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Anatomy of a Restaurant Review

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

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.

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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.

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