Can you really review a meal you didn’t pay for?

Food politics
Should food bloggers accept free meals?

I write a lot about restaurants, and I’ve written before about my reservations in doing so, but as this blog has grown (beyond my wildest expectations, it must be said), I’ve been approached more and more often by restaurants who want me to write about and review their places.

The basic approach, normally through a PR agency, is along the lines of ‘come and have a free meal, then maybe you could write a post about it?’.

For several reasons, I never feel entirely comfortable with this, which leads me to the central and tricky question…

Can you review a restaurant if you didn’t pay for your meal?

As with many ethical questions, the answer is far from straightforward.  There are many different points of view and motivations.

I can understand entirely why restaurants would want people like me to write about their restaurants – it creates a buzz, and some presence on the Internet. A lot of that buzz will be quite localised, as most bloggers tend to concentrate on a certain area, so it seems natural for restaurants on their patch to want to be featured.

A comped meal is a small price to pay for some decent, targeted exposure.

For the writer, there’s a free meal in it and another experience to write about. The attraction of a free dinner is obvious, but anybody who’s ever written a blog will know that the opportunity to get some new material to write about is equally tempting.

It would seem to be a win-win situation, right?

Well, I’m not so sure.

I’ve accepted a couple of free meals in the early days of this blog, but I didn’t particularly enjoy the experience. There was too much weight of expectation, and I felt compromised.  They were very odd situations – I’m just a little amateur writer who happens to cook a bit, yet there I was, feted as some sort of influential critic.  It felt very uncomfortable, and bluntly put, I felt like a free-loading fraud.

Is it all fake anyway?

The central, unspoken truth of the free PR meal is that the restaurant knows who you are, and that leads to the question of whether you’re presented with the same sort of meal and service that the average bloke in the street would get, or whether you’re eating in a restaurant that’s pulling out all the stops to impress because they know there’s something in it for them?

To me, this is very clear.

There isn’t a kitchen and front of house in the world that won’t raise their game to stupendous levels once they know that they’re cooking for and serving somebody who’s going to publish their opinion of the experience.  I can’t understand arguments contra to this position.  The restaurant has a reason to impress, and they’re going to damn well try to do that, especially as they arranged the situation in the first place.

The thing is, when a restaurant knows who you are, what you do and that you’re going to write something about them, how can you possibly ever get a true view of what the place is really like?  The kitchen will try to leave their mark, the service will be different, and they’ll do everything possible to make sure you have a great time.  Wrapping the event up as a ‘launch’ or a ‘PR offensive’ really doesn’t change anything.

Would you have the same experience on a slow, wet Wednesday evening in March?

You might, but more probably, you might not, and as a reviewer, you’d never know because you didn’t experience the restaurant in the same way as an average customer.

So, are PR led reviews worth anything?

That’s the killer question.

I’ll go out on a limb and declare my hand.

No, I don’t think solicited restaurant reviews are worth the pixels they’re written with.

I’m not suggesting that free stuff is wrong. I accept products and books for review every now and again, and the terms on which I do so are clearly laid out, but meals are a different beast because of the service element.  The experience is service led, and the fact that the situation is essentially staged means that the reviewer isn’t getting the same experience as everybody else, which undermines the credibility of the resulting review. It’s not a balanced and equitable situation.

It’s all about service, and when you don’t pay for your meal, you’re not experiencing the real thing.

It’s altered by your position, by the truth that everybody in the place knows why you’re there.

When I read restaurant reviews that either start or end with something like ‘I attended so-and-so event as a guest of the restaurant’ or some other shorthand for ‘I didn’t pay’, I immediately downgrade whatever opinion is expressed and look harder for other people’s views.

I know that bloggers generally act in good faith, but there’s a compromise at the heart of what’s essentially a paid for review, and it feels like many blogs these days are becoming essentially pay-for-play.

There are plenty of horror stories out there about badly behaved amateurs expecting the earth. This example simultaneously amused and horrified me, and makes me want to stay clear of the whole game.

So, what do you think? Is it right to eat for free and write about it?

25 comments… add one

  • Jools Cyprien Mar 5, 2011

    Great article Rich, I'm not a food blogger but I think your right with everything you've said. A restaurant is going to pull out it's A game if it know's who's coming and what you do why wouldn't they. I think people start out food blogging with good intentions but then down the line get dazzled by the free meal.

