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Criticizing the Critics

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What's up with Peter Chang? I don't know. While some chefs over share, with Peter Chang we are left to collect our own observations, and arrive at our own conclusions.

This is why I review meals; not restaurants. Unless you go to a restaurant ten, twenty, thirty times over the course of months or years, you can't review it with any degree of accuracy - it can't be done, and anyone who says otherwise (which is pretty much every other restaurant critic in the country besides me) is not being intellectually honest. The Association of Food Journalists' standard is two-or-more visits, but, especially at the higher, more complicated levels, that simply isn't rigorous enough.

To make matters worse, the sheer number of visits is also inadequate, when taken on its own - I've slept on a mattress nearly every night of my life, but I still don't know the first thing about how to judge a mattress.

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Our board's eponymous figurehead is sort of uniquely immune from receiving one of my "hey would you please tone it down" messages, but I'm just going to point out that Dave's claim was only that "social media" as a whole would represent an anarchic future should IT come to define "the press", and not this site specifically. We're still waaay ahead of Yelp, for instance. Otherwise, I'm generally inclined to agree with Mr. McIntyre. The idea of a circumspect and ethical press has always struggled to gain momentum, and IMHO seems to be on the decline these days (*cough* Fox). I don't know that any news organization binds its contributors to a specific ethical standard these days, but here on the board it's more a combination of good manners and peer pressure, rather than the pursuit of a loftier goal, that keeps the drivel quotient relatively low.

To this day, I think few commenters are able to achieve what the Xerox PARC folks used to call a "level 2 argument" - one in which the issue was sufficiently understood by the person making the argument, that (s)he could effectively argue the opposing viewpoint, but obviously had reasons not to. It's a high standard, but worth pursuing, even if often the conclusion can only be that your opponent is a total kook.

There are a lot of extraordinary people who participate on these boards, including amateurs whose considered opinions in certain areas are more reliable than those of many paid professionals out there. But as a community, we're also inclusive in a way that we should be, and that no credible news organization should ever consider being.

I had *completely* forgotten about this conversation.

Dave, how would you compare your and Porcupine's knowledge of cars to Warren Brown's? Just curious.

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Beats me; I don't know his work well enough, although I've enjoyed it from time to time. He's almost certainly examined a wider variety and much greater number of cars than I have, but our tastes and priorities are different. Of the local reviewers, WJLA's John Harter has probably been my favorite over the years, and he's one of the more technically capable drivers, but his format allows precious little time for details.

The automotive reviewer who resonates best with me is Chris Harris, but he only reviews sportscars.

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Simply, one of our favorite restaurants anywhere is the Beach Bistro in Holmes Beach on Anna Maria Island, FL.  We have been going for more than twenty years, usually driving 100+ miles roundtrip from Clearwater Beach to have dinner.  For credibility, it has the highest Zagat food rating in the entire state of FL (28) and the chef has made the semi finalist list for a Beard Award in the Southeast.  It is expensive but supurb.  For ambience it has few peers:  literally there are three tables on the sand on the beach where you can watch the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico.  Truly breathtaking beauty.  Inside there are nine or ten tables under a draped ceiling with candlelight and soft background music.  It is romantic.

Below is a comment from someone who had dinner there and posted on Yelp.  It attracted my attention because most of the reviews were five stars and this one was one star.  I couldn't believe it.  But it got my attention:  I wanted to read what one of my favorite restaurants anywhere did to deserve one star on Yelp.  Following it are the thoughts of the Beach Bistro's owner about the diners.

I would suggest this is one of the most interesting posts and responses ever on any website.  Enjoy.

From Yelp:

Im giving one star because the food was prepared well. Our experience was nothing short of an insulting weird evening. We will never be back, ever.  The $75  supposed 2lb. Lobster was a  and a 1/4  AT BEST. I regret not taking a picture if it.  We called the managers attention to this situation and she handled it properly. After our friend got his new entree this very rude,  brazen man comes over for a table visit. He put his hand on my shoulder and squatted down and proceeded to tell us to leave. WHAT? SERIOUSLY?  Yup, hurry and leave and don't pay either which by the way our bill was high and we were expecting an incredible "dining experience" so we had expected to spend plenty. Anyway my girlfriend excused herself fro the table ( shes a non drinker by the way, water only, she also eats out about 5 nights a week while they're in FL) she finds the owner and pulls him aside so customers wouldn't hear her. Bottom line he was rude, kept interrupting, and had nothing to go on, but stuck to his guns. Very strange! She came back to the table not even able to digest what the heck was going on here.  So we left.  In the hour ride back to St Pete we were all so perplexed and decided the only thing we could do is give them their true well deserved feedback on social media.

