Is it Fair for a Journalist to Review a Press Preview Dinner?

Portland Food and Drink was invited to a friends/family/press event to acquaint us with the new restaurant Quartet, which officially opens today.

I don’t go to press events, but know several people who were there, and from texts and emails I was getting, there were some serious issues.

However, because it was a pre-opening dinner, as in the restaurant wasn’t even open to the public yet, I didn’t write anything about the experiences of my friends – it just didn’t seem right.

This did not seem to be the case with Chris Onstad over at the Portland Mercury, who published a screed this morning, lambasting everything from the decor  to the service, the food, and everyone else who attended the dinner – because they didn’t tell the management how bad their experience had been. This wasn’t just a negative piece, it was an all out attack.

The following is not a review, but a recap of a single experience at a restaurant that does not open until tomorrow. It is generally my policy to review restaurants that have been open at least two months, but due to the circumstances I explain below, I feel like something should be said, if only so that at least one person is honest with the management. What follows won’t surprise a lot of you.

Over the years, I have sent quite a few people to preview dinners, with only a few instructions. 1) what’s the decor like, what’s on the menu, what are the prices like, and an overall impression. It’s a test dinner – I don’t expect the service or food to be all that great –  heck, we’ve been to dinners where they were still finishing construction. It’s just to give me some background that I can use in news reports and whatnot. In my opinion, to write an article which, whether you want to admit it or not IS a review, is below the belt and unprofessional.

What do you think? Is it fair to report on a dinner you got free, from a restaurant that hasn’t even opened yet? Should restaurant owners expect attendees to write full-page stories about how bad the experience was? Am I off base? I’d like to know your opinion in the comments below. [The reason I say below, is because comments on Facebook/Twitter don't get read by many people]

If you must, you can read Onstad’s not a review here.

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. says

    I’m always torn on press dinners, as to whether they’re expecting a review or not. I suspect many a restaurant “review” is written from a press invite – just not noted as such – but I’ve read very few that are immediately admitted to.

    That said, I agree with all the comments in the article. For him to preface it as being “one person…honest with the management” is a complete failure, however. For you to lambaste a restaurant entirely on a media preview is completely unprofessional. For you to do it within a publication, instead of discreetly discussing it with the management, or at the very least, bringing your dismay to the press firm issuing the invitation, is deplorable. We are in the age where shock and awe, rather than dignified, integrity-based journalism, is more often applauded than not. The “review” is disappointing, but not surprising.

  2. oldsweng says

    I’m no journalist but I would expect the proprietor to provide some guidance as to the purpose of the event in the invitation. Are they providing the event for publicity, or is it for privately communicated criticism? If they want publicity, then they better expect to get roasted. If the invited guest doesn’t like the purpose of the event, they don’t have to attend.

  3. hsawtelle says

    Dang, I like Achewood, But I agree is super weird. Since it’s admittedly not a review, why not send it privately to the manager (or whomever)?

  4. Jill-O says

    Onstad was honest about everything – that they weren’t open yet, that it was a special press dinner, that he should have said something and didn’t…and, it seems, he was honest about the food.

    As someone who has accepted press passes (and has also declined more than I have accepted – which is easy if you don’t write about food for a living, for sure) and has reported on events online (though I do not in any way fancy myself a journalist or food writer – I have a day job), I would say that if you are giving a freebie to “the press” you’d better make sure whatever you serve them is good, or you run the risk of something like this happening.

    They should have ironed out some kinks with family/friends BEFORE they invited the press. If it was truly as bad as Onstad said, that dinner should not have happened. And asking the press to ignore and remain silent about what seems like a horrifically bad meal, as part of some kind of tacit agreement between restaurants/PR and the press seems…well…not at all right.

    Is it fair? Probably not, but the best thing they can do is pull a “ten-01 turn around” and then give Onstad (and the rest of their patrons) an amazing meal.

    And let me ask this – if it had been a great meal food-wise, and the press wrote about that (blog posts/tweets/etc. – in a similar “not a review” way) would we be having this conversation? I don’t think so…because we all know about how many “press” folks blogged/tweeted/etc. about so many press dinners well before those places were open for business. No one ever says – well, it’s not even open yet (or hey, you didn’t pay for that dinner) if someone is giving a place free positive press. You can’t have it both ways, IMO.