    Goes back to the old adage "there's no such thing as a free meal"

  • Yesim Mar 5, 2011

    Nice article really.. and i share your concerns although i wasnt offered with this you get:)) if i had change for free meal and write.. hmmm it s really tuff question.. :)

    and i think yea.. there s no such thing as a free meal :))

    good luck!

  • Sam Millies Mar 5, 2011

    Although I can't imagine ever being in this position, personally I would certainly feel uncomfortable about doing a review for a free meal. But it would be naive to think this doesn't happen. And as a business, asking local bloggers to do a similar thing for us (reviewing products from our store) has been a great boost to us in the past. Although we've only done it a couple of times as we feel uncomfortable asking bloggers in fear of offending them.

    But, I trust this blog. And wouldn't feel any different reading a review for a free meal. However for blogs I don't know, I think it would alter my opinion.

    Maybe next time you're offered a free meal, you could arrange to go in anonymously and only reveal your true identity at the end (just as the bill is about to come!). That way you get more of a true feel for the place and they still get their review?

  • I do food reviews in San Francisco on my blog, generally going to the Top 100 restaurants as named by San Francisco Chronicle's food critic, Michael Bauer. My blog is a small blog, but I have surprisingly also gotten a couple offers for free meals. I've never said yes, as frankly, I don't feel qualified for the special treatment, given that I'm really just a person who loves to eat and loves to write. But I've, too, wondered about what it says about my ethics in accepting free food. After all, I even make it a point not to read Bauer's reviews before I go to a restaurant, so that I'm not swayed by his opinion. Surely, a few extra special sides from the kitchen have the potential to sway me as well. And to be honest, it would be easy to write a good review. It would be excruciating (for me) to write a poor review after a comped meal (which of course, is part of the reason they are comping it). I don't need the weight of food guilt — as it is, I'm already overweight with just plain chub! Thanks for the intriguing article.

  • trudi Mar 5, 2011

    I think that last idea is a good one. Go in anonymously and then reveal who you are at the end. Maybe you could pay the bill as normal, and the restaurant could reimburse you afterwards, when you send them an invoice (but before they read what you write!).

    I don't know whay you are surprised your blog has grown and grown, Rich. Have you read it lately? It's excellent!

  • Great post! I don't like getting a free meal or a free anything for a review because I feel that I can't be as objective as I would be if I wasn't getting this stuff for free. There's too much pressure on me to give a positive review just because the subject was of no cost to me.

    I worked as an Operations Director for a Healthcare Network with about 15 physicians and one of them paid a magazine to get published as the "#1 MD in Chicago" … and the magazine did it… that's when I learned that "#1" in mags, or articles is not true… someone paid for that spot.

  • Mzungu Mar 5, 2011

    Hi,

    I've no problem accepting freebies and writing about them. I let people know it was a free meal at the start.

    But me being me, I will write about it as I find it. If it's crap, then it is crap. If it's good, it's good.

    Saying that, I've only accepted a few, as a lot of the ones I am offered are for places I would never eat at. Even I have principles.

  • Alejandra Mar 5, 2011

    There's about a million derivatives of this situation that food bloggers find themselves in, which each have their own right/wrong, yes/no answers. But for the most part I agree with you. PR-driven free meals wherein I found myself sitting at a table with other bloggers and local food writers left me feeling dirty, whore-ish even. Many bloggers express a problem with not knowing what is expected of them after those meals, which is a problem I never personally experienced. I don't give a hoot what's "expected" of me. But I do feel like the manufactured situation – the chef explaining dishes himself, the constant and loving service, the never empty glass of whatever – takes away the main component of the meal (food notwithstanding), ambiance. Dare I say sometimes even bad service can bring an element of charm to a meal. But the writer will never know thanks to the PR people. (I should disclose, I'm in PR myself. I'm critical of both sides of the equation.)

    But then there's this. You are a food blogger – you blog about recipes mostly, but you opine on food, restaurants, recipes and more on other blogs or Twitter. You go to events…you're invested in your city's food scene. Chefs know you. And we all know chefs like to make people happy with their food. Do you believe you can ethically/morally blog about a meal that included many freebies, came at a discount or ended up being free because the chef decided to treat you? Much in the same way bartenders comp drinks when you become a regular (or think you're handsome)?

