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The Power of Food Blogging

By Adam Roberts
January 19, 2007

My parents and I walk into Le Cirque in New York City for the second time in two months, and the difference between our first visit and second is startling. The first time, we were ignored by Sirio Maccioni, Le Cirque’s famous owner, and ushered to a loser table in the back; this time the maitre’d seats us immediately at a table in the front—the best spot in the house. Bus boys and waiters swoop down on us and ask us what we want to drink, if we want sparkling or flat water, if we’d like to see the wine list. Mauro Maccioni, Sirio’s son, makes sure to check in on us every so often. When the meal is over and my father asks for the check, a man who looks like he might be Sirio’s brother bends down and whispers in my father’s ear. When he walks away, my dad says, grinning, “Tonight, we’re guests of the Maccioni family.”

What transpired between our first and second visits? The answer lies beneath your fingertips.

The power of blogging, nowadays, is irrefutable. Blogging has ousted political leaders, written dialog for Samuel L. Jackson, and forced Doogie Howser out of the closet. In the realm of food, blogging is just beginning to gain power. Restaurateurs and chefs are starting to take notice of the strange quiet types scribbling notes and taking pictures of their food.

Sam Breach, of the food blog Becks and Posh says, “I don't take photos at dinner anymore in the Bay Area for fear of being outed as a blogger—this town is over-run with them.”

Food bloggers are making a dent on the restaurant scene because of the way the Web has been integrated into our everyday life. New York Times food critic Frank Bruni, who began blogging on the paper's site himself, says, “I think restaurant reviews on food blogs have an impact, because a curious, hesitant consumer who’s Internet-savvy—and these days, who isn't?—can plug in a restaurant's name and toggle between a dozen reviews on a dozen different sites without necessarily knowing much about the sites or seeking them out per se. The aggregate impression of a restaurant that this person gets, built from these reviews, has to have an impact. How could it not?”

The presence of food bloggers, then, should be cause for concern in the restaurant community. Regina Schrambling, food writer and proprietor of gastropoda.com, says, “I think every restaurateur should either be reading all the bloggers, big and small, or be paying someone to do a Technorati search every morning. When I was in restaurant school, one of the first lessons was that a diner who has a good experience will tell one person. Have a bad one and that tale goes viral, to 10 or 20 or more. Bloggers amplify that danger beyond belief. And this is damage a restaurateur can control, just by paying attention to ‘the little people.’”

Dan Barber, the gifted chef at New York City's Blue Hill and its sister restaurant upstate, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, subscribes to this theory. He reads blog reviews and sees them as a more sophisticated version of a comment card. “The real power of it is the way that it informs the chef and the manager and the waiters and the staff. That’s what every restaurant wants—every good restaurant should be encouraging bloggers.”

Still, blogs have their drawbacks for chefs. “I read a lot of blog reviews that are very misinformed and flat-out wrong,” Barber adds. “But more often than not they’re pretty informative even with that.”

And while some chefs, like Barber, are generally open-minded when it comes to blogs, other chefs are more hostile to the idea. For example, there’s the way that Washington, D.C., chef Carole Greenwood responded to a write-up of her restaurant Buck’s Camping and Fishing by Jason Storch of DCfoodies.com. After posting a positive review of his meal (including pictures), he received a cease-and-desist letter from Greenwood’s attorney asking him to remove the photos from his site.

Jason ultimately took the post down but the incident created a maelstrom of bad publicity for Greenwood and her restaurant.

So how should a restaurant handle a food blogger? Enter Sirio Maccioni. After a disastrous first meal at Le Cirque with my family, I wrote a post on my website titled (perhaps inappropriately) Only a Jerk Would Eat at Le Cirque. In it, I said I couldn’t believe a restaurant could charge so much for food that was so mediocre and served in such an oppressive environment. I concluded my review, “New York is filled with wondrous restaurants, restaurants with food and hospitality that rival all of the world's major cities. Why anyone would waste their money at a place as unwelcoming and uninspired as Le Cirque is baffling.”

A few weeks after I posted my review, my mom called me in disbelief when a package came to her door from Le Cirque. She opened it, and inside was a copy of Sirio Maccioni’s autobiography and a letter printed on Le Cirque stationery:

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Roberts, I was sorry to hear that your experience at Le Cirque was not as it should have been. I assure you that we do not consider your seating arrangement a “bad table,” but I regret that there was a problem with your appetizer. I trust that our servers corrected this as quickly as they possibly could.

The letter addressed all of the concerns from my review (my mom’s artichoke was undercooked) and concluded with an invitation to come back to “experience Le Cirque as it really is and should be.”

We did go back, and we were treated exceptionally well. There was the table at the front and the excellent service and the special attention from Mauro (Sirio was out that night). The food, I must say, was less than dazzling: The Venison entrée was poorly cooked (tough and grainy) and a side of French fries arrived at room temperature. Yet we enjoyed the “star treatment,” if you could call it that, and savored the evening for what it was.

