Monday, September 10, 2012

Rant: Restaurant Reviews Ignoring Drinks?

What do you expect from a restaurant review? To me, there are four primary aspects of a restaurant review, references to the food, drink, price and service. Writers should properly address those four key elements in their reviews. There are a number of secondary aspects as well that can be considered such as the restaurant's size, decor, ambiance, parking availability, etc. It seems though that one of the primary elements gets little, if any, attention, by a number of reviewers, from bloggers to print media. Why are these reviewers largely ignoring restaurant's drink programs?

Many restaurants invest much time and effort into developing their wine lists and bar programs. They may bring in experts, sommeliers, mixologists and more, to help design those programs. They may be rightfully proud about their accomplishments, and it becomes a significant reason why diners will patronize their establishment. When considering where to dine, I often consider the drinks menu and I know plenty of others who do the very same. When a restaurant has a particularly interesting drinks list, that should be emphasized in a restaurant review. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen as much as it should.

Let me provide one glaring example. I was recently perusing Devra First's review of Yakitori Zai in the Boston Globe and was dismayed by her meager coverage of the drinks offered at the restaurant. There was a single sentence in her lengthy review about the alcohol program, which I think is a failure to properly address such a key element. She stated that "Wine is available..." yet says nothing about how many wines, what type of wines, the prices of those wines, etc.

She continues with "...a sake list offers a good mix of styles and flavors but yakitori may go best with beer." In this, she first fails to mention (and may be unaware) that sake is a traditional Japanese pairing with yakitori, so it would probably make a better pairing than beer. But she also says nothing about pricing, the specific types and and brands of sake and beer available, etc. If you look at the restaurant's online menu, you will see they only list 4 beer options and 10 sake options. So beer doesn't seem too important to them with such a very limited selection. I also feel the sake selection needs improvement, especially that it should include some kimoto/yamahai styles which should pair even better with yakitori.

After reading that review, I looked at Devra's prior eight restaurant reviews, which span July and August, and all of those reviews were available for free without having a subscription to the Globe. Though this is only a small sample, I think it is representative and was disturbed that her reviews showed a pattern of providing minimal information, if any, about the wine and alcohol programs of the restaurants she reviews. Why is this the case?

Of those eight reviews, two failed to mention the drinks at all. 25% of her reviews ignoring drinks completely? That seems wrong. Of the others, the drinks coverage was only 1-3 sentences, which I consider inadequate to properly cover this important element. More information seems to provided about the decor than the drinks. Only one of the reviews mentioned alcohol prices, saying that a wine list is "respectfully priced," whatever that actually means. In all those reviews, a single wine was mentioned by name and only one review specifically mentioned any beers by name. Overall, I would consider this inadequate coverage of an important element of these restaurants.

In addition, prior to my recent visit to the Painted Burro in Somerville, I checked online for other reviews and saw Devra's review from May. That review merely mentions that the restaurant has tequila, but says nothing else about it or the rest of their bar program. That is a major omission as I later learned the restaurant has a huge tequila and mezcal list, with a number of tasting flight options and plenty of cocktails. In addition, it has a large beer list, with many options from Mexico, and a small wine list. Why didn't Devra say anything about this extensive bar program? After visiting the restaurant myself, I understood how important this bar program is to the restaurant so omitting reference to it in a restaurant review is a significant failure.

Devra is certainly not the only offender and I am using her only as an example. Restaurant reviews should cover all of the major elements of a restaurant, and that includes their drinks program. Failure to do so leads to an incomplete and failed review. You do a disservice to a restaurant by ignoring something of which they might have devoted much energy and attention. You do a disservice to your readers who desire that information. How many consumers decide on a restaurant based on its decor? I am confident that number is but a tiny percentage of the number of consumers who decide based on their drinks program.

Restaurant reviewers, let's see more detailed discussions of drinks in your reviews. If you don't know much about wine, beer and spirits, why not gain a basic education so you can better address your readers about all of the major elements of a restaurant.


Jason Phelps said...

Sadly this doesn't surprise me at all. One of the things I found so odd about the larger food blogger (recipe, restaurant, vegan, home cook, etc) community was how few people included or talked about drinks at all. I think there is an arbitrary division for a lot of blogger folks that you either blog about food or drink, but not both. While many bloggers do both I think it is quite easy to find ones that specialize.

