Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Cracking the Codes - Further Thoughts

There was a further thought on the issue of blogger ethics codes which I was going to include in my initial post on the subject, but decided not to. Coincidentally, it just happened to present itself again today. The question is whether this is just a blogger issue, or whether (as I think most people assume) print journalists are adhering to the standards described in these codes, and whether it's legitimate to expect them to.

Word out of Chicago is that Esquire restaurant writer John Mariani is making the rounds. Indeed, somehow it's common knowledge (to MenuPages Chicago, at least) where he's dining before he even arrives. MP Chicago gives a link that may help explain its Nostradamus-like ability to foretell the future, a story from a few years ago indicating that Mariani had sent a four-page list of requests to a restaurant he was about to visit, including requests to be comped for "everything from cab fare to his hotel bill." A later story in the L.A. Times took Mariani to task for non-disclosure of non-anonymous, comped meals.

Mariani still is apparently far from inconspicious. Here's something of a play-by-play of his current Chicago visit:

Not exactly the best example of following the American Food Journalists' Critics' Guidelines. But my point here is not to single out John Mariani. Though this may be a somewhat extreme example, it seems that often these rules can be honored more in the breach than in the observance even by "professional" journalists. Read this Wall Street Journal story on the Miami satellite restaurants of Scott Conant's Scarpetta and Alfred Portale's Gotham Steak in the Fontainebleau Resort and tell me if you think there's any chance the author paid more than one visit to either restaurant. Admittedly it's a bit of a fluff piece, and the writer did have the good sense to venture beyond the NY outposts and pay a visit to local product Michy's, so I'm not all that troubled (though it is curious that the local consensus seems to be that Scarpetta's getting it right and Gotham's got issues, and the writer had it contrariwise). This local review of a newly opened Italian restaurant, I Corsini, although it makes parenthetical mention of a second visit (in which the only dish described is referred to as "perfectly cooked" and "savory"), takes so much joy in describing the service and kitchen snafus from the first visit that it's completely lost in the shuffle. Was the service equally abysmal on the second visit? Is it fair to judge a restaurant based on "one appetizer, one pasta, two entrees, and one dessert"? Maybe so. Additional comments on the place seem to indicate the review was pretty much on target.

Particularly with newspapers cutting back on budgets and facing increasing competition from online media, it may be unrealistic to expect all of these rules to be honored by the traditional media outlets as well. Which really matter, and which can be compromised? The funny thing is, if I read enough of their work, it's always been pretty easy for me to figure out the reviewers I trust.


  1. Great post Frod - and something to think about before I write another snarky bit on Yelp or the like. As someone with a background in journalism I always think its funny when people expect journalists to act any different than any other profession: some are good, some are terrible, a lot of us are lazy, etc. It's a mixed bag, just like plumbers, doctors, or hair stylists.

    In general, I don't think that any exact set of guidelines can define how we respond and treat professional or even amateur reviews - which is not to say that accuracy, paying for your own food, and giving any restaurant a fair shake over multiple occasions are not important. However, within the amateur arena I'm most often struck not by the beating that some high end joints may take for no particular reason, but by the total bullshit and inflated ratings that the ho-hum or downright bad local joints achieve. In this conversation that sort of thing seems to have been drowned out.

    Ultimately restaurants present themselves in the light that they want to be understood and judged from its guests or critics; and if you say "we are serious, we are pretentious, this is going to cost you, etc. etc." then reviewers of any stripe will come out guns a blazin'.

    A couple of days ago my wife and I finally made it over to the Cote Gourmet for a quick lunch and I was pretty thrown off. My brother and his wife, along with Michy and many others, have been enjoying the strangely located MS spot for months and months, and so I expected something decent. But on the other hand their lunch prices were totally over the top of the attention they've paid to their decor, location, and service. I'm not going to write a review, but if I did I wouldn't be holding back because CG obviously aspired to being more than a simple, non-expensive neighborhood joint. Ps. the food was OK, but not much more than that.

  2. Is every day Ground Hog's Day for foodies? The LA Times piece is really old, Frod. I don't see how anyone can be shocked by this, unless one hasn't been paying attention for the last couple of decades.

  3. This is exactly why I value the opinion of a food critic who is paid to write for a paper very little, if at all. Id rather scour the web for sites like Chowhound and hear the opinions of multiple people, figure out who sounds the most sincere (usually those who include the most detail about the restaurant and meal), and then make a decision. I used to read the New Times and thought many of the reviews were way off base. WOM on a board is a much better way to get an accurate impression of a restaurant.

  4. DB - I know the LA Times piece is old (in fact said so), but I thought revisiting was timely in light of recently recurring Mariani shenanigans in Chicago and tie-in to the current push for a bloggers' code. No, I'm not exactly shocked.

  5. An impassioned defense of Mariani from the (fake) Restaurant Girl
    In da'fense of Esquire's John Mariani

  6. Meanwhile, Esquire comes to Mariani's defense:

    Esquire Editor Defends John Mariani
    So now he's paying for his meals, but still not shy about announcing his identity. Helpful to understand at least.

  7. Interesting to compare Frank Bruni's comments upon parting from NY Times restaurant reviews:

    Rare in this Medium