She lost her job as a restaurant critic at the alt-newspaper Seattle Weekly when the position was eliminated after a buyout by Voice Media Group. With the advent of a media group, local voices become a little less local, and it’s an easy cut given the willingness of freelancers to step in and with the proliferation of online blog and review sites.
So wily Hanna takes self-publishes her knowledge at Amazon, where for a few bucks you can learn to be a bit more legit, perhaps a bit more professional, and certainly more useful.
Whatever you think of it, Yelp matters. Business school studies show that stars translate into dollars. Smart restaurant owners watch the bottom line and the internet—and deal with both. But clueless comments about the color of a server’s shirt or the bad luck of a rainy night on the patio don’t help anyone—customer or owner.
In this bright and tight book, Raskin tells you what you need to know about the restaurant business, cooking and tasting, and writing to be an elite reviewer. You may even find that you enjoy dining out more when you can comfortably navigate the theater of fine-dining and adjust your expectations for the local taco truck.
First and foremost, she notes, a restaurant meal is a show—stunning out front, and messy in the back. Understanding a restaurant’s hidden workings can make you a more astute observer and fair-minded reviewer. She runs down the front of house and back of house teams, from head chef and manager to lowly dishwasher and busser.
Any diner will benefit from Raskin’s description of the server’s job. The server has to clean and polish before service begins, they are your emissaries to the kitchen, and they love to talk about food. As for tipping, Raksin emphasizes that it’s not a referendum on the restaurant. If something was off and outside the server’s control, take it up with the manager.
Once you understand restaurants, Raskin moves on to criticism, which began with ancient Greek grammarian Athenaeus, who described the best tasting catfish in the Nile and the proper way to preserve oysters. In 1803, Grimod de La Reyniere, put together the Almanach de Gourmands, reviews of post-Revolutionary restaurants in Paris, a guide to the social world beyond the abolished royal court. She continues with Michelin, and on to the Americans Duncan Hines (yes, he was an actual person, not just a box of powdered cake) and Craig Claiborne. Finally, she describes the current environment of Zagat, Chowhound, and Yelp.
As a reviewer, Raskin uses Yelp to suss out her community’s newest openings (Yelp gives elite status to reviewers who get to a place first), though she’s less interested in the reviewers comments. She uses Yelp as a “facts cache”—to learn about dishes or service that she’ll want to explore.
As well as helping you understand restaurants, the book is a pretty good writing manual. Raskin discusses underreporting, the importance of accuracy, crafting a lead, and developing your voice. If you’ve got a recalcitrant writer on your hands who loves food, this book might be a map for them to improve their skills.
Her recommendations could be applied to most writing. Be specific—don’t just say overpriced, give some actual prices and let readers decide. Be descriptive, but avoid clichés—no more decadent chocolate desserts! She encourages you to call on larger historical or social context, memory, anecdote, humor, and news to give a complete picture of any given restaurant.
As with any writing, the work of close observation will make you a better writer and a better eater.