And what it was, it turns out, is a confirmation that a new age is here—the age of the food blog. Le Cirque is a litmus test for power and status in New York. Ruth Reichl wrote her famous dual review for the New York Times in which she went twice, once as a dowdy midwesterner named Molly and the second time as herself. As Molly, she was treated like garbage, as herself she was treated like a star.

Then, Ruth Reichl was the champion of the nobody. Nowadays, with the advent of the food blog, the nobodies no longer need a champion. At the click of a button, the nobodies can champion themselves.

22 Comments

I had the unfortunate problem of being discovered as I was doing a review recently. Now, I'm not famous, but I just came with the tools of the trade (camera, notepad) and was just a little less discreet than I should've been. Suddenly I was being treated like a rock star. And that bothered me, because in writing a review, it's just not fair to review an experience that is so different from the typical diner's.

That said, there are other ways to get the rock star treatment. After a meal at 1789 in DC much like your first at Le Cirque, I was so underwhelmed I wrote a letter to the management, and received an offer to make things right. Unfortunately I couldn't take them up on it because it was literally one of my last days in DC before moving to New York. But I assumed that meant I wouldn't be shunted into a table in the boonies, barely waited on and have my entree come out before my wine was served, like the first time.

I would've been fine getting special treatment after writing a letter, a private interaction between customer and business. But the fact that as a food blogger you got it, makes me wary. For instance, you say now " I wrote a post on my website titled (perhaps inappropriately) Only a Jerk Would Eat at Le Cirque." But dude, that's what you're known for! I love that you come up with these great titles and descriptions. And it sounds like you were treated like a sucker the first time you ate there, so why not give them hell for it? As an individual and a family, I'm sure you appreciated the opportunity to have the star treatment. But as a food writer, you can't let that treatment make you suddenly decide you were too hard on the restaurant the first time, especially when you say the food wasn't much better the second time around. If you're going to take that meal on the house, you have to be doubly sure you are not going to be cutting the place any slack, and definitely not recanting what you've already written.

Regardless of my opinion, well done. I appreciated the enlightening and well written essay.

Doesn't it compromise one's "journalistic" integrity to accept freebies? I mean Le Cirque's response is almost akin to a bribe - a bribe made in the hope that said "blogger" will not again render a poor review.

If accepting free meals and free cookbooks and free products becomes par-for-the-food-blogging-course - then the opinion of a food blogger will be worthless.

I have written complaints to establishments and recieved freebie invites back. This than allowed me to appreciate to restaurant and return on other visits. I think that it should not be considerred a bribe but a genuine and noble gesture towards a digruntled customer. Is'nt that the proffesional way of doing things? The review was already done. What could Le Cirque gain at that point?

Your return trip to Le Cirque was bound to be a better experience, at least in the service department, since your review was a bit of an open wound to them and they were eager to apply a healing balm to it. Even then, they didn't exactly ensure that your food was perfect! It would have been interesting to have you return to Le Cirque in disguise (a la Ruth) and get another taste of how the average Joe is treated before you returned with your folks. It really does seem to confirm that higher profile guests get better service. Of course it isn't fair to imply this is a malady that only festers at Le Cirque. Money and fame don't buy happiness, but, they do indeed pay for good meals and false adoration.

I personally don't take too many food photos at restaurants because of the attention it can draw to the table. I don't mind it so much personally, but if I'm dining with a group of friends I'm fearful that it makes the experience weird for them. As a result, I usually keep my blog focused on the hits and misses out of my own kitchen.

I think that blogging has done so much to put diners in the driver's seat. It used to be that the local paper's food critic was the only resource available and they usually reviewed 1-2 restaurants a week. With the internet and blogging you could easily find 10 reviews of a restaurant before the paper has even visited it. It has helped to filter out the crappy restaurants and provides balance. If a restaurant spots a critic, treats him or her as royalty and gets a rave review, the blogosphere acts as a system of checks and balances. Many of them are not known so they are more likely to get the same treatment as some guy off the street. I also like that most restaurant bloggers pay for their meals and are not on an expense account, like the local food critic. It adds something to the review when someone spends their hard-earned money on a meal vs someone who is using the company’s money. You tend to get a better concept of value.

I think that a lot of restaurants and food critics are quick to dismiss bloggers. They figure “its just the opinion of one geek sitting at their computer…what does that matter.” I would argue that it matters a lot and it matters a lot because of Google. If you Google a restaurant, chances are a blog entry about that place will be within the top 5 hits. My blog’s review of The Great Northern BBQ Company (new BBQ restaurant in Wisconsin) is the second thing listed on Google, right after the restaurant’s official site. If someone Googles it and wants to find out if it’s any good, they will get my review. I don’t know about everyone else but if one of the first reviews of a restaurant rips the place to shreds, chances are I am going to try someplace else. In the case of the BBQ restaurant, I gave it a great review and I have received e-mail and comments saying that they tried the place because of my recommendation. The idea someone like me with no culinary or journalistic background has an input on people’s dining choices would have been unthinkable 5-10 years ago.

