Guidelines on Judging a Restaurant: 6 Tips from a Chef/Owner

Nouvelle Styled Yellowtail Sashimi. Signature Special at Zen Sushi. Photo Credit: Kate Voskova.

We live in the age of Yelp, Google Reviews, food blogs, social media, and influencers. To us, it’s rather disappointing (unprofessional) to see that if there’s a snarky or mean-spirited comment, viewers can vote it as ‘funny’ or ‘cool’ on these review sites. Restaurants, by and large, are expected to be professional, but there is no expectation for a reviewer to be professional. Overall, reviews can level themselves out, but it’s tough for small businesses to continually accept poor behavior from poor customers who are self-appointed foodies.

More importantly, what qualifies anyone as a ‘foodie’ or expert? We find, rarely, that chefs, servers, or people that have gone to culinary school rarely write reviews. At least in North Texas. We would really like to see this more, but it just isn’t the case. From review sites, we had a complaint because our staff tried to bus a plate with garnish left. While garnish is edible, is it even worth mentioning that as a slight to your service? A man who demanded a box for two leftover bites of a fried roll from a $12 split tab complained about our food. His date physically picked apart an entire bouquet of beautiful roses and lilies and threw all our vase contents onto the floor at our restaurant. Our staff had to sweep up her torn petals (Who does this?!), while he claimed in his review to be a sushi expert. No person who truly loves sushi would be so ignorant and intellectually-isolated from Japanese culture and manners. He didn’t even order any sushi. He ordered two rolls.

We also live in a time where there is a growing crisis in the journalism industry. The news industry, itself, is evaporating. Writers are barely being compensated — the going rate for one freelance article at smaller and major newspapers is $100 — $400, if they are lucky enough to be salaried or paid at all — and this pay doesn’t often include a per diem or travel. The bar for general food reporting outside of major cities is getting lower and lower. In Texas at least, we’ve seen crime reporters take promotions to be Arts Editors. Content generators for a neighborhood rag suddenly become Food Editors. In Dallas, we’ve seen a couple of art writers covering food and move back-and-forth. It’s a carousel of writers writing hopping from one outlet to the other. We’re not sure what the benefit to the public is. The writing and topics aren’t improved from this game of musical chairs. (Food probably pays better, but who is doing the hiring? What qualifies anyone to critically judge food AND art? Art Forum has not resorted to hiring Mark Bittman… And Jerry Salz doesn’t review food for the Times.) The education for a degree in painting has little if anything in common with the sourcing of quality meats and how to cook proteins properly, how to marry two styles of culinary arts, or how to prepare foods so that people don’t get sick. We know a lot of journalists have left the industry.

A bachelors degree in journalism alone doesn’t qualify anyone to suddenly know anything about food, or art, or politics, or culture. We’ve also seen writers that don’t have college degrees write for national outlets. The lack of fact-checking, in a time where digital publishing is king, is irredeemable. Some paid writers don’t bother to send a DM to fact check. Nowadays, a phone call is inconceivable for many people.

And everyone suffers when there is no expertise or integrity in the different sections of any publication. There’s no insight (just an opinion) when a person who has wrote about city politics suddenly starts proclaiming expertise in a wide variety of ethnic cuisines. The audience really suffers because this is (willful) ignorance and unchallenged, unchecked dilettant-ism that is being widely disseminated. Bad journalism and false reporting is a genuine polemic because of the First Amendment and its limitations. (See Facebook and the upcoming election. We cannot even collectively agree on what facts are anymore. Facts, even when based on truth, are treated as perspectives by bad reporters and bad customers.) The general public and restaurants are victims of misinformation and reinforced ignorance when a reviewer is unable to see the vision and concept behind the menu because they are juggling one or two other freelance jobs to survive.

The decrease in writing quality is surely symptomatic of the morale in newsrooms now. This is due to management but also partly due to the nature of the connected world we exist in. SEO is all that matters. Click bait matters. Good journalists are being pushed out. What’s objective and what’s subjective? For many of our friends and colleagues, confidence in media is depressingly low.

We want to help improve your experience at a restaurant, whether you are paid or not. Also, our knowledge of and personal experience with a number of reviews by journalists and regular consumers tells us that a common set of guidelines is missing.

Speciality Vegan Lotus Roll from Zen Sushi. Photo Credit: Manny Rodriguez.

