As a writer, one of the basic bits of advice published writers will give you on getting published is: Write what you know. Since I’ve worked in restaurants for several years, both in front and back of the house, it seemed only natural that I start writing reviews. Strangely, it wasn’t the perfect fit I figured it would be when I started out.
Recently, I’ve been getting hits for searches on “how to write restaurant reviews” or “restaurant cover gig advice,” so I figured I’d help my fellow junior restaurant reviewers hit the ground running. Keep in mind, however, that these are not hard-and-fast rules. It will really depend on the publication you’re writing for. Your local regional lifestyle magazine will probably have different standards than Food & Wine.
Lose the Narrative: The purpose of the review is to give the reader a sense of what an average visit – their average visit – will be like. They don’t care about how you’re dressed, your routine or really anything about you. Having come from a creative non-fiction background, I was all too eager to write myself into my restaurant reviews when I first started out. Fortunately, my editor gently, but firmly steered me in the right direction. Since then, you don’t know how many times I’ve come across a restaurant review that barely reviewed the restaurant. That’s not to say a little bit of personal experience or editorializing is going to kill your piece. Just make sure there’s a reason for it.
Temper Your Criticism: Your role as a restaurant reviewer does not give you carte blanche to rip into the establishment. Everyone and every business has “off” nights. Sometimes unforeseeable acts of God get in the way of good service. Line cooks slice their fingers open. Customers bump into servers, spilling trays of food. Sewage systems back up and come exploding out of the floor like a fountain inside the restaurant. (Yes, I’ve seen this happen. I used to work at that restaurant.) Crazy things happen. It would be unfair to lambaste a restaurant on these rare occurrences. A good way to include these events in your review is to focus on how the restaurant handled them. Sometimes, however, bad service is just bad service. If that’s the case, then you should review it as such, but keep it in the professional realm. No one takes outlandish criticisms seriously. For an example of overboard criticisms, read my review of the Luna Rossa in Tustin, CA. This was just written for me, not a publication.
Nuts and Bolts: When I write a review, I try to cover a few basic points that I feel are relevant to any reader who knows nothing about the joint:
Surroundings – I like to describe the area around the restaurant – urban, industrial, downtown, etc. – so that people have a general idea of what they’ll see out the window when they eat there. Plus, it’s always good to know if your car will be where you parked it when you come out.
Atmosphere – I do my best to write about the décor. I’m no interior designer, so my vocabulary is a bit limited in this regard, but I think it passes. It’s nice to know if the restaurant is geared for romantic dinners or for family fun. Also, giving the reader a feel for the general floor plan helps them decide on party sizes.
Menu – Since you obviously can’t reprint all the food offerings in your review, tell the reader what he/she can expect to order. Cover the major groups: poultry, fish, steak, pork, pasta, vegetarian dishes, etc. This is a good place to discuss the wine list (if there is one) and give the price range for the restaurant.
Service – I think for most people eating out at most places, service accounts for at least half of the reason for eating there in the first place. If you’ve never worked in a restaurant, sometimes it’s hard to know what good service is. Typically, you can get by with just covering speed, presentation and demeanor. There’s more to a server’s job than that, of course – enough to fill a book – but most people don’t care about anything beyond those three things.
Exclusives – I try to mention the things that make the restaurant different from others, like special events, cooking classes, hosted dinners, live entertainment, whatever it is.
Ask Questions: Your server is a wealth of knowledge about the restaurant (or at least they’re supposed to be), so don’t be bashful about pumping him/her for information. Also, if appropriate, have the Chef come out and tell you a little about himself/herself.
Expert Opinions – Eating alone sucks, so I recommend bringing a guest. Friends are fine, but I suggest bringing someone who complements your expertise. Since my food and wine knowledge is spotty in parts, I like to bring my friend who’s an Executive Chef to fill in the blanks. I know that most of you aren’t going to have access to this kind of resource. To that, I say get out there and start networking.
Experience the Courses – If you’re a serious writer, then due diligence demands you sample every course – appetizers, soups/salads, entrée and dessert.
Collateral – Depending on the kind of restaurant, try to snag as much literature from them as possible. Take home menus, press kits, fliers; anything that you might need to review later while you’re writing. There’s nothing worse than being under a virgin-tight deadline and forgetting the name of what you ate and not having something to reference.
Revealing Your Reviewer Status – I have mixed feelings about this issue. On one hand, if you eat at someplace under the guise of an average patron, you get to see what average service is like and you can write a more accurate review. On the other hand, if you prepare the restaurant and tell them that you’re reviewing them, they have a chance to put together a press kit for you and you’re that much more prepared to write a comprehensive review. If you’re just starting out, chances are that the publication you’re writing for isn’t covering your tab. Heck, they may not even be paying you at all. In which case, you may want to give the restaurant a heads up on your review. More often than not, you’ll get a portion of your bill comped. For my part, I like springing my reviewer status on them after I’ve paid the bill. It’s fun to see General Managers falling over themselves to boost my opinion, but having no recourse since I’ve already signed the credit card chit.
Alright, fellow reviewers! That’s all I have for one night. I hope at least a few of these pointers will help. Now get out there and write some good reviews. 🙂
Update: This article was originally published on January 6, 2008. It has been updated with new information.