Should a restaurant reviewer state when he is provided free meals by the restaurant he is reviewing?
Nancy Rommelmann seems to have been three weeks ahead when she wrote about how a restaurant like Olea gets named “One of the best new restaurants in the US”. From Johnathan Nicolas column in the Oregonian today:
“…This week the Los Angeles Times weighed in: “When Portland, Ore., publicist Lisa Hill heard that Mariani was traveling to Oregon last July, she invited him to join her for dinner. ‘I like meeting food writers and building relationships, and he’s been everywhere,’ Hill said. ‘He’s a great name, he’s eaten at all the great restaurants. I just thought I could tell him about what’s going on in Portland.’ ”
The story concludes: “Hill, her husband and Mariani dined at Portland’s Olea, one of Hill’s clients, a meal for which no one was charged. Olea made the Esquire list — a high honor to bestow based on a single meal.”
Read the whole article here at Jonathan Nicholas Column. I don’t think publicist Lisa Hill is having a very good day.
I am just finishing up my review of Olea, but have to say it hasn’t changed much from my original thoughts, when it first opened. Sometimes I wonder if people like a restaurant because they read they are supposed to, and want to be part of the in-crowd. Note: 2008 – Olea is now closed.
From the LA Times:
What you won’t see is a disclaimer about which meals Mariani ate for free, and at the personal invitation of the chefs — omissions that have exposed a deep divide in food writing circles over the ethics of restaurant reviewing.
The Times article is worth taking the time to read. It talks a lot about the ethics of reviewing. You can see it here.
I sat next to Lisa at a recent function and they told me about the meal at Olea. I think the Oregonian got it wrong (big surprise). I don’t believe the food was comped and I know Lisa didn’t pick the restaurant. Additionally, Mariani ordered somewhere in the vicinity of 10-11 dishes. One meal, yes but it was one hell of a meal. As a matter of fact I know that the chef sent out a number of things Mariani didn’t order and he immediately returned all of them.
Not sure why Olea is getting such a bum rap. Maybe a bit of sour grapes. I would think Portland would be happy to get national press. Silly me.
Dave J. says
Poor Olea–sitting on top of the world several weeks ago, and now all anyone can think about when they hear the name is “oh yeah, they’re the ones who bought that award in Esquire.”
As for hunter‘s note above: The Times piece read to me like the entire Olea thing was sourced to Hill. Evidently she told the writer something that made them think that the critic’s meal was comped. Could it be that she’s, um, modifying her story now that she realizes that her client is not looking so hot?
Food Dude says
hunter: FYI, the piece in the Oregonian was a direct quote from The LA Times article, which is linked at the end of my post. Having written for The Times myself, and gone through their fact checking process (grueling), I would be pretty damn surprised if it wasn’t true.
I really don’t believe it’s “sour grapes” to point out what was obviously a solicited review by a writer that now has a coast to coast track record for bought-and-paid-for critiques. I think most Portlanders are (or would be) proud to have national recognition for one of thier own, provided of course that the kudos were deserved in the first place.
You are obviously a strong advocate for Olea. I read in one of your previous posts that you had dined there more than a dozen times! Assuming that your affiliation with the restaurant is simply that of a loyal customer (and nothing more), all that really matters is that you can continue to enjoy your meals there. uuuuh, right?
Food Dude says
By the way, John Mariani has his own website: link
I am perplexed by the occasional mean spirited posts on this website. What’s that about? Right now the target seems to be Olea. As an occasional customer I find Olea to be a very good restaurant. It got national recognition and that helps Portland and the Portland food scene. Is it the only one meriting national recognition? Of course not. Giorgio’s, Carlyle, Andina, Paley’s Place, etc, are all exceptional restaurants. But this time luck fell on Olea. Hooray for them!
I agree this is a shame for Olea; I haven’t eaten there but it’s a gorgeous spot and the appetizers I had (during a small party at the restaurant) were for the most part excellent. The place may well deserve to be named best-of-the-best. And even if they did give Mariani a free meal, the blame for the taint now befalling them does fall on their shoulders, but Mariani’s.
If some of the commenters here who claim this is all very mean-spirited would take the time to read the Times article, they would understand the reservations people have about reviewers who receive free meals/special treatment and then disseminate their experience as representative of what you, the diner, will have.
I posted about that a couple days ago on Portland Food. Is anyone really surprised by this sort of thing?
A friend of mine and I bitch about national press “best ofs” all the time. It’s truly an unrealistic project. It’s bad enough with local best ofs most of the time, especially in large markets where places can get lost in the sea of restaurants.
I think the only way one can be carried off with any truth to it is to have a series of reputable local contributors who do the work behind the scenes.
