I love food. No seriously. I LOVE food. Any kind of food, from the greasiest french fries to the most healthy quinoa-stuffed salad. And I’ve eaten it all: fried intestine, blood pudding, even a rooster’s private bits.
Recently I lost a ton of weight and have become completely and utterly food obsessed. They say thin people have more taste buds—like their body is panicking, saying: Look at all the yummy food, wouldn't it taste AMAZING?! You know you want to eat it, yes, you know you do. Yes, that’s right, go closer, go to it ...
Anyway, I thought one way to combine my two favorite things—writing and eating—would be to visit a few of the funky restaurants in my area, eat something that makes my mouth water and then write a review.
So, next question: How does one write a review? I mean, not JUST a review, I’m talking about an amazing, fantastic review, one that makes you, the reader, feel as though you’re there with the writer, sitting at the table, taking in the ambiance, scrutinizing the service, tasting the dishes.
True, I published an article about how to write a restaurant review not too long ago (creatively titled: How to Write a Restaurant Review) but I didn’t feel as though I’d given enough ... call it ‘actionable’ advice. That post gave more of a general overview of the topic, one that focused on the norms food journalists live by, this one is more contemporary, more focused on the nuts and bolts of writing a review. It’s more gorilla journalist than traditional journalist. Make sense? No?! Ah well, here we go ...
How to Review Food
What does a food reviewer do? What’s expected of them? I came across this sentence in an article I read while researching this post:
“The job of a food reviewer is to accurately convey the taste, texture, smell, and presentation of a restaurant's food.”
I thought that was such a specific, informative answer I wanted to give it verbatim. Because we’re not just reviewing the dishes we’re eating, we’re judging the entire experience: the food, the atmosphere, the service and one’s general impression of the restaurant.
Let’s do this in parts. First, I’ll talk about the importance of researching the restaurant. Who owns the restaurant, does it have an interesting history? Who is the head chef? What was the atmosphere like? Were the waitstaff helpful and friendly, and so on. Second, I’ll focus on the meal itself.
1. The Background
In fiction writing we often need to give background information but don’t want to give the reader an information dump. That is, we don't want the reader to feel overwhelmed by information they couldn’t care less about but which the writer feels they need to know in order to appreciate what’s going to happen in the scene.
This sort of background information is a bit different, but we must still be careful not to overload the reader. Although the history, location, ownership and philosophy of a restaurant are important parts of the overall experience, it is a good idea to only share those parts which are unique and specific lest we bore our readers.
What is the history of the restaurant? How long has the building been in existence? What sort of businesses have been there (only mention this if you think readers will find it interesting, for instance if it’s a historic building.).
How long has the restaurant been open? What kind of restaurant is it, what is it trying to achieve? Is it Chinese or Indian or Japanese? Is it fusion? And so on.
What is the price of the average meal? Is the restaurant considered a good value, moderately expensive or pricey? Is it casual or fine dining? Is there a dress code? How were your fellow diners dressed? Should one make a reservation? If so, how far in advance?
What kind of area is the restaurant is in? Are there any local landmarks? Is it someplace a tourist might want to take a stroll after dinner? Or is it the kind of place you wouldn’t want to take your kids after dark? How was parking?
Does the restaurant have a specialty? Are they known for a particular kind of cuisine or for, say, their desserts? Their seafood? I had dinner at a particular restaurant a few times mostly because the restaurant served the most divine cocktails!
Did it seem as though your fellow diners were enjoying their food? Was it loud? Raucous? Quiet? Was it family friendly?
How was the service? Don’t just say it was good or bad. Ask yourself, “Why?” If the service was great, what was great about it? Give details. Was it difficult to get the attention of a server? Was your water glass kept full? Did your server ask how your meal was? Were the servers able to give you recommendations when asked? Was the staff charming and stylish? How was the server dressed? Was he or she wearing a uniform? Jeans and t-shirt? Smart black dress or pants and shirt? Most importantly: Did what the server wear match the venue?
Who owns the restaurant? Have they owned previous restaurants? If so, were they successful? Is this restaurant similar to the rest or different? What are the owners major culinary influences? Why did he open this restaurant as opposed to another?
The Head Chef
Who is the head chef? Where did she study? Where has she worked before, what kind of restaurants and for how long? What are her major influences? What is her style of cooking? What is her signature dish? Has she written a cookbook?
Try to find one unusual and interesting, one memorable, thing about the head chef. For example, were they the youngest chef to graduate from their culinary school? Were they the oldest? What is their signature dish?
One more thing about background ...
When trying to decide what information to include about background, only talk about something you think will interest the reader. After all, the main focus of the review is the food.
Ask yourself whether a particular tidbit of information about the restaurant, etc., is MEMORABLE. Is it exaggerated, unusual, vaguely scandalous? I’m not suggesting you veer into tabloid sensationalism, but you don’t want to put readers to sleep. This isn’t a history paper, it’s a review. You want to give the reader enough information to decide whether they will enjoy eating at this restaurant. If something isn't relevant to that question think twice before including it. Remember, if a certain piece of information bores the pants off you, your reader will probably feel like that times infinity!
