Everybody’s A Food Critic

Thursday, February 21st, 2008, 3:00 am

After final-tabling The Mookie tonight I checked the headlines over at the Post-Gazette. Thursday the new restaurant reviews come out and when I saw that the joint being examined this week is called Geno’s it naturally got my attention. It’s also located in Lawrenceville, which is where my dad grew up and where some of my relatives still live. Even more reason to check it out, see if the place might be worth a visit.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. They also say that when you sit down to a meal you take your first taste with the eyes. So I wonder what they would say about the photo that accompanies the review. Heck, what do YOU say:

Does this look appetizing to you? It doesn’t to me. Those brown disks are crab cakes, by the way, but that’s not what initially gave me pause. The potato looks like it was boiled. But then that wet mark on the skin got me to thinking that the potato hadn’t been washed…could it possibly have been thrown in the microwave? I imagined the two pats of butter plopped in the crevice melting into a runny, greasy puddle and that didn’t set my mouth to watering.

And the broccoli? It looks RAW. You know me, I loves me some broccoli. But I don’t like raw broccoli. And I prefer broccoli that’s a vibrant shade of dark green, not the mottled camouflage pattern we see above. Why stuff it in a little bowl like that? And getting back to the crab cakes, what’s with that lemon…I hesitate to call it a "wedge". A notch, perhaps? WTF?

Reading the review it would seem Geno’s does have a few things to recommend it. The bar stocks a selection of microbrews–good. During the day the restaurant operates under the name "The Big Belly Deli" and serves "subs, salads, pizza and wings". Hell, I’d like to see a picture of the wings. Geno’s fries and broils up the seafood and the review says that their big platter is "…large enough to feed a small family (our waitress was quite impressed by how much of it one of my guests managed to polish off)". I like the sound of that. I liked the sound of the fried calamari a bit less: it "consisted of whole fried bodies, rather than the more typical rings, and the breading tended to slip off." Yep, feel that wave of nausea just wash over you.

The P-G food critic, China Millman, gave Geno’s one star out of four. Not good, you might say, until you read what the rankings mean and find out that one star means exactly that–Good. In the rankings there’s no space for "Bad" or "Unacceptable" or "Salmonella Farm". Here’s what Millman had to say about the rating system:

[…W]e plan to do something different with our star ratings. We understand that such rankings are serious business — for the restaurants and for their prospective customers.

I am all too aware that often people merely glance through a review and make their dining decisions based solely on the number of stars posted at the bottom. And in the past, the Post-Gazette has relied primarily on a rating system in which a one-star restaurant was not really worth a visit, while a two-star meant it’s more of a miss than a hit.

While this system may appear to be user-friendly to readers, allowing them to save time and money they might have wasted on inferior restaurants, it also severely limits a critic’s — and consequently the public’s — ability to distinguish among different levels of quality.

The new star system will be founded upon the idea that any restaurant that receives a star rating has merit, whether it is good food, good service or pleasant ambience. Food, service, ambience and value will all be taken into account.

If your eyes haven’t already glazed over, let me say that this explanation doesn’t make sense to me. First of all, if it’s true that readers skip the review and just check to see how many stars a place gets, then fiddling with how those stars are awarded isn’t going to change things. If hungry readers aren’t going to read the review they’re not gonna click ANOTHER link to learn about the ratings system and learn that one star is "Good", not "Completely Disgusting".

If the star system "limits a critic’s–and consequently the public’s–ability to distinguish among different levels of quality" then the solution is to get rid of the star system, not subtly change what those stars mean and hope the reader catches on. Of course there’s a reason why chefs kill themselves (literally, in some cases) over Michelin and New York Times stars, and that’s because the status those publications convey can make or break a restaurant. I don’t think the Post-Gazette has that kind of clout, nor do I think PIttsburgh gourmands are so distracted by stars that they won’t actually read the review.

I also don’t understand why this system should be based on "the idea that any restaurant that receives a star rating has merit, whether it is good food, good service or pleasant ambience". What if she reviews a place that features the cuisine, service and ambiance of a pay toilet? In that case, Millman writes, "Occasionally I may visit a restaurant and determine that it necessitates review but cannot be awarded a star. Fully aware of the possible results of such a review, I fervently hope that such occasions will not arise." As a professional eater I can understand why she wouldn’t want to strap on the feed bag in a slophouse, but as a reporter and, especially, a critic, she shouldn’t be hoping, fervently or not. Go to the joint, eat the food, tell us how it is and whether it’s worth our time and money. If the place is awful, and your negative review is going to provide the final nail in the coffin, that’s too bad. So long as you’re being honest and, well, critical, that’s all your readers can ask for. After all, writing reviews of things that really suck is easy, and often lots and lots of fun.

Now I’m hungry. Not for fried calamari, good Lord no. Nor broccoli. But a nice broiled fisherman’s platter, yeah, that’d hit the spot. Maybe I’ll stop by Geno’s on Friday and check out the place for myself.

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6 Responses to “Everybody’s A Food Critic”

  1. Brian Says:

    You’re right about the food – my first thought was someone just pulled it from the microwave – not appetizing in the least.

    As for the reviews — way back in my journalism school days, we ran a negative restaurant review and as a result, were facing down the barrel of a lawsuit. The situation worked itself out in the end, but I’ve noticed more and more over the years that newspapers running restaurant reviews will bend over backwards to avoid giving a scathing or negative review – unless the place is truly awful.

    The star system seems needlessly confusing and counter-intuitive, and I’m curious as to how long it has been around and how long it will remain.

  2. Mookie Says:

    Congrats on the final table finish last night.

  3. cheer_dad Says:

    “My God…it’s full of stars!” Sorry I couldn’t resist. They could add blackholes to help round out the spectrum of “bad” restaurants.

    Regards,

    cheer_dad

  4. Darcy Says:

    That looks like one of the least appetizing meals ever photographed. Raw broccoli and a boiled spud? No stars for you!

  5. Mary Diane Says:

    How about the newest restaurant Sausalido in bloomfield recieved a 0 STAR. The restauant is booked solid on weekends and China must have been served dirt on her recent visit……

  6. Whet the Appetite | Gene Bromberg Says:

    […] of the Post-Gazette’s regular restaurant reviews, and here let me pause a moment. Last year I wrote a post about the P-G’s review of a place called Geno’s, a review I thought made both restaurant and reviewer look bad. The photo that showed a sample dish […]

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