Are men more likely to be harsh critics, and point out flaws in order to fix them?
After having worked in restaurants and writing about them occasionally, I consider myself a fairly discerning diner. I don’t turn up my nose at an unfortunate choice in cutlery, but I have certain expectations for food and service, especially if I’m spending a decent amount of money. I have written about my experiences as a patron, and I believe that the public has a right to know if a restaurant is doing a particularly good job or slacking off.
I thought most people agreed with that line of thinking until recently when I went to an upscale place in Santa Fe with my friend Lana (not her real name). We had gone to this restaurant because Lana’s friend was a server there, and the establishment maintained a good reputation among the almost 400 restaurants in the City Different. After a couple of martinis, Lana and I thought we should probably eat something before we embarrassed ourselves. The bartender enthusiastically recommended a roasted winter vegetable salad, so we decided to split that to start.
The place was bustling and although I tried to turn off my “restauradar,” I couldn’t help but notice an older server sinking into the weeds with food orders that required firing and bottles of wine that needed opening. The owner had disappeared, so the bartender was flooded with requests for complicated cocktails and questions about seating issues from the host. In the middle of the rush, a busser dropped a cheese plate in front of us. Lana and I thought that maybe her friend had comped the dish, so we reached for a hunk of Gouda, but before we could snag the dairy product, the same busser took it away, apologizing for his mistake. The first salad we were served was leafy and not warm, but we ate it anyway, not wanting to bother the busy staff. When our actual order came out, it tasted like lukewarm cafeteria food. The first salad may have been dull, but this one was almost hard to eat: The vegetables were bland, overcooked, and mushy. I’m not a cheap guy and the vivacious company made up for the bad food, but I still had a tough time paying the bill.
It’s been a lovely Indian Summer in Santa Fe, so walking the streets near the plaza after dinner was a delight. The sky in our patch of high desert is clear enough to count the stars. “I’m so glad I don’t have to write about B—,” I said, mentioning the restaurant’s name.
“What do you mean?” Lana asked.
I explained that since her friend worked there, I wouldn’t be writing about how awful the food was even though I thought someone should. Lana agreed that the dishes were underwhelming, yet she told me she didn’t believe in bad reviews. Her bold statement reminded me of parents who said they didn’t believe in television as if the technology didn’t, or shouldn’t, exist.
“Doesn’t the public have a right to know if a restaurant is struggling or gouging customers before they spend their money?” I asked.
“There are better ways to handle it.” Lana shrugged.
Lana had given this a lot of thought. Why trash your community and their ability to make a living? Her solution: Meet with the owner or manager face to face and deliver the bad review in person. Give them a chance to make it right before putting it in print or online.
I argued (gently) that most owners wouldn’t listen to a single patron even if the owner agreed to meet. A review puts enough weight behind the content that the place is forced to reflect upon what it’s doing. I’d met many defensive owners and managers whose sense of change was strictly limited to the nightly specials board.
I suppose we agreed to disagree even though we both deplore that saying.
A week later, Pete Wells’ hysterically scathing review of Guy Fieri’s new Times Square restaurant came out in the New York Times. In the spirit of disclosure, I wrote an essay for Pete before he left Details magazine, and he treated me well. Even if I didn’t know him, I thought the review was funny and, in fact, fair. You can find it online quite easily, so I won’t recap. I spoke to a few of my foodie friends about Wells’ take on Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar but didn’t forward it to Lana because I thought she’d see it as cruel. Turns out she spotted it anyway, disapproved, and told me so, jokingly lumping me with others she saw as getting their kicks trashing restaurants who may have had an “off day.”
Secretly, I envied Lana’s deep sense of compassion and started to wonder if this philosophical split was a gender thing. Were men hardwired to knock down sandcastles or point out flaws in order to fix them? It just so happened that I was teaching Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Birthmark” in my eleventh grade American Literature course at the same time. In it, a doctor courts a woman who has a small birthmark on her face and as soon as he marries her, he wants to remove it. Sadly, the wife dies after the botched surgery. I know putting your wife under the knife is not the same as mentioning how undercooked the cedar plank salmon is, yet the wife seems to represent kindness and acceptance and the husband obsessed criticism.
In the end, I’ve decided to try Lana’s approach the next time I’m served a crap meal at a restaurant that presents its food as good. I will ask to meet with the owner to express my opinion, and we’ll see what happens. If they don’t seem open to betterment, they (and others) might just read about it elsewhere.
Robert Wilder is the author of two critically acclaimed books of essays: Tales From The Teachers’ Lounge and Daddy Needs a Drink; both have been optioned for television and film. He has published essays in Newsweek, Details, Salon, Parenting, Creative Nonfiction, Working Mother and numerous anthologies. He has been a commentator for NPR’s Morning Edition, the Madeleine Brand Show, On Point and other national and regional radio programs including the Daddy Needs a Drink Minute which airs weekly on KBAC FM. Wilder’s column, also titled “Daddy Needs A Drink,” is printed monthly in the Santa Fe Reporter. He was awarded the 2009 Innovations in Reading Prize by the National Book Foundation. Wilder lives and teaches in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Visit his website at www.robertwilder.com.