One of the things that's really sort of bugged me lately is my own personal views on what's actually good, and what's actually worth the money. It's a tough issue in this day and age when restaurant PR is pervasive. Every week I get hundreds of PR emails, and I'm sure there are others in my field that get thousands a week. It's a tougher job getting the word out than actually doing good cooking. There are plenty of media outlets now - blogs, newsletters, etc, but the market for restaurant PR is bigger than ever. That's because restaurants and chefs feel the need that their particular message isn't being translated to the public. Or rather, that PR companies have somehow convinced these restaurateurs that they need their savvy and expertise to produce editorial content.
That's the name of the game - if you want to have a successful restaurant, you'll want a mix of positive Yelp reviews, blog posts, newsletter blasts, and other relevant material. I've been part of the operation - plenty of PR people have reached out to me, dangling free meals or "comps" as the industry calls them. There's nothing particularly wrong about getting free food. But it does start to wear on your perception of what's actually good. Many of the things I've written about on this blog are things I didn't pay for, but many of them are things that I have paid for, 100%. I sort of have to keep tabs on my own perceptions by going out to restaurants with the full understanding that I'll be paying for it.
So there's the rub - I could keep getting free food from places and think that all these places are awesome (or not), or think like everyone else - evaluate the food based on how much it costs for the average diner. Not like, "hypothetically" think about how much it would cost. No - actually see the dollars come out of your bank account. Then, and only then, will you really understand the value and excellence of the food you're eating. But even food critics don't really pay for all their food, right? Actually I've heard it on good terms that even the most illustrious food writers in this city dole out plenty of their own personal funds toward their reviewing.
The trouble with it all is that writers loved to be coddled and "taken care of" (using more industry lingo). Everyone wants to feel special, or at least be told that they're special. And sometimes writers feel the need to retaliate against places that don't necessarily treat them this way.
I'm not sure what the answer except that you can't have the cake and eat it too. You're either completely pure - you pay for 100% of your meals and never get comped - or you get comped right and left and never pay a dollar of your own money for food. I am pretty sure that exactly NO ONE in the food writing cadre are in this. No one is 100% pure, or goes either way. So then what gives? Maybe it's more of a leaning type thing. You lean toward one way or the other. I've found that in the past year, I've wavered on which way I wanted to go. Trust me, once you eat a ton of free food, it gets addictive. But then, you realize that when you actually pay for good meals and experience them without the influence of PR, there is the potential for greatness.
I can tell you the truth that the best meals that I ever had in my life were the ones that I paid 100% for. I can also tell you that while some comped meals were quite good, for some reason I felt reserved in giving them my full endorsement. Not because I necessarily felt guilt about getting the food for free, but rather because somehow I couldn't place value in it when I didn't pay for it.
Going forward, my general policy is that I won't write about places unless I've paid for something. Maybe I've gone to a place on a comp once. But I won't write about it unless I've gone there without the influence of PR or free food or any kind of VIP status at least once. I know it's not perfect, but I do think that paying for something outright gives one perspective.
I recently went to a popular Pasadena restaurant again - this time on the restaurant's dime. The previous time I went and my sister and I split the bill. The last time I went, the tab was over $200. This time around, we would've spent around the same price, but all I paid was a hefty $40 tip. This whole week I've been wondering if I would go back. I know this place has had a lot of press from blogs and such, but I feel like having the meal for free, and having paid for it, I've got this dualistic perspective on the place.
My verdict? I would definitely go back - while the food wasn't perfect on either occasion, there were merits to each meal. But maybe the outcome shouldn't necessarily be "was it worth it" but rather, "would I go back?" And by going back, would I spend my own hard earned money? The best places are the ones for which your answer to the latter question is a resounding yes.