away from skyline bar and grill.

    May 23, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  3. Pooky

    Michelin Guide.. a tire company has no business rating restaurants.

    May 22, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
  4. sirwalter1967

    As Al Bundy would say, " I want it hot, dead and on a plate in front of me".

    May 22, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
  5. Kerry

    Boise, Idaho? Really?

    May 22, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  6. archchuzzlewit

    Honestly I don't know anyone who takes reviews of restaurants/films/music that seriously. Outside of a small handful of people who do that kind of...work....I honestly do think a lot of them come across as angry and jaded people who are just looking for a reason not to like anything but a tiny slice of the world that appeals to them and their particular tastes.

    May 22, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  7. Dryarae

    I tend to prefer listening to friends and family for my reviews. They know what I like and will generally give me a better first-hand review than someone sampling world-class cuisine because the professional has a higher set of standards. I have no personal use for comparitive statements that will tell me about food that I'll likely never taste, such as "I was in [Insert country name here] and had this amazing meal with [Insert fancy dinner menu here] and it was divine!"

    Sure, compared to a restaurant in Europe that has 2 Michelin stars, this greasy spoon must suck, but around here it's pretty damned good food and THAT is what I care about.

    May 22, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  8. LynnAnn

    I don't like food critics. I like to prepare wholesome,healthy food from scratch for my family. As the Lord meant it.

    May 22, 2012 at 8:23 am |
    • hecep

      None of your three sentences have any logical connection to the other.

      May 22, 2012 at 9:24 am |
      • archchuzzlewit

        I wondered if I was the only one who noticed that.

        May 22, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • KWDragon

      Perhaps they are not pretentious enough for you? Why did you even read the article?

      May 22, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • sirwalter1967

      Lynn, you are an idiot. Are your brain synapses not connecting? That was the dumbest line of thinking I ever read.

      May 22, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
    • Me

      Blah Blah Blah I love Jesus Baah Baah Baah I'm a sheep...that's all I heard when I read your comment. Did it actually say anything else?

      May 23, 2012 at 8:40 am |
      • truth

        I like how you call other people sheep but was the last to join in the bashing. Follower

        May 29, 2012 at 10:21 pm |
  9. mmi16

    A critics comments will likely only affect one visit to the establishment – a newbies 1st time. The regulars know what they are getting and will either continue to come or not based upon their own experiences.

    May 21, 2012 at 1:54 am |
  10. James

    Restaurant review = ONE person's opinion of a specific meal at a specific time. They can be entertaining as a tidbit to read on a Sunday morning. Much like movie reviews, I've found that the opinions of writers can vary significantly from my own personal tastes (and sometimes they are spot on.) So...I really don't take restaurant (or movie) reviews too seriously. If I decide to dine at a new restaurant or an established one I haven't tried, it is NEVER based upon the opinion of a newspaper writer's review of it. I like to make my own informed opinions, thanks.

    May 20, 2012 at 11:31 pm |
  11. mangasm

    ziti not only on the menu, but also describes waiters face!

    May 20, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  12. Monger(as in fish)

    My own personal method of rating restaurants:
    Hot food must be hot
    Cold food must be cold
    I shouldn't have to ask for Tabasco sauce
    My coffee cup should never be empty

    May 20, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  13. Floyd Schrodinger

    I recently went to a extremely well reviewed (by a TV traveling food reviewer) steakhouse in NYC. The steak was good but the huge roaches walking up the walls near our table killed our appetites. I wish Mr. A.B. had given these guys the big goose egg. It was soooo gross.

    May 20, 2012 at 7:08 am |
    • CarrieAllison13

      AB steered my bf (and unfortunately me along with him) into Vic's Kangaroo in NOLA. I thought: WHY are we here???? It had no ambiance, no attention by bartender, no food–and only a few patrons. I love AB's snarky ways, but what drew him to this place, I'll never know.

