Is it OK for food bloggers to review restaurants?

Eating out, Food politics
Should I review restaurants?

One thing about this blog makes me a little uncomfortable.

It’s not the writing, the cooking or the photography.  It’s not keeping on top of it, and – believe me – I’m not laid awake at night worrying about visitor growth or statistics.

It’s reviewing restaurants.

This has always troubled me because I’m not sure whether or not I should do it at all.  Every now and again, a proper journalist has a cheap shot at food bloggers, trying to demean and undermine them, and that makes me think a little bit harder about what I do and why.

This is just a hobby…should I be doing something that professional critics get paid a fortune to do much better than I ever could?

Really, is it my place to comment on somebody else’s business, on their skill as a chef?  What qualifies me to do so in the first place?  What impact do my posts have on other people and their livelihoods?

I’m not suggesting for a second that this is a hugely influential blog, or that any of the reviews on here have the power to make or break a restaurant.

They simply don’t.

I’m not Jay Rayner or Fay Maschler, nor do I want or aim to be, but there’s a decent amount of traffic comes this way, and increasingly, I can see people arriving here looking specifically for restaurant reviews.

A lot of this type of traffic is very localised (OK, OK, I know – the stats do fascinate me, and I love digging into them).  It’s from people looking for places to eat around Saltaire, Shipley and Leeds.  They seem to have heard about a restaurant and want to check out what other people think of it before going themselves, which is fair enough and something I do all the time myself.

These are probably very valuable people to the restaurants themselves.  They’re potential first customers who might turn into repeat customers, the most valuable type.

How influenced are they in the decisions they make by the things I write?

This isn’t a particularly influential blog, but perhaps it actually is in certain very narrow terms, when people are looking for specific information about a particular restaurant in a small corner of the world.  The owner of a restaurant in Saltaire isn’t likely to be interested in the fact that half my traffic comes from the US, or that most of the rest is from around the British Isles.  He or she is going to be interested in the tiny proportion of people who live on their particular patch, because it’s these people that convert into paying customers.

That concerns me a lot.

Could I actually harm a business simply by writing about it?

Let’s look at this in two ways…the pros and cons of writing restaurant reviews:

Pros:

  • I’m just writing about my experiences. I try to be open and honest about places when I write about them, and I try to look for the good points, but I’m not afraid to mention the bad.  I think this is what people are looking for when they land on my reviews.  They’re looking for an ordinary person’s view of what a restaurant is like.  Did they enjoy it?  Did they have a good time?
  • Restaurants shouldn’t have anything to hide. If a restaurant thinks that something is good enough to serve, they should think that its good enough for somebody to comment on.
  • It’s just the same as talking to friends. I talk to friends and colleagues about the places I eat out at all the time, and all I’m really doing when I write a review is smartening up and transcribing those conversations.  They happen whether I write the review or not.
  • People want reviews.  People’s thirst for restaurant reviews is self evident from the Google search terms I pick up from my statistics.  People are actively looking for this sort of content, so why shouldn’t I provide it?

Cons:

  • What make me qualified, anyway? I’m not a trained cook, and whilst I do have some background in the writing side of things, I’m not a trained journalist.  I’m just somebody who knows a bit about food and likes to eat out.  Does this qualify me to critique other people’s restaurants?
  • Taking photographs in restaurants is a bit rude. As anybody who writes a blog knows, a decent photo is a must.  I’ve said my piece on this already, but photography in restaurants makes me very uncomfortable.  It’s just all so…sneaky.
  • I only visit a place once before reviewing it. What if the chef is having a bad day?  Everybody cooks a crappy meal every now and again…what if I get the bad plate out of an otherwise brilliant service and I slam the whole place on that basis?  Is that fair?
  • Could I unwittingly damage somebody’s livelihood? The thought of doing that just leaves me cold.  It’s unthinkable.

I can see both sides of this argment, and that’s why I struggle with it.

On the one hand, I’m a little nervous and apprehensive about writing restaurant reviews at all, and I certainly don’t want to cause any ill will, but on the other hand, I’m perfectly free to write about my own experiences and what I like or don’t like.

I suppose that my position is one of guarded and slightly grudging acceptance that it’s right to do restaurant reviews.

But there’s another angle to this…

This isn’t really about writing restaurant reviews.  It’s about writing bad restaurant reviews.

I’ve got no problem or difficulty in praising a restaurant that’s served me a good meal, where I’ve enjoyed the experience, one that I’d recommend to friends, but I don’t like being hard on a place because I’m conscious of the impact that this could have on their business, and I’m not sure I want to be responsible for that.

“But if you tell them what’s wrong, they can make it better,” you may say, but the fact remains that once something is published on the Internet, it’s hard to take it back and it’s hard to revise or amend it.  Say something once on the Internet and it’s there forever.

In any event, how often do I actually return to a restaurant a second time if I didn’t enjoy it the first?

Frankly, never.

Restaurants simply never get a second chance to serve me a better meal, and I’m not about to write a positive review just because I can’t stomach writing a bad one.  I’d sooner write nothing at all.

On balance, I’m perfectly free to write about my own experiences, good or bad, but I’ll take special care when I’ve had a bad time of things.

These are the rules I’ve arrived at:

  • If I  have a bad meal, the restaurant gets the right to explain it before I write about it.
  • Any review will be open and balanced.  It’s very rare for a meal to be entirely terrible.
  • If I sense that anything I write might have an adverse financial impact on somebody, I may not write it at all.
  • Any restaurant I write about has a right to reply, and they’ll get space here to do so.
  • I’ll be fair to new restaurants.  Running a restaurant is obviously hard, especially if you’re new to the game.  If you are, you deserve some slack.

I want this blog to cover a wide range of food-related issues and subjects, and to purposely exclude writing about eating out would seem to defeat this aim in its entirity.

I’ll be fair, balanced and honest, but I’ll continue to do it.

What do you think?  Is it right to blog about restaurants, or should we just leave them alone?

Want to read something else?