Everyone’s a Critic

 

There was a time when someone would have a bad experience in your restaurant and they would tell 10 of their closest friends, who would then tell 10 of their closest friends, and on and on until your business slowly gained a less than stellar reputation. In the age of social media, however, we have access to our 874 closest acquaintances at the click of a button on twitter, facebook…. or Yelp!
Yelping is curious to me. It actually isn’t anything new; since the dawn of restaurant culture in 18th century Paris, diners have been sharing their experiences with friends. Regardless of where one grew up, or what level of education one has achieved, anyone can have an opinion about food.  But Yelping in its current form is different in that we are not sharing with just our friends and family; when we Yelp, we share our opinions with untold thousands of strangers. Is this an illustration of how distant we have become from one another that we no longer have “10 of our closest friends” who can stand to listen to us blather on about the trivial mishaps that we encounter on a night out?



Anyone can have a Yelp account. Disgruntled former employees, rival business owners, the chef’s mother…. and on that account, one can say whatever one chooses. It’s America, after all.

With this awesome power, though, should be some attempt at honesty, and perhaps a  dash of self-restraint. Below are a few guidelines that I use in the writing of my own Yelp reviews, and would suggest to anyone as a “Best Practices” guide.


 #1: If you accept freebies as an apology, you have forfeited your right of Yelp! review. Or, if you write the review, you must mention that the restaurant made every attempt to correct the mistake. 


On Yelp, it’s unsettling to read things like:
the chicken was underwhelming and I sent it back. We won’t be back 

when what it should say is:
“the chicken was underwhelming and I sent it back, the manager took it off the check and sent dessert, but we won’t be back.” 

Obviously, the manager or owner is offering these things as an apology; as an attempt to keep your night running smoothly.  If a guest accepts these peace offerings, it’s a sort of verbal agreement that the issue is now settled. 

At several restaurants where I have worked, we have a business Yelp account, and can actually directly message the reviewers. It’s definitely awkward when we remember this person who is slamming us, and recall the specific steps we took to rectify the problems at their tables only to see no mention of them in the subsequent review. End result, we look like complete jerk-faces.


#2: For every poopy review you write, try to write a great one for a place that gave you great service, never disappoints you, or is your go-to neighborhood spot. Even out the karma.

Most people only take the time to write a review when they have had a bad experience. While that’s fair, I try to end every Yelp review session on a positive note by writing a quick love note to a dependable spot that I adore.
 
Most restaurants are small businesses.  Everyone has an off night, and most places do whatever they can to make up for any mistakes that occur. It’s not rocket science, we’re not saving lives. It’s an incredibly transparent business.

#3: If your food and service was truly terrible, and unacknowledged, by all means go to town. But don’t get so carried away with your imagery that you slam the place more harshly than is necessary.  


From actual Yelp! reviews of establishments in LA:


Pardon me for my economically challenged palate. I thought the Kobe Schezuan Beef was a little too rich for my blood.  (get it… economically challenged… rich.. hehe:”

Ick.

 “As I was sitting there pondering what literary device would best convey my feelings about my second visit to XXXXX, the closest analogy I could provide was to compare the experience to what I would imagine what a bad second date would be like after one had already experienced a mediocre first date.” 

That is a terrible analogy. It’s not even an analogy, really.

Not everyone can be Kyle J. Just tell us about your experience, and save the eloquence for those with a gift.

#4 Have reasonable expectations.

“After asking for another table, our party waited nearly 10 minutes before being greeted by our server, who also made very few trips to our table throughout the course of dinner.”

This was probably because the table you asked for was not in a station that was staffed. There was a reason the host didn’t seat you at this table in the first place, probably because she realized that the service would be slower there.

“Food was ok, fried provolone seemed a little under-inspired. The pizza crust however was super booooring.” 

Fried Cheese and Pizza are usually not intended to be life-changing. I don’t imagine the chef was trying to knock anybody’s socks off with these offerings. He was probably thinking “these go great with beer and game!” Which is true; they do.

“My endive salad was unremarkable”

Aren’t most endive salads unremarkable? I don’t think I’ve ever had an endive salad that blew my mind. (Although if anyone has had one in LA, please share…)


“the biggest disappointment is the store-bought catsup for the fries.  Surely someone in the kitchen knows how to make catsup.”