Thanks for your vote!

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Comment from Sean M. of Beach Bistro 
Business Owner
3/16/2014 In 28 years of business, we have only 9 times had customers so rude and unruly that we had to ask them to leave - the Weiss party last evening, on March 15, was the ninth one. This group of 4 were belligerent from the moment they arrived. They were verbally abusive and insulting to our staff, using sexually abusive language. They were loudly using foul language in our dining room, disrupting our other guests. We were forced to ask them to leave to protect the comfort of our other patrons and to prevent further abuse of our team. We think of our employees as our family, and it is my responsibility to protect them from the kind of abuse they received from the Weiss party.  At no point did I lose my composure. Their bad language and verbal abuse continued as they left the building, along with threats to 'destroy us' on social media.  Other restaurants should be wary of accepting reservations from this party, and can contact us directly for their reservation information.Read less

Above is the Yelp post.  Several weeks ago my wife and I were at the excellent Shark on the Harbor in Ocean City.  A woman at the bar adjacent to us had a great deal to drink.  Her friend was intent on watching a baseball game on the nearby television and she started to talk loudly to get his attention. He ignored her looking straight at the television.  She raised her voice.  Several levels. Almost every other word started with "f." The few that didn't were multisyllabic and started with "m." There were several families with children at nearby tables.

I complained to the manager.

I couldn't help but think of her when reading about apparently a similarly loud and profane person at Florida's Beach Bistro.

I wonder if she posts on Yelp.

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Simply, one of our favorite restaurants anywhere is the Beach Bistro in Holmes Beach on Anna Maria Island, FL.  We have been going for more than twenty years, usually driving 100+ miles roundtrip from Clearwater Beach to have dinner.  For credibility, it has the highest Zagat food rating in the entire state of FL (28) and the chef has made the semi finalist list for a Beard Award in the Southeast.  It is expensive but supurb.  For ambience it has few peers:  literally there are three tables on the sand on the beach where you can watch the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico.  Truly breathtaking beauty.  Inside there are nine or ten tables under a draped ceiling with candlelight and soft background music.  It is romantic.

I read this when you initially posted this under a different thread title:  something along the lines of "two sides to every story"

I agree with that description.  Its apt.  I went and read yelp reviews on the restaurant, you so enjoy.  Clearly most of the yelpers who commented felt similarly to you.  A few were deeply unhappy...but the overwhelming majority expressed themselves (somewhat less elegantly) but similarly to you.

I didn't read all the reviews but did get to a few of the other negative ones.  This was the only one where I saw an owner response.  ....and my oh my....aren't there two sides to that story.

Wouldn't lawyers in front of a judge and jury have a field day with this scenario?.  Two completely different perspectives and stories.  Whom to bellieve?

I do read yelp reviews at times.  I see yelp as extraordinarily different than dr.com btw.  Or, I should say that dr.com is extremely different than yelp and other large monetized mass accumulators of reviews.

I'll scan yelp for things like quantities of reviews, the diversity from 5 star to 1 star and try and discern the differences and why they occur; and I scan them for signals about social interaction.

But back to the above.  Just an interesting "back and forth" with probably much left unsaid by the business owners response, should one believe in his side of the scenario.

...and I would tend to believe it...if only because yelp carries some (albeit a tiny minority of) other "pans of the restaurant and some dining experiences there" but the owner never bothered to respond.   So it would have seemed to me the utter complete and totally unexpected occurrence of being asked to leave a restaurant was worthy of comment.

I've seen drunks denied drinks, and jerks at bars being asked to leave.  I don't believe I've ever seen diners at a fine restaurant being asked to leave.  If it was done in my presence it must have been done in a manner so that the other diners weren't aware of it.  I've never been.   That rare occurrence, in my book suggests the reviewers comments are the ones that should be disregarded.

Finally, admittedly I realize on many details I'm not that discerning.  Certainly I've never focused on the difference between a 1 1/4 and 2 lb lobster.  I love dining on lobster.  But seriously.  Who the H does that?   That was weird.