  5. Hardcoremom says

    I don’t think it’s fair to write a review after one visit. I also LOATHE anyone who writes a negative review (anywhere) without giving the kitchen/foh a chance to “make things right”. I am always interested to see how a restaurant handles a situation in which the guest isn’t 100% happy.

    • says

      So what you are saying is that if your family goes to a restaurant and gets a bad meal (food), the restaurant should be given the chance to make the whole thing over again? The family should have to wait for this? Or, should the bad food be ignored if the restaurant comps the meal? What about the next family to come in, and the next, and the next?

      • Hardcoremom says

        Not what I’m saying- I should have been clearer. What I’m saying is more applicable to a situation where a dish can be sent back & replaced, or a manager can be made aware of slow or indifferent service. I am never looking for a comped item. I want a suitable item the first time, & if I can make someone aware of the mistake & they are able to correct it, I’m cool with it. As an owner/chef, I’d rather the guest enjoy their meal then get it free. In my experience a guest will still complain about a bad free meal or experience. If my family visits a restaurant for the first time, and the experience is clearly going to be a bad one entirely, then I just won’t go back. Im certainly not going to take it upon myself to wrte a bad review. I think diners can be savvy enough to know whether to “invest” themselves in their dining experience. So I guess I’m saying I like to give places the opportunity to return on that investment.

  6. Lizzy Caston says

    Sigh. One would hope a “professional” food writer writing for a “professional” print publication would follow even the basics of truly professional food journalism ethics and standards. Sadly, the author of this glaring “it’s not really a review because I say it isn’t” but it really is a review, followed neither. Those who accept free meals at media invites and think it is somehow fine to then critique that said restaurant after their first and only visit, and a media event at that are not professionals. This is a an amateur move more in line with cranky armchair bloggers and is more appropriate to those in the knunklehead bleachers on Yelp. http://www.afjonline.com/ethics.cfm

    • Jill-O says

      Do you think press live tweeting how awesome the food is at a press dinner with pics is OK?

      Do you think that it is OK to do what Onstad did if everything had been delicious and awesome and what was said was positive?

      And if that “review” in question is not officially in print (because you make the distinction of it being a “professional” print publication) does it matter at all?

      Not baiting you Lizzy, and don’t want to come off as grilling you either – is there an emoticon for that? ;o) just curious to see what you think. I’ve always been interested in this topic.

      My press passes are usually to one-off events and dinners, and I am not a professional food writer, so this stuff doesn’t come up for me – I can’t go twice, I can only report on what I experienced that night.

    • says

      Oh baloney, Lizzy. Morris is right. You can’t have it both ways. Unless “professional food writer” should be interpreted as “whore”, then if you bring them in, you have to be content with an honest outcome, for or against you. Onstad seems to have been very fair in the piece in the sense that he is clear that this is one experience on an atypical day and that it shouldn’t be interpreted as a general review of the restaurant. The only real criticisms that can be fairly laid at his feet are 1) he’s not anonymous (didn’t seem to help), 2) he didn’t have the balls to pull an owner or manager aside and tell him the truth, 3) he says he’ll be “watching from the sidelines”. He should make the effort to go back even if the Merc has someone else review it. (The owners would be smart to invite him back in a month on their dime assuming he’s not going to review it and they have confidence in their product.)

      Jill nailed it: if it’s good to say nice things about such events, then it must be good to say bad things, too. The important thing is that both are honest and appropriately placed in context. Otherwise you’re basically defending a quid pro quo. This town has plenty of foodie fluffers who make it their hobby (or even livelihood) to say nice things about whoever buys them a drink or gives them a meal. I’ll take crass honesty over pleasant dishonesty, please and thank you.

      Foodies are distraught over this, but the recent marriage of PR-machines and media and the incestuous relationship between hip and trendy restaurants in Portland with the media doesn’t seem to register. But perhaps that’s because people might have to say something mean about their drinking buddies and honesty makes for bad barfellows?

