Almost exactly one year ago the last restaurant review I wrote for The Post and Courier appeared in the paper.
It wasn’t supposed to be the last. It was published on the same day I made my third review visit to 167 Raw, scheduled so I could write up my impressions later that week while on a plane to Texas.
During my stay in San Antonio, the country started shutting down. My meetings ended in time for me to walk over to the San Antonio Museum of Art, but I got there just as a woman was taping a sign on the door saying the museum was closing early for COVID-19. I read that bulletin to mean I ought to get back home, so I checked out of my hotel, having no clue that within weeks it would be selling groceries instead of welcoming guests.
I never opened that 167 Raw review file again.
Instead, I got to work doing the same things I’ve always done: Staying atop of Charleston area restaurant news. Exploring what people eat and why. Doing my best to enhance readers’ understanding and appreciation of food and drink.
Granted, those stories bore headlines which would have been nonsensical prior to the pandemic, such as “Mounting hostilities over masks in Charleston-area restaurants take toll on food community,” but I didn’t feel like my job had changed very much.
Yet for food enthusiasts who only knew my byline from review recaps posted on Eater Charleston, it appeared I was on a prolonged vacation. I’ve been asked several times by curious chefs what I’m doing now that I’m not writing reviews. And several readers have gotten in touch to ask when I’ll be writing them again.
Even though it made instinctive sense to me last March to quit reviewing restaurants, I now realize that I’ve never disclosed how I reached that decision, nor addressed when they might return. So here’s an overdue overview of the situation:
There are three reasons for the suspension of restaurants reviews. Let’s call them societal, financial and epidemiological. (Don’t worry, that’s the extent of overlong words for this column.)
First, if you’ve read this far you no doubt agree with me that communities are better with restaurants and bars in them. Fortunately, COVID-19 wasn’t the extinction event for hospitality that it initially appeared to be. At least in places where restaurants are allowed to seat customers, such as South Carolina, the crisis has mostly culled businesses which were already struggling.
Still, that doesn’t mean restaurant owners are grinning as they tote deposit bags to the bank. To overcome the revenue crunch arising from government-enforced closures and curfews, plenty of restaurateurs are getting scrappy. They’re paring back menu items, trimming staff and charging whatever they can.
In other words, many restaurants are still in survival mode. They’re making decisions with an eye to getting through another tough year, not impressing critics who are in the habit of calling out lackluster service and high prices. It would be plain unkind to subject restaurants to rigorous scrutiny right now, as well as detrimental to the cause of keeping restaurants around.
Not every restaurant owner agrees. The pro-review contingent is tremendously confident, of course. Its members are sure that a windfall would be theirs if I just wrote critically about their establishments.
I don’t dispute that a published rave would be helpful; at this point, a few complimentary Yelp reviews would be helpful for most restaurants. But the reality is very few restaurants would earn one in current conditions, at least based on traditional review criteria.
To which the review-hungry might say, "Why not give all positive reviews?" Thanks for asking! It’s because if reviews aren’t honest, they’re useless.
Second, if reviews aren’t conducted responsibly, that’s claptrap, too. Under the Association of Food Journalists ethics code, restaurant critics are encouraged to make multiple unannounced visits to a restaurant, ordering broadly from the menu and paying their own way each time before formally assessing it. That’s why I was on my third visit to 167 Raw before I left for Texas.
At downtown Charleston restaurants such as 167 Raw, upholding those standards of fairness and independence isn’t cheap. (Good journalism in general comes with a price tag. If you’re looking to support it, you can donate directly to The Post and Courier’s reporting funds.)
Regular readers of the food section know that The Post and Courier has made some cutbacks to stay financially strong in the face of the pandemic. The printed section now runs four pages long, instead of six. We no longer have a drinks writer on staff.
And just as you might eat out less frequently when trying to save money, The Post and Courier has scaled back its budget for review meals. On the scale of COVID-19 related losses, that one barely rates, but it’s worth bringing up in any discussion of where reviews went.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, I can’t square restaurant reviews with the number of South Carolinians dying of COVID-19.
Let’s put aside the frivolity of assessing caviar quality at this moment, which brings to mind the epicures who held forth on the Hindenburg’s fattened duckling with Champagne cabbage instead of wondering about the swastikas on the airship.
What concerns me is that we know indoor dining rooms are high-risk sites for COVID-19 transmission. Study after study has demonstrated the dangers of being unmasked with other people in enclosed spaces. If we care about our community, and particularly its most vulnerable members, we shouldn’t eat inside restaurants.
In this state, though, we can. And many people do.
My worry is the underlying message of a review is “go check out this place,” regardless of whether I like it, since nobody’s obliged to adopt my opinion. If I was certain those ensuing check-out visits would consist of takeout orders, I’d feel fine about sending people to restaurants.
Sadly, there is no such guarantee. A review could well spur someone to book an indoor table, while the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control continues to report thousands of new confirmed COVID-19 cases each day.
A friend who reviews restaurants in Los Angeles, where outdoor restaurant dining was forbidden until a few weeks ago, said the “insane amount of creativity” in the takeout sphere there has provided him with endless material.
That sounds like fun. I can imagine writing about those dishes, which presumably don’t show the strain of restaurants trying mightily to do more with less or cost as much as a sit-down meal.
We’re in an entirely different situation. Rather than exercising even a sane amount of creativity, most Lowcountry restauranteurs are aiming to replicate pre-pandemic operations. Diners are understandably eager to know if they’re succeeding. I get it. I fully understand that finding a restaurant review in a six-page food section is part of the normalcy we all want back.
Perhaps when we’re a few months further into vaccinations and PPP loans, restaurant reviewing will be appropriate again. But not now. Not here.
Instead, the best I can tell you at this point is to support restaurants in every safe way you can. Assume they’re all great.