In this modern age anyone with online access can publish a restaurant critique. The internet is already crawling with millions of reviews. How can you stand out and be noticed amidst all the competition? What makes a great restaurant review? There are many criteria one should cover but the rest comes with experience. We will cover the essentials points and I will share tips I have picked up along the way.
It may seem like a strange way to start this article, how you should think and approach a review. But good critic’s etiquette represents 50% of what will make you a good writer. The number one rule is writing for yourself, not what your readers want to hear. With time you will create your own ‘voice’ and personality and it will shine through in your writing. Readers get hooked when they can identify with a person or sense familiarity.
Unless you are a columnist for a national newspaper it will be most advantageous to remain diplomatic, honest and fair. By keeping an impartial tone you will earn credibility and appear professional. A negative experience does not give you the right to drag a restaurant though the dirt. Yes can you discuss a bad situation but honesty does not equal cruelty.
Keep a low profile and stay anonymous. Stating that you are there to write a review will not earn you favouritism or a free meal. Also, you are there to review a normal customer’s experience. I sometimes break this rule following a pleasant meal when I chatted with the owner or staff during the meal. I will then mention my blog, give my card and mention how I would love to write a review. That usually gets a big smile and a thank you.
Picking the Restaurant
Do your homework! Whether this is your first visit or your hundredth always arrived prepared. The best place to start is the internet. Does the restaurant have a website? Is the menu listed? With the prices? Are there pictures? Is there a wine list or is it Bring Your Own Wine. Do you need a reservation?
You can also check restaurant listings that may include reviews from readers. You will be amazed how some people rave about a place and others hate it. Just don’t let it influence your experience. You don’t have to spend a lot of time researching but a little effort goes a long way. Keep a list of potential places.
Finally the restaurant you choose should reflect what you are in the mood to eat.
Pen, Paper, Camera...Action!
First impressions will come from the ambiance and the greeting. Your initial contact with the staff will set the tone. Were they prompt and smiling or were you ignored for 5 minutes after you picked a table? Then take a look around: is the place well laid out and are the chairs comfortable? Is the decor pleasing and in theme? Perhaps the decor is charming, sombre, over the top or totally lacking. Great if you are happy so far. If there are glitches already...well, try to keep an open mind.
Time to peruse the menu! Does it offer a daily or tasting menu? Is here a constant theme: Asian fusion, seafood shack, classic French or Italian? Describe the trend of the menu. Note if there are vegetarian options. Ask if they have any signature dishes. Do choose dishes that look appetizing to you. The bigger your group, the more variety you should try to order.
What is an ideal timeline for your dining experience? That depends on the restaurant and the geographical location. In my city a mid-range meal will last between 1h30m and 3 hours. Yet in my travels I noticed some destinations were very fast paced across the board. I don’t appreciate a rushed meal but I try to keep local customs in mind for my out of town restaurant reviews. Another factor that will influence the length of your meal is how many people are in your party. A couple will be served faster than a group of 30.
Even if service varies there is a common routine: did you get a glass of water and a menu promptly, how long before the order is taken, the wait until you are served (too fast, just right, waited 45 minutes), were finished plates cleared, was dessert and coffee offered, and how was the bill given to you (in some cultures it is considered rude to give a client a bill before it is requested)? Talk about the general tone: was it relaxed, polite, overly friendly or hurried?
Once the food arrives, check if the food is cooked properly or as requested. Humans judge first with the eyes and nose. What is the plate presentation like and does it look appetizing? Now let’s have a taste. Be descriptive about the dish by using precise adjectives: dry, bland, too salty, unusual, well seasoned or sweet. You don’t have to go into details about each dish but they should all get a mention.
Take pictures of the dishes, table setting, decor and kitchen if you can. Rarely will a restaurant complain so don’t be shy but remain discreet. A small camera or cell phone works fine but reading up on food photography is a plus. Practice makes perfect but a good few hints are never use a flash, use your macro, keep a steady hand and get in close. Take a picture of the menu because you may not remember the name of your dish, especially an ethnic one.
Summing It All Up
Conclude your review with a final comment on the whole experience. Was it a great meal and you cannot wait to back? Would you rather never set foot in that place again? Was it an average meal? Be honest and back up your opinion stating why you liked it or hated it. The final touch: list the restaurant’s full name, address, telephone number and website. Now give your review a final proofreading and hit the publish button. Time for your restaurant critic to be critiqued!
Reviewing Restaurants: You Be the Critic! was written and photographed by Evelyne Budkewitsch, author of the blog Cheap Ethnic Eatz. She is a web designer, web content writer and graphic artist in Montreal, Quebec. In her spare time she can be found eating something weird by “normal” standards. Twitter: @cethniceatz