Is restaurant reviewing in Vancouver a fair assessment by impartial observers or an incestuous bacchanalia of free-flowing booze and meals on the house? An insider weighs in.
In a luxury suite in a downtown Vancouver hotel, a guest sits in a bathrobe enjoying a manicure: one hand resting to let the polish dry while the other is being worked on, the nails cut, cuticled and coddled. A simultaneous pedicure takes care of the toes, but the pampered one realizes that, alas, the growling tummy has been neglected. Feeling peckish but unable to use any digits, the guest summons yet another person to hand-feed shrimp canapés and oysters on the half-shell and delicately raise a glass of bubbly to the guest’s lips to wash it all down. It could be a scene from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – but no, it’s just another Vancouver restaurant reviewer getting ready for a night on the town. Two reliable sources passed this story along to me. Apparently the freebie included accommodation, room service and dinner at the hotel’s restaurant. Since the food critic in question consistently gives this eatery a glowing review (and the place certainly deserves it), you might wonder why the hotel felt it necessary to layer on the VIP treatment. As insurance in case the reviewer pops in for lunch and finds an aphid on his or her arugula? Because it’s cheaper than advertising? Because Vancouver restaurant critics know how to throw their weight around? How does the restaurant reviewing business work anyway? I ought to know; I became the food reviewer for The Province four years ago. My mandate is to review eateries that the average diner can afford, which means I rarely cross paths with the oyster-slurper. Nevertheless, like most reviewers I think of my tastebuds as being insurable with Lloyds of London; in fact, in 1993 British food critic Egon Ronay did insure his taste buds for £250,000. Then again, a catfish has more tastebuds than any other creature on the planet, 27,000 to be exact, and some are located on the outside of its body, making it a veritable swimming tongue. So if I could teach a catfish to type it could probably easily replace me. The intriguing thing is that a catfish would probably appear more anonymous sitting at a dinner table than your typical Vancouver restaurant critic. “Vancouver is more unique than other cities in that food reviewers are not very anonymous and writers often call ahead to see if they can get a complimentary meal,” says Annabel Hawksworth, communications director for the Top Table group of restaurants that includes Blue Water Café, West and CinCin. “That’s especially true of the smaller community papers and publications which simply don’t have the budget for their restaurant critics.” This has to leave the public wondering then, how unbiased are the reviews produced from these outings? Mia Stainsby, the restaurant critic for the Vancouver Sun, and I both have our dining-out expenses covered entirely by our respective papers. We don’t call ahead, reserve in our own names or accept complimentary meals, which puts us in the minority among Vancouver’s core group of food reviewers, about 12 to 15 of them, who attend media dinners and develop friendships with restaurant owners and chefs. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Nancy Wong, who runs her own public relations company, Culinary Communications, sums it up: “No restaurant can afford big advertising consistently, so the PR route is the way to go. And the media are the folks you want to reach.” Likewise, few in the media are willing or able to pay full fare for each and every meal they consume in the name of research. Nor can they make a living writing restaurant reviews exclusively, which means yesterday’s review of Lumière becomes today’s chef Rob Feenie profile, which begets tomorrow’s feature story on Feenie’s kitchen reno or his recent win on the Food Network’s Iron Chef. The offshoot of this, of course, is that reviews are written by reviewers who may compromise their opinions by constantly accepting free handouts. Hawksworth believes Vancouver food critics are a canny bunch; when visiting a restaurant, they keep an eye on how other diners are being treated, the idea being that the reviewers won’t let themselves be bought. But the fact is most of the restaurants that engage the services of a public relations firm – and almost all the ‘top’ places do – are of the calibre where the reviews are usually positive anyway. What a restaurant’s handlers really want to do is create an atmosphere of indebtedness in which the food critic, after attending a continual stream of soirées, feels obliged to keep the restaurant in the limelight long after his or her initial review. Public relations-driven shindigs are an integral part of the restaurant scene in Vancouver, and the more sophisticated the eatery, the higher the stakes. Restaurants will use any excuse to invite the media, from introducing a new chef or menu to showing off new kitchen utensils. I usually decline, although I did break my own rule once when I attended a free lunch at Circolo in Yaletown. Champagne-makers Moët & Chandon were in town to throw a feast for Vancouver’s finest foodies, introducing fine champagnes to the restaurant and our gaping gullets. And a fine lunch it was. Owner Umberto Menghi is a dedicated restaurateur who knows how to wow a crowd with the food, the atmosphere and the service. Still, I couldn’t help but notice participants’ eyes flashing to the pile of gift bags waiting for us upon departure. Obviously hunger was not abated by food alone. It would take a few trinkets to really capture this crowd. I’ve visited the odd food writer in his or her home and seen the treasure chest of handouts accumulated over the years: Gore-Tex coats, briefcases, baseball hats, fancy tea sets, T-shirts and enough specialty