The only thing I don't like about blogging (and it’s a very minor complaint) is that by the time I visit a restaurant I already feel as if I had eaten there. With all of the reviews available I have read about the best entrees, the wine list, and what to try for dessert. Many times I go in already knowing what I am going to order and what it will look like on the plate (unless there is an interesting special) I kind of miss going to a restaurant and having little to no knowledge of the menu offerings and having that internal debate...do I want the scallops or do I want the veal...what appetizer should we try....now when you dine with people they have a roadmap "I am going to have the tuna tartare because Joe from Joe’s Food Blog said it was the best he has had, then for my entree, the Artic Char because the guy from the newspaper loved it, and for dessert the chocolate torte because it was voted best dessert in the City."

Hey Adam, I thought you'd be interested (and maybe others too) in this article on our local food critic here in Toronto...his publisher thought it'd be a gas to dress up his food critic and take him back to all the restaurants he's reviewed in the past... http://www.torontolife.com/features/guess-whos-coming-dinner/

Enjoy - Nicola

In response to the question of whether or not accepting freebies compromises journalistic integrity, I think it depends. In this essay, Adam is clearly not giving Le Cirque a glowing review. To me, this article appears uncompromising; Adam accepted the free meal, yet still told us what was on his mind.

After reading this I went back to the original "review" from September. Taken together, the two pieces suggest that (a) the author was originally upset about the fact that VIPs get special treatment at Le Cirque (b) the author is now happy to receive special treatment at Le Cirque as a VIP. A direct quote, "... we enjoyed the 'star treatment,' if you could call it that, and savored the evening for what it was."

The thing is, as your readership grows, you can't really call yourself a "nobody" or an amateur anymore. With increased readership and influence come increased responsibility. And, obviously, scrutiny.

I think this really has less to do with the power of food blogging (because, if, let's say Frank Bruni had a bad experience, wouldn't they want him to reappraise it as well?) and more to do with Le Cirque being in the wrong by having such a severe VIP policy, and realizing it themselves. Does the average Le Cirque diner not have as discerning a palate or as much of a desire for a well-hosted meal than a food-blogger?

Let's talk about the power food bloggers have now to direct the diner's dollar. I think that's what chefs and restaurateurs are beginning to recognize. It's all about business baby and we, increasingly, have the power to put people in restaurant seats. When you're looking for a restaurant, especially in a city as restaurant-rich as New York, do you pay closer attention to the recommendation of someone like Frank Bruni or to a food blogger? I listen the the food bloggers because they feel more like my peers than a Frank Bruni ever will.

A few years ago, I complained in a New York Times forum that I was rushed at Restaurant Daniel's and did not enjoy my meal because of the hurried spacing of my meal. Some time later, I received a letter, signed by Daniel Boulud, that offered an apology and an invitation to return to the restaurant for a free meal. Pretty classy all around. I did go back to the restaurant but not as "the guest of the house." The absolutely fabulous meal was more than worth it.
As for Le Cirque, while we did not register on Mr. Maccioni's "important person" scale, we encountered a most accommodating and professional staff whose service was impeccable.
I usually try to stay away from restaurants that are well known to fawn over "personalities" and treat "regular people" like a nuisance, they are simply not worth it. In my experience, there are many great restaurants that treat all customers excellently. It is a good development that bloggers are now keeping score of both types of restaurants. Hopefully readers will eat out accordingly.

Interesting. I've been blogging about restaurant meals for about two years...and I've never received an email or letter from restaurant management about any article. And yes, I am a nobody. However, this past summer about two weeks after I wrote a positive post about a product that I'd purchased, I received an email from a VP in their corporate headquarters thanking me for the positive publicity and asking for my shipping address so that they might send me a thank you gift. It arrived about a week later...more products totaling about $50. I never mentioned THAT in my blog.... This also happened when I wrote a positive review of a shop that I had visited and liked. I received an email, and then later a gift card for that shop. Again, I didn't write more about it. So when is it a "thank you gift" and when is it a "bribe"?

Also - I use food bloggers' restaurant reviews almost exclusively before I travel to decide where to make reservations. I especially like it when there are photos. I much prefer a "real person's" (like me) honest review over a professional food critic. Before my last trip to New York, I read through Amateur Gourmet and Gotham Gal's blogs to select my restaurant choices (rather than reading the NY Times reviews).