      • anonymoose says

        MSG, you have a complete meltdown when you get a bad yelp review. If a press dude had done this during your soft opening, you would have come unglued!!

        • says

          I have “meltdowns” about more than my restaurant. There are a lot of idiots on Yelp who have more power than Onstad ever will over a restaurant’s bottom line. And while I think the star system encourages laziness and isn’t a very accurate reflection of the relative merits of Portland’s restaurants, I’ve never challenged a Yelper’s right to review any place, including my own. I have called them out for stupid comments. But I wasn’t defending Onstad’s content, just the appropriateness of writing about a negative experience during a preview dinner. If Onstad starts saying that Mexicans don’t eat pork, like one Yelper did in criticizing Mextiza, then I’ll come “unglued” on him as well.

  7. psp2pdx says

    Wow…….sounds like the rhetoric on capitol hill! No tolerance?
    I thought Portlanders were a kinder gentler group of foodies. It was a nasty post, one mans opinion and not very professional at that. No reviewer worth their reputation would comment so harshly on a single event. This appears to be more about an amateur reviewer who jumped the gun. That being said, I’ll wait a couple of months before trying it out and commenting.

  8. Morris says

    Oh good grief. Pre-opening dinner when there’s a million kinks to work out – invite friends. Invite the press – you’re hoping for some good publicity and either have it dialed in or you don’t and run the risk of someone writing about their experience, either way, and not always the way you might like. So onwards and upwards it is.

  9. JM says

    Hmmm I’m fascinated by the food community’s gleeful hand- wringing over the prospect of Quartet’s failure. It’s not just Chris’s piece – check out the reviews on Eater. They’ll singe your eyebrows.

  10. Ned says

    OK I did have dinner here, not a press dinner, but soft opening meal. Horribly disappointed, not only that the interior had not changed much since Lucier but that it still has all the “chill” elements that made Lucier a tough take. The service was horrid. The food seemed heaped on the plates and uneventful…very “meh.” Onstad nailed most of it. On a humorous note, the piano player was playing Love Boat themed type of dreck. Would have been nice to have heard some jazz, or something that came close to highlighting what they are trying to do with the food….NW with a southern spin. The only promise here as far as I can see is that this might be a great happy hour spot if they can get a good line up of reasonably priced small plates and drink specials. The view is great. Yeah, give them some time to work out the kinks, but I have bad feeling this place is doomed.

    • zumpie says

      Those guys have like no $$$ (rumours abound regarding bouncing paychecks at Portland Grill, which only stays afloat from hotel biz and happy hour), so I’m not surprised they didn’t do much with the decor (ditto Portland Grill AND whatever it was before that, the decor is still the same as when that Stanford’s company owned it), especially since having met both Keeler and Taylor, I’m sure they thought it was suuuuper awesome and classy!

      Actually, my curiosity is more peaked by how Keeler Restaurant Group got it off of Dussin’s hands: It’s still a $4 million investment and I’ve heard they’re feeling the pinch at Dussin these days. They have (maybe had?) a sales/business development person who could’ve still sold Lucier as catering space…..so I’m still dying to know how the smallest “group” (the addition of Quartet doubles their portfolio to 2) in town made this happen in the first place? Anyone?

      • portland pro says

        I have a little insight into their other property in the Pearl that is now Jamison. The Dussins more or less are giving that property away so it doesn’t surprise me that they were willing to wheel & deal for Lucier which is still a fiscal albatross around their necks. I find it curious that despite the hype, controversy and PR machine behind them that one can easily snag a table during prime time on a Friday or Saturday with no problem. You shouldn’t be able to walk into a newly opened “hot spot” without a reservation for at least 6 months after they’ve been open. This place suffers from a crisis of leadership all around. At least Lucier staffed their team with serious and talented professionals which gave them a fighting chance. I recognized several grizzled (read: past their due date) front of house veterans when I had cocktails there last week. Very little vibe or energy in the room.

  11. Dean says

    Having arranged a press dinner for another Portland restaurant opening I’d say it is absolutely appropriate to comment on the food you ate at a press event. Of course there are kinks to work out (and most rational people understand that). However, those kinks should be the operational kinks. The time to figure out if you’re capable of putting out decent food is BEFORE a press event. Everything should be tested on friends and family first (and, frankly, the food should be good even then).

