Saturday, September 5, 2009

A Very Bad Meal

My husband's uncle once asked me, can all the restaurants I review be that good? Surely every restaurant is not worthy of a drive across town...And this is a good question. Typically I leave negativity out of my blog, usually saving it for Trip Advisor or some other such hosted review site. However, last night D and I shared a meal that was so bad I feel like it should be addressed here.

Before writing the review, I have investigated the Food Blogger Code of Ethics to make sure all bases are covered and I can in good conscience pen a gnarly review.

  • I have visited this restaurant multiple times. No less than 5, and probably more than that. I started dining at this restaurant when it was a new steakhouse, and indeed a hot place to dine. I continued to dine here because I like the architecture of the hotel it lives in, the ambiance of the restaurant, have always had good service, it is not far from my house and is in a good neighborhood for evening walking after dinner. And the food has previously always been good.
  • In the 5+ visits to the restaurant, I have definitely sampled a wide range of items from the menu, and even last night the menu was well represented. Oysters, two appetizers, one entree, a side dish and 3 sauces. This seems a fair amount of items on which to judge, one or even a couple items could be bad and still have had a great dining experience.
  • This is not a new restaurant. Having a hard time gleaning their opening date from their website, the earliest review on Yelp is August 2006, and some investigation on Eater LA tells me they did open in 2006.
  • I did not receive an item for free, and indeed despite lots of questions and a tiny point-and-shoot (no flash), our bartender/server did not recognize me as a food blogger.
  • I am not anonymous. People can respond to what I write, my photo is on my blog and anyone can chit chat with me on Twitter with my blog names as my Twitter ID. @foodshethought.

So, why the hesitance in ripping this restaurant to shreds for several things? What things, you might ask.

  • Our server was either insane, drunk, high or all three. He told us he hadn't slept in days and his behavior was manic. He poured us lukewarm champagne, asked us questions about our order and turning around to put the qualifications in the register immediately turned around to ask us the same question again (more than once). Having fun, he slid our waters down the bar toward us from the other end, and the sliding glasses ran into the menu and spilled all over our place settings and my rather nice-ish handbag. The bar was close to empty and the restaurant was 1/2 full, yet he commented several times that he felt slammed.
  • The oysters, while fresh, were mangled. D made excuses saying there is probably some dishwasher filling in as pantry chef, but truly one can learn to properly shuck an oyster in about 5 minutes. Working as a bartender at a seafood restaurant in San Francisco in my twenties, I have shucked hundreds of them. If it is mangled beyond recognition, don't serve it.
  • The flavor of the food was bad. From the oily tarragon oyster vinaigrette, the unfresh sprouts on a hamachi crudo plate, the watery tomato brine around a crab bloody mary, to a thickly salt encrusted steak (a deer would have been thrilled to lick this sucker) & a vegetable side dish out of a can during summer with said vegetable in season, the food was bad.
I am not comfortable outing an experience this horrific on my blog. I say to myself, I say, "this is one of my hobbies, people read this to learn about places I go and some of my friends consult my page when planning a night on the town". Why am I uncomfortable putting down the name and the details of a restaurant whose food quality is bad, preparation is dismal and service is worse?

Looking at's A Bloggers' Code of Ethics while reflecting on this issue, I suppose it has something to do with item #2, Minimize Harm. "Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by Weblog content." We are in the midst of trying economic times. Restaurants are closing all over the city, and new places are having troubles getting up and running. Fine dining is being challenged by excellent offerings at lower prices in fun venues and formats all over the city, including high profile chefs opening less expensive restaurants and food trucks with delicious offerings at bargain basement prices. Writing a truly honest review about an experience this bad would hurt the restaurant's bottom line, and chances are according to last night's number of clients they are already hurting. I don't want someone to get fired (he was very friendly and nice, and apparently just went through a bad breakup, I blame it on her), and I don't want restaurant management in trouble with higher up hotel management.

