Friday, December 8, 2006

In restaurant reviewing, there's no such thing as a free lunch

Posted By on 12.08.06 at 05:03 PM

Two recent posts over at Chicagoist use a recent remark by NBC-5 "Good Eats" host Lee Ann Trotter as a springboard into the murky waters of food and restaurant reporting. Trotter sparked a small controversy when she announced on-air that featured restaurants routinely comp the meals that are covered, a practice that on its face violates a basic tenet of fair journalism: don't take free stuff from the people you are writing about.

But as several Chicagoist commenters pointed out, there are exceptions to this rule all over the place: film critics get to see movies for free, music reviewers get promo CDs, book reviewers get free books. But a movie, CD, or book is a fixed product--there's nothing a publisher can do to make the free book qualitatively better than the one someone else pays $22.95 for at Borders. In the world of theater and dance--where critics are regularly comped--performers may have a little more zing knowing the press is in the house, but they can't exactly tailor every show to suit a critic's taste, throwing in some extra stage time for the actor praised last season or an other five minutes of bravura jumps and spins.

It's different in the kitchen, where playing spot-the-critic is a popular sport and good reviews can be encouraged by an extra juicy cut of meat or a perfectly gorgeous plating, not to mention a couple of on-the-house appetizers "from the chef." So we go incognito, and we pay. (Reader reviewers pay out of pocket and are reimbursed by the paper, and while I've never gone to Reichlian heights of subterfuge, I do generally make reservations under someone else's name.)

This is widely accepted practice (well, pretty widely) for restaurant reviewing. But things get messier when you wander over into the realm of restaurant "coverage," and it's disingenuous to pretend that the same rules apply. If you're profiling a chef and she whips up a plate for you to taste, shouldn't you eat it to, you know, see what it tastes like? When you interview someone you can't help but establish a relationship; what happens when that chef moves on and opens a new place? The paper might assign the review to a different critic, but isn't the critic who did the story in some ways the best person to judge the restaurant? It's like assigning the jazz critic to review a pop band because the pop critic, who goes to pop shows all the time, wound up having beers with the band one night. It's this blurry line that's interesting to me, especialy as any media coverage that doesn't go out of its way to be negative seems to carry a tacit endorsement. 

Of course, if you're producing a TV program where you insist your segments are stories rather than reviews, maybe you shouldn't call the people doing the talking "reviewers" or the program "Good Eats."

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