If I Ran the World of Restaurant Reviews (Or, in Which I Express Yet Another Unqualified Opinion on Something No One Really Cares About)

Fun fact about me: I ghostwrite restaurant reviews for a few moderately-known food blogs because a) it’s fun b) I get to eat food for free and c) I love passing judgment.

It’s not a bad set-up: once a month or so, you get an assignment and Visa gift card, you rope a friend into joining you, you split like 12 things on a menu, and you write a quippy article either praising the all-transcendent power of anything fried in duck fat or decimating the bartender because he’s one whipped egg white shy of giving you a conniption. The most frustrating part about this scenario isn’t the fact that I don’t get to take credit for the articles I write (it’s so much fun, I couldn’t care less), but it’s actually that I don’t always agree with the rating criteria of the respective sites publishing the reviews.

Here’s the little known secret about most restaurant review sites: if a restaurant has good lighting (aka it’s Instagrammable), puts brussels sprouts on their menu, serves you a signature cocktail, and has some kind of brand that belongs on a graphic designer's portfolio, they’re going to get a high review no matter what. The thing about this that drives me crazy is that people (aka me) actually care about a LOT more things when they’re choosing a restaurant, such as: Am I going to have to resort to cannibalism while I wait the 7 required hours to dine at this place? Is the waitress going to ignore me and leave me wondering if something about my presence is fundamentally offensive? Am I going to be in a precarious bathroom situation where I’m wondering if it’s safe to sit on the toilet as I clutch my nose in agony while trying to fend off the offensive odor emanating from God only knows where?

These things MATTER and 100% deserve to be factored into every review. In fact, writing food reviews has made me fundamentally distrust every restaurant review site (except for Yelp, bless up, Yelp), because chances are I’m going to be recommended yet another cookie-cutter Asian-fusion place called "Noun & Noun" when really I should be trying the dive with the cheap beer and incredible fried cheese curds served to you by a bartender named Frank who wants to hear all your woes.

I was talking about this problem with a friend this week, and he asked me what kind of criteria I would use to fix this travesty if I were to write my own reviews. I, true to form, went way overboard with this thought experiment, and created a full on methodology. I agree with myself so profoundly on the results (again, true to form), that I am saving it here for the good of humanity and diner-kind. You’re welcome.

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Kate's Definitive Guide to Accurate Restaurant Reviews,
Or: How I Judge Your Dining Establishment

So first, the basics.

Every restaurant is first scored on 8 main criteria (see below) using  a 1-5 scale (1 being so bad I am stuck in limbo trying to decide if I can even bring up the painful memory to talk about it, and 5 being so utterly render-you-speechless-knock-you-off-your-feet incredible that I’m choking back tears while trying to explain how good the meal was to you):