I've often pondered if it is an issue with motivation or experience or just an outright choice to favor one or the other. Considering the historical significance of food and drink together this result seems misguided to me.

As a beverage slanted blogger I am more likely now to feature food as part of a pairing or experience post rather than food on its own.


Sediment said...

Well actually, that newspaper column is headed "Food & Dining". Not "Restaurants", nor "Food & Drink".

On that basis, the drinks are probably an accompaniment to the food and the dining, n'est ce pas?

The Sediment Blog

Richard Auffrey said...

Hi Jason:
It may be an American thing, as we often divorce food from wine, unlike Europeans who have long seen wine and food as an essential pairing. There are very few blogs out there that blend a good mix of food and alcohol. Though I have seen a bit more food blogs now trying to add more alcohol coverage.

Richard Auffrey said...

I would say "dining" is an expansive term that includes both restaurants and drinks. No matter what the generic title of the food section states, it is obvious Devra is writing restaurant reviews, and she is considered a professional. So she should properly cover all of the major elements of a restaurant, which include drinks,

Silenus said...

While, like you, I hope for some description of the drinks program in a restaurant review, I don't necessarily consider it a failure on the part of the reviewer. For one thing you have to consider her intent, or who she thinks her target audience is. Your stated primary elements of what constitutes a good restaurant review include the drinks program, but you consider decor/space a minor aspect. The reviewer whose articles you point out as examples may consider the drinks program as secondary and the space she is dining in to be more of a concern to her and the average diner. The average diner either doesn't drink or could care less about what they drink as long as it is familiar to them. I think people like us, who care passionately about what they are drinking with what they are eating, are in the minority.

I know that your piece is a rant and that by definition it is a one-sided wild or vehement oratory, but I feel you could have contacted the Boston Globe writer to find out her reasons or motivations. I feel as if that would've been more informative for me and your readers. That being said, I would like to see more attention paid to wine lists or drink programs in restaurant reviews.


MC Slim JB said...

I think Robert Nadeau at the Boston Phoenix is a useful counter-example: he writes beautifully about wine and beer in just about every review, and has recently started to take note of craft cocktail programs, too. I try to give a worthy drinks program a nod in my Stuff Magazine reviews, but it's awfully difficult to allocate much space when you're limited to 450 words.

Richard Auffrey said...

Hi Richard:
Devra is a professional restaurant critic writing for a major city newspaper with a circulation of 310K-480K, plus with a web presence. Her audience is quite huge, and it not limited to any tiny segment. She really doesn't have the luxury of limiting her reviews to one segment. She must cater to everyone, and that means including sufficient coverage of drinks.

Far more people seek a restaurant based on their drinks rather than decor. I don't think anyone has ever asked me for a restaurant rec based on the decor.

As I said, it is also a disservice to the restaurants to review them but ignore such an important aspect, one the restaurant may have invested much time and effort.

Devra is free to comment here, to discuss why she gives such short shrift to drink programs. But I don't think there is a valid reason why a professional reviewer should largely ignore the drink programs.

Richard Auffrey said...

Hi MC:
I agree with you that Nadeau does a very good job of addressing the drinks programs in his reviews.

Plus, it is more difficult to fully address a drinks program when your review length is so limited. 450 words is challenging.

inkatrailsrestaurant said...

She really doesn't have the luxury of limiting her reviews to one segment. She must cater to everyone, and that means including sufficient coverage of drinks. Restaurant in Claremont CA

Anonymous said...

Someone who knows a lot about food does not necessarily know a lot about drinks, and vice versa. There are also space considerations...if you want to talk enough about the food, will you have enough room to adequately cover the drinks? I am an editor at a much smaller paper. I have issues with reviewer expertise, costs for reimbursement, and space. Just a few thoughts from the other side.

Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks for the comments Anonymous. At a major newspaper, their main restaurant reviewer should have an adequate grasp of drinks to write a complete review. And their reviews are plenty long enough to devote sufficient space to drinks.

I understand the difficulties of smaller papers, as I wrote a food/wine column for a small, town newspaper. Though I usually was able to include info on drinks in my restaurant reviews. It is tougher though than writing for a large, major paper.