In this case, it is probably not that the kitchen lacks the knowledge to make ketchup, but that the cost of the ingredients and the labor to make ketchup are prohibitive. For every guest that loves home-made ketchup, you will find 2 people that are adamant about the superiority of the Heinz 57th variety.

“Pork Belly sliders: After all the rave reviews, I was pumped to try these. Um… I think they forgot the pork. Try fat fatty sliders because that is all I could taste.”

Pork belly is fat. It’s pretty much a big old slab of fat, fatty bacon. 92% of the calories in Pork Belly come from fat. It’s one of the fattiest things you can eat. (yum)

From behind the kitchen door, I an can assure you that when we see patterns in these reviews (a particular server pops up for consistently poor service, a new dish is roundly panned by several guests), changes are made. Staff is re-trained or let go, dishes are changed or disappear forever. 

Regardless of what some diners might feel, restaurateurs are not trying to hood-wink you; we genuinely want to please our guests and provide you with enjoyable experiences. Most of us got into this business because we love food and –god help us– we like people. But reading the Yelp page for any restaurant is enough sometimes to ruin even my best mood and send me on a punching spree through the dining room.


Public School 612

Allegash White on draft at Public School 612
If the American Culinary Landscape could be expressed as a music scene, New York would be Opera, with the all grand stages, high stakes, high$$$, and divas-dive-bombing-one-another associated with it.
Chicago would have to be jazz, featuring lots of improvisation on common themes; those that love it, love it, and those that don’t…. well… they don’t ‘get’ it. San Francisco would be Folk and the neo-folk resurgence (organic, sustainable, usually featuring a mandolin…).
And Los Angeles…?
Los Angeles would probably be an accumulation of One-Hit-wonders; Like a NOW! Music compilation; the biggest identifying feature of the LA scene being the constant pursuit of that most ephemeral quality… coolness.
One of the latest competitors in the LA arena is Public School 612, the new bar concept for the Daily Grill Downtown. Walking in, it feels as though this place has always been there– the floors are worn, the table tops just weathered enough, the light fixtures are wrought iron and rustic. When I was there a few days ago, there was not only a mix of neighborhood residents and office-dwellers with ties just loosened, but a few downtown restaurant people, too (chef Meehan from Cafe Pinot was at the bar, and a handful of event directors from the surrounding restos held court at a corner table).

From the t-shirt clad bar staff to the composition notebook menus, it looks cool. Almost too cool.

It would be devil-may-care chic to write your menu on a composition book, but
the PS composition book menu is not an actual composition book, it’s a cleverly designed facsimile. Dishes are presented on tissue paper printed to look like newspaper. There’s a basket of apples on the bar that never gets used for anything; they’re not muddled into a drink or used as a garnish. They just make the theme work. Which made me wonder if my wobbily table was in need of repair, or if it was intentional.
And so the restaurant ends up with a faux patina of grungy Bohemia that lacks the seasoning and substance that would make it authentic.
But there is nothing wrong with Public School.
And that’s the funny part. There is nothing wrong with Public School; every imperfection seems to have been focus grouped, cross referenced, and studied. It doesn’t feel like anything just… happened.  The definition of cool involves some level of not caring. Being earnest is not cool. Wanting to be cool, is never cool.

The Grill Concepts Group has co-opted a vibe that organically occurs in Los Feliz and Silverlake, and made it a theme. Which is soLA. But even in their theme they fall slightly short. The daiquiri listed on their cocktail menu screams to be a Hemingway daiquiri. And why have a school theme and not offer ‘american history’ and ‘european history’ beer flights?

On to the brass tacks stuff, though:
A la Father’s Office and sundry museum cafes, at Public School you order everything from the bar. So your food can find you, they hand you a number to place on your table (in photo above). I asked if they had a number 13, but the bartender thought I was joking.
Biggest hits are the fried chicken and the stout float. The cheese plate is dependable, and the sriracha ketchup & honey mustard sauces with the bag o’ fries are delicious.  The draft beers are eclectic, the staff is warm and engaging, and the food is good. It won’t knock your socks off, but that’s not really what they’re trying to do here. They are trying to be a go-to neighborhood spot that fits in with the climate of this recessionary time.
And in that, they are succeeding…. at least until that fickle mistress, Los Angeles, decides that she’s in the mood for caviar and sparkly wine again…