Getting the critics through the doors of your restaurant is the first slog toward that crucial review. So what does it take for reviewers to first cross the line, then sample a restaurant’s fare? John Burfitt reports.
They are a revered, and feared, breed of human being. Their job is to eat, and eat well at restaurants throughout Australia, then report on the experience to a massed audience. They are members of the industry known as restaurant critics.
To win their approval with a good review is something every restaurateur wants. While everyone loves to be acclaimed for a job well done, with all the increased business benefits which can result, more crushing can be the bad review which can put an establishment on a “must avoid’’ list.
But before dealing with a reviewer’s bouquets or brickbats, the bigger challenge can be how to get the critics through the door in the first place. Most reviewers do their jobs anonymously and unannounced. To invite them to dinner in order to gain a review is one of the no-no rules of the merry dance between reviewers and restaurateurs.
What some might think can be a minefield of negotiation of how to gain the critic’s attention is, according to Helen Greenwood, restaurant reviewer for the Spectrum section of The Sydney Morning Herald, more about simple good communication.
“As I go anonymously, I don’t want an invitation of any sort. I want to be sent a proper wine list and menu, and a proper CV of the chef and the owner—and that is all,” says Greenwood.
“If they send all the details, then I can easily judge from that. But there has to be honesty. I don’t want garbled emails that they have a certain named chef, and then when I get there, discover this person could not have even worked in an RSL.”
Greenwood says the presentation of the information can often make the difference between what she will add to her review list and what is quickly discarded.
“The menu will speak for itself, and I can see spelling mistakes straight away,” she adds. “To get me to go there, they have to be doing something that has a personality, a point and has professionalism—no spelling mistakes or fudging on the menu.”
Another who agrees good communication between restaurants and reviewers is essential when deciding what establishments to review is Matt Preston, from Vogue Entertaining + Travel.
Preston says, however, if most restaurants were being judged on their efforts with attracting the media, they would score badly.
“I know it is a sweeping statement, but most restaurants are terrible at sending out releases—terrible.”
“My advice is to let people know when you are doing something significant, so if you are changing your menu or changing your chef, then let everyone know. Give us a sense of what we are going to get and why it is going to be interesting,’’ he says.
“The challenge with PR is you can’t persuade people to come, but it is great to update people. It is so important to be front of mind, as you never know when a publication might be doing something like an Italian special and they can feature your restaurant.”
Poor communication seems a recurring sticking point in the reviewer-restaurateur relationship, as the issue is further stressed by John Lethlean, restaurant writer for Melbourne’s The Age newspaper.
Lethlean makes the claim that restaurants are “often appalling communicators”.
“I am often amazed that a restaurant will take a business card-sized advertsisement in a newspaper, but won’t send me an email with their menu, wine list and some simple images—a move that would cost them zero. It is such a simple thing to do,’’ he says.
A better understanding of the role of the media by the restaurant industry, be it for a review, feature or profile, needs to be adopted by owners and chefs, adds Lethlean.
“The restaurant industry demands we put our heads inside their business and understand how they work, but I think most people in the restaurant industry have a very flawed understanding of the media and don’t put the shoe on the other foot.
“I am not talking about those constantly looking for publicity. I am talking about understanding what our needs are.
“A good restaurateur who is keen to attract media attention will be thinking about … what they might like or find interesting,” he says.
For instance, Lethlean recalls the time a new restaurant sent through its details, which were presented in the same format as The Age’s Good Food Guide page design.
“It showed initiative and it caught my attention,” he says. “It doesn’t happen very often.”
When restaurants set their own media agenda with events like food theme nights and degustation dinners they can attract the most attention, claims Simon Hill from Brisbane’s Isis Brasserie.
“We have these theme nights about four times a year and invite the media, and we make sure the message we put out is appropriate for how we want our food to be judged,” Hill says.
“We deal with the media directly to let them know about these events, and about how these events are in tune with what our restaurant is trying to achieve.”
Hills says while it had not resulted in any additional reviews, the move has added to the profile of the Brisbane eatery. “We have not been reviewed in three years, but there has been a lot of other attention, and it has been good for business,” he says.
Similar media dinners have been effective for Melbourne’s Interlude restaurant.
But chef owner Robin Wickens says Interlude is business as usual behind the scenes when the house is full of sharp-eyed media types.
“On those nights, we perform as we would on any other night.
“I believe what reviewers get should be the same as everyone else,” he says.
“I know a lot of restaurants in Melbourne, when they know a reviewer is coming in, will change menus to the extent it is stuff that has never been on before. I stand by our food, and am happy to be reviewed for what we serve every night. That should be a standard,’’ Wickens says.
The other important factor in winning over the eye of a reviewer goes well beyond theme nights and the approach with slick PR material.
All reviewers agree word of mouth is a winner every time.
Matt Preston says, as in any industry, word of mouth is powerful, and ultimately plays a critical role in deciding which restaurants to review in Vogue Entertaining + Travel.
“The best way I determine which restaurants I will review is by word of mouth,” he says.
“The simple way to get reviewed is to be doing the right stuff and producing happy customers. When people have had a great experience, they want to tell everyone. ‘‘
The finer details can set the course for the impending review, before the food has been set on the table.
Lizzie Loel of Brisbane’s The Courier-Mail newspaper, says her review begins from the moment she makes the initial phone call booking, and when she walks through the door.
“Graciousness, in terms of service and not being talked down to, are so important, whether I am reviewing fine dining or a cheap eat.Someone has to smile and acknowledge that you matter. If the people serving are not interested, that’s a real problem and will impact on a review, no matter how great the food is.”
When attention to detail is also applied to the presentation of the menu, it makes the restaurant a more likely contender, says Sarah Blake of The Sunday Telegraph.
“I love attention to detail about where the food has come from,’’ she says.
“A chalkboard in a restaurant I recently reviewed noted where the chickens had come from, on which farm they had been raised and where the produce had come from. It was a seamless experience, one that was very memorable.”
Helen Greenwood adds restaurants that are prepared to go the extra yard win extra points in a review.
“I went to a Polish restaurant, and apart from the fact the food was very good, I loved that they had imported these Polish ceramics that I have never seen elsewhere,” she recalls.
“Then there was a Singaporean place where the man who owned it came out to tell us his life story while he poured the tea. It was fabulous.”
As most reviews are conducted anonymously, it is only after the event that reviewers will often make contact to request images and check on menu details.
It’s at that point, however, Sarah Blake says the most telling part of the review experience can be revealed.
The people who fear a review might be unfavourable are usually correct, she says.
“The people who don’t react like that are straight down the line and proud of their product. They are not insecure about what a review might say.”