Restaurant Review Gigs

[dropcap size=big]A[/dropcap]s a writer, one of the basic bits of advice published writers will give you on getting published is: Write what you know. Since I’ve worked in restaurants for several years, both in front and back of the house, it seemed only natural that I start writing reviews. Strangely, it wasn’t the perfect fit I figured it would be when I started out.

Recently, I’ve been getting hits for searches on “how to write restaurant reviews” or “restaurant cover gig advice,” so I figured I’d help my fellow junior restaurant reviewers hit the ground running. Keep in mind, however, that these are not hard-and-fast rules. It will really depend on the publication you’re writing for. Your local regional lifestyle magazine will probably have different standards than Food & Wine.

  1. Lose the Narrative: The purpose of the review is to give the reader a sense of what an average visit – their average visit – will be like. They don’t care about how you’re dressed, your routine or really anything about you. Having come from a creative non-fiction background, I was all too eager to write myself into my restaurant reviews when I first started out. Fortunately, my editor gently, but firmly steered me in the right direction. Since then, you don’t know how many times I’ve come across a restaurant review that barely reviewed the restaurant. That’s not to say a little bit of personal experience or editorializing is going to kill your piece. Just make sure there’s a reason for it.
  2. Temper Your Criticism: Your role as a restaurant reviewer does not give you carte blanche to rip into the establishment. Everyone and every business has “off” nights. Sometimes unforeseeable acts of God get in the way of good service. Line cooks slice their fingers open. Customers bump into servers, spilling trays of food. Sewage systems back up and come exploding out of the floor like a fountain inside the restaurant. (Yes, I’ve seen this happen. I used to work at that restaurant.) Crazy things happen. It would be unfair to lambaste a restaurant on these rare occurrences. A good way to include these events in your review is to focus on how the restaurant handled them. Sometimes, however, bad service is just bad service. If that’s the case, then you should review it as such, but keep it in the professional realm. No one takes outlandish criticisms seriously. For an example of overboard criticisms, read my review of the Luna Rossa in Tustin, CA. This was just written for me, not a publication.
  3. Nuts and Bolts: When I write a review, I try to cover a few basic points that I feel are relevant to any reader who knows nothing about the joint:
    • Surroundings – I like to describe the area around the restaurant – urban, industrial, downtown, etc. – so that people have a general idea of what they’ll see out the window when they eat there. Plus, it’s always good to know if your car will be where you parked it when you come out.
    • Atmosphere – I do my best to write about the décor. I’m no interior designer, so my vocabulary is a bit limited in this regard, but I think it passes. It’s nice to know if the restaurant is geared for romantic dinners or for family fun. Also, giving the reader a feel for the general floor plan helps them decide on party sizes.
    • Menu – Since you obviously can’t reprint all the food offerings in your review, tell the reader what he/she can expect to order. Cover the major groups: poultry, fish, steak, pork, pasta, vegetarian dishes, etc. This is a good place to discuss the wine list (if there is one) and give the price range for the restaurant.
    • Service – I think for most people eating out at most places, service accounts for at least half of the reason for eating there in the first place. If you’ve never worked in a restaurant, sometimes it’s hard to know what good service is. Typically, you can get by with just covering speed, presentation and demeanor. There’s more to a server’s job than that, of course – enough to fill a book – but most people don’t care about anything beyond those three things.
    • Exclusives – I try to mention the things that make the restaurant different from others, like special events, cooking classes, hosted dinners, live entertainment, whatever it is.
  4. Ask Questions: Your server is a wealth of knowledge about the restaurant (or at least they’re supposed to be), so don’t be bashful about pumping him/her for information. Also, if appropriate, have the Chef come out and tell you a little about himself/herself.
  5. Expert Opinions – Eating alone sucks, so I recommend bringing a guest. Friends are fine, but I suggest bringing someone who complements your expertise. Since my food and wine knowledge is spotty in parts, I like to bring my friend who’s an Executive Chef to fill in the blanks. I know that most of you aren’t going to have access to this kind of resource. To that, I say get out there and start networking.
  6. Experience the Courses – If you’re a serious writer, then due diligence demands you sample every course – appetizers, soups/salads, entrée and dessert.
  7. Collateral – Depending on the kind of restaurant, try to snag as much literature from them as possible. Take home menus, press kits, fliers; anything that you might need to review later while you’re writing. There’s nothing worse than being under a virgin-tight deadline and forgetting the name of what you ate and not having something to reference.
  8. Revealing Your Reviewer Status – I have mixed feelings about this issue. On one hand, if you eat at someplace under the guise of an average patron, you get to see what average service is like and you can write a more accurate review. On the other hand, if you prepare the restaurant and tell them that you’re reviewing them, they have a chance to put together a press kit for you and you’re that much more prepared to write a comprehensive review. If you’re just starting out, chances are that the publication you’re writing for isn’t covering your tab. Heck, they may not even be paying you at all. In which case, you may want to give the restaurant a heads up on your review. More often than not, you’ll get a portion of your bill comped. For my part, I like springing my reviewer status on them after I’ve paid the bill. It’s fun to see General Managers falling over themselves to boost my opinion, but having no recourse since I’ve already signed the credit card chit.