When discussing the Food Blog Code of Ethics and the more general A Bloggers' Code of Ethics with friends and bloggers, my stance is that if the product is out there on the market, people are going to write about it. Put out a product you are proud of, and make every attempt for it to be of consistently good quality, check regularly to make sure your clients are happy and have no fear. If Adidas sold me tennis socks that had holes in them or loose threads, I could take them back and tell my friends not to buy x style of Adidas socks. In a non-service based physical product, there is a way to hold the producer accountable. Blog reviews, Yelp (albeit questionably these days, "meaty"? wtf?) and Chowhound forums are one of the ways consumers can communicate with one another sharing experiences so that we can use our dining dollars wisely.

So why am I uncomfortable sharing the location of last nights's debacle for my readers to see? I guess because I fear using this blog as a weapon and anything that feels like it comes close to that leaves me ill at ease. Unfortunately, I have learned the hard way having had a couple of just such incidences in the past 2 years. It may make for fun or compelling reading but at what cost?


Pat said...

Well, I don't think you need to be quite that sensitive. Think about what the reader would like to know. Is it helpful to know the food has really gone downhill, crazed waiter aside? One has to serve the reader as well as protecting the restaurant. Or you could just do as Jonathan Gold advised, "Smile, and move on."

Wandering Chopsticks said...

Unless the restaurant is so horrendous that you want to warn others away, I just don't bother writing about places that I'm not that crazy about. There's plenty of restaurants that I do like, or more commonly, have their good and bad dishes. Why waste time publicizing about the places that are just "meh"?

Cara said...

I can see both sides, I suppose. On the one hand, I think it's admirable to consider the power that these blogs can wield. On the other, if you're going to take the time to feature an establishment for the exceptionally poor experience you had - it also seems responsible to treat them equally and educate the reader about the location of said place. If you're not comfortable with this, I would at least suggest contacting the manager and directing him to your article. It can only benefit them to know when something like this occurs.

Food, she thought. said...

WC: I think this situation falls somewhere in between. I have certainly had bad experiences at many places and chosen not to share. This was a worse case, not worst case. I think the question about to share or not to share remains the compelling issue...

Cara: I did indeed contact management. Being a hotel restaurant and somewhat high profile, they certainly deserve to know that the quality of the product is not up to snuff and to hopefully to rectify the situation.

La Sybarite said...

I actually appreciate your sensitivity to this issue. Yes, scathing reviews make for fun reading, but a writer's struggle to work out a tough issue like this one is imminently interesting, too.

Food, she thought. said...

Pat: I think J Gold gives well seasoned advice!

LS: Thanks, there are dual responsibilities here and both sides deserve a lot of consideration.

Colleen said...

Great timing, and well considered and well written to boot. I've struggled with this issue myself for years, even as an old-school print journalist. In general if I don't like a place, I just don't write about it, and that's how we handle things in the book EAT: Los Angeles. And yet one can come off as pretty pollyanna-ish if it seems that everything is fabulous all the time, which of course it's not.

So just yesterday I wrote a negative piece about Bazaar by Jose Andres, which posted this morning. We've added a section on to deal with this sort of commentary. I would never want to pick on a little place, but I do think it's valuable journalism to report on bad experiences at famous/acclaimed/high-end places with ambition. And I think you have every right to reveal the name of the troubled place, and indeed, you're providing a service by doing so.

Food, she thought. said...

Colleen: Thank you for your insight. Not only has my blog been accused of being too frequently positive with regard to reviews, and even LA recently has come under heat for not having deep enough critical looks at food. (I am researching where the article is discussing this...can't remember, mind like a sieve.) Should anyone care to know the name of the restaurant, they can email me, but overall I need to figure out where there is a place for an honest and very tough review both in my blog and in the blogosphere.

Larry said...

I appreciate your sensitivity. I think this has happened to all of us in one way or another. If you've had several wonderful experiences that brought you back to this restaurant, I don't feel it's right to write up the first negative experience and mark it as a trend. Seems to deserve a couple of more visits to be able to write it up as a warning to others.

burumun said...

