Restaurant reviews, food blogging and going viral

The Telegraph

FooDiva’s review of Giannino goes viral starting with The Telegraph on October 27, 2012 – the most viewed article online for two consecutive days

I eat out more often than I eat in. I sometimes make a restaurant reservation under my dining companion’s name. If there’s window seating and it’s daylight, am grabbing that table. Once I’ve ordered, if the menu isn’t online I nab it, or if too bulky for my clutch bag, I photograph it. I let my guest select dishes first and then choose my own, but only after having grilled the waiter with far too many questions. Thank goodness am now rid of my Nikon and I can instagram the restaurant’s interior and every dish we order. That’s not an issue for cold food, but it tests the patience of even my kindest friends, when the dishes should be eaten warm. Be prepared to share when dining with me as my fork digs into your every dish. Conversation is stilted as I make mental notes of the taste, texture and flavours. It’s just not much fun dining with me.

FooDiva review of Giannino DubaiReviewing restaurants is not nearly as glam as it appears to be. My recent review of Giannino restaurant in Dubai that went viral making international headlines brought to the fore some riveting and constructive commentary on food blogging, in particular restaurant reviewing underlining the growing significance of this subject. So with today’s post, I am addressing some of the topics you raised, in the hope that my attempt at answers or at least the odd one will resonate with you. So here goes, grab yourself a cuppa or perhaps a tipple of something stronger and read on.

Why and how do I review restaurants?

I review my dining experience in an honest, professional, constructive and balanced manner based on five parameters – food (from presentation to taste), location, interior, atmosphere and value for money – to help you, my readers, make an informed decision. I do pay my own way, review incognito (or as much as I can in this town) and refuse freebies in exchange for reviews. Whilst I appreciate chefs spend hours perfecting a dish, so do I with a review – on average a blog post takes a full working day to research and write, and that’s without the time spent eating out.

I can of course only speak for myself – each and every food blogger, and there’s over 120 in the UAE alone, has its own unique voice, niche and editorial policy. That’s the beauty of blogging over traditional online publishing.

Food is subjective so it’s clearly an opinion that is neither right nor wrong – but if backed up with a good rationale makes for an informed one. Despite a never-ending debate of whether prosecco should be served in a flute, coupe or wine glass, surely a reviewer or diner who is paying full whack has every right to request their personal preference? As one of my favourite UK restaurant critics Jay Rayner of The Observer wrote in his book My Dining Hell, “There are much worse jobs than writing for a living, just as there are much worse jobs than cooking for a living. If we’re charging good money for a product that is, essentially, an expression of our ego, the customer has the right to say what they think of it if they find fault.”

I do cook at home on the occasions I don’t eat out, but one thing’s for sure I am no chef and don’t have a culinary doctorate. Having worked in the hospitality industry for over a decade, and also grown up in it, living and breathing hotels and restaurants around the world, I have developed a good sense and palate for what makes or breaks a dining experience. I have always searched out a good restaurant to the point that life for me would become seriously boring without dining out. Aside from FooDiva which I launched early last year, I am Editor-at-Large for Gourmet magazine contributing regular food features and a monthly column. I have also started writing culinary travel articles for The National, as well as judging F&B industry awards. My other ‘hat’ and one I have worn for the last 18 years is as a communications consultant, writer and trainer.

But credentials aside, let’s put this into perspective, we’re talking about food here, not saving lives. Eating, cooking, dining – we all do it – and we certainly all have an opinion on it. In a similar vein, who are movie critics? Are they producers and actors? I don’t think so. And for sure I don’t expect a chef to know how to write or even to spell.

At what point do I review a new restaurant?

I like to give new restaurants one month to settle in before visiting for a review – unless a restaurant chooses to publicly announce soon after opening in which case I may review slightly earlier. You wouldn’t judge someone on their first day at work would you? So it’s only fair to give a restaurant time to settle in. At the same time though, restaurants need to appreciate that if they are charging full price, paying customers have every right to share their opinion. I dined at Giannino just over five weeks into opening, only realising the restaurant was still in so-called ‘soft opening’ when I requested the wine list. Informing customers on reservation that the menu and other aspects of the dining experience are restricted would help manage expectations.