    I'm left wondering, more often than not lately, how authentic a meal or dining experience is if you're simply known or have a good relationship with the chef/bartender. No PR people involved. No pitches. Just you and the chef. What do you think then? It's something I'm still mulling over.

  • Zak Mar 5, 2011

    If you've got the courage to write something unpaid that you'd stand by, then I think you should have the courage to write frankly about anything you get "for free".

  • Lori Lynn Mar 6, 2011

    I think so.

    The quality of the food will speak for itself, either way.

    You may get more attentive service or a prettier plate, but the recipes and ingredients will not likely change if they know you are reviewing. And it's Ok to let them put their "best foot forward."

    LL

  • Gary Mar 7, 2011

    I totally agree with your comments on how can you write an unbiased review if you receive a free meal/wine etc.

    It can also be difficult for the restaurant:
    http://www.hardens.com/restaurant-news/uk-london/

    I think that is really pushing things.

    Gary

  • Mo Mar 7, 2011

    It's not the fact the meal is free – it's more the fact that they know it for free and therefore the dining experience (food and service) may not be the the kind of service the vast majority of customer would get. Surely this is the objective of any review – to give the reader an expectation of what they are likely to recieve and in my opinion this need to be a normal experience. Many moons ago, I used to write reviews for the Leeds Guide (covering the regular writer) and I totally agree with you. The anonymous ones were much better and natural. I didn't like it if they knew exactly when I was coming and who I was. I prefered not to reveal my identity or if I had to, then not at all. Cost of the meal didn't matter to me as I was reimbursed The Leeds Guide apart from stating if I felt the experience was value for money – ie would I have been happy to have paid for the meal?

    On a similar note to illustrate – recently I had a problem with an establishment in Leeds and had reason to complain. The management offered me a voucher for a free meal for 2 which I accepted. And whilst the second visit was much improved, there was a doubt in my mind if the service was natural or because they knew I complained beforehand – so was this natural service that the vast majority of diners would get or was it false? I will always have a doubt and therfore could not honestly give an positve or negative impression on either visits.

  • Cinabar Mar 7, 2011

    I know what you mean. The food may be of its usual quality, but at a PR meal you just know you are getting extra special service. Much fairer for the reader if you do a paid for review, but not as much fun for you I guess ;-)

  • Forchetta Mar 7, 2011

    I think you can, if you're still honest. We have done this twice – once for a place we loved and most recently for a place we did not. That being said, I prefer to be anonymous and pay for my meal.

  • Katie Mar 8, 2011

    I have thought long and hard about this one and I have come to pretty much the same conclusion as you.

    I do accept free meals because frankly I enjoy the experience of being treated like a VIP. I don't accept every meal that I am offered (average 2 a month) and I only go to the places that it looks worth compromising my morals for like Gaucho!

    I always tell the restaurant in advance that a) I reserve the right to write what I like and b) that I will declare the fact that the meal was free. I always declare the free meal at the top of the post.

    I think that my readers are intelligent enough to disregard the freebies if they think my judgement has been swayed and I think if restaurants/ PR companies are daft enough to offer me free meals for potentially worthless reviews then wooo hooo bring out the complementary bubbly.

    You might have seen the discussion I had about this with Jay Rayner on Twitter. I know he pays for all of his meals, but surely the minute he turns up the Maitre d' legs it to the kitchen and yells 'shit guys, raise the game, Jay Rayner is here!' meaning that he also gets an unrealistic representation of the meal/ service.

    Thanks for another excellent discussion provoking post!

    • Rich Mar 9, 2011

      I think Rayner, with his Byronic locks and outstanding goatee is a special case…of course he'll get recognised, but what is the bloke supposed to do?

      He can do no more than pay for his food, which frees him completely to say what he wants.

  • mark Mar 8, 2011

    I agree entirely.

    Being a known beer taster, wine afficionado or restaurant reviewer changes the ambience of the experience. It's far better to be anonymous.

    If you are known to the restaurant or pub, you have to front up to them and have the moral courage to give a modest review where it is merited – this can be a problem if you are in the habit of giving unkind reviews (boo – there's no need for that). But you can still say that you enjoyed the meal and be grateful for the free meal and explain that you won't necessarily be giving them a 5 star review.

    You should be able to explain what you liked and didn't like to the restaurant owners, just the same as you would explain it to your readers.

  • Tiffany Mar 9, 2011

    Thought provoking!!!! I think as long as you're detailed, you can review a meal–no matter who paid for it.

