Matthew Warner

The News Leader’s Weak Stomach for Restaurant Reviews

It all started with a plate of cole slaw that tasted like the refrigerator it was stored in.

That’s the first thing Mollie Cox Bryan, novelist and writer about all things food, ordered at the Bistro restaurant in Staunton, VA. She was researching the latest installment of her restaurant review column for the city newspaper. She also ordered a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich because she’s a big fan of tomatoes and the menu listed it as a “Fried Green Tomato Sandwich.” But because she is a vegetarian, she asked the chef to hold the bacon.

The LT, as it were, still cost $8. And for that price, she received dry toast mounded with lettuce and stale tomatoes. On a five-star scale, she rated the food a 2.

She noticed other things about the restaurant, which she dutifully recorded in her April 1 article, “Bistro failed to live up to reputation.” The hostess leaned across the bar to have a personal conversation with the bartender, which gave the impression of unprofessionalism. Her table was chipped and wobbly. Still, she found something positive to say — her waitress was attentive, professional, and cheerful — and so she rated the service at 4 stars.  Not the tippy-top, but almost.  The atmosphere got an average score of 3.

I would link to the online archive of the review so you can read it for yourself, but the executive editor, David Fritz, has deleted it. His above-the-fold editorial in the April 3 paper, headlined “Bistro restaurant review failed fairness test,” is still online, however. (Here.) His reasons for retracting the story boil down to: (a) the reviewer ordered an out-of-season dish without a key ingredient; and (b) the review was based on only one visit.  I should point out that this was printed over another column in which the Fourth Estate congratulates itself for how great of a job it’s been doing.

As best I can reconstruct, based on the extensive online flamage (some of it my own) attached to Fritz’s editorial, and on my interview of Mollie Bryan, this is what happened:

  1. Mollie visited the Bistro, wrote her review, and turned it in.  The column didn’t mention that she’s a vegetarian, and it said she ordered a “fried green tomato sandwich” rather than a BLT sans the B.
  2. The editor directly responsible for the column, Cindy Corell, did a poor job editing the column. Corell admitted as much online: “Do I wish I’d remembered that she was a vegetarian and disclosed this to viewers and readers? Of course.” And, as Fritz wrote in his editorial, “we did a poor job not to catch those flaws while editing the piece for publication.”

I’m glad the two editors are taking responsibility for what they published, but there is more to this than just the writing and editing of a single article.

Let’s start with the way the News Leader manages its restaurant reviews.  In a word, it’s sloppy.  Mollie, a journalism graduate from Point Park University and author of two cook books, had a prior relationship with this newspaper.  She had authored a long-running column on parenting, “Thoroughly Modern Mollie.” In it, she often discussed her vegetarianism, a fact about her I wasn’t aware of until recently.  Perhaps all parties were used to a certain degree of informality, an unspoken — but erroneous and ultimately amateurish — understanding of how things would be handled in the new venue, a review column titled “Valley Food Files.”

They did discuss a few things, however, but most of these things were not put into a contract, as they should have been.  For example, they discussed Mollie’s per diem, which would be meager $100 per article.  For a work for hire copyright license, it should have been higher.  Oh, and Mollie would have to pay for her own meals.  Figure the math with me on that one: Meager – Meal = Jack.

They also discussed what to do in the event of a negative review.  Would Mollie have to make more than one visit to the restaurant?  The answer: they would look at it on a case-by-case basis.  Well, the case came up with the Bistro, but no one said anything until after the column was in print — and then it was discussed in the most humiliating, public fashion possible.

In the interests of fairness (as that’s the big buzz word here, you know), there are indeed such things as ethical standards food critics are supposed to follow.  There’s an organization called the Association of Food Journalists that seems to be the authority on this.  Their Restaurant Critics’ Guidelines, which you can download as a Word document, make the following recommendations:

  • make two or even three(!) visits to a restaurant when reviewing it;
  • sample the “full range” of the menu;
  • order the same food multiple times to see if it remains wonderful or terrible.

Wow, those folks in AFJ must have some big bucks to afford that.  Mollie didn’t do those things with the Bistro, however.  Should she have?  Her editor and many of the News Leader readers apparently think so.  But again, who was going to pay for all that?

The other issue is Mollie’s vegetarianism and whether that disqualifies her from being a food critic.  Should Mollie’s tag line at the end of the review, instead of reading, “The writer is a national freelance writer and published author,” begin, “The vegetarian writer . . .”?  If I were a vegetarian in this circumstance, I would feel a bit like a wheelchair-bound man fired from his job because he couldn’t climb the stairs.  It makes me wonder what decade we’re living in.

I asked Mollie about this.  She said, “It’s 2012, and I felt like most restaurants have vegetarian options, so I didn’t think it would be that big of a deal.” However, in the interests of being fair (there’s that word again), she often takes along her husband or kids, who sample and report on the meat to her. It seems like a reasonable accommodation to the AFJ ethics to me — despite the fact that the newspaper isn’t paying for all of those meals.