Should chefs deal with restaurant reviews and if so, how?

As I expressed earlier, I like to think my reviews are professional, constructive and balanced. FooDiva is here to support the growth of the F&B industry not to destroy it – I have no intention of emulating A. A. Gill. I always encourage and appreciate constructive feedback whether that’s from a reader looking to dine out, an industry professional or the restaurant itself. It’s perfectly fine to disagree, but it’s not fine to be disagreeable. Most of the chefs I know are ready to accept feedback in the same spirit that it is given so they can create a better dining experience, whilst driving revenue for their restaurants.

In a country where most mainstream media lacks freedom of press, blogs represent an honest voice amassing tremendous, engaging followings and hence can become rather influential. With the proliferation of blogs and social media, chefs have to deal with opinions and reviews like these on a daily if not hourly basis – it’s part and parcel of their job. Even Gordon Ramsay who is notorious for his bad temper has publicly said “If you as a chef think you know more about food than your customer it is time to f….off out of the kitchen!” Pardon his language.

In the midst of Giannino-gate, a columnist for the UK’s Telegraph newspaper wrote, “If the childminder is the most undervalued professional, a chef is the most overrated. Not a day goes by without a celebrity cook unleashing venom against the competition, restaurant critics, or, as when Nigella recently ranted against French cooking, an entire national cuisine. The latest lippy cook is Andrea Brambilla, the chef at the three Michelin star Giannino restaurant in Milan. Last week Brambilla launched a poisonous attack on a foodie blogger who dared complain about his restaurant’s new off-shoot in Dubai. I understand that his pride was piqued; but I find such self-importance indigestible. Today’s chefs regard their opinions and judgments as important. I long for the days of Elizabeth David, when cooks were read and not heard.”

I probably wouldn’t go as far as the last statement as I love constructive feedback from chefs, after all how else do we learn?

But what do chefs think? Professional chef, Luke Mackay expressed his opinion in The Guardian when Mario Batali and other top chefs united against a UK food blogger’s recent review of Hibiscus. “Here’s the truth: if you cook nice food you’ll do well, if you don’t you’ll close. If you demand the ‘respect’ of your customers you are a self-important idiot who has positioned the art of cooking up there with fighting in the trenches or treating the sick. It’s not. It’s cooking. I do it, you do it, and my 90-year-old nan does it. It’s just cooking.”

Back here, David Miras, Executive Chef of Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa shares his opinion, “We all learnt that feedback is gold, there are very rare occasions where the feedback is nasty just because of personal agendas but those are easy to spot, and ignore. It is also very easy to spot the true and constructive feedback, often you already know that the subject of the feedback was going to come up sooner or later. Feedback in my case is a motivator. I either make things as perfect as I believe it can be so that I face no risk of negative feedback or for the few times that we receive negative feedback on items that we know aren’t great we take a team effort into making things right. One of the keys to good feedback is to actually repair the damage before the guests have left. We all make mistakes but speed and rightful resolutions are better than delayed apologetic emails.”

Can a negative review impact a restaurant’s business?

Note here, the irony of the Giannino review is that my experience was complementary to the food, with the high prices and service the main issues. The post went viral because of the chef of the sister restaurant in Milan’s plagiarised quote from Arrigo Cipriani in the 1980’s using rather colourful language.

The new online world we live in where anyone can be a citizen journalist helps create more awareness of dining options. Whether a blog post or a tweet is negative or positive, it all helps drive interest and create intrigue. After all even bad news, sells. Unless a restaurant has a series of negative reviews in credible, high readership media titles, websites and blogs (where the reviews are paid for), I think it’s unlikely to affect their business. At the same time, if the reviews and opinions are constructive, then it forms fantastic feedback for the restaurant to help improve the dining experience. If the restaurant takes the time and trouble to respond to all comments (regardless of whether they are positive, neutral or negative), they will usually find that they create credibility in the eyes of the diners and, more importantly, potential diners. In effect, why should a restaurant pay a mystery shopper and F&B consultant when it can get feedback for free?

