Second Helpings

How Long Should You Wait Before Reviewing a Restaurant?

Last week I started a conversation about the rules of restaurant criticism — or rather, the modern-day lack thereof. Some guidelines remain in effect: Professional critics should not accept free food, for example. Others are increasingly optional, such as anonymity, though in my opinion a critic who publishes his or her picture is all but guaranteeing special treatment and can’t help but pen a skewed review.

Another rule that’s changed over time is how to decide when a new restaurant is ready for review. The issue is especially pertinent because several of the spots I’ve reviewed recently have been places that turned out to be in transition. The Good Son and the Farm House at Breckenridge Brewery, both of which opened earlier this year, changed chefs right around the time of my review meals — the Good Son just before, the Farm House just after. In both cases, I went ahead with the reviews because the menus were designed by executive chefs who supervised the departing chefs and their kitchens, and I knew that the menus would not undergo significant changes. (Walter Harvey, the opening sous chef at the Good Son, was promoted to the top spot in July; I ate there in August. The Farm House has not yet named its new chef.)

Then when I called the owners of Onefold, which I review this week, they told me that after concentrating on breakfast and lunch for their first seven months in business, they’d soon be dipping their toes into dinner service. That was definitely a significant change, but one unlikely to affect the quality of the meals served earlier in the day. 

Such changes at relatively new restaurants beg a question: Why not review a restaurant right when it opens, before chefs and/or menus have time to change? Or perhaps return to waiting a year, as critics used to do? The answer lies in two things: relevancy and consistency. If you wait a year to write a review, it’s true that a restaurant will have had time to work out the kinks. Routine settles in and consistency increases, which means that diners have a good sense of what’s going to happen when they show up. But that kind of delay also compromises relevancy. After that amount of time, readers — especially ones who have grown up in the digital age — have moved on to the Next Big Thing. Time is of the essence when hundreds and hundreds of restaurants are opening every year.

On the other hand, if a critic reviews a restaurant right when it opens, the restaurant doesn’t have a chance to start its learning curve. The result: high relevancy, low consistency. The dining experience is going to fluctuate because some lessons can only be learned when dining rooms are full and kitchens are slammed. There’s an issue of fairness, too: Would you like to get a performance review on your  first day on the  job? Ultimately, if a critic reviews a place too early, we risk seeing patterns that aren’t patterns at all, just the realities of a restaurant finding its feet.
That’s why I still consider three months the sweet spot where consistency and relevancy intersect. Why three months? After years on the job, I know that the three-month mark is when owners, chefs and general managers make their own internal assessments. Dory Ford, chef/owner of Baur’s Restaurant and Listening Lounge, which I reviewed last week, told me as much when I contacted him after my review meals:  “Three months in, we’re doing some retooling,” he said. If I were to review a restaurant the month it opens, I wouldn’t give the people in charge enough time to see what is and isn’t working. More important, I wouldn’t know what they plan to do about it. Will they lower prices? Offer more shared plates? Change the chef?

How restaurateurs make adjustments is a good predictor of a restaurant’s long-term success, and therefore salient to the review. 

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Gretchen Kurtz has worked as a writer for 25 years; during that time she's stomped grapes in Napa, eaten b'stilla in Fez, and baked with Buddy Valastro, aka the Cake Boss. Her work has appeared in publications including Boulevard (Paris), Diversion, the New York Times and Westword. Our restaurant critic since 2012, she loves helping you decide where to eat and drink tonight.
Contact: Gretchen Kurtz