Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

Waiter, there’s a bad review in my soup

Nick Munier is raging. So raging, he’s threatened legal action over a bad customer review on TripAdvisor. I’m sure he hasn’t done this lightly. It’s probably the twice-baked straw that broke the sautéed camel’s back with a pomegranate jus. Online …

Thu, Feb 21, 2013, 12:50

   

Nick Munier is raging. So raging, he’s threatened legal action over a bad customer review on TripAdvisor. I’m sure he hasn’t done this lightly. It’s probably the twice-baked straw that broke the sautéed camel’s back with a pomegranate jus. Online review resources can be brilliant at making customers aware of your spot, but positivity on sites of their ilk is just one side of a grubby coin, where anyone can let rip about the disasterous coffee they had, or a starter that was worse than genocide, or a piece of meat that was so awful you wouldn’t even feed it to a dog. It’s the customer spitting in your food. I don’t know Nick Munier. I’ve eaten in Pichet once and never went back because the food was too salty. I’m petty like that. But I’ve no reason not to believe he’s a nice dude and good at what he does.

Internationally, chefs have cultivated a collective personality that is macho, short-tempered and overly sensitive. Rappers swear, models are vacant, taxi drivers talk too much, and chefs throw their toys out of the bread basket. But restauranteurs, like all business people have a duty to their business. It must be incredibly frustrating to have people bitch about you and not being able to control that. But hey, that’s life, right?

Social media can obviously be of huge benefit to restaurants. From Joe Macken’s tweet seats, to 777′s free cocktails upon opening, Bite Canteen giving away free meals, the Fumbally relying on word of mouth off and online, and food bloggers being given first taste. Social media matters when you want to get a buzz going. If loads of people are chatting about a spot, it creates both a positive sentiment, publicises a venue, and injects a bit of FOMO for those who haven’t been there yet, making it more likely to get them through the door. Whether they’ll turn that ‘firstism’ of an early visit to a regular occurrence is another thing.

Even making a point of not using social media can draw attention, such as the surprisingly large amount of coverage the South Frederick Street restaurant Bite received when they banned customers taking Instagram photos of food upon the launch of Bite Canteen. It was a tongue in cheek rule poking fun at the compulsive food photography that takes place the second a plate is set down on a table, and a great publicity stunt to boot, not that the owners of Bite thought it would blow up as much as it did.

Restaurant reviews by the pros in the pages of newspapers and magazines still matter too, but when you’ve slimmed down your eating out budget to once or twice a month, you want everything; decent food, a buzzy atmosphere, the social capital of telling people you were there when somewhere first opened, Instagramable food presentation, and good value. It’s a lot of ask for, even from the large clutch of new places that have hit Dublin in the past 12 months or so, most of which operate at a mid-market level where demanding customers mightn’t be able to tick every box they’ve imagined. Reviews also set expectations extremely high. And punters are more inclined to use over-hyped superlatives or extreme negatives when describing their food and experience. Crackbird is not the second coming, it’s a great casual dining experience where you get to eat tasty chicken. Damson Diner is not going to change your life, but their cocktails are brilliant.

And so to TripAdvisor. The democratisation of restaurant reviews, much like the democratisation of music, film and theatre reviews throws up as many problems as benefits. It’s a public forum and people can say what they like. You might be lucky enough to get informed people racking up comments, but more often than not, unless they’re nerds and/or pedantic, people tend to vocalise far more when they’ve something to complain about. When was the last time you tweeted an internet or mobile provider to commend them on their consistent service, as oppose to ranting about your signal dropping?

The cult of the foodie, where anyone who has the special skill of leaving their apartment and walking into a cafe is somehow apparently now Anthony Bourdain, has given many people who frequent places that serve food the delusion of understanding what that food is really about. And not only what the food is about, but how the restaurant operates, how it compares to some amazing place they went to in New York or London or Madrid, how kitchens work, what the costs of running an eatery are and so on. It’s kind of like saying anyone who has ears also has the ability to critically dissect Beethoven’s entire works. Like most things in life, you’ll only really grasp something if you’ve done it yourself. But the reasoning professional critics offer is that they have accumulated a large amount of diverse experience, have tightly honed critical faculties, a good ability to articulate, and an editor who can exert quality control. That’s fair enough. It means that someone who has all of those attributes can talk honestly and interestingly about food without having ever owned a restaurant, and it means that someone who has never picked up a guitar but has similar attributes can write a decent gig review. You don’t have to work professionally as a critic to have those skills either. Personally, I take the word of people who I feel know their food. Some of them do it for a living, others don’t. Some critics are not to my taste at all, but if you’re pretending to know about something and are arrogant enough to articulate that opinion under the guise of expertise, then you’re really just talking through your hole. It can sometimes be a bit difficult to differentiate between a pretender and someone who knows their stuff, but that’s where personal judgement comes in.

You can go to loads of restaurants but that doesn’t mean you know restaurants. I listen to loads of music, but that doesn’t make me Radiohead. People also love talking about restaurants and chefs. I don’t really know why. But they do. People talk more about restaurants than they do about pubs or hotels, gyms, petrol stations, shops, hairdressers or supermarkets. It’s something we like to converse about. Eating a meal is obviously an intrinsic part of our society, and we like to mouth off about it.

Restaurants occupy a rather unique space in public sentiment, because of the fallacy of ‘the customer is always right’. I think anyone who has ever worked as a chef, a barman, a waiter, a barista, or a restaurant host knows that’s complete rubbish. The customer is in fact, a pain in the face. A tonne of customers are self-satisfied, entitled, rude, brash, delusional, dismissive and have the expectations of a diva. It’s almost as if restaurants are the one place where people feel they can exert some oddly-placed sense of power. I AM BEING SERVED, OBEY MY EVERY WHIM. I waited tables in Mao for two years and was brought to tears on more than one occasion by customers, but never by the staff. I waited tables in what was then the Bistro beside Grogan’s too, but was fired after two shifts because I was sick of taking people’s crap. The tips were great there though, in fairness. Many customers are lovely. Many customers are dicks. It’s like: great play, shame about the audience. But at the same time, Irish outlets often have utterly sub-standard service, bad food, and over-priced menus. More often than not, when we eat out, it’s just average. You’re entitled to have food rage when you’re paying for something below par.

What Munier is really angry with though, is something that bugs anyone who opens themselves up to online commentary. It’s the same annoyance that clouds one’s brain when someone leaves a completely uninformed comment on an article, or slates an album on a blog without really listening to it, or throws around ridiculously personal comments about politicians. Everyone is a critic, but now everyone has a platform to voice those criticisms, no matter how informed or uninformed those opinions are. There’s nothing more frustrating for a restauranteur, musician, footballer, theatre maker, director, writer, or whoever else having what they do criticised publicly by someone who doesn’t know the field. Getting kicked by someone who does hurts, but getting kicked by a so-called ‘amateur’ annoys.

Does it matter? Sure. TripAdvisor is a massive platform read by tourists and locals alike. In tighter times, people will tend to take less of a punt on somewhere to eat, instead saving their Friday night dinner dollars for a spot that has a decent reputation and a lot of positive chatter. The review Munier takes issue with might be well out of order, but in an age where everyone has an opinion and an ability to publish that opinion online, I’m afraid you also have to sometimes take the rough with the smooth. At least they didn’t ask for chips.

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