But let’s take a peek at what a couple of Dubai restaurateurs think…

Ajaz Sheikh, Director of Zuma Middle East that was voted no 83 in the World’s Best Restaurant Awards this year noted, “The importance of food reviews on a venue’s success – especially during the all important launch phase is key. In most cities, critics and reviewers can certainly have an impact on the initial momentum of a launch. However most readers of such reviews are also savvy people and usually tend to make their own judgments. To be honest, the role is similar to that of a film critic; you will listen to what they have to say, and then you decide if you still want to see the movie or not. Whilst perhaps we can’t say that our own reviews have a direct impact on Zuma bookings, it is safe to say that our relationship with food writers and the media in general – print or online, has helped us maintain our credibility and status four years after opening.” 

Meanwhile, Ross Butler, Managing Partner of Gaucho Dubai said,“The internet has become a much more important factor in whether a business succeeds, and to what extent over the last five to ten years. This is evidenced by the huge increase in the percentage of reservations that are made online. Social networking sites and online review forums have become increasingly important as they have replaced traditional word of mouth recommendations. Any comments, positive or negative now have a greater impact than was previously the case, for instance, a negative comment can remain in the public sphere for years and can lower the profile of the restaurant concerned. A negative review can then amplify the power of an online comment. I am a strong advocate of this process as I think it makes choosing a restaurant a more transparent process and provides valuable feedback to the business.”

Anyhow over to you FooDiva Friends, what do you think? Would love your thoughts…just remember to be constructive ;). On the subject of feedback, thank you for taking the time to comment on the Giannino post – truly much appreciated.

And before I sign off, I will leave you with a recent New York Times review of Guy Fieri’s restaurant, his response, and for a giggle, a spoof. I wonder how a review of this kind would have gone down in Dubai?!

A bientôt.

FooDiva. x

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28 Responses to “Restaurant reviews, food blogging and going viral”

  1. Geordie Armani December 3, 2012 at 9:50 am

    Foodiva what a great article, your comments as ever are honest and unbiased. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion it is what makes the world go round at the end of the day. I still can’t get over how your initial review of Giannino was a postive one yet it resulted in them being seen negatively. I agree with the comments from Ross Butler about how the internet is changing the world we live in due to freedom of expression. Can a food blogger make or break a restaurant’s reputation? in my humble opinion I would have to say no, it can influence a persons decision to dine but ultimately these restaurants will survive a one line comment from a blogger. (I feel), keep up the good work x

    • FooDiva December 3, 2012 at 3:27 pm

      Thanks GA 🙂 It’s ironic that the review was positive on the food. I think a lot of my tongue-in-cheek language was simply lost in translation on the hot-headed Italian chef – or perhaps he just wanted to take a page out of Cipriani’s notebook?! One review is not going to harm a restaurant’s reputation, unless perhaps it goes viral, and even then the restaurant can still benefit 😉 x

  2. Devina Divecha (FooDee) December 3, 2012 at 11:17 am

    An insightful post. I agree – dining with me as well means some dishes may not be as hot as when they arrived on the table!

    On reviewing restaurants: Yes, yes, YES it takes a lot of time to actually write a review. I sometimes get annoyed when people ask why my review isn’t up yet. Well, I have a full-time job so for me to update my food blog means I need time, and depending on my work schedule…I may not have it! Many food bloggers don’t just spit out photos and text…we think, judge and analyse. It’s not easy. We want to provide accurate information to our readers, so yes, I agree on the time-consuming angle.