    This press event happened a few days before they started taking money from paying customers — presumably a lot of it. If it truly sucks, the media kind of owes it to their readers to say something. On the other hand, you have to take reviews with a grain of salt. Does anyone expect a publication like the Mercury to have top-notch food critics on staff? Does it surprise anyone that they would take advantage of an opportunity to promote class warfare?

    If the author used his experience at the press dinner to write what looked like a normal review a few months down the road, that wouldn’t be OK. But that’s not what happened here.

  12. Shane says

    Can someone please explain the point of a “press dinner” where the press then do no press from it??! I for one appreciate Chris’ “review” You can’t spend a ton of cash on opening a big fancy expensive place like that and not bring the goods. If you are not ready to be called out, don’t have a press dinner! As to why those on Eater and around town seem to want it to fail…well, it seems to be a place not for “us”. It shall exist only as a vehicle to separate old, wealthy suburbanites from their money…just like Lucier.

    • JandJ says

      “As to why those on Eater and around town seem to want it to fail…well, it seems to be a place not for “us”. It shall exist only as a vehicle to separate old, wealthy suburbanites from their money…just like Lucier.”

      Sorry, but this is a load of elitist crap. I don’t question the early observations here that this restaurant isn’t living up to its potential or worthy of the space and location. Given the ownership, I’m not surprised. However, this tired notion that somehow Portland isn’t ready for true fine dining in a beautiful space and that this somehow defines “us” is just BS. There are clearly more than just a few “wealthy suburbanites” who are willing to shell out a fair number of shekels for a truly fine meal and experience. The fact that Lucier and possibly Quartet fall short says everything about how the space was managed and the talent in the kitchen and absolutely nothing about whether a truly great restaurant could succeed and work in the space.

  13. Michael Zusman says

    Picking a side in the Onstad vs. Quartet debate is like being an avid Ducks fan and having to decide who to root for in the Huskies-Trojans game.

  14. bbfoodie says

    Dude, I think you are forgetting a few things. Onstad doesn’t know much about food, that is obvious. His writing is so over the top it is hard to take seriously, but the big thing is this is The Mercury! Do you not remember they reviewed Gotham Tavern before they opened!? While it was under construction! It is like Steven Humphries is back!!

  15. john sowa says

    I can understand all the hype with the opening of a major undertaking like Quartet, what I can’t understand is all the negative crap coming out prior to giving any restaurant a fair shake. Who really care about a press dinner? I certainly don’t depend on any one critics opinion on anything. But on the other side it would be helpful if their website was working as well as the hype! I don’t live in Portland so being able to at least view a menu would really help the cause.

  16. says

    I’m confused. What’s the purpose of a restaurant inviting a bunch of journalists over for a free meal, if not to get those journalists to write nice things about them? Is the restaurant really hoping that they won’t get any press coverage? Hard to imagine.

    The purpose has got to be that they want glowing reviews. And if they’re hoping for glowing reviews, then why aren’t they pulling out all the stops to blow the doors off?

    And when they fail to impress, when they fail period, well, it seems plausible – even reasonable – that the journalists involved write accordingly.

    To do otherwise, would be a failure of journalistic ethics; a failure to do right by their readers. A journalist’s responsibility is primarily to his/her readers. Sure, there’s some responsibility to his/her subjects (I work in politics, so this complaint is something I know well), but if the subject is hoping for coverage, they shouldn’t be shocked when they actually get it.

  17. Chris says

    My wife and I had dinner there tonight and it was fantastic. No doubt they’re targeting the Ringside, El Gaucho crowd and may have a few quirks to iron out. Otherwise it was great food in a great space with a great staff.

  18. says

    Easy- once you go public, expect a public reaction. It’s like posting facebook photos of yourself. Writing a review on a press opening says more about the journalists involved than it does the restaurant. Personally, if I want to get a great review, I go to FoodDude, not the Mercury.

