Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Review

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Checklist for the Restaurant Review

1)    Do NOT write your review in chronological order. That is, don’t begin with a bland description of the outside of the restaurant or of the hostess taking you to your table. Begin with your most striking idea from the whole review somewhere in the first three sentences. Almost certainly that won’t be the first thing that happens during your visit. That doesn’t mean you can’t begin with a vivid description of the interior – of the cleanliness of the bathroom or the waiter's complexion or the conversation of the couple at the next table, which you will have taken the time to study - if those details support connect with your main point, if it goes somewhere. 

“Support” is an elusive concept, so I struck it through. “Connect” is better. After beginning with a positive statement (with examples), you might include detail on something you didn’t like. The contradiction is the connection. Or after praising the food, you might – without an explicit transition – begin talking about decor, which would be a natural progression as you unpack the whole experience. But I’d like some connective tissue, something at the end of that section like, “But the food is star, not the lime-green wallpaper.” Some writing coaches advise you to stay on course by putting in “scaffolding” – explicit, even heavy-handed transitions, which you remove in the final draft: “I have been writing about the food. Waiters bring food. It is logical for me to talk about the waiter at this point.”

Still, if your lead puts a stake in the ground – that is, makes a strong point – you probably won’t have much trouble playing off that initial point of view in the rest of the review. Here’s an emphatic student lead that I liked from a couple years ago:

At first impression, you might think you’d walked into a glorified soup kitchen, which isn’t half wrong. Tommy’s Joynt doesn’t have any menus or servers, and there’s a sign above a barrel of pickles that reads, “Enjoy the pickles. But please only take what you can eat – when you buy something.” The walls are covered with old beer signs, paintings of horses, and any other kind of memorabilia that has been stuck up since 1947. Yet all these distractions fade when hungry customers lay their eyes on Tommy’s meat.

Tommy’s is a meat market. People line up, look at the wall of meat options, and watch as a guy with a giant knife cuts healthy portions of all types of meat onto a plate. There’s bratwurst, knackwurst, lasagna, spaghetti with meatballs, buffalo stew, and of course the bbq turkey sloppy joe. You feel like you’re in a 1950’s school cafeteria. All meals are served on a tray with options of rice, mashed potatoes, beans, and any other side that can be scooped out of a metal tub.

2) At the end, list the basic consumer info: address, telephone number, hours of operation, reservation policy, price range, credit card policy, dress code (if any), noise level and so on.

3) Give me some sort of grading scale and use it to evaluate the restaurant. From another student, here’s consumer information – with additional information interpolated - plus a rating scale.

Out of 4 (Chili Peppers wearing Sombreros)
El Toreador:
50 West Portal Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94127
Credit Cards: All major
Entrees: $8.75-14.95
Drinks: (Beers and margaritas are about $4.00- a little pricey)
Atmosphere: If you go early (around 4:30 pm for dinner), you can hear your conversation.  After 5:30 pm, forget about it.
Service: Friendly, but a little prompt.  Dishes came faster than I could eat them.

4) Tell me how much your meal costs item by item.

5) In a note at the end, tell me who your audience is even if you think only an idiot couldn’t figure it out.

6) For Wednesday bring a restaurant review to class that you think has something "smart" in it.

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