Toby Young

Critic Toby Young shares how much the food really matters in an average restaurant review.

on Oct 21, 20090

Restaurant Wars should be my favorite episode of Top Chef because judging restaurants is what I do. But it can be a bit frustrating because the contestants are given so little time to work
on their ideas. In this week’s episode, they didn’t even get to choose the décor— they had to take turns to serve meals at Rick Moonen’s RM Seafood in Mandalay Bay. Consequently, we had to judge each team entirely on the food and the service.

Nothing wrong with that, you might think—and for Top Chef purposes, you’d be right. This show is about finding the best cook, not the best restaurateur. But in the real world, a food critic will never base a review on food and service alone. They’re worth, at most, 50 percent of the final rating. And even that overstates their significance when it comes to assessing the overall experience. Whether you have a good time at a restaurant is dependent on many other factors, some of which are difficult to quantify. What’s the ambience like? What stage is the restaurant at in its life cycle? Has it captured the Zeitgeist? How many celebrities hang out there? These considerations may sound superficial, but make no mistake, they’ll dictate whether the restaurant succeeds, not the food or the service. To a large extent, launching a new restaurant is all about marketing (and there may be a case for having marketing experts write the reviews rather than food critics). As any restaurateur will tell you, it’s a lot harder to get the concept right than it is to find a decent head chef. The food isn’t negligible, but that’s often about
PR too. Is the cuisine “of the moment?” How’s it presented on the plate? Is the restaurant linked with a celebrity chef, irrespective of whether he or she is in the kitchen? I sometimes think I could write an accurate review of a restaurant without ever tasting the food. If we were judging the two “restaurants” in this week’s episode on concept alone, Mission probably would have won, if only because Revolt is such a terrible name. In the end, though, the food and service at Mission just weren’t up to scratch. The wait between the appetizer and the entrée was far too long and Jennifer and Kevin didn’t live up to their usual standards. Jennifer’s sauce was broken and Kevin’s lamb was too rare. (As Rick Moonen said, it was “jello lamb”.) And not
serving a desert was a mistake, given how weak Mission’s third savory course was.

Revolt, by contrast, was very impressive. Michael Voltaggio led the line and his determination to win the challenge was on display all night long. Bryan’s short rib was excellent, as was Michael’s chicken and cod -- and we all loved Robin’s pear pithivier. I’ve spent over seven years reviewing restaurants and, in terms of food and service, this was way above average. As I said, I would have given it three stars -- which is about as high as I go, except in very exceptional circumstances. (For an example of a typical review by me, click here.) We decided to send Laurine home, not just because she was such a passive, low energy front-of-house manager, but because she failed to take responsibility for anything that went wrong. By the end of the night, she had an “L” carved on her forehead.

25 comments
PJF
PJF

I dont even have words to say why is robin still on the show even if you have no brain you can not let robin stay on the show the only reason would be for ratings to see when she goes. This show is over for a lot of people not great job recking a good show for rating.

DebS
DebS

Toby, You have been absolutely hilarius and endearing this season. Loved the hairy armpit comparison. Hope you continue on the show!

Deb S
Deb S

PS -- Although I agree with your comments, Toby, for the purposes of the show I think it works better to eliminate the decor requirement since they have so much to do in so little time. Then again, I did really enjoy in past seasons seeing what they came up, especially since decor adds some visual content to the show. We can't smell or taste the food (although the judges do a great job conveying the sense experience), but we can judge candles, artwork, plants, etc.

Deb S
Deb S

Thanks for the perspective, Tony. I couldn't agree more. Dining out is a social and entertainment experience. And there is great food out there everywhere -- as Anthony Bourdain shows us on his show (although it annoys me that he never shows us anything bad; I think he's become too nice a guy, frankly).

Anyway, I loved your Petersham Nurseries review -- thanks for the link! As I'm sure you know, most of us who read reviews will never be able to visit these restaurants; we're in it for the entertaining writing and a sense of the culinary zeitgeist. (Apropos of nothing, I love the word zeitgeist. So useful.)

babyd
babyd

You don't know how refreshing it is to see someone spell the sweet course of the meal d-e-s-e-r-t!! I've always felt that the extra s, while conveniently distinguishing the course from an arid stretch of sand, was a condescending finger-wag of the liberal elite.

jjosport
jjosport

I have always said that the service is more important than the food. Good food and bad service is difficult to come back to although good service and ok or decent food is always a return trip.

Those making something of the celebrity issue are not looking at in the perspective you wrote about. It's one of the many items you might take into consideration.

Here in Baltimore where ever the Ravens or Orioles hang out is the new hotspot of the day.