Shelley (Pink House) - one answer is that you could have simply said no thanks to the offers that came to you via e-mail. They couldn't have shipped you that "thank you" gift without your explicit cooperation by supplying your mailing address. Is it a bribe or a thank you gift? I only set my ethical meter for myself, no one else. Only you can answer that.

I used to write for a local media outlet and all I can tell you is that I never accepted anything from anybody because I never wanted the possibility to exist that by doing so it could cloud my judgement.

Re what to read before choosing a restaurant - I go with the "preponderance of evidence theory." Which means I rely on lots of opinions and then my own knowledge and gut.

But is this a good thing? You left Le Cirque this time with a better impression of the restaurant and the Maccioni family because they treated you like a celebrity, but they only did that because you embarassed them the first time and because they now know that people read your blog. If they really cared about anonymous customers, you would have been treated well to begin with.

The free meal demonstrates the power of blogging, but it doesn't get the Le Cirque staff off the hook for being jerks. I doubt they treated every customer so well that night, and someone will always have to take the loser table. We can either support these places or not. If I get an invitation to a free meal in response to a bad review, I just ignore it. Let the restaurant prove itself to new customers.

Adam, I still don't understand why you expect good food at Le Cirque. Food isn't what it's selling. You might as well complain that the snacks at Great Adventure are nutritionally unbalanced. What people go to Le Cirque for is what you got the second time you arrived, and what the common gourmet-on-the-street will only get if he/she writes a scathing blog review!

a couple of months ago when i dined at eleven madison park (the new chef is one of my faves), my dining companion tongue-in-cheekly blurted out "she's a food critic" to our waiter. even though i quickly said "no i'm not !" , and i had no camera and took no notes, halfway through our meal the chef daniel humm came out to our table to say hello.
3 months prior to that, when i dined there with another companion who had called ahead to pre-arrange a 13 course tasting menu to go with some special wines he had brought, the chef did not come out to say hello to us even though this was a much more expensive meal.
chefs and restauranteurs are aware of the power of public opinion to impact the success or failure of their restaurant, whether from a paid writer or an unpaid blogger, it's part marketing, self preservation and common sense. let's face it, most people with jobs treat their bosses who sign their paychecks with more respect than their co-workers , so the concept of "VIP's" exist everywhere in life, not just in a pricy restaurant.
go bloggers !!

I think an article about the new power of food bloggers might want to consider what responsibility accompanies that new power, and I don't think that Adam has. What happens when his low profile, which had been a large part of what made his blog so charming and interesting, is no more? Should he pretend that nothing has changed? Should he accept free meals from Alain Ducasse and Sirio Maccioni without much (or any) soul-searching? Should he, like Shelley of Pink House, accept (almost ask for) post-review gifts without disclosing this to his readers? I guess it's fun to find that bloggers have power, but less fun to discover that maybe this should change how they go about their work.

You raise a good point, csl. There are governance and transparency issues that need to be thought out carefully. For our site (http://nycnosh.com), we try to remain as anonymous as possible and to keep the photography quick and done in a way that disturbs nobody. That said, we've been asked a few times about who we were and whether or not we plan to write about the food we're eating, and of course the only ethical answer is 'yes.' So we try to return to a restaurant without the camera to determine if we can spot a difference in service or food. We'll also chat with people sitting near us sometimes, just for a bit of reference, and on the rare occasions when a chef has sent us something unusual just to impress us, it becomes apparent pretty quickly.

Unfortunately, you were outed..something a good reviewer never wants. The folks @ Le Cirque knew it and they "worked" you.

You are so good at the graphics ( kind of a Robert Crumb of the food blogger world- a complement). That's an area no one does as well as you. Mexican novela meets Warhol meets foodie, cool stuff!

Folks like Schrambling and Michael Bauer are still incognito. And no one has ever seen Kim Pierce from the Dallas Morning News ( dont even know if Kim is a girl or a guy). Now that's under the radar.

But you are an entertaining fellow! Keep the fun coming.

Both your experiences just go to show what can be so frustrating for diners--those who are deemed "special" i.e. food bloggers, with their increasing power over the life and death of a restaurant, get special treatment. It doesn't matter that everyone in that restaurant is paying an exorbitant amount for their dinner, only those who are of interest are treated well. It just reinforces to me how much I want to avoid restaurants like that.

You go! It is refreshing to see that "ordinary people" can have a voice in deciding what is great dining and what is not. If only fashion were as responsive! Bloggers are not just amateur reviewers. They provide information not only for foodies, but to real people who are just learning the joys (and the power) of good food. There are enough culinary resources out there that intimidate and discourage readers from having fun with food and thus developing healthy eating habits, using food to draw families and friends together. I will be checking back often to see how you are stirring things up!

Deborah Dowd
http://play-with-food.blogspot.com/

If you are reviewing a restaurant I don't really think it right to take a free meal. In any other profession that would get you fired. Did you know that you were called a “a world-class mooch" by and article in the NY Mag?

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