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.
Restaurant criticism is not an objective pursuit, yet readers expect a measure of objectivity from critics. The goals of a critic should be:
- To be fair
- To be honest
- To understand and illuminate the cuisine about which he or she is writing.
- To look beyond specific dishes and experiences to capture the whole of a restaurant and its intentions
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.
Wearing Two Hats
The Association of Food Journalists recognizes that many critics are also tasked with reporting on restaurants. Critics should discuss with their editors which role is most important, since a critic's position precludes him or her from participating in the food community as a reporter might. 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. Critics should also avoid in-person meetings with publicists.
If a critic writes about restaurants, restaurant owners or chefs, he or she should strive to conduct interviews by phone. Also, try to steer clear of interviewing the staff of restaurants that have been recently reviewed or are on the immediate reviewing schedule.
Reviews should be conducted as anonymously as possible. The goal of restaurant criticism is to experience the restaurant just as ordinary patrons do. However, true anonymity is often no longer possible. In that case, critics should engage in the practice of anonymity. Ideally, that means keeping all photos and social-media profiles photo-free and restricting public appearances.
Even when total anonymity is impossible, restaurant critics should make every attempt to arrive at restaurants unannounced and maintain as low a profile as possible during their visits. 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.
Installing caller ID blocking on one's phone, maintaining a separate email account for communication with the restaurant, and maintaining one or more identities on resaturant-reservation sites is recommended.
Within the constraints of time and budget, critics should visit a restaurant as many times as is needed to properly assess a restaurant. Two or more visits to a restaurant are ideal for the purposes of full-length reviews. 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.
When only one visit is possible, it is best to attempt to have the most typical experience diners will be seeking out at a restaurant. Do not visit at lunch to write about a restaurant specializing in dinner; if the restaurant's specialty is a tasting menu, it would be best to order that instead of à la carte if it is financially possible. If writing a full-length review on the basis of a single visit, acknowledge the situation in the review.
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, but guests should be properly prepped in advance on review meal protocol.
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. If the critic returns for a second visit, it may be worth again ordering a dish that was 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.
If a restaurant critic is recognized, or accompanied by a person known to the kitchen, and the restaurant sends over free food, request that the cost of the items be added to the check. If such an incident occurs, it should be acknowledged in the review.
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. If your publication has eligibility policies prohibiting the review of chain restaurants or advertisers, for example, they should be shared with readers.
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, and helps distinguish the professional critic's opinion from online chatter.
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.)
In recognition of the diverse and changing opinions on waiting periods, it's ideal to acknowledge in your review when you visited the restaurant. Did you go on the first day? Did you wait three months? Say so.
Some publications issue starred ratings along with the reviews, while others let the writing stand for itself. AFJ does not take a position on the validity of ratings. Should you use ratings, here are some suggestions for how to think about imposing them:
Ratings should reflect a reviewer's reaction to menu, atmosphere, service and value, and should be determined with regard to what the restaurant is trying to accomplish: An Indian restaurant shouldn't be downgraded because it doesn't serve filet mignon, for example. A star system should not serve as a hierarchy of elegance.
Have a sense of what a star or other rating symbol mean. Although you should develop a rating system appropriate for your readership, here are some definitions to consider:
- FOUR STARS: (Extraordinary) Transcendent. A one-of-a-kind experience that sets the local standard.
- THREE STARS: (Excellent) Superior. Memorable, high-quality food; exciting environs; savvy service; smart concept.
- TWO STARS: (Good) Solid example of restaurant type.
- 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. Confirm spelling of the restaurant and chef's names; address; telephone number; hours and any other information accompanying the review. If possible, check the review against an online or printed menu.