Alright, fellow reviewers! That’s all I have for one night. I hope at least a few of these pointers will help. Now get out there and write some good reviews. 🙂

Update: This article was originally published on January 6, 2008. It has been updated with new information.

Editor-in-Chief/Publisher
  1. Thank you SO much. I just started culinary school in the baking and pastry arts program at C.I.A. I got an assignment to write a restaurant review in my Writing course without any clue or instruction on how to go about writing one. After reading your article I think I can conjure a little something up. =]

  2. @Denea:

    No, no. Thank YOU so much for stopping by, reading and leaving a thoughtful comment. It’s nice to see that other people can benefit from my experiences.

    Good luck at C.I.A. A good friend of mine graduated from there and he’s a wonderful chef. Who knows, one day I may be reviewing your food.

  3. Thank you so much for the tips. I just began my first journalism class and my first assignment is to write a restaurant review. I hope to make writing my career.

  4. Thanks Rene for giving me extra guidelines. I’ve been reviewing venues, mostly restaurants, in Amsterdam for expats & international travellers. With your tips, I hope to become a better writer and reviewer.

    Kira

  5. @Kira:

    No sweat. When you’ve reviewed your next restaurant, shoot me an email so I check it out.

  6. Great piece Rene. I am preparing for my first restaurant review (it’s tonight) and your article is just what I need. How do you feel about reviews where restaurants comp the meals? And in these situations, should the reviewer still tip the waitstaff?

  7. @Darryl:

    Thanks for dropping by my site and for reading. I’m glad my article could help.

    First, let me just say that I don’t think reviewers should have to pay for their own meals. Either the publication should foot the bill or the restaurant should eat the tab. Furthermore, I don’t think that the fact that the reviewer is getting compensated necessarily discredits the review. There is a certain amount of doubt we give journalists, because it is (or should be) considered a sacred position. Journalists wield a lot of power, like doctors and mechanics. Until a journalist proves his or her bias, there’s no reason to assume their review is skewed just because they were paid to write something.

    Secondly, you should always tip according to the bill amount regardless of if you have to pay for the bill. Keep in mind that the US government automatically assumes the server is getting tipped a minimum of 8% on every bill and taxes the server accordingly. So when you “stiff” a server, you’re actually making them pay for 8% of your meal. If you’re eating at a 5-star restaurant and don’t want to drop a 20-dollar tip or whatever it is, just make sure to charge your publication for it.

    In any event, I hope you’ll come back to Working Author and post a link to your review when it goes up.

    Thanks for visiting.

  8. Thanks for the clues. I was asked by someone to do a restaurant review and while I have restaurant experience and writing experience, I lacked the combination of the two. This will help, thank you!

  9. I personally love the above article. A lot of beginners do end up taking some noticeable notes while in the restaurant! So, if you must take some sort of notes just jot them down on your phone!

    Also.. this is one of the most detailed how-to restaurant review articles I’ve ever come across!Thank you Mr. Garcia.

    Thanks for the great restaurant review article!
    -Adam

  10. Hi,
    Your advice has been very helpful to me. I am a published writer, but do not know how to find the listings of restaurants that will pay for writing a review on them? Can you help me? For instance, a new Applebees has opened in our community and I go there all the time because I love it. How do I go about making the contact to write the review?
    Thanks,
    Lynda

  11. @Linda Cornetti:

    Thanks for reading and I’m glad I could help. Restaurants don’t typically pay diners to write reviews about them since that would be an unethical practice. You will have better chances of getting paid for your reviews by getting hired by your local paper or online magazine. Since paid journalism is somewhat comatose right now — especially with so many writers willing to write for experience — it may be very difficult to find what you’re looking for.

    I hope this helps!

  12. Thank you so much for insight how to write a review. I am a Chef, I’ve worked both the front and back of restaurants for many years. I’ve now started writing reviews and enjoyed your input. Thanks again.

  13. I recently dined at the Table Restaurant in St Kilda last week. My husband and I had purchased vouchers from ‘Groupon’ and rang the Table Restaurant to make a booking. After leaving a message on their answering machine the owner rang back to let me know they had a table for two at 7.45pm. However, after informing the owner we had groupon vouchers, the owner changed his mind and told me he no longer had a table available. It was clear he did not want to honor our valid vouchers and unfortunately we were spoken to very rudely. After much debate, four phone calls later & my husband meeting with the owner to discuss this situation face to face we were reluctantly given a table.

