My time as a food critic in the New Jersey/New York area has led me to see some seriously wild stuff behind the scenes of the restaurant industry. I’ve dealt with racist restaurateurs, shouting chefs, as well as foods that probably should never have hit a plate.
Through my years, I’ve learned that restaurants aren’t always honest with critics. In fact, they can be downright shady when it comes to the ways they try to gain favor with the foodie community. These methods below are ones I’ve personally witnessed as a critic. If nothing else, I hope this tell-all makes you think twice about those glowing reviews.
I would like to say that bribery is rare in the critiquing industry, but it really isn’t. Restaurants have been known to buy positive revies way before the days of Yelp. Sometimes, they even pay magazines to run glowing reviews, just so they can boost their reputation.
It’s scary how many upscale restaurants are guilty of this, and how many magazines allow it. For example, New York City restaurant Nello made headlines in the past after it was revealed that owners paid $1,400 for a good review by a major food critic.
I’d like to say this is a one-off, but it’s not. I’ve been offered $600 from a chef in exchange for a good review. (I denied it, if you’re wondering.)
The Old Switcharoo
One time, I had a restaurant that I was scheduled to review. It was a barbecue joint that promised world class meats and the best brisket on the Hudson. When I went in, I was thrilled with the food. You could actually see the smoke rings on the brisket, and every cut of meat was clearly prime.
After I had one of the best meals of my life, I immediately decided to go back. That was when reality hit. I went without announcement with my family. My dad was a Texan, and he knew his meat. When we got out food, it looked nothing like what I ate the month before.
The meat had no smoke rings, the cuts were cheap, and it was clear that I was not served what everyone else was eating at my review. I was heartbroken. Sadly, I’ve recognized that this was really not uncommon later on.
Another time I went out, the venue got wind that I was a critic. So, they offered me a free drink. And another. And another. And another. After drink number four or so, I tried to decline, only to find myself to be pressured to drink more. Suddenly, every drink was a “house drink everyone has to try.”
I don’t know how, but I ended up getting notes to do the review despite having over a dozen drinks in me. I had to be wheeled into my car, where a designated driver took me home. When I woke up the next day, I realized what the restaurant did. They were making me black out so I couldn’t actually remember what I ate, or notice what happened!
The Importance of Going Incognito
After seeing how far restaurants would go to get a good review, I stopped letting people know when I’d critique their venue. The end result? I got more honest reviews and was able to avoid dirty tactics. Thankfully, it’s been a while since people have tried to pull dirty tricks with me. I, for one, am glad about it.