Story by Kristen Schmidt
Hi, there. Six One Fork is just beginning, but already we’ve played a role in a conversation about restaurant criticism. To catch you up on things: Our Rossi review caught the attention of several readers, including the restaurant’s chef, Matt Heaggans. Matt started a conversation thread on his Facebook page that drew in people who love restaurants, Columbus and a good discussion. Folks raised a lot of questions about Six One Fork, too, so we’ll try to answer a few of them here.
We’re not infallible, and a rating certainly isn’t etched in stone and handed down from a mountaintop. For us, it’s an informed opinion, carefully weighed and put out there for debate and discussion. Keep those questions and comments coming! Find me at email@example.com and colleague Beth Stallings at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if we can answer questions on Facebook or Twitter, please feel free to tag us.
How did you come up with your star ratings?
They’re loosely based on other star-rating systems we’ve seen, used and admired elsewhere, namely The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and our alma mater, Columbus Monthly. Unlike some publications, we do have a no-star review rating, which indicates “not recommended.”
We do not, however, have a rating that means “bad,” “worse,” or “awful.” The stars start at “good” and get, well, happier from there. If we’ve done our homework correctly, we will not have to write a review of a truly awful restaurant. That’s not worth our time or your money, and we don’t do trash talk or hatchet jobs.
Online ratings, from Yelp to iTunes to Amazon, do use a bad-to-great system, and the idea that one star means “poor” is pervasive. But it’s not how we’re doing things. To help drive the point home, we’ll publish a little statement about our system at the end of every starred review.
Why does one restaurant get one star and another gets two stars?
A lot of variables come into play when we’re discussing the star rating of a restaurant. So one restaurant that projects itself as a high-end, “chef-driven” experience is going to be judged in part on how it lives up to the experience it’s selling to customers. Another, which might not have much to offer in the way of atmosphere but which puts all its chips making satisfying food is judged in how well it’s selling that experience. This is not an apples-to-apples system. Every restaurant is judged individually on the merits of what it wants to be and how close is it to that goal. We’d like to write starred reviews of a wide range of restaurants, not just places for fine dining. So there’s not going to be an absolute, concrete list of criteria. But we take into account food, service, atmosphere and the overall experience.
What’s the point of a restaurant review?
When we decided to create Six One Fork, we knew formal criticism would be one component of what we’d do. We believe strongly in the informed, considered, debated, vetted restaurant review. We’ll write starred reviews of restaurants that, for any of a host of reasons, are drawing a lot of attention and diners (and their money).
We read restaurant reviews for a couple of reasons. One, that review might be the closest we get to actually going to the restaurant, so in the hands of a good writer, that review is a vicarious experience. And, just as we seek advice from film critics, we seek it from trusted food critics. If I follow a critic for a while and find common ground with him or her, I’ll turn to that person’s body of work when I visit a city or send a recommendation to a friend. The relationship boils down to trust. And in a cacophony of gotcha, sometimes self-serving, sometimes paid-placement “reviews,” we’d like to be a resource of a completely different kind.
What are your ground rules for reviews?
We consider a new restaurant for a review only after it’s been open for at least a couple of months. It’s only fair to give a new business time to work out the kinks in service and the kitchen.
We take different friends to dinner with us so we can get their reactions to everything from service to food to the vibe of a place.
We rarely use our real names when making reservations for reviews. It’s one simple way to be as anonymous as possible.
We pay for everything. We don’t take free stuff. And if we get special treatment because someone notices us, it’s likely to be called out in the review as unprofessional.
We visit a minimum of three times.
If we have follow-up questions, we call or email, identify ourselves and ask.
Who are you to be writing restaurant reviews, anyway?
For the time being, only Beth and I are writing starred reviews. We trust each other and have edited one another’s criticism in the past. We are pretty brutal editors of one another, actually. Both of us have written restaurant reviews for other publications, in addition to editing other critics and food content. We’re both seasoned travelers who seek out a broad range of food experiences to expand our mental libraries, if you will. We are also sort of obsessed with reading about food in magazines, books, newspapers—pretty much anywhere we can get our hands on content. And I have a little formal culinary education and back of house experience.