The restaurant I work at recently received a pretty harsh review from a fairly important publication, and it has really gotten me thinking about restaurant criticism. Restaurant critic was once one of my dream jobs. Given that my two primary hobbies are eating and criticizing things, it would seem like a perfect fit. But having worked as long as I have in restaurants, I always view anyone who would deign to criticize what we do with, if not disdain, at least suspicion. What do you know, anyway?
Almost all restaurant reviews focus on three things: service, food quality, and ambiance. This is as true in major newspapers as it is on Yelp. Criticism in this vain offers its readers a service: there are many, many options for dining in any major city, so which ones are worth spending hard-earned money at? This is the restaurant review as a product review. Comparing the latest trendy restaurants is barely different from comparing the latest models of Android phones: give me the technical specs, the price points, and that indescribable ‘x factor’ (which is, 100% of the time, just the reviewer’s totally subjective gut reaction).
But there has to be more to it, right? What about where that cellphone comes from? It’s environmental impact? The kind of conditions the people who made it work under? In the world of product reviews, that kind of deep data is so far removed from the end consumer that it is more or less irrelevant — or rather, very easy to ignore.
But in a restaurant those factors are more in-your-face. There’s more than food, service, and ambiance. The top-tier of restaurants today are a microcosm for some of the most important social issues of the 21st century: questions about class, race, the environment, economic sustainability, multiculturalism, and labor are all constantly at play. I believe there is room for a restaurant criticism that looks beyond the surface dining experience to examine and evaluate the real workings of a restaurant.
Here are some possible questions a restaurant critic with a Marxist-Feminist-Ecologist perspective would ask:
- Who works here?
- Is the staff young or old?
- Has the staff, especially the bar, host, and waitstaff, been hired for attitude and intelligence, or have they been hired solely based on their appearance (people outside of the industry may be surprised to learn how many restaurant jobs require you to submit a headshot along with your application)?
- Are people of color fulfilling many roles throughout the restaurant, including managerial, or are they relegated to support roles (busboy, barback, prep cook, dishwasher)?
- What is the ratio of women to men on the staff?
- Is the LGBTQ staff provided with a safe and supportive working environment and provided the same opportunities, in both the front of house and kitchen, as the staff as a whole?
- Are there women in managerial roles?
- Are there women working in the kitchen as well as the front of the house?
- How much are kitchen and front of house workers paid? Are there benefits offered to full-time employees?
- Are kitchen staff paid hourly or a day rate?
- How many hours a day and hours a week do kitchen staff work? How often are employees actually allowed to take their legally mandated breaks?
- Is there significant staff turnover? Are loyal staff members rewarded with opportunities for advancement?
- Where does the restaurant’s product comes from?
- Does the restaurant utilize locally farmed products and develop mutually beneficial relationships with farmers?
- Are the products being served currently in season?
- What percentage of the product served comes from local or sustainable sources, or from small purveyors, and how much comes from industrialized sources and corporate purveyors such as Sysco and US Foods?
- Does the restaurant actually use the farms they name or are they just using the name for a marketing advantage? If a farm is listed, is 100% of that product from that farm, or is it a mix of accurately named farmed product and a substitute product from a different origin? (This is unbelievably common, especially with meats. Be wary of any high volume restaurant that claims to serve a specific cut of steak from a single family farm. There’s only so many ribeyes on an animal, people).
- Are fish and oyster species names and points of origin given accurately? Does the waitstaff have the correct information regarding seafood sustainability?
- Is the restaurant committed to serving only sustainable seafood? Are there red-flag items such as farm-raised salmon, tuna, and Chilean sea bass on the menu?
- Does the restaurant take steps to minimize environmental waste (forgoing hand towels in favor of dryers, re-using menus, minimizing the size and quantity of to-go containers, using environmentally friendly cleaning agents, favoring draft beer and wine over bottles and cans, converting vegetable oil for use in biodiesel vehicles, composting, using LED and low-wattage lighting, using reusable non-petroleum candles, etc., etc?)
- Does the restaurant offer bottled water? In areas that frequently experience drought, such as the Southwest, serving water only upon request or preferring bottled water is often the environmentally responsible move. In other parts of the country, serving bottled water is an environmental nuisance when filtering and/or carbonating water in house and using washable carafes is possible.
- What kind of community does the restaurant serve?
- Are the primary clientele locals, citywide foodies, or tourists?
- Does the restaurant cater to the wealthy, the middle-class, bohemians, or the poor?
- Does the restaurant cater to the old, the young, to professionals, to others in the restaurant industry?
- Does the restaurant staff treat customers of different races differently?
- Does the restaurant offer options and positive experiences for people at many different income levels? Does it welcome a young couple that has scrounged every dollar for a modest bottle of wine and a shared entree with the same hospitality it would provide to a wealthy group of white men with black Amex cards?
- Does the restaurant provide a substantial benefit to its surrounding neighborhood, in terms of economic impact and quality of life?
- Does the bar serve spirits from independent distilleries and beers from microbreweries? Or does the backbar represent the numerous marketing categories of powerful global alcohol conglomerates such as Pernod-Ricard, Beam Suntory, and Diageo?
- Does the wine program feature organic or biodynamic wines from small producers?
What is the point of all this? There are restaurants out there that, while they may be fun and delicious, are out to do little more than maximize profits. They may do so at the expense of their own employees, the rest of the local economy , and the environment. And there are also restaurants that are fun, delicious, and ethical. If restaurant critics really want to provide relevant information about where we should spend our money, they should do so by providing more information about which restaurants are Doing the Right Things.
Here are some of the restaurants in the Chicago area which I feel are not only generally tasty but also do right by their workers, purveyors, and their environment. Pretty much all of these are former clients of mine or places that I have worked, so, I guess that’s a conflict of interest, but that’s also how I now that they are upstanding folk:
- Vie and Perennial Virant
- The Publican and Publican Quality Meats
- The Bristol
- The Girl and the Goat
- Trenchermen and Sportsman’s Club
- Longman & Eagle, Dusek’s and The Promontory
Few of those restaurants are new or still trendy, but they’re also not names that would surprise anybody. The reason they’ve stuck around for a few years and become so popular might, just might, have to do with the fact they not only put out great food and drink, but they treat their employees well and never sacrifice ethical principles in favor of a quick buck.
Maybe someday I’ll be brave enough to expose some of the restaurants that I know are talking the talk without walking the walk.
Next time you read a harsh restaurant review, or sitting at a table wondering why your $28 entree is taking longer than you’d like, keep in mind that a restaurant in an incredibly complex organism that many people have devoted a ridiculous amount of their life to. And that, while the food is still always the most important thing, there is so much more to a restaurant than just what ends up on your plate.