Monday, March 17, 2008

Restaurant Reviews Should Be Accurate But....

Hartford Courant May Be Guilty of Boosterism in Giving Critic The Boot

If you want to read online the review by Elissa Altman from the Feb. 28 Hartford Courant of Prime Steak & Seafood in Torrington, Conn., you're out of luck on the newspaper's Web site, though you can find it in the Google cache.
Among the choicer morsels:

"Of all the dishes on the menu, the swordfish won the prize for perfection, and the apple and spinach salad was delicate and delicious. When your rare steak shows up a dark steel gray, it's within your rights to send it back. Because you'll have to."

"Very nervy, this place, to open during a near-recession and then charge Max-style prices for food that falls qualitatively below a chain family restaurant."

"Tables are outsized, and there are simply way too many packed into this moderate space, leaving one to deduce that a key part of the restaurant's business plan is to squeeze diners in tight and charge them outrageous sums for mediocre food. After our meal, it was certainly hard to think otherwise."

The Courant yanked the review after the restaurant complained it was inaccurate and laden with hyperbole. Then the paper issued a correction and publicly announced that Elissa Altman had written her last for the Courant.
All of that set off message-board speculation about censors afoot, although many slammed Altman for dinging a restaurant they loved.
It does appear that Altman was guilty, at the very least, of being sloppy. She got wrong some prices and inaccurately wrote that the restaurant has no Web site. She also write of being there with "dining companions" when, in fact, she just had one other person with her. Altman's defense? "While I referred in my review to my 'dining companions,' I was indeed dining with just one other person. This is, to my understanding, accepted and commonplace reviewing practice done both for the sake of maintaining anonymity...," she lamely told reader representative Karen Hunter.
Hunter excoriated Altman for the dining-companion lapse, but sent the wrong message, when she quoted from the ethics code from the Association of Food Journalists that reads in part: "Negative reviews are fine, as long as they're accurate and fair. Critics must always be conscious that they are dealing with people's livelihoods. "Negative reviews, especially, should be based on multiple visits and a broad exploration of the restaurant's menu."
Taken to the nth degree, that puts Altman, or any reviewer that can't return to a restaurant multiple times in an untenable position if they don't like a place. Altman told Hunter that "the budget places strict limitations on both the number of guests a reviewer is able to bring, and the number of times a reviewer is able to visit."
Is the Courant, given its precarious fiscal state under Tribune ownership, going to pony up for a revisit if a critic says the place stinks? Doubtful.
The key, then, is to back up the critic if the review sparks a backlash like this one did -- so long as the review is based on accurate information. Altman's piece doesn't meet that criterion. But Hunter's display of the AFJ code gives you the uneasy feeling the Courant won't want to get singed by other negative reviews going forward and may avoid them entirely.
That's one move that would certainly leave a bad taste.

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