It happened innocently. A friend of mine ate at a restaurant he had been dying to eat in ever since he heard it was opening. He enjoyed the food but commented that the servers’ food knowledge had a lot to be desired. He wrote a review of his experience on his personal Facebook feed, like he always does, not tagging the restaurant in question because he didn’t want to make a fuss–he just wanted to tell his friends what happened.
A couple of weeks later, he got a call from a guy connected to the restaurant. After inquiring about my friend’s experience, the caller kindly asked him to take down the post because the restaurant owner didn’t like the ‘negative publicity.’
My friend said no because it was his Facebook feed and his right to post his thoughts there, but the call did get him wondering about the place negative comments have in the restaurant industry. He’s in the food business himself but has always been open to constructive, so this request to take down a personal post made him question the way restaurants are written about in the Philippines in general.
I have to say that this made me really uncomfortable and surprised because 1) I am not a blogger, and 2) I am not a food writer. I’m not representing any organization or publication, I am just a guy with a personal page. The fact that I have been asked to take down a negative post really makes me uncomfortable because it brings me Martial Law-ish vibes — is there an unspoken “or else” in the request to have it taken down? — which is sadly very relevant in today’s climate.
I’m not even going to go into the unsettling implications about how a restaurateur, when faced with criticism, his first impulse is not to fix the issue I brought up — which again, as I said even in my post, was fricking minor — but to try to silence said criticism.
My question to you all: Is this what happens in restaurants now? I’m aware that there is an unspoken rule that food writers do not make negative reviews here. But has it now extended to private citizens? Am I facing some sort of blackballing and becoming some sort of gastronomic social pariah if I don’t take down the post?
You can read the full Facebook post here.
The censure of bad restaurant reviews has been a topic between me and this friend for some time. He brought up Pepper.Ph’s apology for its negative review of Pablo Cheesecakes as an example of an establishment expecting a reviewer to write only good things about them (Kudos to Pepper.Ph for not taking down the post). He asked me if this was the case in all Filipino restaurant reviews. I had to sadly tell him that unfortunately, most of the time, it is.
There’s an unspoken rule in local restaurant reviewing: you don’t say anything overtly bad about the place, the reason for this being that the Philippines is a small country, Manila is a small city, running a restaurant is expensive, and a carelessly bad review could ruin lives and businesses.
And if one works for a publication, the more sinister implication of this is of word spreading among restaurant owners, resulting in the writer and/or publication not being invited to events anymore, which in turn is bad business for the writer and publication. It has a chilling effect on the media, but with dinuguan instead of dictatorship. I know that dining out is not as heavy a topic as politics, but censure keeps the press from doing their work all the same.
This is not to say that all restaurant features in the Philippine shouldn’t be trusted: good food writers have mastered the art of conveying their true feelings without writing a single negative word. If anything, reading restaurant features in the Philippines should sharpen your critical thinking skills. Just kidding! No, not really.
When I reposted my friend’s status message on Facebook, another friend commented that she posted about a bad experience in a neighborhood restaurant on her own wall and the owner demanded she take it down, coupled with threats of death if she didn’t. She didn’t. What can I say? I have a lot of contrarian friends.
I understand where concern over bad reviews come from. In an era where anyone with a blog can bill themselves a writer or reviewer, it would be ridiculously easy for an unscrupulous person to make money off reviews both negative and positive, such as what the Big Bad Blogger tried to do with Margaux Salcedo.
Also, a lot of people don’t know how to critique properly. For one, they usually equate critique, which involves an in-depth explanation of one’s reasoning, with criticism (the second meaning in the link), which is just plain finding fault in something. A badly written post or article like that would be unfair to the restaurant and could definitely hurt its business. But this shouldn’t be the reason to unofficially ban bad reviews. Instead, writers should be tasked to do their work properly. This means explaining and giving evidence for their thoughts instead of just saying, ‘because I say so.’ As subjective as the appreciation of food is, even it should adhere to journalistic rules of objectivity. Chef, TV host, and former restaurateur Sharwin Tee says as much in his blog post, where he discusses the topic as a chef, a food writer, and a diner.
My friend, who, as I mentioned, works in the food industry, followed up the post with another one explaining how constructive criticism works:
Let it be said for the record: I welcome any and all objective criticism of my work. “What falls under Objective?” you may ask? Well, I’ll tell you!
“Your strawberry ice cream SUCKS!” – is NOT objective.
“Your strawberry Ice Cream sucks because the texture is off and there is barely any fruit flavor and the flavor is one-dimensional.” – Objective
You can read the whole post here.
That said, there are a lot of restaurants who welcome critical feedback as a chance to improve themselves. I once wrote about my experiences with the staff at Recovery Food, whose food I adored, but whose service needed some fine tuning. I got an email from the management asking how they can do better next time, and they didn’t ask me to take down the post. This, I think, is how things should be.
Edited: Added that bit about Chef Sharwin Tee.