  • THE VIBE: You walk in and you immediately feel...good? Bad? Assaulted? Contributing factors include overall cleanliness, general prettiness, if there is a theme and if I like it, loudness of (and taste in…) music, the parking situation (if I drove), how hard it was to find/get to (if I didn’t drive), location and neighborhood, if there are smokers present or not, etc. etc.
  • STMWPD: AKA, Stuff That Matters We Pretend Don’t. You know what I’m talking about--say what you will, but I know deep down every single last one of you likes if the food is served on some kind of pretty dish that probably was mass produced in China but still reminds you of some nostalgic find from a WW2-era London flea market, or if the cocktail is served with a spherical ice cube in its own specially made highball glass, or if our seat is plush enough to keep our bony butts from aching, or if the menu is handwritten and lights up and whispers its recommendations to us with a sultry Latin drawl, or if we aren't playing that awkward elbow and/or knee bumping game with our date (or worse...neighbor)...these things matter, people. Don’t pretend they don’t.
  • THE BATHROOM: Here’s my theory. If your food isn’t coming and you just can’t take it anymore, visit the bathroom. I promise you it’ll be waiting for you when you get back. This trick never. ever. EVER. fails me. As an impatient person, therefore, I spend a lot of time in restaurant bathrooms. And you know what? There’s nothing better than a clean bathroom with nice (aka doesn’t remind me of a hospital) smelling soap, 2-ply toilet paper, a Dyson airblade hand dryer, and the right amount of lighting so I can reapply my lipstick without feeling assaulted by the zit that may or may not be growing on my forehead. And if there’s a chalkboard wall or complimentary hair spray or a plush bench to wait on if my date is boring? My food already tastes better, I don’t care what you say.
  • THE FOOD: If I have to explain this to you, you shouldn’t be allowed outside. If it looks appetizing, tastes so delicious my eyes roll back in their sockets and I can’t help but moan, you’re not skimping me with your portion sizes, you give me a good selection, and you don’t try to do anything contrived or pretentious with your sauces/brussels sprouts/chicory--we’re in business, my friends.
  • THE DRINKS: If I’m at brunch, there’d BEST be mimosas. And they’d BEST be bottomless. If I’m at dinner, you’d BEST give me a good wine selection (Cotes du Rhone, I’m looking at you) and someone should tell me if my red pairs well with the fish I’m ordering (I’m kidding) (but also not really) (spoiler alert I kind of hate (most) white wine). If we’re talking cocktails, you’d BEST give me gin with my tonic when I order my gin and tonic. And you’d BEST not serve it to me via judgey, judgey bartender with a handlebar mustache who has whipped one too many egg whites for me to take him and his disdainful eyes seriously (if said bartender is selling me Pimms and Aperol and Pisco, however, we can cover a multitude of wrongs). Ya dig?
  • HAND AND FOOT: As in, what’s your service like, and are you recognizing that I am literally the center of your universe right now? Key considerations include if the waiter or waitress generally bugs me/judges my choices/can’t give me a straight answer when I ask for a recommendation, if I know them from somewhere (I KNOW YOU DIDN’T RESPOND TO ME ON BUMBLE, OKAY?! IT’S NO BIG DEAL, I’M FINE. NO . REALLY.), if I have to ask for things a lot of times, if I am being upsold or not (I’m on a budget, okay? Move along), if some kind of manager or chef comes to check on me, if someone made me laugh, if my water’s always full, etc. etc.
  • THE WAITING GAME: Mostly this is just assessing if I had to wait a mother long time...and if it was worth it. Additional considerations include if there was something to entertain me while I waited, if they took my cell phone number (aka let me go home and watch Netflix while I wait for my table to order an over-priced but obnoxiously delicious burger *cough* Au Cheval *cough*), if they accept reservations, and if they have one of those black hole waiting processes of doom where I can’t tell if I’m on the list or not and it’s unclear whether or not I just promised them my firstborn child in exchange for a table next Thursday.
  • CASH MONEY: As every self-respecting Dutch person and Jewish grandmother know--value matters, friends. If I feel good about what I paid in exchange for the copious amounts of carbohydrates I inevitably consumed, I wasn’t arbitrarily upsold, I potentially got something comped, I wasn’t charged for something I shouldn’t have been, and they didn’t ask me to pay in Bitcoin/money order/gold dubloons/organ donations/cash (kidding) (but seriously who carries cash these days?), fives all around.

In addition to those 8 exhaustive criteria, six further factors can add or subtract to the overall score based on my own personal discretion as the queen of the review:

  • FREE STUFF FACTOR: I love free things. If someone gives me a mint/postcard/lollipop, I’m putty in their hands. And don’t even get me STARTED on matchbooks. Add up to 2 full points for free stuff based on enjoyment of said stuff.
  • ARE THERE HIPSTERS FACTOR: Why do I even need to explain this. I hate them and their oozing pretension. I hate them all. Subtract up to two full points based on the offense of said hipsters.
  • PRETENSION FACTOR: If the menu is using Food Words, there are ingredients incorporated that have no business being incorporated, there are more than three people instagramming, and I’m being sneered at by some server and/or bartender...we are not friends, restaurant. You’re not as cool as you think. Promise. Subtract up to two full points based on the degree of said pretension.
  • REVISIT FACTOR: If I plan to come back, you deserve a boost! Add one point if you’re coming back someday.
  • JUST PLAIN BAD FACTOR: If it was just a terrible experience overall and I need to get it out of my system. Subtract up to two points depending on mood at time of review.
  • FROSTING FACTOR: Because sometimes I just want to give you a little extra because I like you, and because I can. Add up to two points depending on mood at time of review.

After the ratings are assigned and factors are factored, we get a final score! Which then translates to a star rating with the following weighting scale:

  • 0-15: 0 stars
  • 16-20: 1 star
  • 21-25: 2 stars
  • 26-30: 3 stars
  • 31-35: 4 stars
  • 36-40+: 5 stars

If the restaurant receives 3 or more stars...it gets a stamp of approval! 0-2 stars...SKIP THIS, thank me later.

Badda bing, badda boom. The method to my madness. Hope that was as enjoyable to read as it was for me to think through and, if not, we'll just chalk this one up there with yet another strong opinion I have on something nobody really cares about and that I'm not really qualified to have a strong opinion on, anyway. At least I'm predictable!