The new Dirt Candy just opened and every night everything is up in the air — the menu is changing, how we work is changing, service is changing — but in all that chaos there's one thing I know for sure: I'm going to get reviewed. And it's going to be too soon.
These days, I feel like restaurants are getting reviewed almost as soon as their doors open. I wonder if that does everyone a disservice, but maybe I'm overly sensitive about it since I'm on the chef side of that equation. Since I'm kind of sick of hearing my own voice, I got in touch with a bunch of chefs and journalists to ask them if reviews are coming too early. Am I crazy? Are they crazy? Are we all crazy?
"I might be crazy," Richard Kuo, the chef of New York City's Pearl & Ash, agrees. "But it feels like there was a time when restaurants were given a few solid months to iron out all the kinks before being reviewed."
Am I crazy? Are they crazy? Are we all crazy?
It turns out that he's not crazy. "Ten years ago, the classic gap between when a restaurant opened and when it received a formal, full-length review was approximately six months," says Robert Sietsema, previously the food critic for the Village Voice and now Eater's senior critic. "Nowadays, that amount of time has shrunk to two months — or less, even among major print media."
Jonathan Wu, the chef/partner at Fung Tu in New York City, nails down his reviewing timeline with spooky precision. "I was part of the opening team at Geisha," he says. "We opened in October of 2003 and were reviewed by Amanda Hesser in April 2004 for the New York Times. That's nearly six months to work out the kinks. Fung Tu opened in late November 2013. Sietsema wrote a review for Eater in January 2014, about a month after we opened. Time Out New York filed a review January 21st. The New Yorker piece came out February 3rd. The Village Voice filed a review on March 5th. Adam Platt's review [in New York magazine] came out on March 23rd. Ligaya Mishan wrote her piece [for the New York Times] on March 20th. All this went down within about four months of opening."
The restaurant that opens on day one isn't the restaurant that exists six months, or even six weeks, later.
The problem with early reviews is that the restaurant that opens on day one isn't the restaurant that exists six months, or even six weeks, later. As chef Jenn Louis of Lincoln and Sunshine Tavern in Portland says, "I own three food businesses, and I know that it takes time to develop systems. You can't always do that before opening." Chef Sonja Finn of Dinette in Pittsburgh adds, "A restaurant's food should be 100 percent on day one. Service, on the other hand, is unlikely to be 100 percent. There are too many variables that are hard to master in one or two soft opening evenings."
But just because you're changing, that doesn't mean the first people through the door get bad food. In some cases, they might even get better food. It may not be until you're up and running that you realize the dish everyone loves is taking up half your prep time, and so for the sake of the rest of the menu, it has to go. I've already cut one appetizer and one entree from my menu because I was offering too many choices and customers were getting decision paralysis. Before the first six weeks are up, I may remove more.
"Scientifically speaking, reviews are more accurate if more time has passed," Sietsema says. "Yet who can deny the excitement of visiting a restaurant in its opening weeks? It's like flying a stunt plane at low altitude, with all the attendant dangers, both for the diner and for the chef. Everything is new and feels fresh, the rituals of service and diner-restaurant interaction have not been finalized. You're taking a bigger chance, but it gives you something exciting to talk about around the water cooler the next day."
He makes a good point. The minute a restaurant opens, people want to talk about it. That's good for chefs, but it also makes reviews a tricky balancing act, and everyone approaches it differently. Chris Nuttall-Smith, the dining critic at Canada's Globe and Mail, says that when he was food editor at Toronto Life there was a two-week grace period before a restaurant could be visited for the first time leading up to a review. When he arrived at the Globe, the grace period was three weeks, which he still thought was too short. These days he waits six weeks before visiting a restaurant for the first time, which he's far more comfortable with. The New York Times usually files on a restaurant within two to three months of opening and seems to give restaurants a six-week grace period before visiting for the first time.