food items to open a Meinhardt’s. Once I received a 100 per cent Egyptian cotton bathrobe from the folks at Joe Fortes thick enough to mop up a flood. I’ve felt guilty ever since, and it hangs in the cupboard unworn. Really, some of these food writers could start a second career on eBay selling all this stuff. And they just might need that second career since many food and wine reviewers, especially the freelancers, don’t earn much. They may eat and drink well but paying the hydro bill is a challenge. It’s not surprising that few of them can resist the extra perks that often come with the job. All-expense-paid trips, whether to a winery in the Okanagan, California or South Africa, a dinner at James Beard House in New York or a championship barbecue competition in Whistler, are common. Some writers travel first or business class without a dime in their bank accounts – but with the knowledge that there will be a back to scratch on their return if they want another excursion in the future. So if the money is paltry, except for those few reviewers who have turned their passion into an industry and branched out into books, television and radio, why are there so many grappling for a foothold in the trenches of culinary warfare? Nancy Wong says her media list of food and travel writers in Vancouver stretches to about 65 names. Most are committed foodies, with a sincere interest in educating the public, but there’s also an underlying sense that they have attained (or want to attain) a certain level of power and influence. I’ve met some reviewers whose egos should be wearing stretch pants. But even though the pen can be as mighty as the chef’s knife, I don’t think any of us are going to drive a chef to suicide, as was the case in France when Bernard Loiseau lost a star in the Michelin guide. The purpose of a restaurant review, from the restaurant owner’s perspective, is to generate business. So it goes without saying that a good review is good, a bad review not so good. Vikram Vij, owner of the esteemed Vij’s off South Granville and the newer, more casual Rangoli, observes that a good review undoubtedly attracts more customers but “the restaurant must maintain its focus [because] the review has limited momentum. Initially restaurants will see an increase in business for a week or so, but it has a peak and then drops off. The pressure is now on for the restaurant to remain vigilant and keep the ball rolling.” That thought echoes Nancy Wong’s comment that “we can bring [the reviewers] in but we can’t control what happens afterwards.” Because anonymity is out the window in this city, what happens is that reviewers tend to play it safe (I’ve been guilty of this), publishing reviews that bark when perhaps they should bite. As one local author and industry observer complains, “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen an awful restaurant rightly savaged in print, whatever hype it may be built on. How I long for some of the really biting criticism one gets from the likes of William Grimes, when he was still doing it at the New York Times, or Michael Bauer’s reviews in the San Francisco Chronicle, or some of the Brit critics. We’ve become a land where everyone gets three-and-a-half stars. I think that shortchanges readers mightily, and it shortchanges the restaurants too, because they start to believe their own press releases are Holy Writ.” [pagebreak] Vancouver has become known as a culinary destination and with the 2010 Olympics coming up, top restaurateurs are looking for massive media endorsement. If they make wise business and culinary decisions, the customers will come. They’ll come faster if the reviews are good, but they’ll still show up, reviews or not, which is not the case for similar, million-dollar-plus restaurant start-ups in high-rent districts in New York, for example. The variable in this equation are the smaller eateries that generate their own publicity or none at all. Here reviewers truly fulfill their function as culinary detectives since there are no media dinners and no schmoozing to get them in the door. There are a few food critics in this city who excel at this endeavour and this is where restaurant reviewing shines with a sense of discovery and the ability to pass on something to the readers that doesn’t reek of secret handshakes in the wine cellar. For these eateries, a single review can be highly influential, as I have discovered with a few of the places I’ve covered. My brother-in-law happened to eat at Pho 66, a Vietnamese restaurant occupying a converted Bino’s, and he begged me to give the place a shot. We paid a visit, and damned if the food wasn’t amazing. I raved about the incredible noodle soup combinations brimming with spring roll shrapnel, vermicelli and elephant-ear-sized slices of beef. The review appeared in the Province and my lunchmate informed me that business was bustling on all his subsequent visits. Word of mouth also led me to Paradise Vegetarian Noodle House in Burnaby, and my dining partner returned a week after the review to find out that business had gone haywire and the place had hired extra staff. The culmination of all of this restaurant writing and praising is the über-schmooze-a-rama known as the Vancouver magazine awards, normally held in March. The invite-only ceremony is an endless speech, drink and food fest where industry folks mingle and ‘no surprise there’ winners are politely applauded (the same restaurants duke it out in certain categories year after year). The process begins months earlier, however, with a 43-page ballot form emailed to 25 Vancouver food and wine writers, and restaurant reviewers, myself included. Then begins the jockeying for position by the restaurants as each attempts to garner the vote of the participating food critics. Jim Sutherland, former editor of Vancouver, wrote about this process in an article