2. Your Meal
What should you order? Generally, the advice is to order a drink, an appetizer, a main course and a dessert. If the restaurant has a specialty or a signature dish, order that.
Okay, so, that's (more or less) WHAT you should order, but how does one make one's review informative AND engaging?
Make it Colorful
Don’t put your readers to sleep! This is easier said than done but here are a few tips:
a. PROMISE the reader something, either an interesting story or a surprise. For example: “I’ve found the best cinnamon buns in existence!” That’s (kinda, sorta) a promise. (By the way, I am a lifelong connoisseur of cinnamon buns. I’ve eaten just about every kind. This recipe (Overnight Cinnamon Rolls, by Alton Brown) made the best cinnamon buns I’ve ever had! It’s easy. Make it, you will not be disappointed!)
You could also recount something interesting, unique, unusual that happened to you at the restaurant. Perhaps you interviewed the chef or something amusing occurred.
b. Give the reader an INTERESTING FACT. For example, “This is the owner’s second restaurant. The first one, in Greenland, was carved from a single sheet of ice!”
c. Describe a memorable aspect of the AMBIANCE, good or bad. Did it have an amazing view or was there a suspicious odor wafting from the kitchen? Use details that aren’t obvious. Does it have arched skylights? The perfect lighting for taking pictures of your food? Is it “industrial inspired”? 
The Review Itself:
The first sentence. More than anything a review is a piece of writing and, as is true for any kind of writing, we want to hook the reader with our first sentence.
Only describe 3-5 dishes. A great way to do this is go out for dinner with friends and sample each of their dishes. Let’s say you taste more than 3-5 dishes, what then? Only talk about dishes you had a strong reaction to, whether for good or ill.
Describe how the food was presented. How did the food look when it arrived? Was the dish/plate clean and beautiful or messy and tired? How did the presentation of the dish make you feel? Excited? Hungry? Did you feel pampered and special or did you feel like you were back home having dinner with mom and pops? How you felt, does it match the restaurant? When I go to a fine dining establishment I want to feel pampered but when I go to a place that advertises itself as 'homestyle' I expect a more casual experience.
How did the food taste? Describe it, be colorful. Engage all your senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch (mouthfeel). Also, there are (generally speaking) five tastes: Sweetness, Sourness, Saltiness, Bitterness and Umami. Don’t be afraid of using adjectives—or even the odd adverb—when you communicate your taste experience.
Also, was the food spicy? Talk about what memories of food it evoked. What was the texture like? Did the food melt in your mouth? Was the food juicy and tender or chewy and tough? Were the noodles gooey or dry? Were there a variety of textures? Was something soft inside yet crunchy outside? How did the textures work together?
Talk about the complexity of the food. Talk about the variety of flavors. Was it better than the sum of its parts? How did the flavors come together?
Be up front about your biases if they are relevant. For instance, if you are reviewing a seafood restaurant but you hate seafood, mention it!
Give your opinion but don’t be opinionated. Give your own opinion of the restaurant at the end of the review. If you are inclined to review it negatively, consider going back and giving it a second try.
Write with Attitude. Be Unique
You want this restaurant to stand out and feel unique. Give specific details. For example,
“Danny Meyer’s flagship restaurant has moved to a new multilevel space with dramatically lit booths, cozy nooks, and a gorgeous bar.”
“The original restaurant, on Sixteenth Street, was vaguely Tuscan, vaguely new American, and extremely hospitable. These were the kind of people who learned your name, then remarked on your lovely brooch while giving you an extra-generous pour of Barolo. Carmen Quagliata, the executive chef since 2007, has a penchant for elevated comfort food that befits the restaurant’s polished good vibes, and his cooking gets a grand showcase in the new multilevel space, spiffed up with dramatically lit booths, cozy nooks, and a gorgeous, towering front bar in the model of Gramercy Tavern.”
A rule of thumb: Try to give at least one detail, one specific detail, for every aspect of your review.
One Last Thing
Remember, your review should not be about whether you liked something, it should be about giving readers the information they need to decide whether they would like it.
Tips from Zagat
Yes, that Zagat, the folks from whom even a single star is a very big deal! Here’s a short video they made. It’s under three minutes long. :-)
Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.
Will Write for Food: The Complete Guide to Writing Cookbooks, Blogs, Memoir, Recipes, and More, by Dianne Jacob.
From Anthony Bourdain: "A concise, illustrative, and eminently useful guide to the nuts and bolts of professional food writing."
1. It was at a friend’s family’s get together and his grandpa—a withered Chinese gentleman who looked a million years old, could jog five miles without breaking a sweat and had forgotten more than I’ll ever know—ordered the food. My friend called the dining experience “old school.”
2. How to Write a Food Review.
3. Union Square Café Lives On[http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/03/20/union-square-cafe-lives-on], by Shauna Lyon. The New Yorker. (For more excellent reviews see: Tables for Two)
4. How To: Write a Good Review.