    Even though the food was great and the chef knows how to cook beautiful food, we felt uncomfortable the entire time we were there and unfortunately would never return.

    It is extremely obvious the owner does not know how to run a restaurant. Being an open kitchen we were forced to listen to the immature banter and “toilet humor” between the chef/owner and a young female kitchen employee. We were not the only diners that had to experience this.

    The Table Restaurant seems to be owned by a man who just wants to continue joking around in the kitchen instead of behaving in a responsible, professional manner towards his customers. We felt there was a vast difference between the quality of food and the way the restaurant was managed. These two aspects simply didn’t compliment each other.

    The saving grace of the night, along with the standard of food, was our waitress who was the only individual behaving in a professional manner.
    In summary, the food was great but the lack of professionalism from the kitchen and the owner is the reason we will not return to the Table restaurant.

  14. Rene, thanks for such insightful information. As a child my family members were in the restaurant business.Now I am a Teacher and have written just two reviews. One so far was published in a local paper. I have submitted the second one to another local paper and waiting for a response. I have received very favorable response as to the quality of writing and style of the reviews.As a novice I am seeking an outlet for my work and look forward to continue writing. Should I submit work randomly to publishers? Advice please? I can show you my work for review if that would be appropriate.Thank you.

  15. @Isidore:

    I’m glad my article was useful for you. I hope you come back and enjoy more of the site and tell your friends and family. I don’t suggest randomly submitting your work since most publications will not even read it. If you’re happy with the local paper, then stick with that. It’s always a joy for any writer to be published somewhere. If, however, you’re looking for paid work or perhaps a column, then I suggest looking for regional magazines/webzines that are hiring writers. You’ll probably have more luck with webzines, because print is pretty comatose right now and most small publishers can’t afford to cover tabs. If you end up getting published elsewhere, then please be sure to come back and tell us of your success.

    Thank you for reading!

  16. I am so pleased I stumbled upon your blog and read this article. I nodded my head on all points. I’ve had very bad writers block with knowing where to start. I’m more encouraged now 🙂 – Anna

  17. Dear Rene,

    I’m glad I found your website, especially this article that I have found so insightful. I have realized a few things I was not doing right.

    I have published at least 15 restaurant reviews on my blog of which I get quite nice feedback from people that read them. I however have a few questions/remarks.

    I have tried to join a certain food writers association but I was told of my ineligibilty because I run a dessert company. Should this be so? I’m of the opinion that running the dessert company has actually given me a better insight as to what to expect. P.S: I am not employed by any restaurant neither do I plan to.

    I’m from West Africa, there are just a few food writers in my country, we don’t have any food review column in the newspaper or magazines, how do you think I can start one?

    Cheers

  18. Ola:

    Thank you for stopping by and thank you for reading.

    In regards to the food writers association, I think they are just trying to be safe and making sure that there is absolutely no conflict of interest. Drawing a very thick line probably ensure they won’t have to get into “grey area” situations.

    Regarding starting a food column at your local publication, the best option is to offer your contributions for free. If the column becomes popular, the publication may offer to pay you or pick up your tab. This is a very big “if” however, since print publications are suffering. Before you approach them, I suggest polishing your style and getting to the review quicker. A verbose blog format works on the Internet, but in print, you’re working with a very defined space and you need to get your point(s) across quickly.

    I hope this helps. 🙂

  19. Hi Rene,

    I’ve just stumbled across this article, as I am trying to write my very first food review for a magazine in Spain. I am English and the magazine is an ex-pat publication in Valencia, where I live. I’m hoping with your advice I can write them something they like (and maybe even publish!)

    Thanks for the advice, I’m looking forward to getting started.

    Kind regards,
    Alyx

  20. @Alyx:

    Glad I could be of service. Just remember not to overdo it or over-think it. Depending on the publication, most editors want to know a writer can get to the meat quickly. If you were reading a review of a restaurant, what would you want to read? Keep that in mind when you write. Good luck!

  21. This is incredibly helpful. I just started reviewing Toronto restaurants for Examiner.com, and was wondering what the standard is for revealing that you’re a reviewer. Great article. Thanks so much for the advice!

  22. Lily:

    Sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner. It’s been a hectic end-of-year and start of a new one. Unfortunately, I can’t answer this question with anything useful; writing isn’t always an exact science. 🙁 A good lede really depends on your ability as a writer and your personal style. It also depends on your editor’s opinion of what qualifies as a good lede.

    Ultimately, write whatever gets your review published.

    Hope this helped. 🙂

  23. I have been a chef since 7 years and haven’t even written a single blog.I use to visit restaurants and would keep it to myself but I think I is very important to let the owner or other consumers know what are they going to experience Nd in owners case how correct is his approach.
    But I don’t know where u start up with as I have grudges of 7 years piled up already lol

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