The Tap: In Defense of Reviewing Food

The Tap: In Defense of Reviewing Food

This week in the Tap: Why restaurant reviews matter, a look ahead at upcoming restaurants, notes about spots that have closed, and about those that have recently opened.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

In Defense of Reviewing Food

Last week, I had the good fortune to share a table with Mecca Bos, one of my favorite food writers anywhere. She’s a particularly dab hand with profiles, and her radar is finely tuned. This recent list of five perfect “regular spots” is nothing but hits.

Bos told me that in her new position at GoMN, her focus is shifting away from traditional reviews. In the same way that Eater, for example, doesn’t go anonymously to restaurants and evaluate the food and experience, Bos’s new gig will be more focused on storytelling and profiling people than writing about a plate of food dined upon anonymously.

The classic restaurant review is becoming an anachronism, she told me, and she may well be right. The review has declined in frequency and profile even at the big local dailies. In its place is a cavalcade of “softer” content — listicles, chef biographies, previews, and slideshows. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these styles of writing (and, in fact, Heavy Table publishes all of them). From a publisher’s perspective, all of these offer readers insight into new establishments without the expense or the unpleasantly candid evaluation of food and value that the review format demands.

That said, the Heavy Table was founded on the notion of providing honest and frequent reviews, and we’re committed to the format. Reviews offer:

1. Context and Expertise

Many people argue that traditional criticism has largely been replaced by Yelp (etc.). Displaced, sure; replaced, not precisely.

A good working critic has likely eaten at thousands of restaurants in dozens of cities, at all price points, and at locations from gas stations to chef’s tables. They will likely have a working knowledge of the finer points of barbecue and of some of the more distinct regional variations in Chinese and Indian cuisine. They will hold strong opinions on the best taquerias, dive bars, and purveyors of molecular gastronomy, and be familiar with many of the complicated techniques and varying approaches used to create modern dishes. They will have interviewed dozens (or hundreds) of chefs, owners, and purveyors. They may well have worked in the industry as a chef or server, or may be an obsessive home cook.

In short, it’s not that reviewers have “better” opinions than any given internet commenter; it’s that they’re drawing from a much deeper well of context when they write. You don’t get to see those depths when everything written is neutral or positive or fawning; a review is a chance to go deep.

2. Value Assessment

One of our constant complaints about preview dinners and special visits with chefs is that however good a dish may be, there’s no way to benchmark it against what a diner would pay. When you dine anonymously to conduct a review, you’re looking at an establishment from a diner’s perspective. A passable roast chicken that’s “just fine” at free feels outrageous at $19, for example. And you’re able to assess service as a diner, too. At the best places (at any price point), all guests receive the kind of treatment that a known food influencer might receive; at other spots, not so much.

3. Advocacy for the Diner

Much of the dining-related content published these days is a partnership between the restaurant or brand in question and the writer, either explicitly (sometimes with money changing hands) or tacitly (again, alas, sometimes with money changing hands). The writer and/or photographer seeks clicks and influence and revenue; the subject seeks an enhanced reputation (and, in part, revenue). In this situation, nobody is looking out for the interest or experience of the diner. A good critic is a diner’s advocate, and a nine-course free spread at a preview dinner has no bearing whatsoever on what a diner will eat (and pay for) on a Wednesday night.

4. Accountability

If a critic commits an error while writing a review — anything from a misstated price all the way up to praising a sub-par restaurant — he or she can be held accountable, through comments, corrections, and conversation through the publication he or she works for. Commentators on social media can and do hit and run; critics have a home address.

The flip side of this is that critics provide accountability for chefs and owners. If a value prospect is off, or consistency is flagging, notice from a critic is a great motivator to tighten up the ship and refocus. In the end, everyone involved wins — the restaurant and the diner alike.

In conclusion, we’re in it for the long haul with reviews, regardless of how unsexy they get. They’re a critical lens through which to view the world of food. — James Norton

The Tap is the metro area’s comprehensive restaurant buzz roundup, so if you see a new or newly shuttered restaurant, or anything that’s “coming soon,” email Tap editor James Norton at editor@heavytable.com.

NOW OPEN

Barrel Theory Beer Company, 248 E 7th St, St. Paul | As per the Growler: “A partnership between Surly Brewing Company’s former director of technology Brett Splinter, former Surly brewer Timmy Johnson, and CPA Todd Tibesar.” Our preview is here.

Becca Dilley / Lake Superior Flavors

Hoops Brewing, 325 S Lake Ave, Duluth | Expectations have been high for this new brewery, a project of Dave Hoops, formerly of Fitger’s.

James Norton / Heavy Table

Portillo’s, 8450 Hudson Rd, Woodbury | First Minnesota outpost of the famous Chicago hot dog empire. Here’s our take on it.