The show this season is clearly stocked with the best overall group of chefs. I dare say Harold and Stephanie wouldn't finish in the top four with this group, but one never knows.

jraven
jraven

Toby,

Very nice blog this week. I also appreciated the link to one of your typical reviews, so we can see the things you focus on and the style you use when you're writing them.

One thing I have to take some issue with, however, is the importance given to celebrities at the restaurant. I know that can draw attention to a restaurant (or club for example) initially, but after that, to get repeat business, the food and service have got to be good, at least where I'm from.

The celebs may be important in big cities (including where I live now), but speaking as someone who grew up on "fine country dining" I can tell you that so long as the place looks decent and is clean, that's all we care about in terms of the ambiance. The rest of it all comes down to how good was the food, how good was the service, and what was the value (yes, money counts).

Please keep writing and keep the wit on the show -- it's great to see.

Lynda S
Lynda S

Well, Toby,

Maybe you place the ambiance, celebrity status and other intangibles more weight than the food, but not me. If the food is bad, I won't return. If the food is bad and the atmosphere is good, I won't return either. For me, it's the quality of the food. Otherwise, I can stay home and cook for myself.

Abby P
Abby P

Toby, I understand your perspective on judging a restaurant by many other points other than food and service, but I must respectfully disagree that having celebrities there can make or break a restaurant. I live in Los Angeles and celebrities are a dime a dozen here. It's always great for a restaurant to be able to say, "so-and-so ate here" but the real attraction for the long haul is the food and service, and in many cases, ambiance. Those of us who see celebrities on a weekly basis at our local Whole Foods are more concerned with the dishes we are served, not who is sitting at the next table. It's true that celebs can be a draw for an opening, etc., but the restaurants that have stayed in business for decades are the ones whose food we like, from Michael's in Santa Monica to Micelli's old-school Italian in Studio City. Places like Katsu-ya in Brentwood that are decorated by Phillipe Starck are interesting to check out once and frankly, yes I did see a celebrity when I went, but that doesn't mean I'll be back, due to the overpriced food and quite frankly, I didn't like the whole "scene." Please, give the consumer some credit.

feednotfatten
feednotfatten

When I think of ambiance, I'm not considering fabric or furnishings. I'm looking at lighting level, intimacy, and the overall thoughtfulness of the dining experience. I will not go back to a restuarant that seats tables too close for private conversations. I won't go back if people glare at you for laughing or listen to your conversation. I won't go back if servers are too familiar or too aloof, or if the lighting is too bright or too dim to read the menu. So yes, ambiance is probably 50/50 for me. I don't care how good the food is if the atmosphere is stiff and formal, and the restaurant takes itself too seriously. That is not sophisticated; that is bourgeois.

mmc
mmc

I was so happy that the chefs did not have to build their restaurants.It took away from the time they had to prep and cook their dishes. While the name Revolt was not the most appealing name it was very creative,standing for the names of Robin, Eli, and the Volt. Bros.If there was a way it could have been explained on the sign, it would have been appreciated .I love this phase of Top Chef. It's so nerve wracking to watch at home i can't even imagine the stress these Chefs are under.But things don't always go the way you planned and sometimes you have to rush in real restaurants too.I take my hat off to each and every one of them.

Vancouver Dave
Vancouver Dave

There's always room for paella.

I just wanted to chime in on the importance of food and ambiance. Discussions here are always provacative.

It seems to me that the relative importance of food in the overall restaurant experience depends upon the purpose of the meal. Recently, I have had the opportunity to work with old friends who are software developers. The office is filled with geeks top to bottom -- hyperintelligent but social troglodytes. Amazingly, many are ardent foodies. Our first night at a Las Vegas conference, we rushed to Hubert Keller's restaurant and later in the week, we tried out Bobby Flay's handiwork. There was both an enjoyment of the food and a robust discussion of the dishes and accompanying wines. I believe both restaurants are located in the long casino malls that extend along the strip. I don't think either has a window.

By contrast, were I out for an evening in the company of a lady, decor and ambiance would be very important. While food should not be offensive and MUST include a chocolate dessert, the evening will be about having romantic lighting, a quiet room and maybe a jazz trio. A view would be nice; Vancouver offers many spectacular ones. Eveything should be conducive to conversation and relaxation. My focus will be on my guest and hopefully hers will be on me.

I don't think most of us go out simply for great food. We go out to fine restaurants to celebrate our guests and perhaps an event in their lives. We go to the place with the best food, wine and ambiance that we can afford. But we celebrate the people, not the restaurant.

Lynda S
Lynda S

Toby, Thanks for giving us a peak into your reviewer's world. However, as a diner of restaurants (all kinds), I could care less if a celebrity chef is attached to the property. Think "Roy Rogers Chuck Wagon"... I do care if the food is delicious and the service is flawless. Otherwise, I can stay home a make my own dinner.

