Basics of Reviewing, Part 2: Restaurants

By Barry Willis

“Recently opened in a repurposed industrial site, Marissa’s Mambo is on the inside track to become this city’s next top eatery. Its warm, low-key décor belies an adventurous menu, a globe-spanning exercise in fusion cuisine. Protégé of legendary culinary artist Nikolai Pancetti, chef Marissa Cabrerra has combined her experience growing up in disparate places throughout the world—her parents were in the diplomatic corps—with a playful sense of unexpected juxtapositions. Her flayed calamari with cumin-and-curry pistachio dusting is a good introduction, and goes especially well with her citrus salad and cornbread fritters. The wine selection is equally pan-global, with vintages varying from surprisingly delicious and affordable to exotic and challenging . . . “

Are you a “foodie”—someone with a passion for kitchens and cuisine? Could your passion sustain you through writing reviews of restaurants? Would writing diminish or enhance your love affair with food? If you’re inclined to answer “enhance,” read on.

Almost everyone is a foodie to some extent, but very few are motivated to the point of wanting to write knowledgeably about it. For those who do, reviewing restaurants can be a great way to develop a breezy, entertaining journalistic style—and a way to explore food and drink they may otherwise have never encountered.

There is always need for insightful coverage of restaurants, and not nearly enough gourmands with journalistic skill to fill that need, but don’t be deceived into thinking that reviewing includes postings on Facebook or Yelp—“Jumping Jill’s onion-and-sweet potato pancakes are 2Die4!” That’s an enthusiastic endorsement, but it’s not a review, and other than adding one more thumbs-up to Jumping Jill’s, doesn’t provide much helpful information for potential visitors.

A useful review includes a sketch of the restaurant’s history, a description of its exterior and interior, some biographical tidbits about the chef, and maybe a couple of comments from the restaurant’s owner/manager about its place in the culinary ecosystem. You also need to mention hours, location, and accessibility. Is it easy to reach by public transit or only by car? Is there plenty of parking? Is the neighborhood safe and well-lit? Is the place crowded and noisy or cozy and quiet? What sort of music gets played? Live or recorded or a combination of the two? Are there TVs with sporting events at the bar? Does the restaurant have a happy hour? If so, does it offer a sample platter or small plates?

Restaurants work toward several simultaneous purposes not shared by other cultural institutions: eating is a necessity, of course, but it’s also the most popular form of entertainment. Gathering around food is perhaps our oldest social institution. So covering culinary arts is a journalistic “evergreen”—a niche that will always need skilled writers—very much the way cookbooks are a publishing evergreen. People who are really into the art of food are always eager to read more about it.

Recommendations: In addition to reading the works of current food writers, potential culinary critics would do well to delve into the history of the field. Decades before Anthony Bourdain conceived his Parts Unknown series, M.F.K. Fisher wrote enormously insightful and entertaining food-centric travelogues. Familiarity with her work (and Bourdain’s) is basic training for aspiring critics. To make a meaningful statement about where we are, we need to know where we’ve been.

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