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something along the lines of "two sides to every story"

My intention was a comment about someone making a disparaging "review" on Yelp and the restauranteur standing up to them.  I really enjoyed your comments and totally agree.  I'm also not so sure that I could look at a lobster and guess it's weight.  I thought it was interesting how the manager handled these people:  bending down, touching a shoulder and quietly asking them to leave-an attempt not to disrupt the room any more than they already had.

This is one of the most romantic rooms anywhere.  Many of the people who go there are celebrating some kind of an event.  It's also something of an "investment" to have dinner there.  I doubt if anyone else in the small room would have anticipated someone reacting like this, affecting their evening.  At some point it becomes the responsibility of the restaurant, of the manager or the owner to do exactly what was expressed,  "to protect the comfort of our other patrons and to prevent further abuse of our team."

I believe it was handled appropriately.  I also applaud the owner's response on Yelp. 

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There is a huge difference between a 1 lb lobster and a 2 lb lobster. It surprises me that anyone disagrees. A 1 lb lobster is a small appetizer, whereas a 2 lb is a meal.

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There is a huge difference between a 1 lb lobster and a 2 lb lobster. It surprises me that anyone disagrees. A 1 lb lobster is a small appetizer, whereas a 2 lb is a meal.

I wasn't going to say anything, but now that you did ... a 1 1/4-pound lobster is the standard, basically meatless lobster you get when you see those signs out front of a restaurant that say, "Tonight! Live Whole Lobster ... $11.95" (often those are closer to 1 pound in size) whereas a 2-pound lobster is somewhat noteworthy. Once, at a Maine lobster pound, I said "to hell with it" and got the biggest one I saw in the tank (size does *not* correspond with quality, btw). It weighed five pounds, and somewhere, there's a picture of my hand next to one of its claws and the claw is larger. Since they were something like $6 a pound (this was awhile back), it was only like $30. The claw meat was tough, stringy, and this was more of an "eating contest" exercise than anything else - I was stuffed.

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"The Day The Critic Cried - Why chefs now have as much power as their critics" by Josh Ozersky on esquire.com

I could quite literally write a book on this. Honestly, the middle portion of the Esquire article was so poor that I had trouble finishing it (however, the letter at the end is worth the slog).

I wrote this post over nine years ago, I was the only food critic in the United States emphasizing chef reciprocity, and I haven't wavered from my position: If you're going to dole out criticism, you are fair game to be critiqued yourself.

Addressing a couple of things in the article:

1) Chefs *are* afraid to go after critics. In fact, if the critic has any clout, they're scared shitless. You'll have the occasional chef-owner who will do it, but they're widely considered "mavericks," and the vast majority of chefs will only express their negative feelings privately, in conversation. Chefs work as hard as anyone I've ever seen, and when they do "fight back," it's usually in the form of an outburst - they don't have time to do anything else.

2) Major critics are still relevant and influential, particularly in the immediate term. Part of this influence is "psychological" rather than "sociological" (much of the damage that can be inflicted by any given person is "perceived" rather than "actual"), but regardless of the reason, the influence is real: chefs lose sleep over bad reviews, and don't believe otherwise.

And, it's because of 2) that 1) is true.

One other thing: with continuous, positive reinforcement, one single critic can make someone very wealthy and successful. Sine Qua Non.

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A curious controversy about Kliman's review. While I would agree it's rather overblown, Kliman's fabled prickliness about being criticized certainly comes out in his response.

On the other hand, in today's chat, Sietsema took heat for his modest but positive review of the place, which provoked his own prickly (but kind of funny) response.

While I haven't been to the latest iteration, I think that both reviews have validity based on what I recall from the Penn Quarter locale, and on what seems to be carried over to Tysons. Tom spins more positive, Todd more negatively, but between them they seem to capture the problems and promises of this venture. As I noted above, the concept and the food itself too often seem to do each other a disservice, even when the latter is decent.

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A curious controversy about Kliman's review. While I would agree it's rather overblown, Kliman's fabled prickliness about being criticized certainly comes out in his response.

I don't think Todd's response was prickly, at least not the one I read in this article. Do you know what bothers Todd, and bothers him a lot?

Someone in the comments section said he badly needs an editor. *That* bothers Todd. Trust me.

This was an authorial swipe he simply couldn't resist taking - the response to this "genre" of put-down can run the gamut from "not even being noticed" to "ending a career" (refer to Doug Tracht).