Not that the kind of thing Mariani does is actually bad, but all it really is is a list of places that he liked that he visited that are relatively new.
btw, Food Dude, “blogosphere” was an odd term to use if he didn’t mean you and that reference was pretty obscure (I only picked it up because I check Google constantly for references to Portland restaurants, etc), so I wouldn’t be surprised if he got it off PFG. If either were true, it would have been nice to actually reference the sources of his info. Why does the LA Times deserve a ref, but not the places that brought it to his attention.
Food Dude says
MSG: yeah, I caught that. I had a friend say the blogosphere thing must be refering to this site… I’m sure it was just an oversite that PFD wasn’t mentioned;)
Not that I don’t think you guys are all that, but: I’d wager in this case the blogosphere (also) means Romenesko, probably the most widely read media site, which reported on Mariani, as well as posted the letter he wrote regarding the earlier imbroglio in Chicago (which the LAT article cites).
Two articles in this Sunday’s (11/6) NYT about Portland. Restaurants discussed in both.
“Going to: Portland, Ore”
Sunday Style Magazine:
“A Tale of Two Portlands”
If the Style Mag piece seems slightly dated, it’s because the reporter was here in August, as I recall.
I work at Olea and have waited on Hunter, his wife, and yes, I was the one who waited on Mariani. I can tell you without a doubt that the owner of Olea did not buy that award. Mariani was an interesting man and really, who cares if he paid for the meal??? So many people get free desserts or little appetizers in one evening in any given restaurant, what’s the big deal? He based his opinion on the food, there’s no connection whatsoever between him and the owner.
I acrually live across the street from Olea so it’s convenience that drew me there to begin with but as a prior chef and lover of food, it is the quality that draws me back. I don’t really appreciate the implication. I am an advocate for Olea (and a number of other restaurants) because I believe they serve good food in a nice environment. My posting on the subject is in response to what I see as contrarians attacking Olea for the sake of being contrary. They received national recognition and are being slammed because some people disagree subjectively with the review. I tend to agree with knitress – good for them.
Additionally, Dude, I was basing my post on a conversation I had with Lisa Hill. Regardless of the Times’ research, I believe she probably knows what happened.
Dave J. says
I was the one who waited on Mariani. I can tell you without a doubt that the owner of Olea did not buy that award. Mariani was an interesting man and really, who cares if he paid for the meal???
I don’t think people are objecting to whether or not the writer literally paid for the meal or not–people are objecting to the idea that the writer’s experience at the restaurant did not mirror the experience that average people might have. He visited with the restaurant’s publicist, so right off the bat you know that he’ll be given the best cuts of meat, extra attention paid to his order, etc.
Nobody is saying that the positive accolades for Olea rise and fall on the matter of who spent the $100 for the meal–people are annoyed that restaurant critics avoid the anonymous approach, and in so doing are granted a feast that few average restaurant-goers will experience. In other words, the Olea he visited is not the Olea that you or I might visit on an average evening in Portland.
I think people are making both claims. Personally, I would say that comps matter very little, but that anonymity may matter, if your goal is to get a meal that represents what the average diner can expect. I think Nancy, eg, though, has taken a stronger view, asserting that comps do matter, that they corrupt (or are likely to) the reviewer’s opinion.
I’ve been reading Hunter’s opinions on Chowhound for a long time and have found them to be quite on-target. I don’t know if that means that my palate matches Hunter’s more than most, but I’ve always found the descriptions to be accurate as well.
It is not comps that potentially corrupt; I give people free cookies all the time and I don’t want anything back except for them to enjoy themselves. It is the lack of anonymity that can corrupt a reviewer’s opinion. Why does he want to be known? Why is this important? A food writer, yes, okay; he can talk about the genesis of the food, the people, the culture; in this situation, it behooves the writer to speak with the chef/owner/etc. But a reviewer is there to review, to be objective, to write for the diner. My contention is that a reviewer whose presense is known to the estabishment will be treated with a degree of attention the average diner may not, and his review will reflect this, and may render it unreliable.
Also, and as I have said, oh, about 106 times now, reviewers who accept comps/make their presence known, do so because there is a (spoken or unspoken) quid pro quo. When you are anonymous, you can write what you think, damn the torpedos. If a restaurant pays for your (hotel and airfare and) dinner, the reviewer will think twice before he slams the place. How many times do you think he can bite the hand that feeds him before other restaurants stop comping him?
But this is almost a silly conversation. Most publications could give a crap about objective, thoughtful writing; they want the ad dollars. I had someone offer me a gig today reviewing restaurants, and when I asked about rates/how expenses were reimbursed, he said the restaurants comp the meals and that they know the reviewer is coming. I asked, what happens when a reviewer doesn’t like a meal? He said, his publication only runs positive reviews, and that sometimes it comes down to his having to speak with the chefs, who of course all advertise in his paper. Nice circle-jerk there. I’ll pass.
