A Vile Petulant Little Soul-Sucking Scenester, Or, Why Bad Reviews Aren't Fun to Write but Still Need to Happen

Let’s get the pointless drama out of the way first.  Food writer (and I use the word loosely) Brett Hickman, formerly of Eater Chicago posted the following to Facebook.

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I wasn’t tagged in the post, so I didn’t find out about it until a friend forwarded me a screenshot.

I’ve been called a lot of thing in my foodie career, but “vile petulant little soul-sucking scenester” might be the most impressively stupid.  He has since edited it to be less offensive, but the post is still there.  Even better, chefs have liked and commented on it, and insulted me and the publication that I work for.  FYI: I’m coming for their souls first.

Joking aside, a little backstory:

I write restaurant reviews.  It’s not my whole job as a writer, but it was part of the reason I returned to Chicagoist, as I’m now provided with a (small but usable) dining budget to do regular restaurant reviews.  These articles are some of the most challenging to write, and I do a lot of soul searching about them.  I try to do them right: I go anonymously, I order a wide variety of dishes, I bring dining companions that have knowledge of the relevant cuisine.

Sometimes, reviews are great!  When reviews are great, no one complains and the critic gets to be the hero of the story.  Sometimes, reviews are bad.  When reviews are bad, I usually get a bunch of emails from people agreeing with me and a bunch of emails from people calling me names.  

Here’s the thing: Bad reviews are not fun to write.  You don’t have to tell me that I’m hurting someone’s business and trashing their dream. Ask my fiancé – I lose sleep over it.  I happen to like the chef who runs the kitchen he was complaining about! 

But telling the truth is part of the business, and it’s why I get paid.  If a restaurant isn’t good, I don’t care if it’s small or large, independent or chain, cheap or expensive: the public needs to know.  Why?  So they don’t waste their money.  So the restaurant knows what their problems are.  So in this ultra-competitive industry, the cream has a chance to rise to the top.

Trust me, after a decade in the food writing business, I want every restaurant to be awesome.  I want every chef to succeed.  I know most of the people whose restaurants I review, and it really sucks to insult their hard work. 

This particular review was of a restaurant called Ocean Cut.  It’s part of the same group that owns Chicago Cut. Read the review, but TLDR: it’s on its third concept, it’s not very good and it’s pretty expensive.

The man who called me the nasty names seemed mad for a few reasons.  Let’s break them down:

1)   I went to the restaurant too early.

I hear this a lot, and I think it’s not a very fair criticism.  The complaint usually goes something like this: You can’t possibly review a restaurant until it’s been open for four months, because they haven’t figured out how things work yet. 

Ok, fine, but are they charging me (or any other customer) any less money for that trial period? Are they putting a sign out front saying “we’ll get it eventually, don’t worry”?  Are they closing their Yelp page?  Of course, the answer to all of these questions is no.

Unlike some pubs, I don’t review opening weekends.  But I actually don’t question their right to do so – I just don’t think I get a very good sample when I do.  I actually choose my review times fairly carefully, and if a restaurant is from an established group that should know what it is doing, I don’t think going a few weeks in is particularly problematic.  I also take that into account when I review.  I’m not giving a place a bad review because the server doesn’t remember the specials yet; I’m giving it a bad review because the food coming out of the kitchen is awful.  

So, complain all you want.  You’re not totally wrong, but it’s not going to stop me.

2)   I only went to the restaurant once (or other versions of “you didn’t give them a fair chance.”)

Look, I wish I had both infinite time and an infinite dining budget. If I had those things, I’d do it the old fashioned way.  But I don’t, sadly.  Your choice is to not get dining reviews (because, heads up, I’m not the only critic with this limitation) or deal with it and read many people’s opinions.

Also, here’s the thing: Diners don’t eat that way. Restaurants get one shot to make a diner happy, and if they screw up, that person feels like they wasted their money and probably isn’t coming back. 

3)  I dissed a restaurant he liked.

Let’s get it out of the way: I was mean to Swift & Sons.  Yup!  I was.  I maintain that the meal I had was not good.  And, by the way, other critics agreed with me.  

Since then, I’ve heard some good things, and I plan to go back.  I’ve had a great meal at Cold Storage.  But I stand by my original review.  Get over it.



In any case, if you aren’t making someone mad in this business, you aren’t saying anything meaningful.  There are plenty of food writers who write puff pieces, are in bed with chefs (literally or figuratively) or who don’t know the difference between good and bad if the food is free. 

Given the choice between those options and being yelled at occasionally?  I know where I stand.