    On negative reviews: Oh definitely not, negative reviews don’t impact a restaurant’s business. Yes, some people may say, okay don’t think we’ll go to XYZ place because the review doesn’t seem nice, but sometimes people say, It can’t be THAT bad, let’s check it out for ourselves! And restaurants will have a fan following – look at Benihana. No matter what happened, the restaurant is still frequented by people. And as you say, food is subjective, so what may not work for me, may be something you absolutely love! But reviews can be dicey for us, especially if a restaurant decides to sue. Fair comment, anyone?

    Yes, blogs are aplenty and sometimes I like to look at blog reviews of restaurants to complement magazine reviews because I want to see what the average person out there is saying, unaffected by advertising and such. But while we use a powerful medium to put forward our views, it would be dangerous of us to assume a self-important title like some people do (as you would know from personal experience with the chef who responded to you) and think we can change people’s opinions to the point of ruining an establishment. Not unless a million voices said the same. We’re just one fish in the pond and we speak out because we can. And why shouldn’t we? We are providing feedback, much better than the comment cards at restaurants can provide.

    (Sorry for the long comment!)

    • FooDiva December 3, 2012 at 3:40 pm

      Long and thoughtful comments are good – thank you FooDee 🙂 Glad you brought up the Kuwaiti blogger’s review of Benihana – classic example of a restaurant that may have suffered slightly from a boycott at the time, but as far as am aware has seen no long-standing damage to its business. Quite right though, we do have to be careful when writing reviews here, but as long as we are constructive which reviews should be anyway, then that’s fair play. I think the issue some restaurateurs would have is that feedback from online reviews is out in the public for all to see, whilst comment cards, mystery shoppers and the like are all private and easier to hide behind. Let’s hope not. x

  3. Amy | Appetite for Discovery December 3, 2012 at 12:31 pm

    Fantastic post! I’ll keep it short and sweet to make up for my essay of a comment on the original review! x

    • FooDiva December 3, 2012 at 3:41 pm

      Thanks Amy – feel free to post essays any time. Mine certainly goes down as one of my longest posts ever!

  4. Marta´s Kitchen December 3, 2012 at 2:09 pm

    loved the post! as a chef myself i actually appreciate honest reviews…if they are shared in a cosntructive polite way, why not? It actually helps us improve.

    We need to remember we are humans, and make mistakes, and there is no reason to feel ashamed about it as long as you are willing to recognize it and improve!

    • FooDiva December 3, 2012 at 3:43 pm

      Thanks Marta. Well said, glad as a chef you agree. It’s the way that the feedback is delivered that makes a difference. x

  5. Drina C | Eaternal Zest December 3, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    Well said foodiva; Food bloggers dont just get on to a computer and whisp up a thought out of thin air and come up with an 8 page post- complete with pictures; it requires time and lots of it. Most bloggers I know dont go about slandering people or their business’s; at the end of the day it is an opinion. It may or may not effect peoples decision but in the least it gives you rough idea of what to expect; if it turns out better than the review, all well and good, but if its not… well atleast there was a fair warning.
    Reviews benefit restaurants as well; often times the message isnt always passed to the chef, marketing and PR; it gets lost between the servers and the sous chefs somewhere… a review helps restaurants look at themselves from the outside; what people expect, what they enjoy and what they can better themselves in. Reviews are an essential part that helps maintain a balance between service and expectations. It also helps the non-kitchen staff get involved and get an idea as to how a restaurant is doing from the inside out.

    cheers
    DC

    • FooDiva December 3, 2012 at 3:51 pm

      Thanks Drina. Valid point – dining issues and complaints are not always passed onto the right staff or the ones that can really influence change. Online reviews make for a more transparent process. It’s the restaurants that recognise the value of honest reviews (good and bad) that will outdo the competition. x

  6. Kelly December 3, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    This is a very interesting post. I fully agree with all above comments…Personally I did not think that it takes so much time to write a review…plus of course one thing not mentioned are the costs of expensive meals.I guess there is also a lot of research into it sometimes. Good luck and we expect a lot more surprises from Foodiva!

