Mailbag: Why Different Ethical Standards for Food and Theater Critics?

“Dear Mr. Marshall: Don’t you find it odd that in one post you condemn theater critics for coming to review a play uninvited, yet slam a restaurant owner who exposes the identity of a restaurant critic trying to review his establishment surreptitiously? Why are consumers served by secret food reviews, but not by secret show reviews? This is why people hate people like you.”

Gee, I thought there were a lot of reasons why people hate people like me! But I digress.

I had actually been waiting for the above reaction, though I expected it in a comment, rather than an e-mail, and I had three candidates in mind who might have offered it (you know who you are!), but it came from a new Ethics Alarms reader.

Here was my answer:

“Dear ——-,

Thanks for your feedback. I had wondered if anyone would raise this point, and I’m glad you did.

Yes, the posts were both about critics, reviews, and fairness, but there the similarity ends. Restaurants are not like theaters (and don’t get me started on dinner theaters), and food is not like a theatrical performance. It is possible for a restaurant that wants to impress a single diner to give that diner a completely different experience from what it gives to every other patron of the restaurant at the very same seating, and considering the benefits of a good review and the penalties of a bad one, this is very likely to be what a restaurant will attempt to do if it knows the identity of a food critic. (Watch “Ratatouille.” Heck, watch it just for fun: it’s a great film.)  As I’m sure you will acknowledge, this is impossible with a stage performance. The critic will get the exact same performance as everyone around him or her, though the reviewer may react to it differently. Thus there is no benefit to having reviewers attend shows incognito. Will knowing a reviewer is in the audience make the actors resolve to give a better performance? In my experience, the effect is often the opposite: many actors don’t want to know when they are being reviewed. Even professionals get nervous. But the variation between a reviewed and unreviewed performance is likely to be very small: it is  not possible for a producer to haul in an all-star cast for one performance to unfairly impress a critic.

Meanwhile, food is not like drama. Would you go to a restaurant that advertised that it didn’t have its menu perfected yet, and its food wasn’t quite right? Plays and musicals may be lousy, but they seldom make one physically ill. When restaurants are open for business, that is a representation that it is offering a finished product, the best it can craete. It is fair, at that point, for its food to be reviewed by anyone, at any time. The proper analogy between food and a theaterical production is the one John Simon used in his blog post, describing the act of reviewing a show before its official opening as the equivalent of “grabbing a dish from a restaurant kitchen before it is fully cooked, and then judging the meal by it.”

Once the food is cooked, and offered to the public, it can be critiqued. A Broadway show in previews is not “cooked.” It is still an experiment, and the results aren’t in. When it is “cooked,” the show officially opens, and it can be fairly reviewed, by anyone, at any time, as many times as the reviewer chooses.

This, by the way, is one aspect in which fair restaurant critics and fair theater critics should behave similarly. Any restaurant can have a bad night (sick chef, missed deliveries, kitchen fires) just as any show, Broadway or otherwise, can have a bad performance (or an unusually good one). When there is any hint that a meal, or a performance, is an aberration, a critic who cares about the critic’s duty to accurately inform consumers about the quality of a product will give the restaurant, or the show, another chance.

Your comment also was beneficial in that it reminded me that the issue of reviewing previews is relatively new. Not so long ago, Broadway-bound shows did their work-shopping on the road, opening in New Haven, heading to Philly, playing in Boston, and then opening upon arrival on Broadway, often with a very different production from what the other cities’ audiences had seen. Those road productions, essentially the equivalent of today’s Broadway previews, were reviewed, because for New Haven, Boston and Phildadelphia, these were the only versions of the show they were likely to see.

Sometimes the out of town reviews were so negative that the production never got to Broadway at all. This was the system in place, however, agreed to by all participants, understood by most audiences.  Out-of-town reviews still weren’t Broadway  reviews. A review of the Boston version of the show was not going to be applied to the final product on Broadway.

It could be argued that the old way was fairer and more transparent, but current Broadway economics make it impractical. Broadway critics always waited until opening night, and still should. The show just isn’t cooked yet.

Thanks again, and please—call me Jack,”

9 thoughts on “Mailbag: Why Different Ethical Standards for Food and Theater Critics?

  1. Hmm… begs a question. Shouldn’t some intern at the paper follow up with the restaurant the day after the critic dines to find out if there were any irregularities to account for in the published review? What if the critic was writing a horrible review based on the head chef being sick and the sous chef was hauled off by ICE?

    Or maybe if that happens, the restaurant owner should apologize to his patrons and kick them out because he knows he won’t live up to expectations.

  2. Hate is a word that is being way overused, in my opinion. Apparently, no one simply dislikes something or someone any more; everyone must hate. Is there no longer a middle ground or at least something less extreme than hate?

    • It is so often used without really meaning it, many such words have already gone into vocabulary of the middle ground. Jack was ready with the answer and was only probing. Now having done it he should also take in his stride such words that really do not mean anything, if you are in a crowd of college goers using the word in a jolly good conversation many a time.

      Jack must go ahead with his good intentions to raise these topics of interest. I appreciate the subtle difference between `cooked’ and not yet cooked but I find no fault on the restaurant owner’s exposure of the critic in disguise. Be open, pay for the meals and go write your critical assessment of the food. A good restaurant that improves on the customer’s appetite shall not be concerned with the critic in disguise.

  3. Pingback: Mailbag: Why Different Ethical Standards for Food and Theater … | Food Critics

  4. For the record (to the extent this is a record), a Boston Globe music reviewer did just what you suggest in the fall of 1972. (Can’t remember his name offhand.) Three performances of Stravinsky’s cantata OEDIPUS REX by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a galaxy of international opera stars had been scheduled for a weekend. The reviewer attended the Saturday show, and published an unfavorable review in the Sunday Globe. To my surprise, the Monday Globe had second review by the same reviewer, who had suspected (though I don’t know why) that the Saturday rendition had not been the best the performers could do, and went back to the Sunday matinee. His second review was much more favorable, and even more astonishing because he published it after the run was closed and his article could have no possible effect on audiences. It would only affect reputations, both the performers’ and his own.

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