titled “Under The Table,” which appeared in the Mix section of the Vancouver Sun in April of 2000. “Here is how the week of January 24 went for the 28 restaurant critics and experts polled by Vancouver for their annual awards,” he wrote. “Monday saw several of them at Lumière, where chef and proprietor Rob Feenie, in a typically gutsy move, wowed them with his $59 vegetarian tasting menu. With no major event slated for Tuesday, some were able to take advantage of the many invitations each had received to drop into fine-dining establishments and sample from the menus and wine lists. On Wednesday evening they were off to Bin 942, Gordon Martins’s hot new Granville and Broadway tapas spot, which follows in the footsteps of his smash downtown hit, Bin 941. Thursday was an evening off for those who weren’t attending a dinner promoting B.C. seafood, which presented another opportunity to be hosted at one or more of the city’s best restaurants. On Friday, a large number were able to make it to a multi-course dinner at Oritalia, the spectacular new restaurant inside Le Soleil, a downtown boutique hotel. Then it was two days of rest, much needed, as the following Monday saw a pair of events: a reception at the splashy The Creek on Granville Island, followed by an impressive meal at CinCin, the Robson Street spot so popular with visiting Hollywooders.” The rumour, although unsubstantiated, is that a first-place win at the Vancouver restaurant awards can translate into an extra $50,000 in business. Restaurateur John Bishop helped define the culinary West Coast landscape and has a few of these gold medals under his belt, including a lifetime achievement award. “I can say a first-place finish definitely puts a spike in the business for two or three months. I can’t vouch for the amount in money, but the thing to remember also is that the magazine sits in doctors’ offices or hotels with a list of the winners. People pick it up and think, hmm, I’m going to try this place. As for the Lifetime Achievement Award, it’s very nice and I like to look at it, but in the end it’s still back to work for me.” [pagebreak] It’s an incestuous business, restaurant reviewing, and I’m one to talk. I started writing reviews for my mother-in-law, Kasey Wilson, when she was editing the Vancouver edition of the Zagat Survey. She would bounce descriptive passages about meals she’d eaten off my noggin, since food reviewers simply run out of adjectives after years of describing dishes. As bad boy chef, author and Food Network star Anthony Bourdain told an interviewer, “I mean, how many adjectives can you use to describe a salad? After ‘crunchy,’ ‘garden fresh’ and ‘redolent of unkilled fields,’ what are you gonna do? It’s like writing for Penthouse Letters.” It’s true that I cannot tell from the flavour of the goose liver what field in France, Quebec or upstate New York the quacker was happily futzing about in before someone did a Hannibal Lector on him. What I do possess is the distinction of having worked in the trenches and troughs of the restaurant business as a dishwasher, busboy and waiter. I was a cook for a day and even a fishmonger. I saw a lot from the side of the business that dishes it out and now I’m dishing it out from the other side. Suffice to say, restaurant reviewers usually have your best interests at heart. Though sometimes their opinions are swayed by self-preservation. If you suddenly see a bombardment of write-ups about the same restaurant in the span of a week or two, there was likely a recent publicity blitz. If the food and service warrant a positive report, the critics will give one, although they will rarely ’fess up about the true cost of eating at the more expensive places. If truly wretched food was served from first course to last, you probably won’t hear about it from them, at least in print. And remember that it’s not a level playing field since smaller establishments without publicity budgets may not make the headlines as often. As Woody Allen said, “Why does man kill? He kills for food. And not only food: frequently there must be a beverage,” and we all like eating and drinking expensive wines on someone else’s buck. Five Questions for Robert Clark Executive Chef, C Restaurant by Chelsea Whitteker 1. How much notice do you have before a reviewer or judge visits your restaurant? It depends on the type of review being done; if it is an anonymous review we have no idea the critic is coming. If we are hosting then we can have as much as six weeks notice or as little as a day, depending on where they are from, what they are interested in and how they heard about us. 2. How do you respond? We really try to do the same for critics as we do for our customers. In a perfect world, everyone receives the same experience. Having said that, there are times when we are putting on special events for media. Then we put more preparation into it. I guess if you normally double-check, then we’d triple-check. You don’t take anything for granted. 3. What’s the reviewer looking for? I hope they are looking for an experience … the feeling of the restaurant, the atmosphere, the service, the taste and presentation of the food, and how we work together to complete an experience. [pagebreak] 4. Are reviewers and customers looking for the same thing? The average Joe judges from a personal point of view. Reviewers take a more professional point of view and judge the restaurant overall. But the average customer is more critical. They’ve paid for the meal. They take it personally. 