Q: Why do you have to mention other customers in your restaurant reviews? You’re a food critic.
A: Actually, my business card identifies me as “chief critic,” a title which I suppose entitles me to weigh in on sneakers and flowers and hot air balloons, but I’m sticking to restaurants — and it’s impossible to describe them fully without acknowledging the people in their dining rooms.
Food is just one small part of the restaurant experience, as any restaurateur trying to stave off the threat posed by ghost kitchens is bound to remind you. Considered hospitality entails a style of service: the look of the room, the feel of your chair, amenities ranging from the basic (a check presenter and a pen) to the baroque (a velvet-covered charging dock for your cellphone); background music and reservation policies, among other elements designed to evoke some kind of feeling that can’t be achieved by warming up tuna casserole at home.
Perhaps a restaurant aims to make its guests feel doted upon. Or savvy. Or calm. There is no single correct outcome for a restaurant to pursue.
Nor is there one type of restaurant ambiance that is universally appealing. Say a restaurant sets out to make its guests feel fancy and so institutes a strict dress code. There are plenty of restaurant patrons who won’t put on a sport coat just to eat foie gras. Or imagine a restaurant determined to give its customers a thrill by not revealing in advance what they’re going to eat. Off the top of my head, I can think of a few dozen diners who wouldn’t sign up for that, including two people in my immediate family.
In other words, any decent restaurant has a specific guest demographic in mind when it opens, selected as deliberately as the window dressing and the flatware. So when a restaurant is successful in attracting its target audience, it seems weird not to mention it when providing a complete picture of the place.
That’s not just my opinion. It’s pretty standard for reviewers to give their readers a sense of who’s patronizing a restaurant, the same as you might if you were to describe a restaurant to a friend. Right after you called me with this question, I checked out a few other papers’ latest reviews.
That week, Bill Addison of The Los Angeles Times was taking stock of All Time, where “the entertainment industry types are easy to spot. … Mornings at All Time find souls with furrowed brows staring at scripts on their laptops, taking absent-minded bites of cheesy eggs on toast.”
On the other coast, The New York Times’ Pete Wells was at Gotham Bar and Grill, which is trying to lure a new group of diners. “The interior may be a sticking point in the youth campaign,” he wrote. “It’s not the kind of drama that translates well to Instagram, and so far the new crowd looks a lot like the old crowd.”
(When The New Yorker's Hannah Goldfield got there, she was even more pointed in her review, writing in its first paragraph: "Each of the two other tables on our little stage was also occupied by a pair of women, all of whom were wearing beige and sporting haircuts that you might describe—and my friend did—as Park Avenue helmets.")
Farther uptown, New York Magazine’s Adam Platt found “crowds of business folk and moneyed gastronauts pushing their way into Hutong.”
Does that mean underpaid teachers wouldn’t enjoy the dumplings at Hutong? Or that a teenager would object to the burger at Gotham? Of course not. But it’s also silly to pretend there aren’t significant aesthetic overlaps between where people choose to eat and what they choose to wear, be it a fur coat or a computer bag.
To that end, back before the internet existed outside of computer labs, I was once advised that the best way to find a good meal in an unfamiliar town was to approach a stranger whose outward style matched mine. It’s superficial, no doubt. But based on a shared affinity for a certain pair of shoes, I sure ate well in Montreal.