Caveat: Yes, we have royally screwed up with some customers and the bad reviews reflect their anger. Some people have left really angry, rightfully so. We tried to fix things, and there were times we failed. The staff are held to account for those times. But we don’t want to derail the purpose of this article.

From Michelle:

This article is intended to do a few things: improve your chances of having a more positive experience when visiting a restaurant for the first time, and this is meant to give a framework to help reviewers rate and review a restaurant. You’re getting my advice as a chef/owner with 3 decades of professional culinary and service industry experience. Those are two important perspectives to be considered when reviewing food. Zen Sushi has also been around since 2007. 13 years is ancient for a restaurant in Dallas. This is advice from someone inside the industry. This is how I decide if I am returning to a restaurant I visit for the first time. Today my goal is to improve your dining experience when you go out. This article can also give pointers and insight to foodies, food lovers, influencers, paid and non-paid writers, and hobbyist reviewers that are interested in learning how to judge a restaurant.

  1. To start, come to every new restaurant with an open mind. You’re there to learn and experience. Give restaurants the benefit of the doubt. You have to be open to another person’s understanding of food and their talent. You are looking for their vision and perspective. If you come close-minded, you are framing another person’s talent within your own limited worldview. Also, when did restaurants become the enemy, there to rip customers off and overcharge them? When did this happen? Because being a chef, up until about 12–15 years ago was a very un-glamorous profession that was not especially admired. Only Wolfgang Puck was a celebrity. Everyone else was a blue-collar nobody. All of a sudden, customers start complaining about being overcharged or cheated, without any knowledge of the razor-thin margins restaurants operate on: 3–5%. That means for every $1 you spend, restaurants keep 3 to 5 cents. Who’s getting ripped off? We really need those 5 pennies because property values keep going up meaning rent keeps going up, even if these reviewers don’t think we deserve to be paid for our work or should profit from serving them food.
  2. Take the recommendation. Listen to your server. Look at your menu. Don’t just look at the items. Look at the overall theme of the menu. Where is it headed? What is it trying to communicate to you? And if the Chef is making a recommendation, take it. How are you going to judge a restaurant’s vision based on what you like and what you know? Is that true objectivity in judgement? If you are actually there to judge the quality of a restaurant, please don’t order the burger and chicken fingers if they aren’t a burger joint or Cane’s and its ilk. This means, don’t order the Rainbow Roll or Spicy Tuna Roll if you come to Zen Sushi to decide if we are good or up to your standards of excellence. No one that is a ‘sushi expert’ orders that to judge sushi alone. Yes, servers work for tips. Yes, higher sales means more tips, but they aren’t going to push items that aren’t confirmed winners. Nearly all middle to upper end restaurants require training of servers. They are trained to please you.
  3. If you just don’t like what is recommended, order what’s popular. This ensures that your food is more likely to be fresh. The more popular something is, the more customers order it, the more replenishments chefs will order. What’s popular is what, in part, defines the restaurant. It’s what regulars come back for. Regulars keep every business open. One-timers bring revenue, but loyalty keeps business alive and employees working.
  4. In order to judge properly, you have to comprehend the restaurant concept and its offerings. Are you ordering staples to judge the entire restaurant or are you ordering the best representation of the restaurant? Most chefs develop a menu this way: classics or staples, spins on classics, and then specialty items. What is the restaurant highlighting? Really, what is the menu about? Does it lead the viewer somewhere? What does their menu tell you about who the chef is? Where are the restaurant staff trying to guide you? Staples are meant to be consistent. When people order a classic, they don’t want too many surprises. They often want something they already know. If a chef has a special interpretation of a classic, it will be noted or recommended. These customers want a flavor they can anticipate. Amateurs come to Zen Sushi, professional and not, and order what they know and then complain it wasn’t exciting or special. We cannot and do not know how to begin to respond to these poor reviews because Zen Sushi’s menu underscores original creations and Signature Specials that communicate my perspective. You chose not to judge the original creations that make this particular restaurant different from the other 60+ sushi bars in North Texas. How can you judge if you won’t listen and you don’t know how to look? Most menu design highlight their specials. Even affordable takeaway and paper delivery menus have a “Specials” section.
  5. Be realistic about value. Yes, usually Specials cost a little more, but good quality food costs more. Chefs do not go to culinary school and dream to develop ‘value meals’ and value-menus. If you care about value, you need to accept that the quality of the produce and proteins will be lower grade. People are also sensitive about prices because wages have stagnated for a decade. Adjust for inflation. In 13 years, Zen Sushi has survived one major recession and we are entering another one. Your rent has gone up. So has ours. You cannot fault a restaurant in the heart of the Bishop Arts for not having same prices as a sushi bar in a strip mall in an un-gentrified part of the city. The market pre-pandemic was very tight, meaning we could barely afford to keep our staff because the upswing in the economy meant more restaurants and a shortage of qualified staff. There weren’t enough chefs and restaurant workers to go around so the staff were being compensated far beyond what our payroll could really absorb. If the chef is known, if a chef is trained, they have to be paid a living wage to support their families. They know what they are worth and sushi from a grocery store or gas station does not come with the same level of skill found in an actual sushi restaurant. Even if you can’t taste the difference, professionals can. And you aren’t any kind of ‘seafood expert’ unless you’re tasting seafood day-in and day-out for years on end. Pre-pandemic, many ‘successful’ restaurants were open based on cash-flow alone. That’s why when the pandemic hit, chefs were vocal about how quickly restaurants would collapse. Quality employees, interior design/finish-out, the location, the quality of the food that is sourced — all of that impacts price. Some people who judge us complain about us because it’s out of their budget. That is illogical. That is like hating Lexus because you can’t afford one. We get this a lot in both paid and un-paid reviews. People are upset with price. We are not the Hermes of sushi, but we do not serve you the Wal-Mart of sushi, either. We are, without doubt, better than pre-packaged Whole Foods or grocery store sushi, even if you cannot tell. Just because we are in Oak Cliff does not mean our rent is not the same as rent as in Uptown.
  6. Read up on the chef. This gives you context on how to understand and appreciate the food. Where are they coming form? Where do the chefs want to take you? Rarely have any of our reviewers, professional or not, read up on Zen’s concept or perspective before reviewing my food. Most restaurants had to update their websites in the last 5 years because of the need to make their sites mobile-friendly. When they updated them, they had to give webmasters copy about the chef’s bio, if they had a chef that developed a menu. Some chains have a concept and a line of faceless chefs. Some restaurants have a named chef. If you have a named chef, open one extra tab to learn about them. The person conceptualizing the food and menu is the key that unlocks the concept and the person that is held to account if their food is ‘bad’ or not to your liking. That’s where the buck stops: the chef. So when you judge a chef-driven restaurant, know that you are judging at least one person. Just because you don’t see the chef does not mean that they are a faceless operation or operated by something other than humans. Humans just like you.