      May 30, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  14. C Balbi

    Those who can't cook – criticize.

    May 20, 2012 at 3:44 am |
    • michael

      C Balbi
      "Those who can't cook – criticize." ...What is this supposed to mean? You dont have to be a car designer to know the yugo was a cruddy car and you don't have to be a doctor to to know if a doctor is terrible when he kills all of his patients...So why would you have to be a cook to know when food tastes like cr@p?

      May 20, 2012 at 10:21 am |
      • Yossarian

        Don't feed the troll, please.

        May 20, 2012 at 10:31 pm |
  15. beenthere

    A lifetime ago I managed a four star restaurant. The city was a medium sized area with a large number of fine
    establishments, both locally owned and operated to national franchises. There was nothing worse then getting
    a bad review from the cities number one news paper and its oldest and stuffiest critic. Everyone knew who he
    was and worked especially hard to please his highness. It was a rare occasion anyone, ANYONE or any establishment
    got a thumbs up. In the end he never affected business at our restaurant or any other.

    May 19, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • knewagirl

      Curious. If he ultimately did not affect your business, how was there nothing worse than getting a bad review? If 'everyone' knows the food critic, how can he provide an accurate review – he will receive special service and special dishes, even if it's a regular dish, special care will be put into it's preparation. Restaurant critics need to be annoymous or the whole experience is not an accurate portrayal of the regular customers anticipated experience.

      May 22, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
  16. ala-kat

    No matter to me. What you like is never going to align with what I like. And I feel that my opinion as to what I like is worthy, at least to me :)

    May 19, 2012 at 5:19 am |
  17. Matthew

    Why is professional restaurant critic even a job that exists in the 21st century? Who cares what one snob thinks about another snob's food/service/ambience?

    May 18, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
    • Mike

      Too right! With sites like trip advisor, twitter, FB et al, reviewers are largely irrelevant. Famous chefs open a restaurant then never actually cook there. You purportedly pay for the ambiance and experience. Nonsense. I go out to a restaurant to eat good food and get good service. I don't care about the china pattern or what some hack in a newspaper says.

      May 19, 2012 at 1:04 am |
      • Jdizzle Da Sizzle

        I agree; though I admit – something special about the hole in the wall joint. The 'baccy laden spit makes the bacon THAT much better.

        May 19, 2012 at 1:07 am |
    • Yossarian

      Because the reviews can be both useful and entertaining.

      May 20, 2012 at 10:33 pm |
    • knewagirl

      Because the same people that will not read a book unless it is on the NY bestseller list will not go to a restaurant unless so & so has said it is fab. I've spoken to many folks in the book industry over the years, the bestseller list is a list of books sent in by stores that over bought and need people to buy them, hence they are 'bestsellers' to get people to buy them. I'm sure food/restaurant critics are pretty much the same. Even the article states why bother to review a restaurant unless it is the in thing and folks are already going to it. Mom & Pop's may be great but who among the snobs really cares?

      May 22, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  18. CJM8

    Half the time I feel as though professional food critics get so wrapped up in their ego and their verbose reviews, I don't even understand what the heck the person is trying to say. Furthermore, after eading the attitude that these reviewers have, it just reinforces my opinion that their heads are too big.

    “The ability of people in the restaurant business to screw things up and find unique ways to screw things up never ceases to amaze me,” he says, adding he’s in the business of selling newspapers, not restaurants

    Really? I though your job was to give an objective review of the restaurant?! Clearly this person has no concept of how hard it is to run a successful restaurant.

    May 18, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • michael

      How hard it is to run a restaurant is irrelevant to how the food tastes and is being presented. Who cares how hard it is to run? The customer only cares about the food and ambiance and since the customer pays the restaurant and not the other way around the customer matters more.

