on being unreasonable in food critiques: a tale of two hamburgers

IMG_8828I occasionally check in on a big online local food group’s discussion threads.  As they are wont to do, the discussions flare up and people get offended at others’ opinions, especially if they are seen as damaging to local establishments or exhibiting socioeconomic privilege or unacceptable politics or perceived “snobbery.”  These places provide local jobs, the outcry goes, we should support them no matter what!  Keep any negative opinions to yourself or go whisper it personally to the manager!  Not all of us eat caviar and champagne every day!

No.

As consumers who vote with our dollars in a local economy that is still heavily dependent on word-of-mouth and habit, we should be actively and publicly and vociferously supporting the good restaurants, and actively and loudly calling out the bad ones on their badness. But to do so without namecalling or resorting to empty cheerleading for your “team” (as we do in this one-team town) is crucial.

So here’s my advice.  Be reasonable in your food critiques.

1)  Use the skills you should have learned in your college or high school English composition class: explain how and why you believe what you do, and provide evidence that supports your case.*

Without exception, the good places are places with chefs who are intimately involved with a dynamic menu and have great palates, creative and innovative spirits, and a need to be in the kitchen and serve the unwashed masses.  In almost every single case I can think of, that means supporting a local restaurant in Eugene that relies on local products, local distribution, and sustainable ethics insofar as the price point can maintain it.  And there are plenty of good ones to support.

There are also plenty of bad ones.  Yes, there are the ones meant to be lower cost, and there’s a place for that.  The portions may be huge for so-called “value,” and the food isn’t seasoned well, if it is even what you ordered.  To take one example, I ordered a burger at a mom-n-pop place the other night, and they still messed up the order after I heard no less than FIVE repetitions of what I wanted (from me twice, the server once, and the cooks on the line twice, plus it was written on the ticket).

But I was hungry and the kitchen was slammed and it was getting dark and I was on my bike, so I just said fine, I’ll scrape off the barbecue sauce and ignore the cheese and just eat this mountain of breaded-and-too-salty french fries from a freezer bag. I’m also not going to go on Yelp and whine about it, since I wasn’t expecting much and I got less but it turns out the ticket was written poorly and I chose not to have the order re-fired.  There was no safety issue and no one was out of line.  If I go again (and that’s a big if), I’ll just make sure the order is right.  I ain’t fussed.

But I am (is?) fussed when a restaurant whose soul is like the burger joint tries to pass itself off as an expensive locavore joint.  Using industrial frozen crap in a bag, not getting orders right, sacrificing local produce and quality ingredients to increase the slim profit margin, and struggling along with an absentee owner or executive chef and cooks who don’t taste the food or know what combinations work and little training for the front of the house, but still calling the menu locally sourced and fresh and the restaurant high-end.  I’ll pay $9 to suffer all that plus a high school server who is busier making eyes at the bartender than writing down an order properly, but I won’t pay $39.

And neither should you.

2)  The key for a good review is a customer who knows the difference.  Learn how to cook.  Yeah, I know you’re busy.  But education is always a sacrifice, and your body/family/farmers/planet will thank you for it.  You can choose to eat most of your meals out at cheap places if you aren’t rich.  I’d argue it’s better to save your money and use it on better places less frequently, but clearly I don’t take my own advice, as you see from the anecdote above. Nevertheless, it’s important to know the difference with your eyes and mouth between cheap, mass-produced food and good food.

Don’t patronize the places that serve you cheap food and provide cheap service for expensive prices AND, contrariwise, don’t expect places that serve you high quality food and provide good service to give you massive, gluttonous portions and act like you’re both in a chain restaurant in the mall.

And when places underwhelm you for the prices they’re charging for the quality (note again: quality not quantity since you’re not eating from a trough) of food, call them out when they do.  The reason why some of our crappy overpriced local restaurants are still in business is because (a) most people don’t know how good our fresh local food can be because they’re used to eating mass-produced products; (b) very few people who know about food say anything because they’re in the business and afraid of offending someone they may be working for someday; and (c) we live in a town where inertia helps us along and no one likes conflict or sounding too opinionated.

