Why I Won't Write Negative Reviews

In arts writing, particularly criticism, there is a temptation to be negative, to be snarky. It's especially a problem in reviewing films and albums. I find that some critics are going out of their way to out-write the source material—to prove how knowledgeable and urbane they are. Essentially, it's cool to be acerbic and pack each graph with a critical mass of quips. Conversely, being supportive and optimistic is for apple-polishing nerds.  

One of my favorite comedians, Pete Holmes, has a bit about this idea that is often repeated on his podcast, You Made It Weird. Holmes notes that people think of unencumbered enthusiasm as the mark of a rube. Surely, only a golden-retriever-of-a-human-being would be so needlessly enthusiastic all the time. Food writing is not immune from this impulse unfortunately. Hell, I'm not even immune from it.

For instance, a couple years ago there was a scathing review of Guy Fieri's Time Square restaurant, Guy's American Kitchen & Bar, in the New York Times. I read it, and I'm sure I laughed. I'm sure I passed it around the internet just like my friends. The thing is, the Times had absolutely no business reviewing a tourist trap, chain restaurant in Time Square. They went into that review expecting a disaster, expecting a potential viral piece criticism. I'm sure they couldn't wait to fill a tube sock full of limes and pummel the Mayor of Flavortown...figuratively speaking of course.

I know this because I did the same damn thing when I worked as an arts writer for my college newspaper. I specifically asked to review Kid Rock's album, Rock N Roll Jesus, because I knew I would hate it. I was absolutely clamoring to write jokes about an artist I deemed to be lesser. To be clear, I still think it's a bad album. Like, you had to rip off “Sweet Home Alabama” AND “Werewolves of London” in the same song? What, couldn't work in “Stairway to Heaven”? (See you loved that, didn't you!?)

The point is, I didn't have to write that review. No one on staff did. It's not like Mizzou students were waiting with bated breath for an assessment of the latest Kid Rock single.

Obvious hit pieces aside, there are also some food bloggers who walk into well regarded restaurants, even two-and-three-star Michelin restaurants, with a chip on their shoulder. Oh, this place is getting good write ups and it's so great. We'll see about that.

Seriously, watch the documentary Foodies on Netflix, and you’ll see what I mean.

 

The trailer doesn’t quite capture the obnoxiousness of some of these people, but I still suggest adding it to your queue. It’s a case study in why people get annoyed with foodies and food bloggers.

They're self-ordained paragons of taste, and no one is safe from their righteous judgment—Michelin stars and James Beard awards be damned. They jump at the chance to be iconoclastic in the guise of objectivity. I'm not necessarily saying any chef or restaurant should be beyond reproach, but there's a certain way to do it.

That was a rather long preamble to a pressing subject: Me.

I bring up this issue because I'm in the position to decide what I ultimately want to do with Arcade Kitchen. The answer I keep coming back to is supporting the amazing and creative local food scene in St. Louis. I mean, right now, my readership couldn't field a pickup basketball game, but still.

As it is, St. Louis gets a bad rap from outsiders and suburbanites who love to clutch their pearls without actually experiencing what the city has to offer. I don't want to be in the business of tearing down hard-working people trying to give back to the community and contributing to the local culture.

Even before making this public declaration, you'll note my writing about restaurants was already positive. That's because I love food and the experience of dining out in this city. I want others to share my enthusiasm, and skin-deep cynicism seems like a poor way to achieve that goal. To that end, I've relabeled the former “Reviews” section as “Restaurants.” I feel that's more accurate to what I want to do.  

I don’t think looking through a lense of positivity will hurt my writing either. It’s easy to view it as an unnecessary handicap, but every piece will necessarily be interesting in its own way, because every meal, every restaurant is different. Not only that, I’m completely honest in my enthusiasm. That being said, I’ll still note my preferences and minor criticisms, and I’ll still sneer at bad chain food and processed garbage marketed to kids—just not at small business owners literally pouring their creativity onto the plate.

You can argue that I'm not really a food writer and that's not food journalism. You can argue that if I had any cajones I would tell it like it is no matter what, man. That I’m just a fanboy that knows a handful of $10 words. But I genuinely do not care what you think. I'm not the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; I’m not the Riverfront Times; I'm not St. Louis Magazine; I'm not Feast Magazine; I'm not Sauce Magazine.

I am Arcade Kitchen.

It's just me. And I don't get any joy from torpedoing a restaurant's search results because it didn't quite live up to my expectations. Not that I have that sort of power...But if this isn’t what you're looking for, I guess you can read an Alan Richman or James Mariani book.

Furthermore, I have to admit I have other reservations about “reviewing” restaurants. I didn’t go to culinary school. I’ve never worked in a kitchen. Growing up, I worked terrible retail and customer service jobs instead of waiting tables or washing dishes. I learned to cook on my own, and any knowledge I have is from reading cookbooks and food publications, Google and shows like Mind of a Chef.

Part of me feels wholly unqualified to write about food at all. I mean, I know I’m more qualified than some people, considering I have friends who haven’t eaten a vegetable in six months. Still, there’s a sense that my writing about food industry professionals is more akin to couch jockeys giving LeBron pointers on his jumper than legitimate criticism. I’m also aware that in terms of frivolity, a food blog falls somewhere between a party in the capital of the Hunger Games and literally any As Seen on TV product.

Despite all of this, I’m compelled to continue. I would rather support the hard working people putting themselves out there to make other people happy than worry about some high-minded debate about objectivity.

I don’t know, maybe that just makes me a rube who loves food and his city.