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Am I Too Nice?

By Stett Holbrook

YOU TELL ME: Am I too nice? People seem to love hearing about the prospect of me writing a vicious restaurant review. "Are you going to slam them?" comes a typical question from a friend about a restaurant I visited that didn't win me over. The questions are asked with a kind of bloodthirsty glee, as if the most thrilling kind of review to read is one that flays a restaurant wide open and then stomps on its guts.

The British press popularized a hyperbolic, over-the-top kind of restaurant criticism that's really more about entertainment than a critical review. Take this gem from London Times restaurant critic A.A. Gill. Writing in Vanity Fair about Jean-Georges Vongerichten's New York restaurant 66, Gill famously quipped: "How clever are shrimp-and–foie gras dumplings with grapefruit dipping sauce? What if we called them fishy liver-filled condoms? They were properly vile, with a savor that lingered like a lovelorn drunk and tasted as if your mouth had been used as the swab bin in an animal hospital."

Funny stuff for sure, but for me that crosses the line from restaurant review to creative writing display. Just what does an animal hospital swab bin taste like?

Restaurant reviews are wholly subjective and should reflect the opinions of the author. The author's voice should permeate the review and therefore avoid third-person objectivity, something that's impossible to achieve anyway.

My reviews are my opinions. That said, if a restaurant really stinks, I don't bother writing about it. That doesn't mean I shy away from being critical. Most restaurants are mixed bags with some good elements and some not so good ones. I make an effort to spell them out as fairly as I can. But if a place flat-out sucks, why bother writing about it?

Most of the places I review are small mom-and-pop operations. If the food is truly bad, the restaurant will die anyway. A kick in the nuts from me isn't really necessary.

Silicon Valley is loaded with bad restaurants. Lots of them. It's a lot harder to find the memorable places, but those are the ones I spend my days driving around looking for and those are the ones I prefer to write about.

There is one exception to my rule: high-profile, expensive restaurants are fair game. If Jamie Oliver or Paris Hilton (God forbid) were to open a restaurant in Silicon Valley, I wouldn't give them a pass if they served low-grade dog food. I've taken some whacks at big, expensive chains that move into town, too. These places have the support of a deep-pocket corporation that helps them deflect my slings and arrows. My words probably wouldn't have much of an impact on places like that, but they might hurt a couple who invested their life savings in an ill-advised cabbage and haggis–themed restaurant. So I choose to leave them alone.

Personally, I'd rather write about a place that excites me, a place that I want to tell people about. Does that make me too nice? You tell me.

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