"The longer a reviewer waits, the more the audience for that review diminishes." — Sietsema
Rebecca Flint-Marx, senior editor for San Francisco magazine, says, "Our critic waits at least a month after a restaurant opens to make his first visit, which I think is fair." But she notes, "it gets tricky when you're writing for a monthly publication because you know you'll be the last out of the gate no matter what." Sietsema often files a First Glimpse piece, but then waits two months (and makes several more visits) before filing his review. But, he notes, "there's also a sense that the longer a reviewer waits, the more the audience for that review diminishes, since umpteen critiques of various sorts have appeared already." Fint-Marx qualifies that, however: "If a restaurant is doing something interesting and continues to evolve, people will always want to read about it."
The original Dirt Candy opened in October 2008, but critics generally ignored me for the first two years, and in retrospect that was a good thing. After the first six months, I revamped my entire menu, organizing every dish around its central vegetable, and changed the way my food was presented, without actually changing the dishes themselves. It had a huge impact on my customers, but even more than that, it had a huge impact on me. It was the moment I finally wrapped my head around what I was doing. The Dirt Candy that existed for the first six months was not the one that existed for the following five-and-a-half years, and if I'd been reviewed too early, I'm not sure I would have ever figured out what I was doing. At the same time, it's crazy to expect reviewers to hold off forever. So what's the answer?
Jonathan Wu is on board. "I would like to see re-reviewing happening," he says. "Especially because of how early the initial reviews happen. I think Fung Tu hit its stride close to a year after opening." Richard Kuo is also pro re-reviews: "It keeps everyone on their toes. Back home in Sydney, all the restaurants are reviewed every year. Unfortunately the logistics don't translate as well here in New York. Re-reviewing also allows restaurants an opportunity to correct their mistakes and redeem themselves, sort of like a reformed criminal."
"Re-reviewing also allows restaurants an opportunity to correct their mistakes and redeem themselves, sort of like a reformed criminal." — Kuo
Nuttall-Smith says re-reviews should be part of the job. He points out the highest-profile restaurants in every city are where a lot of people spend a lot of money, so those establishments should be regularly re-reviewed — or at least whenever it shakes things up, like with a new chef or a brand-new menu. It's sort of what's been going on with Tavern on the Green as it re-opens and changes chefs: But maybe it's something that should happen on a more on-going basis for more restaurants.
However, we should probably be careful what we wish for. Anita Lo's Annisa in the West Village got three stars from the New York Times when she was re-reviewed, but the Times took one star away from Daniel Boulud's Daniel in a re-review. And if you're a chef, the toll is physical. Dinette was re-reviewed this past summer. "I dreaded it," Sonja Finn says. "Re-reviews are good in the long run, but the anxiety you suffer awaiting a review is so great I don't know how many times a person's body can actually handle it. So maybe only one re-review if that's okay, please."
As for Dirt Candy, I don't know how I feel. I started working on this post before I opened the new restaurant, and I'm finishing it up about six weeks in. When Finn first told me about how tricky it was to get service right, in my mind I gave her a pat on the head and sent her on her way. No matter what the flaws of the original Dirt Candy, service wasn't one of them. Now? I'm seeing things more her way.
At the original Dirt Candy I had one server on the floor, two of us in the kitchen, and one dishwasher. Delivering a consistent experience to each and every diner was something we'd perfected. You could set your clock to when menus, appetizers, entrees, and desserts hit tables. The temperature of my food was always the same. A dish would hit the pass and I could close my eyes and count the number of seconds before it was at a table. My dining room was an extension of myself. Now I have three servers, one runner, a busser, a hostess, a bartender, and four people in the kitchen and I'm discovering that getting it consistent for every single diner is so complex it makes my brain bleed. I want the choreography of the dining room and kitchen to be perfect, but that's not going to happen at six weeks. Or six months. And maybe not even at six years.
No one is as critical of Dirt Candy as I am, not the angriest critic or the most entitled Yelp reviewer. Five years from now, I'm still going to have a list of things as long as my arm that need to be changed. That's what happens when you own a restaurant. It's never finished. You just keep working on it, and making it better, and tweaking it, and fine-tuning it. But at a certain point, you've got to let it go.