    • FooDiva December 3, 2012 at 6:56 pm

      Thanks Kelly. How could I forget the cost?! x

  7. IshitaUnblogged December 3, 2012 at 5:36 pm

    Fantastic post FooDiva:) So many relevant points have been touched. And it’s true that though you might be influencing one or two diners with your comments, in today’s world everybody is matured enough and independent enough to give a restaurant, a new product atleast one ‘try’. As a passionate food blogger, I understand the amount of effort, time and ’emotional’ energy that is spent doing up a post. It’s not worth the storm that has incurred in your case. Though now one would tend to be extra-cautious I would guess.

    Keep up your humour, and your unique style. Always look forward to reading your posts… hail, storm or snow! Milano or no Milano!

    • FooDiva December 3, 2012 at 8:15 pm

      Thanks Ishita much appreciated 🙂 The bizarre fact is that my review was complementary to the food, with the high prices and service the overriding issues. I’ve certainly written reviews that are really negative and in some cases the restaurants have embraced the feedback, in others it’s just been ignored. I can’t really be extra cautious but will just continue in my usual constructive vein! x

      • IshitaUnblogged December 3, 2012 at 8:41 pm

        Agreed. By being ‘Extra cautious’ I didn’t mean to go extra soft! In general, it’s a lesson learnt the hard way how things can take a wild turn. You are going great, you have your own style, readers who love your style. Please you be yourself!

  8. Duncan December 5, 2012 at 12:20 pm

    Hi there, and congratulations on winning the gold award at expatsblog.com! That’s a great achievement, particularly as you gained over 300 votes. Well done!
    Duncan In Kuantan

    • FooDiva December 5, 2012 at 6:16 pm

      Many thanks Duncan, really chuffed – am amongst great company 🙂

  9. Nel December 5, 2012 at 1:18 pm

    Well done Foodiva. Unbelievable the amount of votes you got; you deserve it…and to more achievements!!

    • FooDiva December 5, 2012 at 6:16 pm

      Thank you! x

  10. Chrystallo December 5, 2012 at 2:37 pm

    I read this post a couple of days ago, but it was late… Wanted to say that, much as I love the food-centric posts, this is probably my favourite post so far, thank you FooDiva.
    I also spotted Pete Wells review of Guy Fieri’s place when it came out (and went a bit viral) – I thought it was genius!
    As for it not being fun for others when dining with you… You say you photograph food, dig into other people’s plates and analyze each mouthful of your meal. I say, is there any other way to dine? 🙂

    • FooDiva December 5, 2012 at 6:19 pm

      So glad it resonated with you Chrystallo as I really battled whether to write and publish it, as it’s not a food review. But blogging should reflect our emotions so here they are – warts and all! Ha ha – you’ll have to join me for a review sometime soon 🙂 x

  11. Simon Food Favourites December 6, 2012 at 3:25 am

    A long but well-researched, enjoyable and interesting read 🙂

    • FooDiva December 6, 2012 at 2:06 pm

      I did struggle with the length and what you see is an edited version Simon! Glad you enjoyed. Thanks for dropping by. x

  12. Johan Z December 6, 2012 at 11:39 am

    You make a very good point when you write that one should never judge a person based on their performance on their first day in a new job – very sensible to wait a month or so, before visiting to do a review, in order to give a new restaurant time ‘to bed in’ and iron out all those small points that arise despite intensive planning.
    Another point that restaurants and chefs should heed is that if they react positively to all comments they will demonstrate that they care about their customers and this can only be good for business – it will also help them turn a ‘negative’ in to a ‘positive’.
    Congratulations on being voted the Best Expat Blog in the UAE – you certainly deserve it.

    • FooDiva December 6, 2012 at 2:10 pm

      Glad we agree 🙂 Thanks for the vote of confidence Johan. x

  13. ginger and scotch December 17, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    A thoughtful post showing the transparency of your reviews. Well done!

    • FooDiva December 17, 2012 at 7:25 pm

      Much thanks Ginger 🙂

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