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Are You Tough Enough To Handle A Bad Review?

There's been a lot of talk lately about restaurant reviewers, and not much of it is complimentary. For a brief time I reviewed restaurants for a newspaper, and it's a job that does not win one popularity contests. I gave it up quickly because I couldn't get used to the idea of making judgements about the quality of someone's work, someone's life.

For many of you, your restaurant is your life. You spend an inordinate amount of time every day trying to make a living pleasing people. It's a remarkably difficult job that's fraught with peril. I have a soft spot in my heart for those who give it their best shot, even if they don't quite hit the mark.

I must confess, however, I loved being a restaurant reviewer when I came across a place where the owner didn't give a damn about quality, value or the customer. I had no problem warning potential customers away from the insult they'd likely endure. In fact, newspaper editors often toned down the criticism because of my apparent anger.

I bring this issue up following my return from the Food & Wine Magazine Classic in Aspen. There, two New York City restaurateurs, Jimmy Bradley (see RH's Jan. 2004 cover story) and Drew Nieporent discussed the state of restaurant reviews.

Nieporent has been an outspoken critic of restaurant reviewers and the star system they use to measure a restaurant's performance. He argues that many are unqualified to make such judgements and lack accountability. He was particularly angered when the New York Times recently took a star away from one of his Tribeca restaurants, Montrachet.

When one tries to achieve a level of greatness and is told by an outsider that you have failed, it has to hurt, particularly when you believe you have succeeded. That, I believe, is Nieporent's case.

On the other hand, Jimmy Bradley told a packed house in Aspen that he couldn't care less about the star rating. None of his three restaurants have ever received high ratings from critics, but they've been packed since the day they opened. Bradley admits he's not creating culinary temples. He merely wants to offer a comfortable, fun place with good food.

Is Nieporent foolish for worrying about whether or not he gets three stars for his restaurants? I don't think so. Some people swing for the fence and dare to set a level of excellence only few can achieve. Unfortunately, reviews often teeter between the fine line of objectivity and subjectivity, and their conclusions can hurt your business. It can be maddening.

In our April 2003 issue, John Mariani wrote about how the pressures of getting a three-star review in Europe has played havoc in the restaurant community. Two London chefs, for example, returned their stars to Michelin. “The day of expensive restaurants is over,” said Nico Ladenis. “Simple cooking gives me more enjoyment, and that's the way people want to eat.” Frenchman Bernard Loiseau took his life for fear he would lose one of his Michelin stars.

What's your take on restaurant reviews? Does it matter to you how many stars you get? Have you been treated unfairly? How do you handle a bad review. Send me an email.

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