There is nothing to see here - Todd is many things, but I can pretty much promise you all he is not "anti-immigrant."

On the other hand, in today's chat, Sietsema took heat for his modest but positive review of the place, which provoked his own prickly (but kind of funny) response.

I just read through the chat (which I thought was quite good), and a few things leapt to mind:

1) Whether he even knows it or not, Tom was writing this chat for one Mr. Frederick J. Ryan Jr.

2) His response to the "hired mouth" comment was measured exactly as it should have been.

3) Darn it, I thought I had a scoop (which you'll read about in the next day), but apparently not.

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miami-dolphins-garo-yepremian-465-topps- <----- I hope this doesn't offend any Redskins fans.

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Someone in the comments section said he badly needs an editor. *That* bothers Todd. Trust me.

Does Todd own the presses on which Washingtonian is printed? No? Then he needs an editor. At least for anything printed under someone else's masthead.

Should the kicker have been in there? No. Whose job was it to take it out? The editor's.

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Does Todd own the presses on which Washingtonian is printed? No? Then he needs an editor. At least for anything printed under someone else's masthead.

Should the kicker have been in there? No. Whose job was it to take it out? The editor's.

I agree. Is there a point you're trying to make? You write this in a style that seems to attempt to rebut my statement, but I think they both stand on their own, without conflict.

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I see my statement as no different from when I called out Tom Sietsema's editor for allowing the publishing of reviews that didn't address wine or other beverages. In that case, whether he liked it or not, Mr. Sietsema (a little NYT style there) needed an editor.

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Speaking of needing an editor, I wonder why Tom's 2011 review of the Penn Quarter location is the one which comes up under the listing for America Eats Tavern in the Going Out Guide (which appears to have confused one of the commenters on Tom's chat). I found his 2014 review of the Tyson's location by entering "America Eats Tysons" in the main search box on the home page.

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There is nothing to see here - Todd is many things, but I can pretty much promise you all he is not "anti-immigrant."

Agreed, though his comments on how much he, as opposed to other critics, spends time with immigrants to give notice to their work, while probably true, came across to me as a bit of self-back-patting.

Does Todd own the presses on which Washingtonian is printed? No? Then he needs an editor. At least for anything printed under someone else's masthead.

Should the kicker have been in there? No. Whose job was it to take it out? The editor's.

Also agreed. Saying someone needs an editor is to say that their writing or judgment may not be as perfect as they want to imagine it. That's the challenge that Kliman seems to hate--second-guessing on his writing from anyone, whether it be a superior, or an online commenter, anonymous or otherwise. (And, as an editor myself, I know how imperfect we can be in our judgments!)

I see my statement as no different from when I called out Tom Sietsema's editor for allowing the publishing of reviews that didn't address wine or other beverages. In that case, whether he liked it or not, Mr. Sietsema (a little NYT style there) needed an editor.

Of course, perhaps that WAS the editorial decision made--i.e., perhaps it's the editor that is removing this information, not Tom who isn't writing about it, in which case perhaps you unknowingly called out the wrong person. Since his reviews appear in the magazine, ad space sold may play a larger role than in other Post venues in how his columns get edited and what gets cut. People always ask him about his reviewing practices, but no one seems to ask him about how the ensuing editing practices.

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Agreed, though his comments on how much he, as opposed to other critics, spends time with immigrants to give notice to their work, while probably true, came across to me as a bit of self-back-patting.

It sounds like it, but where did you read this?

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In the Post article, linked above: "This was a relatively critical review, and any talk of it being anti-immigrant feels like an attempt to change the subject," [Kliman] told the Reliable Source, noting that he's written extensively about many cuisines and cultures in the region. "You'd have to really really search far and wide to find a critic who has spent more time immersing himself in [them], trying to give them the great due they deserve."

Granted, I misread this slightly, thinking the bracketed "them" referred to immigrants. I don't doubt the general claim, and indeed respect it, but Tim Carman is certainly doing much the same thing through his Post column these days, and Tyler Cowen, while not a critic per se, probably has at least deep knowledge. So, just a tad obnoxiously stated; the self-exaltation was unnecessary to make his point.

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Granted, I misread this slightly, thinking the bracketed "them" referred to immigrants. I don't doubt the general claim, and indeed respect it, but Tim Carman is certainly doing much the same thing through his Post column these days,

I think Tim took offense to Todd's comment too, but for another reason.  Here's a tweet he sent yesterday with a link to the Reliable Source article.  I must admit, it took me a few seconds to figure out what he was talking about.