  • Tamar Mar 11, 2011

    Newspaper and magazine food writers have the luxury of a company-paid expense account so they can visit the hottest, most expensive restaurants on someone else's dime. Food bloggers don't. I'd be careful about getting morally indignant about a food blogger getting a free meal from a restaurant, particularly if they're honest enough to say so up front. To downgrade that bloggers opinion when:

    1. Have no expense account paid by a publisher's dime

    2. They have the integrity to say up front that they've been comped somehow

    is somewhat condescending and smacks of a bit of jealousy too.

    My blog is about Korean cuisines and most of the Korean restaurants where I am are reasonably priced enough for me to easily pay for the meal and keep my anonymity (at least until after the meal), so I've never had this dilemma up to this point but I've gone back and forth with myself as to what I'd do if I did get such an offer in the future.

    • rich Mar 11, 2011

      The reason I think less of a blogger's opinion of a comped meal is because that blogger has been put in a compromising position because he or she hasn't paid for the meal.

      This has little to do with professional critics eating on expenses – that's a very different scenario, because, as far as the restaurant is concerned, they've got a paying customer sat in their dining room…the reviewer pays the bill at the end of the meal, walks away and writes his piece. There's no post-meal interacton with the PR people, no 'well, what did yu think? I do hope you're going to be nice emails'.

      I think that declaring that a meal has been comped is a basic requirement, not a show of integrity. In fact, across the pond, isn't it a legal requirement?

      I'm not getting morally indignant or condescending about this – I completely reject that. All I'm doing here is exploring the issue and describing my position. My position is that I'm uncomfortable with the 'free meal in exchange for a review' scenario becasue I think it undermines the credibility of the writer's views.

      Neither am I jealous. I reject free meal for review offers all the time. The opportunities are there for me to take should I so choose, but I choose not to take them.

  • leigh Mar 11, 2011

    I have been asked many times before, and always said no. It's also something I would steer away from; for me it just negates any credibility your review may have had. We've been having similiar conversations in the Beer Blogging world about recieving 'beer for review' in the post and again that raises questions.

  • Rich, this reaches far wider than reviewing restaurants. Specifically for us how do we deal with beer that is sent to us for free (not that it happens that often!). We're very grateful for it but I'm never comfortable writing about it.

    And it goes way beyond food and beer, what about technology that you can keep e.g. a mobile phone for review that the manufacturer doesn't want back?

    The issues is probably a bit different within each niche but the principle of authority, sincerity and trustworthiness are recurring themes.

    On a slightly different issues I'm sometimes loathe to do bad reviews, especially based on one sitting. A restaurant might have had staff off, one bottle of beer could be light struck, a piece of technology could have been damaged in transit… is it fair to review something one just one experience? Would you review a restaurant after only going once? As one beer blogger says and I think is a transferable comment, what about the difference in the same pubs at different times of day e.g. Monday afternoon versus Friday night versus Sunday lunchtime?

  • Sasa Mar 19, 2011

    Interesting premise as usual…I tend to agree with you. If it's an item a PR sends, I don't think it's so hard – I say if I like it I'll say so and won't if I don't but a restaurant is different because, as you say, there's service that changes and perhaps the speed with which you get it and the care and attention that is paid to the food. I'd probably do it if I could go and not tell them who I was until I left.

  • Elle (Bromography) Mar 24, 2011

    It is not really a review if it is part of a PR campaign. The service and food that you receive may not be representative of the standard customer experience. I review a lot of restaurants, but only leave a card about the review as I pay the bill.

  • cooking fairy Aug 17, 2011

    Hi there,
    I’d like to kick start this debate a little further:-

    I would be really interested to hear your views re product reviews! Does the same principles re restaurant reviews in your opinion apply? I know you touched on it slightly….. I tend to agree with you. Restaurant reviews are all about the food/ service and it can be rather tained if you are paid/ given a free meal to review.

    I have recently had a guy commenting on a review of a product I did. I have since agreed to be an ambassador of the product (BECAUSE I really like it) and not for any other reason. I dont feel that my views were compromised because of this. If I like a product, I like it and will be an ambassador for that product; same as if I like a restaurant for which I have paid to eat at, I will be an ambassador of that restaurant.

    Look forward to hearing from you. Feel free to email charlotte@cookingfairy(dot)(co)(dot)(uk)

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