In our private exchange with a professional, nationally-known food critic, the reviewer noted that every review from their esteemed paper required multiple visits to the same restaurant before publishing. That practice allowed for bad nights, bizarre mishaps, accidents, unplanned disruptions like possible protesting or vandalism, a pandemic that upended the entire industry, for example. Repeat visits would ensure that the newspaper exhibited professional journalism standards. The assessment of the restaurant, to the public, by a legitimate publisher or newspaper, would aim to be as accurate as possible to reflect the named restaurant.

Not everyone can afford to visit the same restaurant multiple times — not even paid food journalists. Not all news organizations are equal. But do we have to sacrifice quality? Are journalists the only ones to dictate standards? Or can restaurants dictate standards of excellence in their own industry?

What has been lost, with the rise of technology, has been true dialogue. Things are lost through the internet and the race to become viral because we fail to speak to one another. Journalists rarely communicate to us before writing a simple article, for even fact-checking. Restaurants are about connections through food, through friendship, and through community. What I would like to advocate for additionally, in spite of the pandemic and how it is annihilating our economy and the very basic things we took for granted, is that reviewers give restaurants the opportunity to first, make things right when mistakes happen, and second, give them a voice. Call us, email us, DM us if you are unhappy before you make an assessment that could be changed with some intel from our side. And maybe learn to change your mind or normalize having a different opinion if you have been enlightened.

Restaurant voices have been silenced with the rise of the average every day consumer. Restaurants have to wait for reviewers or writers to speak about us first, if we are even allowed to respond. And when we do, it’s as a reply or a reaction. We have to be solicited first.

Professional or not, paid or not: listen and look more closely as you are judging restaurants, so you can be a better judge. Being a better and more informed judge makes everyone better: restaurants and consumers.

Michelle Carpenter’s Japanese-American cuisine marrying regional ingredients with Japanese training and technique. Located in Oak Cliff, Dallas.

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