510 Lounge & Private Dining, 510 Groveland Ave, Minneapolis | Private event space and open-to-the-public lounge run by Chef Don Saunders (The Kenwood).

Gray Duck Tavern, 345 Wabasha St, St. Paul | “Comfort food from all over the world.”

1.2.3. Pasta, 6508 Cahill Ave, Inver Grove Heights | Fresh pastas, pizza, and more from the owners of La Grolla.

The Lynhall, 2640 Lyndale Ave S, Minneapolis | “A market-inspired cafe, event space, kitchen studio, and incubator kitchen.”

Town Hall Station, 4500 Valley View Rd, Edina | The latest in the growing Town Hall mini-empire.

CLOSED / CLOSING:

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Brewer’s Table at Surly (in early August).

Wild Rice of Bayfield, WI (Oct. 14).

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Haute Dish

Dulono’s Pizza (closing its Uptown spot and consolidating business in the North Loop after 60 years on West Lake Street).

Loring Pasta Bar

Trotter’s (changed owners; re-opening as Tillie’s Farmhouse [see below]).

Tanpopo (one of our favorite spots; closed just as the promising Kado no Mise and Kaiseki Furukawa come online. Kyatchi will open a new location in the space. Sunrise, sunset).

Jerusalem’s (building to be demolished; closing end of August).

Sidhe Brewing (reopening as Culhane Brewing in Lowertown, St. Paul).

Sunrise Inn (The venerable 3.2 bar will reopen as Bull’s Horn Food and Drink under the aegis of Doug Flicker).

COMING UP:

Minneapolis

Popol Vuh and Central | Fall | A two-restaurants-in-one (a la Birdie and Nighthawks) high concept / street food with a Mexican emphasis from the team behind the successful Lyn65 in Richfield.

NOLO’s Kitchen and Bar and The Basement Bar, 515 Washington Ave N, Minneapolis | September

Bardo, 222 E Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis | Summer | A new “modern American bistro” in the old Rachel’s spot in Northeast, with chef/owner Remy Pettus.

Hai Hai, 2121 University Ave NE, Minneapolis | Early Fall | New Southeast Asian restaurant by the team behind Hola Arepa at the former Double Deuce location.

Rebel Donut Bar, 1226 2nd St NE, Minneapolis | Soon | More action within the “fancy doughnut” sphere, but in this case miniaturized.

Minnesota Barbecue Company, 816 Lowry Ave NE, Minneapolis | 2017 | A Kansas-City-style barbecue place to be led by Chef Kale Thome of the Travail team (and from Kansas).

Funky Grits, 805 E 38th St, Minneapolis | Late Summer | A soul food spot in the home of the short-lived Hell’s Chicken and Fish.

Kaiseki Furukawa, 33 1st Ave N, Minneapolis | Soon | Classic kaiseki (progressive small courses) dining at Kaiseki Furukawa, sister restaurant to the already open Kado no Mise.

Malcolm Yards Market, 501 30th Ave SE, Minneapolis | 2018 | A food market that will capitalize on its proximity to Surly’s massive brewery/restaurant complex.

St. Paul

Nick Fay / Heavy Table

Eureka Compass Vegan Food, 629 Aldine St, St. Paul | 2017 | Now open a few nights each week in the space the owners hope to renovate if their Kickstarter campaign is successful.

Delicata, 1341 Pascal St, St. Paul | July 26 | A pizzeria and gelateria by Matty O’Reilly, hopefully evoking the glory days of Fat Lorenzo’s.

Waldmann Brewery and Wurstery, 445 Smith Ave, St. Paul | September | “A craft brewery specializing in German lagers and a wurstery offering a variety of house-made sausages.”

12welve Eyes Brewing, 141 E 4th St, St. Paul | Summer | Opening in the Pioneer Endicott Building.

The Market House Collaborative, 289 5th St E, St Paul | Fall | As per the Shea designers: “The space will include a seafood market, a casual seafood restaurant, a boutique butcher shop, and a bakery, and we can’t wait to kick off.”

Keg and Case revitalization of the Schmidt Brewery, 928 W 7th St, St. Paul | 2018 | Featuring restaurants by the teams behind Corner Table, Hola Arepa, and Five Watt, plus Sweet Science ice cream.

Tillie’s Farmhouse, 232 Cleveland Ave N, St. Paul | Summer | Seasonal cuisine, some of it with a Scandinavian influence — with ingredients from local farms — in the former Trotter’s Cafe. Trotter’s menu remains until the summer reopening.

Ingredients

  • 12welve Eyes Brewing, 141 E 4th St, St. Paul | Summer | Opening in the Pioneer Endicott Building.
  • 11 Wells, Millwright Cocktail Room, Historic Hamm’s Brewery, St. Paul | Postponed to “at least 2018” | Multi-state distribution is keeping them busy.
Read the whole recipe on The Heavy Table