Food Critics’ Guidelines by the Association of Food Journalists, published in 2001.
The following guidelines for restaurant critics and/or reviewers are just that – guidelines suggested by the Association of Food Journalists. They are not intended to be rules that will be enforced by the Association of Food Journalists. The guidelines are provided to food journalists and their employers who are interested in ethical industry suggestions for reviewing restaurants.
Good restaurant reviewing is good journalism. Reviewers should subscribe to the same accepted standards of professional responsibility as other journalists. That means adhering to the traditional Canons of Journalism of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists, Sigma Delta Chi, and the Code of Ethics of the Association of Food Journalists.
Given the prominence – and controversy – inherent in reviewing, it makes sense to check first when confronted with a doubtful situation. Consult the various ethics codes or talk to an editor. The Association of Food Journalists also serves as source of advice and support for reviewers who are members.
Reviews should be conducted anonymously whenever possible. Critics should experience the restaurant just as ordinary patrons do. Reservations should be made in a name other than that of the reviewer and meals should be paid for using cash or credit cards in a name other than the critic. Take care to make reservations from telephones outside of work; many restaurants have caller identification systems. Just because a workstation telephone has a “blocked” telephone number doesn’t mean the call won’t be tagged as coming from the publication. Reviewers who have been recognized may want to make note of that in the review, especially if the treatment they receive differs markedly from what nearby tables are receiving. While anonymity is important when dining out, reviewers should write under their real names, not a pseudonym. Readers should also be able to respond to the reviews; a work telephone number or e-mail for the reviewer or the supervisory editor should be included with the review.
Two visits to a restaurant are recommended. Three times are better. Service, food quality and atmosphere can vary, sometimes quite dramatically, from day-to-day. Multiple visits give the critic a better understanding of the restaurant, helping him or her to more accurately gauge its rhythm and spirit. Try scheduling visits so the restaurant is observed on a weeknight and a weekend. Lunch on a Monday can be vastly different from a Saturday night dinner, for example.
Reviewers should sample the full range of the menu, from appetizers to desserts. Reviewers must taste everything ordered, or at least all the items they mention in a column. Bringing guests along helps the critic by allowing the table to order a greater variety of dishes. Two or three guests per visit are probably the most manageable. Besides being fun, having guests along better replicates the dining out experience. Order dishes that involve different cooking techniques (steamed, deep-fried, sautéed); different ingredients (one orders fish, another asks for beef); different styles (something traditional, something eclectic). Is there something the restaurant is known for doing well? Order it.
In general, guests should avoid ordering the same thing. Order different dishes on return visits. It’s a good idea, however, to do a repeat order on a dish that is particularly wonderful or terrible to see if the experience is consistent.
Pay in full for all meals and services. Don’t accept free meals or use gift certificates donated by the restaurant or a special-interest group. Publications should strive to budget enough money for restaurant visits so the reviewer can do the job without having to resort to personal funds to help pay the bill.
Reviews should reflect the full range of a region’s restaurants, from neighborhood haunts to luxury venues. Offer readers dining choices in a variety of price ranges, cuisine, neighborhood and style.
To be fair to new restaurants, reviewers should wait at least one month after the restaurant starts serving before visiting. These few weeks give the fledgling enterprise some time to get organized. If, however, a restaurant must be visited because of timeliness, enormous reader interest or journalistic competitiveness, consider offering readers “first impressions.” This piece should be more descriptive than critical, avoid labeling it as a review if possible. The emphasis of such a sneak preview could be on the fledgling restaurant’s clientele, its decor and maybe the chef’s background rather than a blow-by-blow account of the menu (though food would, of course, be mentioned.)
Ratings should reflect a reviewer’s reaction to menu, atmosphere and service. Cost should also be taken into consideration. Have a sense of what a star or other rating symbol mean. Here are some definitions to consider:
• FOUR STARS: (Extraordinary) Transcendent. A one-of-a-kind, world-class experience.
• THREE STARS: (Excellent) Superior. Memorable, high-quality menus frequently accompanied by exciting environs and/or savvy service.
• TWO STARS: (Good) Solid places that beckon with generally appealing cooking.
• ONE STAR: (Fair) Just OK. A place not worth rushing back to. But, it might have something worth recommending: A view, a single dish, friendly service, lively scene.
• NO STAR: (Poor) Below-average restaurants.
Although most readers have a sense of what the stars mean, every review should run with a box explaining the ratings.
Some restaurants get better, some restaurants get worse. A critic should have some sort of mechanism in place to make note of these changes. A full-blown re-review is appropriate if the restaurant changes hands, wins or loses a high-profile chef or moves to a new location.
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. Following a consistent reviewing policy without deviation may protect a critic from charges of bias or favoritism, while providing a platform from which to defend the review.
Follow basic journalistic precepts for accuracy. After finishing the review, telephone the restaurant and double-check the spelling of the name. Confirm address, telephone number, credit card policy and what types of alcohol are served.
Wearing two hats
Restaurant reviewers who double as food editors should try to keep the two roles as separate as possible. Food editors who are reviewers should avoid writing stories about restaurants, restaurant owners or chefs. It may be hard for a restaurant owner or chef to speak as freely as he or she should if he or she harbors some resentment because of a review. Conversely, owners and/or chefs may try to be extra nice in order to win a favorable review in the future. If possible, utilize another employee or freelancer to do those stories. If personnel or budget constraints preclude another staff member tackling these stories, try to obtain the information over the telephone rather than in a face-to-face interview. Also, try to steer clear of interviewing the staff of restaurants that have been recently reviewed or are on the immediate reviewing schedule. Critics should avoid functions that restaurateurs and chefs are likely to attend, such as grand openings, restaurant anniversary dinners, wine tastings or new product introductions.
Many restaurant critics do the job on something less than a full-time basis. While a number hold other jobs with their employers, there are critics whose only link to a publication is the restaurant review.
Here are some questions freelancers should consider before accepting an assignment.
• What is the policy on negative reviews? Does the publication expect only “puff” pieces?
• Will the publication support the critic if a restaurant dislikes the review? What if the restaurateur threatens a lawsuit? Will the publication give out the critic’s home telephone number and leave him or her to fend for themselves? Or, will the publication field calls and defend the reviewer?
• Does the reviewer get to write under his or her own name or a pseudonym?
• How many times is the critic expected to visit a restaurant before writing a review?
• Who selects the restaurants?
• Does the publication have a policy about reviewing restaurants that are also advertisers?
• Are any restaurants considered off-limits, i.e. chain restaurants?
• Does the publication have specific guidelines (food quality, service, attitude, price) that must be followed in evaluating the restaurant?
• Is there a policy on how many people a reviewer can take along to a dinner? Do guests need to pay for their own meals?
• Does the publication pick up the tab? Is there a cap on how much a reviewer can spend on the meal? Will the publication pay for alcohol? Does the reviewer have to use a personal credit card or pay cash?
• Will the critic be paid a salary plus meal reimbursement or just meal reimbursement?
• Will the reviewer receive mileage?
• How long must a reviewer wait before getting paid? Will the publication pay for credit card late fees or interest charges if the reimbursement is not timely?