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I think Tim took offense to Todd's comment too, but for another reason.  Here's a tweet he sent yesterday with a link to the Reliable Source article.  I must admit, it took me a few seconds to figure out what he was talking about.

attachicon.giftim carman.PNG

You're right, Tim did take offense.

And Tyler has been doing this longer than anyone in the area.

I think we've got ethnic cheap eats well-covered in this town; it's fine dining that is suffering. Tom does a good job, but it would be useful to have another voice.

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I think we've got ethnic cheap eats well-covered in this town; it's fine dining that is suffering. Tom does a good job, but it would be useful to have another voice.

I don't want to wade too far into this, but some of it has to do with the declining print media and the fact there is only one print daily in DC.  There's a monthly and a free weekly.  At some point, there will be some kind of pecking order (perhaps there already is...not going there) of online only critics, but for now they're all connected to something with a print outlet.  All three T's are part of a dying breed.  The newest change at the Post may make some difference in how these things play out.  I don't know.  I appreciate each of the T's for the different things they contribute.

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Exceprt from today's Kliman chat below.  I can't stand him.  He comes off as so judgemental of anyone who doesn't follow his strict ideas about what is right and wrong in dining.  Would it be better if these folks ate the injera? Sure.  But if they didn't want to, and the restaurant happily served rice, why should he call these people out?  He comes off as a real dick.

"ARM CHAIR TRAVELING ...:


Todd - 

You posted something to twitter that I didn't understand. It was about an Indian couple eating at an Ethiopian place and you called them arm chair travelers. 

What does that mean? Isn't it nice or good that they'd try something different? I'm not sure I understand your issue with them and your comment. What'd they do wrong?

Todd Kliman:

It wasn't a couple "” it was a table of four.

And you latched onto the phrase, but have left out the relevant part of the tweet.

And the way I used the phrase "” making it a part of a more complicated thought "” you have botched that, too.

Three errors in 140 characters.

I guess it isn't any wonder that people continually take things out of context in longer, more thoughtful pieces of writing if this kind of a thing can happen with a tweet.

What I said was that this group of four was not eating their Ethiopian meal "” which included, from the looks of it, two different preparations of wot "” with injera. They were spooning these wots over bowls of steamed rice.

The restaurant is clearly trying to accommodate diners like this, otherwise they wouldn't have rice on hand. (I find that disappointing, but that's another conversation.)

What struck me, here, was that the four people at the table were not meeting the cuisine on its terms. They were putting it into their own context "” in effect, eating Ethiopian food as if it were Indian food.

I wrote: "Way to armchair travel, guys." Sarcasm. Meaning they weren't immersing themselves in the experience. They weren't armchair traveling as we all do whenever we eat immersively in a restaurant devoted to the cuisine of a faraway place."

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Exceprt from today's Kliman chat below.  I can't stand him.  He comes off as so judgemental of anyone who doesn't follow his strict ideas about what is right and wrong in dining.  Would it be better if these folks ate the injera? Sure.  But if they didn't want to, and the restaurant happily served rice, why should he call these people out?  He comes off as a real dick.

I wasn't going to say anything about this, but honestly, it's hard not to. Here's the tweet:

"Watching a table of Indians at an Ethiopian resto spoon their various wots atop plates of rice; no injera. Way to armchair travel, guys."

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I wonder if his holiness eats with only his right hand at Rasika?

One time when my wife and I were there we sat at the bar/counter in the back and a young Indian couple sat next to us.  They ate the entire meal with their hands.  I hope they didn't think too badly of us for using forks!  ;-)

(Of course they didn't.  They looked like perfectly normal people, not some snobby critic who will scorn you if you had the audacity to eat a cuisine that you're not a complete expert on)

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Having seen people in this forum get all uppity over other people who order their beef well done or commit some other culinary error, I'm not sure that I can get too upset with Todd for holding this out as an example of how not to explore another culture's cuisine (which it is).  All of us foodies snicker about the (possibly mythical) American who goes to dinner in Paris and asks for ketchup, or stays here and complains that the middle of their DOC pizza in soggy.  He has a point, however inartfully made, and I suspect that if he'd said "Midwestern tourists" instead of "Indians," we'd all snicker along with him in our superior sort of way.

He did seem to be a little dyspeptic today, though.

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