Still, this time out the door, Mollie went alone.  She ordered the Bistro’s “Fried Green Tomato” sandwich and asked the chef to hold the bacon.  Restaurant patrons make requests like this all time.  Being a professional, the chef did as she asked.  What he didn’t do was present the sandwich with a big placard reading, “Just so you know, this sandwich now sucks, so don’t judge me on it.”  Claims that Mollie’s sandwich experience was unfairly damaged by this deletion of a “key ingredient,” as David Fritz called it, are fatuous.  Since when does leaving bacon out of a BLT turn the bread stale?  The chef, Stephen Thacker, accepted responsibility for his work the moment he sent it to Mollie’s table, and in fact he still accepts responsibility, as he wrote online: “It does not matter that she is a vegetarian, or altered a dish, the more important issue is we can always improve.”

The previous restaurant reviewers haven’t been held to the same standards, as far as I can tell.  They haven’t been required to make multiple visits to a restaurant and sample multiple dishes in order to write a review, good or bad.  The one time in recent memory when a reviewer pre-dating Mollie wrote a justifiably negative review (of the execrable Buckhorn Inn), she was unfairly excoriated by readers, just as Mollie has been.  After that point, it was laughably obvious how gun-shy she became, rating all the restaurants on a 5-star scale that ran between 3.1 and 3.9.  To get her true opinion, one had to read the score that came after the decimal point.

Because of this experience — after the way she has been humiliated by her boss and subjected to nonstop ad hominem attacks online — I wouldn’t at all be surprised if Mollie Bryan quit her gig with this newspaper.  I know I would, and I’ve told her so.

Let’s just hope the next time The News Leader ventures into this area of writing that it gives some clearer communication to its writers and readers about what to expect.


6 Responses

  1. Having worked for daily papers, I’m surprised she gets paid $100 for the columns. Sportswriters are often contracted to cover events for as little as $20 per story which usually barely covers gas — not to mention time. I have read several of Mollie’s reviews, and I doubt that she went to any place twice. I think it is fine for a reviewer to give their overall impression at a restaurant – regardless of what they order. I don’t think being a vegetarian disqualifies her. A bad review can be a good thing (just spell the restaurant’s name right) as regulars can openly defend the place and perhaps still generate new customers to make their own judgement. The only thing I found disappointing was the paper’s response. Pulling the story is reason enough for me to “quit” the job. I think she was simply doing her job and reporting her experience. I feel really bad for Mollie. Why should she subject herself to this again?

    1. My god, just $20 per story and no gas reimbursement? Wow.

      I just heard that the Japs invaded Pearl Harbor. I think that — oh, wait a minute. This is 2012.

      (Thanks for your comment, btw. 🙂

  2. Thanks, Matt, for giving this issue some good analysis. I really appreciate it. The News Leader and I have decided that we do not have a similar vision for this column. So we are going our separate ways. It perhaps would have saved a lot of grief everywhere if the Executive Editor’s “vision” had been communicated to me. I should have gotten more of the details IN MY CONTRACT. Live and learn, I suppose. But I do have a full plate and it was getting difficult to manage it all. So it worked out. I am relieved. Cathy, I think the “fairness” issue passed the first editor’s test. Otherwise she would have asked me to go back–which was our verbal agreement. Really, even though the review was negative it was balanced. I took no glee in writing it.

    1. I thought it was a balanced review as well. As I said, I think a lot of people tend to see reviews as advertisements. Point out the good stuff, downplay the not-so-good. But that’s not what a review is, nor is it what it should be. You were served substandard dishes–there’s no way to put a positive spin bad food! I thought the restaurant owner’s response in the NL comments section was classy and very much on the money. They screwed up. He didn’t make excuses. He will use the review as a springboard to improving food and service. That’s exactly what a negative review should inspire–not the bullying or the cheerleading that ensued…

      A good friend of mine was once the restaurant reviewer for the Arizona Republic in Phoenix. She didn’t pull punches–she was generous with praise for good food and service, and she was brutal when faced with the opposite. She used to keep a notebook of the hate mail her reviews engendered… it was very thick! And, after the fact, pretty hilarious. Just know that there is no shame in being honest!

      I think the NL did you SUCH a disservice by pulling the review and making their explanation for doing so the lead editorial–that was really unprofessional and uncalled for. As I said, if they had a problem with the review, they should have addressed it before publication. Once it was published, they should have stood by it. They are cowards.

      While I will miss your reviews, I think you are wise to end that gig. If they won’t support their writers, then hell with ’em! And they didn’t even give you an expense account for the restaurants you review? That’s just so minor league, I don’t know where to start!!

  3. Thanks, Cathy! And thanks Crystal, for your kind words,as well. I think that the Exec rendered me ineffectual as a restaurant reviewer by choosing to print a retraction and apology. That’s pretty much what it boiled down to for me. I’m disappointed, but as I mentioned earlier, I’m a bit relieved, too. I’m in the middle of this three-book deal and have just signed on to do more books. All of you are THE BEST.