Joyce Terhaar

Joyce Terhaar: Are Bee dining reviews a matter of taste?

This reader was unhappy with The Bee’s review of Iron Horse Tavern, written by dining critic Carla Meyer. The letter intimated that Meyer should be supportive of local businesses. She should pay attention to what people write on Yelp. She needed to refine her palate.

Meyer gave Iron Horse Tavern two stars out of four in mid-October. Service was rated higher, at 2 1/2 stars; the food received only 1 1/2 stars. From the Korean fried chicken bowl, which she likened to “get-rid-of-the-leftovers-night at your mom’s house” to white rice that “was hard and stuck to the teeth,” the review dished out harsh assessments of a fairly new and popular restaurant in one of the city’s most trendy areas.

That’s her job. Restaurant reviews may seem like the softer side of journalism – features on food, gardening or entertainment – but they essentially are opinionated watchdog journalism, aimed at informing and protecting consumers.

“I understand the impact on the businesses, but my responsibility is to the reader,” Meyer said last week.

Meyer switched from film criticism to food in May. She brought to her new role a strong writing voice and approach to criticism, along with restaurant experience from earlier years.

She quickly found that format, language and style were similar in both roles. But “with movies you are trying to not give anything away, and with food you give away basically everything,” she said. “You want to give readers as much information as possible.”

Meyer and her editor, Tim Swanson, talked about dining and film criticism at an internal Bee meeting last week. Both are experienced entertainment journalists. Both have noticed a cultural change in how the community responds to movies and food.

“I think around 2009 and 2010 I started realizing the water-cooler conversations weren’t about movies anymore. They were about food,” said Swanson, who edited movie industry coverage for the Los Angeles Times before returning home to Sacramento.

Channels like the Food Network and the widespread sharing of food images on social media have heightened interest. That’s reflected in journalism research in markets across the country, including Sacramento, that consistently show readers are intensely interested in food coverage and dining reviews.

Widespread news reports last spring reported U.S. Commerce Department data indicating Americans spend more money on dining out than they do on groceries. And while the Wall Street Journal dug into that data to show it was flawed, no one disputes that most of us spend a lot of money eating out.

That interest shows on Yelp, where consumers write about their personal experiences at restaurants but you never know if they have a conflict of interest. It also shows with community response to The Bee’s reviews. Swanson said movie coverage at the Los Angeles Times sometimes drew strong reaction from those in the film industry because of the potential impact on ticket or online sales. That doesn’t happen with movie reviews in Sacramento – but it does with dining reviews and restaurateurs.

“Everything we write is scrutinized because it can have an impact on business,” he said.

To ensure a review is fair, Meyer typically dines at a restaurant three times before writing. (Fewer for something like a food truck with only a few offerings.) She does not hide her identity but also doesn’t announce herself until the third visit, when she takes photos of the food and the restaurant interior. She then schedules interviews with the chef and/or the owner.

So what does she eat? And how does she choose what to test?

Restaurant specialties or favorites are tested. So are hamburgers, because so many people ask about them. Some dishes are difficult to make correctly, so she orders those, things like risotto or eggs Benedict. And, importantly, she tries items that are expensive, so that she can figure out the value component for readers.

Knowing a review might affect a business is a big responsibility. On one early review, Meyer said she wrestled with the rating. While she thought the restaurant’s food was good and the setting was nice, one of her dining experiences was simply terrible. Ultimately she decided the advice of a fellow journalist would be her guide: No matter what, you write what happens.

Importantly, though, she adds context. The review of Iron Horse Tavern talked about the restaurant’s popularity, reasonable drink prices and fun atmosphere, not just the disappointing dishes. It also said that despite better food in nearby restaurants, the Tavern “still beckons, because the space invites and I know what to order now. And the good dishes are good enough to suggest potential for a better menu in the future.”

That assessment is Meyer’s opinion, based on experience and reporting. Some readers – and restaurant owners – will disagree with her. But I’ve found over the years that more often our reviews ring true to most. That’s our goal.