I 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!
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?