3)  Another thing to keep in mind is that we’re trained as Americans, as Westerners, and as Oregonians to “have it your way.”  We value individual choices so strongly it’s sometimes hard to get out of our own little bubble when we’re judging others.  So be reasonable with your tastes when you’re critiquing a local restaurant.

To return to my hamburger example, I know I am idiosyncratic with burgers.  The burger depicted above is how I like my burgers:  a crusty toasted roll, extra dill pickles dripping their dill juice into the meat, and more ketchup than burger so the whole thing is falling apart.  I even dip it in more ketchup.  Without a doubt, folks will find this completely gross and a BBQ cheeseburger far more preferable.  Where’s the special sauce?  Or Jesus, at least add some mayo and lettuce!

But no.  I just so happen to have odd tastes in burgers.  And I know this.  So you’ll rarely see me commenting on burger joints or even ordering a burger in mixed company, especially at a nice restaurant.  I know this and account for it:  I act like a 5-year-old with burgers and get surly when stuff like nasty yellow mustard or a raw onion touches my ketchuppicklefest, because my burger training was at fast food joints.  Now, of course, I make my own ketchup and pickles and eat beef ground to my specification from a local cow and form the patties myself, so I’m even worse than your average McDonald’s hamburger type.

In short, I am a hamburger douchebag.  I know this.  I protect others from the madness.  There’s probably even some residual shame in this that makes me do stuff like scrape off barbecue sauce on a misfire than insist I have my order the way I wanted it; who knows.

Do you act like a douchebag with your food tastes?  Complaining about a restaurant’s menu based on your own idiosyncratic needs is not reasonable.  If you’re gluten-free, for example, why are you in a bakery?  Can’t abide greasy food?  Get outta the pizza joint.  You only eat burgers and nothing else?  Heaven help you.  The seasonality of local ingredients, higher labor, and chef’s vision in more expensive places dictates that you can’t always have it your way.  That’s part of what you’re signing up for when you choose to go to a good restaurant.  If the menu is huge and offers concessions for every fathomable dietary restriction du jour, it’s going to come out in quality elsewhere.  So respect the genre of the restaurant you’re critiquing if you want to promote your own agenda, or better yet, be reasonable about your expectations.

One can be opinionated and reasonable.  Really.  I’ve seen it work.  I think it’s working now, actually, because in the past seven years I’ve seen drastic and wonderful changes in the Eugene dining scene, changes for the better.  And it isn’t because people blindly supported local establishments and kept their opinions to themselves.  Local restaurants are reading comments and listening to their customers.  You’ll be a respected critic if you state your opinions from an intelligent and understanding position, and back up your impressions with proof. You’ll still probably be attacked and called names, but that reflects on the commenter, not you.

* Why yes, I am an English professor by trade.  How can you tell?

9 thoughts on “on being unreasonable in food critiques: a tale of two hamburgers

  1. Charlotte 10 September 2014 / 11:06 am

    As a responsible review writer/user, I can usually tell the difference between a pertinent, thoughtful and well written review and the opposite in the first few words. I don’t find the later credible, so, I try not to waste my time or get fussed about it. Hopefully I’m not the only one.

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  2. Eugenia 10 September 2014 / 11:08 am

    I agree, Charlotte. I’d love to see more responsible reviews and fewer hackles raised. I suppose this is a utopian vision, but one must try.

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  3. Jewel Murphy 10 September 2014 / 5:14 pm

    I find myself constantly shutting my trap and keeping my opinions to myself (about all kinds of things not just food) because it is a small town and really, IMHO, people dont’ really want to engage in any kind of meaningful discourse if it involves any kind of potential conflict or hurt feelings. And I am afraid speaking up will negatively impact my business. Of course that’s how we end up with blandness, corruption, and mediocrity. (and yes, for those who think I am difficult and opinionated, know that I CONSTANTLY check myself…if you only knew what I really thought)….so the work for me has been to do exactly what you’re talking about…figuring out how to say my piece in a kind of neutral, non confrontational but clear way.

