How does a critic choose a restaurant to review? In order to answer that question, it might be necessary to ask why there are reviews — and Critics — at all. There are many possible answers to that; the first is that some people make a living by writing reviews. Period. But that’s no real answer, at least to people who don’t write reviews. If readers want information about restaurants — their cost, menu, location, etc., a list of all the restaurants in San Diego could serve that purpose well.
But perhaps more information is desired; how comfortable is the place, which dishes are good, who eats there, what is the "feeling" of the meal? If so, opinion becomes necessary. But herein lies a danger; should a reviewer “pan” a small struggling restaurant, even if it is sincerely bad? Should the same reviewer bother to talk about a place which “everyone knows" is good and will prosper whether or not the review is written. l would say no to both possibilities, and would ideally limit my choice of restaurants to those which are interesting and/or excellent in unusual ways, or to ones which are publicly pretentious enough to demand some kind of critical response.
I believe that people shouldn’t be ripped off, and reviews can act as an influence to improve the quality of what is offered to us. Reviews and Critics might not be necessary for this if we were all more critical and acted on our opinions — for example, complimenting a restaurant on a good meal, or suggesting improvements of a bad one. And I hear this can be done without seeming too pushy or obnoxious.
But the Critic might have another job; to talk about the pleasures of eating, and about the act of enjoying food and places and people. And perhaps a Critic can be nervy enough to suggest that we get more pleasure “eating out” — or eating anywhere — if we begin to think about, criticize, "play with” the experience, so that our abilities to enjoy and understand can grow. I suspect this is true too of seeing movies, of reading newspapers, of doing nearly anything, but it is also an apology for the existence of Critics, and a defense of being “critical”.
I guess it should also be said that reviews exist to drum up business and lure advertising to the reviewing paper. It’s an interesting fact that even an unfavorable review can — and often does — attract more positive attention to its object than no review at all. Strange, but true.
And so, contradicting a little of what I’ve just said. I will take a restaurant — one which has a small reputation as a very good place to eat — and try to show how even a “good" restaurant can serve an abominable meal, leaving the moral of the story to you.
The Poop Deck is a small fish and steak house on the wharf in Oceanside; we walked up a flight of wooden stairs to an attractive dim room, “romantic’ small tables, candlelight, a hypothetically beautiful ocean view ('twas a dark and moonless night), and we began to relax, happy and comfortable. The menu was small: a few fish dishes, clams, lobster, steaks, rice or potato, salad, mushrooms, a few other things. So, to splurge, we asked for a whole bottle of grey Riesling, and ordered our leisurely meal. The progress from then on was interesting, and sad.
We were first served a delicious creamy clam chowder, one of the best I’ve had in California, but it was a shade too cool. O.K., that could be overlooked, and we drank and waited, our hunger almost tangibly sharp. AND, ALL AT ONCE, a DELUGE of food: everything was loaded simultaneously onto our table (which was the size of a large checkerboard): salads, bread and butter, rice, potato, clams and all their appurtenances, trout almandine, mushrooms (which were supposed to be appetizers) and water (for some reason the two of us deserved four glasses). This was funny, but bad.
So we started in, arranging our plates in layers and dividing up the spoils. And by the end of this marathon we realized just how uniformly thoughtless cooking can ruin perfectly good food. To list: the salad was soggy (left too long somewhere), the rice had small bits of raw grains (or jujubees?) hiding maliciously, the baked potato must have sat plump in the oven since the restaurant opened (they can be overcooked) and had skin like an old wetsuit, the trout (frozen, from Idaho) was dry and flavorless, covered with slivers of burnt almonds which looked very much like cockroaches (the taste of trout, even frozen trout, is wonderfully sweet and fine and will disappear completely if the fish is cooked for more than a few minutes), the clams were vulcanized, and the mushrooms, lovely whole fresh mushrooms in a strong sherry sauce, crunched as they were bitten; apparently the cook wanted to get some local color — the beach — into the meal.
It could be that we came at a wrong time or that the real cook (the person who made that chowder) was busy making a house call. But nevertheless, we were disappointed, Perhaps, if we revisited the place, everything would be better — well cooked and properly served. It wouldn’t take much, really, just a little bit of care.