      May 20, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Rbnlegend101

      Running a restaurant is hard. When done well, it is an effort that deserves praise, and that is most of what reviewers do. Good reviews are often boring, but, most reviews are complimentary, inoffensive, and dull. The difficulty of doing a good job at running a restaurant does not mean you get a good review if you put in a long hard day, and still manage to produce bad food. The diner at the table isn't interested in why the meal didn't work out, and the reasons why it didn't work out don't make the food any better.

      Tasting food is easier than making it. But writing an article about tasting food is a totally different skill. A critic might be a great cook, or might have that rare ability to burn canned pasta in the microwave, it doesn't matter. All that matters is their ability to write. The reader isn't eating the critics cooking, just reading his words.

      May 23, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  19. whorhay

    Reviewers are like any other person, they have their own set of likes and dislikes. So I'll pay attention to factual technical statements, such as a steak ordered medium rare being servered well done. But when it comes to statements such as food being bland that's mostly based in opinion. For instance I like strongly flavored foods, while my wife might consider a dish seasoned if she prepared it while the spice cabinet was merely open.

    So what winds up being most important if you read food reviews is finding a couple critics that seem to have the same sense of taste as yourself.

    May 18, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  20. Solo

    Frank Bruni is an arrogant piece of work that should have been called "into question" as a reviewer. He's found a little nest now on the Food Network, but I think he's so limited in knowledge and has no mass appeal, he'd never see a show on it.
    I think some reviewers have a personal agenda and there work should be treated more as editorial than fact. Their opinion is just opinion for the most part. Most are not trained chefs and became food writers or critics by being put into that role early on with some regional or local publication. Most don't have the chops.
    People like Chodorow do get heated when their restaurants are bashed; sometimes deserved, sometimes not. My local magazine writer loves everything (I think his meals are free.) and his reviews are never correct.

    May 18, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • Nicole

      Frank Bruni most definitely has earned his chops–in the kitchen, in the dining room, and most especially regarding his wonderful skill with language.. You claim he is "..limited in knowledge..". http://www.nytimes.com/ref/dining/bruni-bio.html I assume that includes his Pulitzer nomination and succeeding fellowship?

      May 18, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
      • Solo

        Frank Bruni was nominated for a Pulitzer (and many writers get nominated for dozens of categories) for writing about a child molester while he lived in Detroit. Is this somehow food related?

        May 19, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
      • Nope

        Nicole, I could nominate your blog post for a Pulitzer. All you have to do is fill out a form and pay 50 bucks. Used to work with a complete incompetent who got the job primarily because he highlighted his Pulitzer nomination on his resume and my boss got googly-eyed. Nomination means nothing unless you wind up a finalist or a winner.

        May 22, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  21. Pig in a poke

    Bad reviews aren't really that "bad". They're still publicity no matter if they're negative.

    Many will go just to test the waters. Many will go as a novelty. Many others go anyway as an "in your face" to a narcissistic reviewer. Still others will go just to see if it's really "that bad".

    Business is still business no matter what whoever thinks.

    May 18, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • Daisy

      For a restaurant, a bad review isn't just harmless publicity. Some people will go anyway, but a lot of people won't. A bad review can kill a restaurant.

      May 19, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  22. Hypatia

    We don't have much choice but to go with professional restaurant reviews. I'd like to make my choices from customer reviews but Yelp et all doesn't 'Allow' bad reviews-they immediately flag any negatives and insist that the reviewer is somehow 'suspect' for writing it. The hell with Yelp and its sissie policies.

    May 18, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • Sapphire

      Of course you have a choice: go to the restaurant and form your own opinion.

      May 18, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
      • Jaime

        Bravo! My thought exactly.

        May 20, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
  23. marmadukescarlet1

    I read Jay Rayner's review of Arkady Novikov when it was first published and laughed out loud. There had been a buzz round London about the opening and I thought Rayner beautifully expressed that this was the kind of restaurant for people who cared little for food but more about being seen. Exdcellent stuff!

    May 18, 2012 at 10:57 am |
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