Q: I don't know if you have ever reviewed [redacted] on Edisto Island. My husband and I stopped in for lunch and a drink on July 9. Where do I begin?
We placed an order for onion rings; when served, they were very dark. We each tasted them and agreed they were very overdone, bordering on burnt to a crisp. We signaled the waitress and sent them back, at which point she asked other patrons seated at the bar if they would like them, and to our horror, they accepted. They began eating and declared they were very good! Now, neither my husband nor I work for the health department, but I suspect this was a serious violation of health codes and regulations.
We wanted to report this, but had no idea where to begin. This place needs a huge overhaul. Any chance you would make a visit to this place? We would love to see your review.
A: There are two questions here, and I’ll answer them both. But first, I want to explain why I left out the restaurant’s name:
As regular readers know, I strongly believe that consumers have a right to know the circumstances surrounding the production and service of their food. In other words, if I have reliable information that a restaurant is violating legal or ethical standards, I’ll share it. But in this case, I rang up the restaurant, and the owner vigorously denied distributing secondhand food. “Not my bunch,” the owner said. “Anything that goes like that goes back in the trash and we recook the order.”
To be clear, I don’t doubt your account. But since I couldn’t independently verify it without tracking down other guests and employees who might have been privy to the onion ring giveaway, it would be irresponsible to link a restaurant’s name to the incident.
But there is an agency that might well want to further investigate: In response to your question about how to report a perceived food safety violation, the S.C. Department of Environmental Control always likes to be notified if you believe food served at a South Carolina restaurant made you sick or “was unsanitary, or prepared, handled, stored or produced in an unsafe way.”
There’s an online form at scdhec.gov/FoodSafety/FileaComplaint, but DHEC also takes complaints by fax, mail and phone; the number is 803-898-DHEC.
(I checked with DHEC, and it is indeed unlawful for a restaurant to offer patrons “food that has been served or sold and has been in the possession of a customer, even if the food is unused.” Among the few exceptions are bottled ketchup and packaged crackers).
So there is a legal remedy for your experience. But are you entitled to journalistic revenge?
Unfortunately, I’m afraid not. I very much sympathize with your inclination to publicly shame a restaurant that wronged you, but a relatively anonymous restaurant in Edisto would have a tough time cracking my review list, especially if there’s nothing to recommend it.
Because Charleston is blessed with so many restaurant openings, I spend most of my time assessing brand-new places. That’s especially important now that restaurants are investing serious money in publicity campaigns: The idea of a critical review is to provide readers with an objective account of a restaurant so they can knowledgeably decide if they want to spend their money there.
Of course, reviews are also forums for taking stock of the current dining culture and finding meaning in what we eat. But the more prosaic point of criticism is to connect diners with exceptional experiences, and to steer them away from potential disappointments.
For that reason, I’ll review a tiny out-of-the-way place if I think people’s lives would be improved by visiting it. In fact, those are my favorite kind of reviews to write. But with room each year to rate just 26 places, it feels wasteful to tell folks not to go somewhere they’re already not going.
Moreover, it’s mean to pick on a restaurant that never sought attention through a PR blitz or ever-present ads: If a restaurant or its fans aren’t trumpeting its greatness, there’s nothing for my write-up to counterbalance.
Please accept my sympathies on your lunch. And I hope going forward, you never again have cause to appeal to DHEC.