5. What does the ranking mean to you? It’s part of our business. It wasn’t always like that, but now it’s an integral part. It’s what everybody strives for. The Heavyweights by Lindsay Royston In the local dining biz, there are two major sources of recognition that restaurateurs vie for: Vancouver magazine’s Annual Restaurant Awards and B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association (BCRFA) honours. In the case of Vancouver, every year a team of 30 seasoned reviewers is sent to local restaurants to be wined and dined. Points are awarded for service, ambiance, presentation and of course, palette-satisfaction. The BCRFA, an industry association of 5,000 restaurateurs, caterers and foodservice retailers, suppliers and educators from across the province, ranks a Vancouver favourite based on quality food and service, and its efforts to be a supportive member of the community. 2004 Vancouver: Lumière BCRFA: C Restaurant and Raincity Grill 2003 Vancouver: West BCRFA: La Belle Auberge (Ladner) 2002 Vancouver: Lumière BCRFA: L’Emotion (West Vancouver) 2001 Vancouver: Lumière BCRFA: Cactus Club Restaurants 2000 Vancouver: Lumière BCRFA: Information unavailable Why I Don’t Review Anymore -- Don Genova, Pacific Palate (2004) “Last year I hung up my hat as one of the ‘chosen few’ – those who choose the best restaurants in the city. There’s a convenient list you can choose from to spur your memory if you haven’t eaten there this year – or ever. Every restaurant with a publicist wants you to come to dinner more than once to ‘remind’ you how great they are. They never mention restaurant awards, but everyone knows why you’re there. I quit because I don’t want my vote influenced by the restaurants that have the budget to invite me. Judges are in a tough spot. They do their best to be fair and unbiased, but from past experience, if a restaurant is not intense about marketing to the judges, it somehow drops off the radar.” How Mia Stainsby Does It Restaurant Reviewer, Vancouver Sun by Noel Hulsman “I never reserve under my name and I have a secret weapon that makes it easy for me to be anonymous. I won’t say what it is. People can speculate if they like. I often go with my husband and he’s got the shtick down pat. He knows when to shut up and let me take notes under the table. He’s better with the wine list than I am and he’s become very skilled over the 10 years we’ve been doing it, so I really value his judgment. I’ll go out about three times a week and always twice to a restaurant before I review it. That gives me an opportunity to check out the service a couple of times and try a number of dishes. In my experience, the service can really vary – they may be good at some parts of the menu and not others. My job is to see a restaurant just as an average diner would to give people a sense of what to expect. But because the tab is picked up by [the Vancouver Sun], I really have to keep in mind how much they’re charging me for what I’m getting. The person who is paying out of his own pocket is going to feel that much more sensitively than I do. Most people are looking for a place that doesn’t charge a lot and serves great food. (And I consider ‘not a lot’ $15-and-under for an entrée.) But I would have to say that there’s usually a huge difference between the quality of the service and the food at high-end restaurants. I say usually because there are some places I’ve been where they charge an awful lot ($25 per entrée and up) and the food is nowhere near as good as some of the ethnic places that give you a great dish for $10. As a food reviewer I am constantly receiving invites to all sorts of things. It’s kind of hard to say no when West or Lumière is doing something, but it only takes a few of [the restaurateurs] to know what I look like and my cover is blown. Generally most reviewers will go to a place after it’s been open for a few weeks, so there have been many occasions when I’m doing a review and other reviewers are there – and since nobody knows who I am, the owners fawn over them and I get ignored.” Why Rob Rarely Goes Berserk Chef Rob Feenie, Lumière by Tracy Tjaden What’s your take on food reviewing in Vancouver? A lot of restaurateurs in the city get caught up in the ass-kissing approach. I have to admit I’ve been just as guilty as the next person, but I’ve chosen in the last few years not to, but just to treat them like everyday people. When you start to treat the media like everyday people, they realize that’s what you’re all about. From a business standpoint, you want to make sure you’re giving reviewers your best. I’m as concerned, if not more concerned, about the two people at the table beside them that they’re not getting anything less. The food media are important, but the most important thing as a restaurant is to realize that the customers are the real media. Do you work hard to get your food reviewed? You get restaurants in Vancouver that change their concept just to be different to get attention from the media. Typically, with most media, even in this city, if there’s nothing exciting to write about they’re not going to write about you. I do think there are certain restaurants that play the media card too much. What’s tricky is that showing the media what you’re all about is no different than doing the same thing with your regular clientele. But if anyone thinks I’m complaining here they’d slap me across the face. I’ve been very lucky. When it comes to digesting food reviews – is it all about ego? Food is opinion-oriented. People should be allowed to have opinions and they should be allowed to share them. What if you get a bad review? I go berserk. I try to fix it. In regards to the actual food a person consumes, you can’t argue. But when people start to write about trends, where food is and where it’s going, I speak my mind. What’s the worst experience you’ve had with a food reviewer? It was with Ruth Reichl in New York. I was consulting for a hotel and wasn’t there all the time. She came in two or three times, wrote the truth, and that was a real eye-opener for me. It made me realize, you know what, these guys can make or break you so you have to make sure you are on top of your game every night.