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  4. Brian 10 September 2014 / 5:35 pm

    I can tell that you are an English professor because you use so many words. I proof read for any student who asks and many complain that they are graded down for being succinct. (‘not saying that this came from any of your students.)

    I can tell that you start sentences with prepositions and even follow conjunctions with commas as a stylistic choice. It’s the use of license by somebody who actually has a license.

    We follow the same Foodies group. Please find a way to use your stature and expertise to stop the constant discussion of local Mexican and Chinese. Teach kids that a dimension of literacy in the age of social networking is to at least scan the thread before launching a repeat discussion. Also that as an active member of the community, one might keep up and advise new posters covering old territory that the topic has been discussed.

    One last thing… it is not only and incomplete sentence, but an incomplete thought to simply blurt “Tacovore!”

    Furthermore, that assertion is incorrect, as all of the good Mexican in this town has been eaten. There is none left.

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  5. Shannon 10 September 2014 / 8:57 pm

    I am also a hamburger douchebag. I now know what to call myself. Only Monday I heard a girl ask for vegan options at a ramen restaurant in town. She was annoyed that the only options were rice and pickled cucumbers. I wondered why she bothered visiting a ramen shop.

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  6. boscodagama 11 September 2014 / 8:58 am

    Re: Vegan options (heard in Austin in the 1970s)

    “I’m a vegetarian, I’d like the carne guisada without meat”.

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  7. emmeline 11 September 2014 / 10:20 am

    Yay! Great post. When I first moved to Eugene from the Bay Area, I found it hard to make the proper attitude/expectation adjustments in order to treat local businesses equitably on Yelp. In the Bay, your individual review is swallowed up and balanced by the hundreds of thousands of other reviews for any particular business, and the average star rating gives you a pretty accurate representation of the establishment (caveat: add half a star for Chinese restaurants, which are constantly dinged for sanitation, despite quality of food). In Eugene however, there are very few Yelpers, and of the few, many who seem to skew to two extremes: 1.) Out-of-towners who are outraged by the quality-to-price ratio of Eugene restaurants/services, and 2.) Locals who consider Taco Bell to be fine fare, and Burrito Amigos to be the crown jewel of the PNW.

    These days, I try not to be a shit when reviewing local establishments, unless of course, I paid $17 for a flipping burger that took an hour to leave the kitchen, and is well-done as opposed to the medium-rare I requested three or four times. Or if I think that the establishment could stand to go out of business and be easily replaced by *any business* that has more integrity and value.

    That being said, my general guidelines for reviewing establishments are:

    -That I’ve gone to the establishment multiple times (unless the first time is a huge bust and there is no reason to ever go there again)

    -That I frame my review in consideration of 1.) local standards/expectations 2.) the direction Eugene is headed 3.) Price, relative to PNW overheads 4.) national standards

    I’ll also bump my review up by a star if, say, I’ve had better soup dumplings at lower prices in Los Angeles, CA, but find that the soup dumplings at this particular new Eugene restaurant are fine, and want to see similarly adventurous food items/restaurants continue to crop up in Eugene.

    I *am* pretty sad that a Starbucks’ is going to occupy prime downtown real estate. Third wave coffee, anyone?

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  8. Eugenia 11 September 2014 / 10:47 am

    Thanks, Emmeline. Very thoughtful additions to the post. But if you find a single xiao long bao, good or bad, in Eugene I want to hear about it. IMMEDIATELY. :D

    Like

  9. Kim 11 September 2014 / 11:18 am

    Thank you for such a well written, insightful, and direct review of the reviewers! I often feel I may be the only person rolling their eyes at a distasteful review of a steak house without vegetarian options. At least now I feel I may nit be the only one who finds this less then helpful.

    Like

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