As for Restaurant Wars, the Revolt team seemed to have a better concept and execution, even though Eli was FOH wearing his little brother's suit jacket and Robin prepared only 1 dish. The brothers V ruled.

EMViewer
EMViewer

Hi Toby -- Your review of the Petersham Nurseries is a riot!! Your quoting Stephen Sondheim's "The Ladies Who Lunch" is the icing on the cake. EM

KCM
KCM

Wow, that was an eye-opener. Didn't know ambiance and how many celebrities hang out at a place weighs so heavily in the ratings of restaurant reviews. Personally I don't care if the place I'm eating at is an "in" place or not, if the food is good then I will likely go back. I would agree general ambiance does play a part as well but the food is the most important factor.

I do appreciate you are more measured this season in your criticism Toby Young and even though I was not a fan of yours at all last season, this season you are much improved and a good addition to the show.

Lauren
Lauren

I honestly disagree with you about the food/ambiance being 50/50. Most people would pick great food over ambiance anyday. Sure, those things are important, but a restaurant isn't an art gallery opening with food. No, it's where people come to eat, drink, and socialize. They do not come to look at the pretty scenery.

I think that many restaurants fail because they do not keep true to the food--the quality, the preparation, the vision. They get so wrapped up in the marketing, promotions, and sensationalized nonsense (like celebrities!) that they forget the best promotion is word of mouth. Bottom line: if you don't have a well-seasoned, perfectly-cooked, quality product on your plate, you won't keep customers coming back. I've never heard anyone say, "God, I love 'So-and-so'.... They have the best chandeliers!"

AKS
AKS

Since I live in LA, I do agree with the ratings system but shouldn't the food be 70 and ambiance 30? Not 50/50. Yes, in a superficial world, celebrities would work for a time being then take away all that shine and what you have is still the food and possibility of having a good time. My friends went to a "celebrity" restaurant and they had an expensive disastrous meal for a birthday party. That turned me away and I haven't even been anywhere near the restaurant. Good food is still what it comes down to and I've written and edited quite a few reviews in my line of work to know that. By the way, I still like the name REVolt.

Quincy
Quincy

I guess Revolt was the shaved armpit and Mission the hairy one? ;-)

Good Gravy
Good Gravy

Toby, so glad you're back. Love your input on the show and your blog. Your review of the Petersham Nurseries was hilarious! What would ever induce anyone to go there? A need to dine in one's wellies? Seriously strange. Can't wait for your next evaluation!

LeighBee
LeighBee

I am acutally very pleased at the removal of the decor element from Restaurant Wars, primarily due to the limitations imposed by the sponsors. If the cheftestants were actually creating an environment of their own inspiration, that would be one thing, but they were limited to the contents of one store (I believe it was always Pier 1 Imports). It made for some pretty uninspired dining rooms, notable only for one season's misguided use of heavily perfumed candles.

BMCL
BMCL

"This show is about finding the best cook, not the best restauranteur"

So you send Laurine home for being a poor Maitre D?s Way to stay consistent guys!

DMoon
DMoon

"How many celebrities hang out there?"

I assume that is a joke.

Cass
Cass

Guten Morgen, Toby:

After all the paella discussion last week, I found it hilarious that you inserted "Zeitgeist" into your blog. In any event, I agree that the decor, ambience, service, clientele, and the buzz (so to speak) of a restaurant play a large role in determining what often makes or breaks a great restaurant and would have liked to have seen their ideas on creating their own restaurant. Having said that though, I've been known to go to some less than appealing places because of the great food, so I guess it depends on what a person is looking for. Since I've seen some major flops in the past on this restaurant war episode, it was nice to just focus on the cooking, although I was somewhat disappointed in the performances of Jennifer and Kevin and their fear of not doing a dessert because of their superstitions about prior seasons. If you're a good enough chef, why let that bother you? Didn't think their meal was well-rounded at all and would have much rather eaten at REVolt, despite the name.

Cassandra

Allyson
Allyson

Toby, i agreed with you about the ambiance of a restaurant. I missed that part of restaurant wars this time around. Great episode, other than that, love restaurant wars!

LAScuba
LAScuba

Toby, your comment about food and service being worth, at most, 50 percent of a restaurant's rating, left be baffled.

But then I remembered that you are British.

Seriously, decor, ambience, noise-level, etc. are all important factors but food (and service) have to count for most of those stars by the name of the restaurant. In the end, it is the food that people are buzzing about when they leave.

Again, I am very happy to watch an episode that highlights the issue of sustainable fishing/responsible aquaculture. I hope all the viewers will start making their seafood choices based on the recommendations on the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.

BTW, had little-known wreckfish last week in a restaurant in the D.C. area; I can totally recommnend it. Tastes a bit like grouper and you can enjoy it completely without guilt!