    • john sowa says

      I agree with the opinion of some others that when you invite the press expect comments or reviews. I certainly would not take the comments of one critic, on one visit under contained circumstances as a legitimate review . I do feel the Mercury article was more about tooting the critics horn rather than a fair and objective review. Take note that he was the only one who felt the need to write about his bad experience. My only confusion lies in opening on Valentines Day and the absence of a working website. To date their site is still not on line? All this hype, all these comments, all the monies spent on this new project and I can’t read a menu?

  19. says

    Thanks to everyone for your comments.

    It is interesting to me how many people feel it is OK to review a restaurant after one meal. One poll that I’ve repeated over the years is “How long should we wait until we review a restaurant?”. Though over the years the results have edged slightly towards a shorter period of time, they still run 90% “3 months or more”.

    If I could base a review on one meal the press dinner, I could always be first, and crank them out at very little cost!

    As far as the website goes, yes, they should have one in place. It isn’t difficult or expensive to put up a single page, and they should have done so. However, they now have a website with menu: Quartetpdx.com

  20. industryspeak says

    Food Dude, I don’t see how it’s any different than you writing this about Aviary when they first opened their bar:

    “Aviary has opened a bar, behind the dining room, separated from the restaurant. This is going to piss people off, but I don’t like it. When I’m in a bar, I want warmth. I want to be able to hear my companions. I don’t want it so bright I feel like I am in a bar at an airport. Finally, I want good drinks. I know they have just opened, but I didn’t experience any of these things; it all felt rushed together. Don’t get me wrong – I love Aviary, and if it weren’t for the fire, they would have been high in the running for my restaurant of the year. I just don’t like the bar.”

    You openly admitted it was going to piss people off, but you wrote it anyway. And you weren’t asked to a press event for the bar; you just wrote it. The bar now, by the way, is one of the best places in town to sit and eat dinner and have fantastic drinks, IMHO.

    Onstad was asked to a press dinner, presumably so press could write about it. I honestly don’t see how this is any different or “unethical” than PR reps and food bloggers/writers blowing sunshine up a restaurants’ skirt and raving after a good press dinner.

  21. portland pro says

    Let’s face it; if they had nailed it like they should have then there wouldn’t be an discussion. They had ample time to develop and test each dish they served to the press. True professionals would have breezed through a cake walk like a press dinner. If you can’t ace an RSVP event that you are in total control of then don’t schedule one. Furthermore, the days of integrity-driven press evaporated when blogging by amateurs began. Quartet wasn’t ready when they needed to be and one can’t bask in the sunshine of pre-opening press attention and then whine when a member of that group doesn’t stroke them. That megaphone works both ways. By the way, professional operators would have held “soft openings” with friends and family to iron out the menu before asking the press to sit down.

  22. glainie says

    Excuse me, but I wouldn’t need to attend a press preview to draw early conclusions about this place. They have brie en croute on the menu!! To say nothing about the prices – A chicken breast entree for $31.00? The menu reads like one of those ersatz culinary school showcase dinners.

    I’m surprised they’ve managed to omit chocolate “lava” cake with raspberry “coulis”

    • mczlaw says

      Brie en croute!! An entree for more than $30!!! No need to visit “to draw early conclusions”!!!!

      Congratulations on distilling into a single message the anti-elitist elitism that helps prevent Portland from jumping to the big leagues, gastronomically speaking anyway.

      Check the menu at Le Grenouille. Nothing on it that has been around for decades. And they have entrees that cost >$40–for lunch.

      Just a suggestion: if you want to hate this place, at least wait until you or someone you know and trust has actually eaten there. And maybe you want to give it a few weeks or so before spouting off.

      –mcz

      • glainie says

        As I suggested earlier, I don’t need a referral (trusted or otherwise) to draw conclusions based on a menu. Quartet’s menu is (at best) pedestrian, and far from warranting the listed prices. That you even included Le Grenouille as part of the discussion is laughable. NY has a demographic that can easily support $40.00 luncheon entrees; Portland does not. Quartet’s survival, or for that matter, anything in that location, is dependent upon the perception of accessibility, quality, and value. Anything short of that will not fill the 250-odd seats, as the previous tenant could no doubt affirm.