That's always a tough question and I generally don't write reviews about the mediocre or "meh" experiences because frankly I have better things to write about.

On the other hand, I won't shy away from sharing really bad experiences. I feel it part of our 'responsibility' as food bloggers to warn readers about those too.

winedoofus said...

Colleen: Remember when we wrote for the same SoCa mag; they told us that they only wanted positive reviews in the mag. In fact, if I had a bad dining experience, they told me to find another restaurant to review. Being a broadly circulated mag, their philosophy was that they would rather point readers toward a restaurant they would enjoy, rather than warning them against one they would not.

Food, she thought. said...

Winedoofus: I can definitely appreciate that philosophy. While it may make sense to pan a dish, or some element of service, simply ignoring restaurants that do not cut the mustard is providing them with a lack of publicity which is certainly detrimental enough. What are your thoughts on this policy? Did you agree with it or disagree with it?

Food, she thought. said...

Buruman: I don't think I have ever read anything extremely negative you have written though, despite your feeling that responsibility.

winedoofus said...

It was a travel mag with 3 million readers, so the mag's philosophy was understandable. They wanted their readers, if they were heading up 101 through Santa Barbara, to be able to consult the mag and pull off the highway to get a great meal in town. To the mag, that was a much better service than telling them where NOT to go.

Smokeydoke said...

Hi, I just found your blog. Interesting post. I think it's ok to be negative, especially if it was ridiculously bad, as long as you're honest and you give reasons why you thought it was bad.

Personally, I leave them out of my blog and post them on Urbanspoons (I don't devote too much time to places I don't like). Consider this, would you want other unsuspecting customers to go and drop a C-note on a bad experience?
I feel an odd sense of accomplishment by telling the truth and destroying old sacred cows.

Pat said...

Didn't you write/tweet about a poor Boulud experience? Is this different because it's in your hood? Now you've piqued my curiosity!

Food, she thought. said...

Pat: That's a great question, and a valid reason for curiosity. I think the nature of the dichotomy is twofold.

1) I think of Daniel Boulud as a meta-chef, a chef's chef if you will. He heads close to a dozen restaurants of world wide fame, and I seriously doubt my word will have any noticeable impact on his bottom line at this point.

2) There is a community aspect to LA food blogging. I don't feel the same concern for DB's (or DB's employees) pocketbook as I do for that of this local place I have dined at so often.

3) (HA!) I didn't go into Boulud intending to blog, I went in intending to have a quiet romantic dinner with my blog-suffering husband. Being so shocked at the experience led me to commentate publicly, via twitter & Food,she thought.

I am sure everyone interested in this "to blog or not to blog" discourse will be happy to hear that management from Friday night's meal has responded quite timely via email, and we will be chatting via telephone this week about the experience. I am pleased someone took the time to care, as I emailed Boulud's people nearly exactly the text and I have yet to hear back.

winedoofus said...

By the way, I have no problem with you posting a negative review; isn't that a "public service" of sorts?

And if I reread you correctly, you've had 5+ experiences at this restaurant and apparently this was the only negative one? So perhaps it was one of those perennial "off nights?" Which, of course, is no excuse for them, but you might be inclined to cut them some slack, since your most recent experience seemed atypical.

But now that you've handled it this way so far, the greater story might be how the restaurant responds to you.

Pat said...

Interesting points re: Boulud vs local restaurant.

I'm also interested in hearing about the restaurant's response. Do they know you're a blogger?

e.claire said...

I think this is a very interesting discussion, and I think that the ultimate litmus should be the usefulness of the critique.

I can certainly see that a travel magazine should direct travelers, but for local people who might be inclined to visit a place because of hype or buzz (a la The Bazaar...) it is very useful to hear honest and thorough discussions of the highs and the lows, thereby hopefully helping people to make choices informed by more than speculation and chatter.