… and another thing, which sort of ties these ends together: people who are anonymous don’t get free meals.
I think it unlikely that average Joe can walk into Olea or Higgins or Vindaloo or even Burgerville and say, hey, what about a free meal? People are given free meals because something is expected in return.
That’s not necessarily true, though, Nancy. Restaurants that believe in themselves find it important to get their places reviewed. And if they can get them reviewed by a national paper (expecting the results to be positive because, frankly, most chefs I’ve met have been pretty self-assured, to put it generously), even better. In the scheme of things, a $500 plane ticket and a couple free meals and a hotel room is a good investment compared to the price of an ad in Gourmet or Esquire. And people will actually notice the review, unlike an ad in the sea of ads. Hell, if I had a restaurant, I’d set aside $5k per year for such an investment.
Nancy, you’ve probably interviewed plenty of people. Did you feel it necessary to treat them nicely because they gave you an interview? Wouldn’t it make others more likely to allow you to interview you if you did? So why is there no quid pro quo? Obviously some interviewers do fluff interviews and others do hard-hitting interviews. Both can succeed. There’s no reason the same isn’t true for reviewers.
And again, I suggest that a paper with advertising is as much or more compromised. The whole “only print positive reviews” thing comes from a fear of not getting advertising I suspect.
The point is that there are all kinds of reviewers out there and that a reviewer can both have integrity and take comps. The two are not mutually exclusive. If comps meant someone I trust could write more reviews, I’d encourage them to take comps. Better them than some crappy reviewer who pays for all their own meals.
“The point is that there are all kinds of reviewers out there and that a reviewer can both have integrity and take comps.”
Integrity, perhaps, but he/she would not be able to write about their dining for the LA Times, the LA Weekly, the NY Times or Bon Appetit, which are the places I have written for. Or WW, for that matter. (Again, I am talking reviews, not food stories.) It’s how I have been schooled, and an ethical line I will not cross; more, I distrust the motives of those who do.
As for my interviews: I’m always (well, usually) interested in the person I am interviewing, and how he/she walks in the world. But this does not effect what I write; often, what I write is not rosy (serial killers, alcoholics, angry cops and power-mongers not being the most cuddly of subjects). More, I have had people write me letters telling me I have wrecked their lives simply by quoting them. As far as I know, this has never stopped me from getting another interview.
If, however, a subject paid me to interview them; in fact flew me to them to do the interview and wined and dined me, and I wrote negatively or wishy-washily about his/her character, I don’t expect he/she would be too happy. I expect word would get around that I could not be trusted to give good copy; I suspect that soon, I would not be able to get a comped hot-dog from WeinerWorld.
I am all for advertising; let the restaurants have at. I am all for editorial. I am not for advertorial, and with me are most reputable journalists. For more, I refer you to the LA Times/Staples debacle I referred to in another comment.
Here’s a challenge: name for me three respected, published restaurant reviewers that take comps. Name recognition preferred.
I’m a bad person to ask about that. I can’t name three reviewers period.
There’s a difference between rules and ethics. I’m less concerned with what any one magazine or newspapers rules ARE and am more concerned with what they SHOULD or SHOULD NOT be.
The “advertorial” issue is entirely separate, however. The point is that newspapers and magazines truly DEPEND on those dollars. Why are publishers, editors, and writers not in an implicit quid pro quo relationship from those ad dollars if comped meals are enough to INHERENTLY compromise a reviewer?
I don’t know the subjects of your interviews, but my understanding is that getting an interview with many people, especially the famous such as celebrities and certain politicians can be a real “get”. These people don’t have to GIVE their time and subject themselves to questioning. I’d say that in many ways what they give is more valuable to them than a couple meals. (And that’s what you’ve truly got to argue against, the comped meals, because you’ve said even that minimum, not just a full holiday, is enough to compromise a reviewer.)
Take someone like Tim Russert who pretty much gets anyone he wants and was even one of the few people to get a review with George W. Bush. He’s rightly considered fair but harsh. Yet he still gets people. Did Bush expect a quid pro quo for giving him nearly an exclusive? Doubtful, and given how well Russert hammered him, I would say it was obvious there was no quid pro quo.
When a restaurant pays for comped meals, they are paying for the opportunity to be reviewed. Whether there is some quid pro quo involved depends on the author, but it should not be assumed to exist anymore than an advertiser being in a magazine would create a necessary quid pro quo.
The unfairness, if it exists, comes in because some places that may be better and “deserve” a review more may not get reviewed because papers have limited space and reviewers limited time. That’s the inherent problem if there is one.