        • mczlaw says

          So, really, you can divine the “quality” of this brand new restaurant without eating there, without knowing anyone who has eaten there, but simply by scanning the menu which includes items that cost >$30, an amount you consider excessive. That is some impressive feat.

          This self-assured provincialism helps ensure Portland will never enjoy a fine dining culture. Not saying Quartet will be a winner, but shutting the door on the possibility solely by looking at an early menu is myopic (at best). I want to see this place rise or fall on its own merits, not as a result of prejudice and presumption.

          –mcz

        • zumpie says

          Not to mention La Grenouille is a world famous, decades old, NYT three star (hint: nothing here even rates one or two), establishment in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in one of the most expensive cities.

          Quartet is a weird and foolhardy vanity project houses in someone else’s already failed weird and foolhardy vanity project.

  23. Just a guy says

    It seems a bit much to add more fuel to the fire about the quartet review. But it’s not as someone said entirely unheard of. As food dude you yourself raked Pinot Brasserie over the coals based soley on a menu you’d gotten ahold of before they even had there soft opening. It sad then and it’s just as sad with quartet and eater. People were attacking them while they were under construction. At least Chris bad the curtesy to eat the food before mouthing off

  24. Vegetarian Restaurant says

    Hey!! If any one of you have watched the movie Ratatouille that explains what can happen if we get a Journalist to Review a Press Preview Dinner

  25. Chris A. says

    I have to admit, I was betwixt and between on this. I went to the press dinner, and had an actual laughable experience. It was so over-the-top funny I had a great time (primarily because I was in good company who laughed with me.) My thoughts had less to do with the food (which didn’t excite) than with the service. At a any restaurant, but for sure a place like Quartet, service can’t be sub-par. Par would have been OK for such an event–the day before it opened to the public. But it wasn’t.

    Before I saw Chris Onstad’s “thing,” while I most often would post about any new dining experience– especially when I am impressed –I chose to post nothing on my Facebook page or Twitter about Quartet, since I really didn’t have anything great to say. Rather, as I usually do when I think management should be happy to hear what their patrons think, I thought the best course to take was to write my thoughts,, tactfully, to their management through the person who invited me. I assumed and hoped they would be taken constructively. I thought my input was, in essence, paying back the free meal for two, since I couldn’t provide any value otherwise. (I never heard anything back.)

    It caused me to wonder about some of the issues pointed out in this thread (before I just read them). Clearly no one at Quartet would have minded Instagram photos of wonderful food with positive comments. In fact, that has to be one of the objectives of holding such a press event. So, if a restaurant is OK with and fishing for the positive, shouldn’t it have to live with the negative? I would have to imagine there were plenty of people who shared similar thoughts to Chris’ but decided not to write. (I know they did–someone actually ran out of the restaurant as I was leaving to flag me down to marvel with them! That’s an indication that Chris didn’t have an agenda going in.) That being said, as professionals in the restaurant business, where a certain standard should be realized before doors open, shouldn’t they be aware of their shortcomings before they let people who write about this stuff for a living into their home?

    The fact that it was free and some kinks have to be worked out changes things just a bit, but then one has to sit back again and think about why the event was produced.

    I think Chris did go out of his way to say that this wasn’t the normal circumstance under which he would write a review, and laid out those reasons. But given what he experienced, I am sure he felt compelled to do a service to his readers. It’s what he is paid to do. If it had been ho-hum, while I can’t speak for him, I am guessing he most likely wouldn’t have bothered. Nor would I have written the owners myself. But from my perspective, at least from a service standpoint, while everyone wore smiles and was trying real hard, they were far from minor tweaks in getting it right.

    I’ve had the good fortune to be at grand openings or press dinners at a few restaurants, and they were generally memorable, incredible experiences–almost flawless, which amazed me and others. The work of true professionals. This wasn’t close to any of those experiences. I fault Quartet’s management’s judgment and preparation more than I do Chris’. They put a lot of us in the position to decide what to do.

    No matter what though, it’s interesting stuff to debate and ponder. And no shit, just as I wrote that last sentence… DING… a press invite just hit my mailbox.

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