The Ethics Of Restaurant Blogging
Today I want to talk to you about reviewing restaurants. I’ve already written at length about what the experience is like for my friends and family when they’re dining with me when I’m writing a review, but I have not really taken a look at it from probably the most important point of view that exists in any of my reviews: that of my readers. Several times a month I go into restaurants, take photos and write about my meal to share my experience with you all, but a lot of the time I’m not the one footing the bill.
To give you a bit of a general idea, out of the 51 listings currently on my ‘Places To Eat In London‘ page, my lunch date and I footed the bill for 42 of the meals, 8 of them were complimentary (I was invited to dine by either the restaurant or their PR company), and one of them was a review of a press soft launch, where I received 50% off of the entire bill for preview purposes. I wanted to talk today about how I go about writing my reviews, as well as some of the ethical considerations that need to be taken into account when I’m dining on someone else’s dime, because I know a lot of people have a lot of questions if it is right that reviewers (bloggers and more ‘traditional’ press) should receive complimentary meals at all, with the view that in some way these freebies my act as bribes to write only good things about a restaurant. I can think of several popular restaurants in Central London I’ve eaten in (and reviewed, paying my own way) that have received massive blow backs on social media because it has been perceived that they were using freebies to buy positive press.
One thing that I think is unacceptable in a blog post when someone has been invited to eat somewhere for free is not disclosing the fact, with either a physical disclaimer, or dropping words like ‘I was invited to try’ into the text. Just as a fashion or beauty blogger may do a dress or a mascara, I feel it is important for your reader to know that your meal is comped, if you are not footing the bill yourself. If anything, full disclosure helps you build trust with your readers when you’re writing any sort of review as a blogger. You’ve been honest with them that you’re enjoying a freebie, which stands to follow that you’ll be honest in giving your opinions, too.
One stumbling block I find to this disclosure rule (that I know I’m guilty of in restaurants) is social media. I’ll Instagram a dish while I’m in the restaurant. I’ll mention that my dish or meal was free later on in my full written review, but I’ll often forget to mention it in the caption. I’d love to hear your thoughts here about social media disclosure (I disclose product placements that are not general snapshots of my life on Instagram), because I’m not exactly sure how I feel about it or what my policy should be.
I know some people believe that bloggers should not receive anything free at all, because there is no way your opinion can’t be influenced by a freebie. I have mixed views about the influence something being received for free can exert, but I 100% believe that bloggers, and other journalists should be able to call in samples and have free or part subsidised review meals. I blog pretty much full time (with my freelance work, approximately 50% of my online income is from this blog, you can read more about how I make my money blogging here), and there is no way I’d be able to afford with my business to be able to buy all the cookbooks, new ingredients and meals out to share with you all without some help. Yes I need to be honest about everything I receive, but from me the blogger sitting on my laptop, to large magazines and newspapers in big London offices, none of our operations would be sustainable without press samples.
However, when I’m eating a free meal, I’m very conscious of not abusing it. I try and eat how I would normally have done so if I were paying for the meal. Sometimes, the meal has a limit or requirements. One highly enjoyable meal I reviewed I was told the two of us could have a three course meal each, and a bottle of either house red or house white to share. In another I’ll be doing soon where there are sharing plates, we’ve been told we can have 4 dishes between the two of us, and a £30 wine budget for the table. Otherwise, when we are free to choose what we like from the menu, as well as trying to replicate a usual dining experience, I try to sample the full range of what the restaurant has to offer. For example, When I reviewed Roast in Borough Market one of use ordered from the set lunch 3 course menu, and the other three courses a la carte, so we could review both experiences. We shared a carafe of wine for two, and as each of the desserts on the menu had a different drink pairing listed with them, we sampled the house fizz with our dessert.
One thing that is important to me when I’m writing a restaurant review is to try and replicate the user experience; that is, I want my meal, everything down from the menu choice to the service received to be just as it would (or be as close to as possible to) how it would be if I were just someone who had walked in off the street for a meal. I emphasise, for me it is about writing a fair and as honest review as possible, so I can give you all, my readers the best idea possible of what your experience will be like if you choose to dine at the restaurant after reading my review.
Another thing I always do when I’m dining out on someone else’s dime for review purposes and they have not given us set perimeters, is I offer to foot the drinks bill. I think it is only polite, and I know how much of a restaurants profits actually rely on the sale of alcohol. However, not once so far has a restaurant actually taken me up on this offer.
Following on from that, one thing that absolutely drives me crazy when a PR has invited me to review a restaurant is when the staff fall over my companion and I, giving us over the top service that is nothing like how it would be if we were dining as regular people. Maybe this is wrong of me, but when I get given over the top service that makes it harder for me to judge what a regular experience would be like, I get much harsher than I’d ordinarily be on other details of the restaurant. If they work to hard to impress me, I judge them harder on the things they can’t change just for my visit. This trying too hard is one of the reasons I never tell a restaurant what I’m doing if I’m reviewing and taking photos as a regular customer.
Lots of people ask me what I do when I’m reviewing a restaurant where my meal was free and I did not enjoy my food or the experience. I’ve said this many times, but I seek to recommend restaurants, so I’d never write about a place I would not want you yourself to visit. Okay, so there are some mixed reviews on this blog, but only of places that I think there is something good to recomend. For example, I would not tell you go for a sit down meal at Jackson + Rye. However, to sit at the bar for pre-dinner cocktails, or for post-dinner cocktails and dessert? They have some fantastic and delicious options on offer.
So far I’ve had two free meals that I’ve declined to review in London so far, for reasons ranging from terrible (and sometimes down right hilarious) service, or both average or horrible food. On both occasions I’ve explained to the PR’s that I don’t like to write bad reviews, so I’l be declining to write about my experience. However, they have still taken the effort to invite me and their restaurant has been kind enough to host me, so I always make sure to give detailed, private feedback via email about what I liked and where they could do better in the future, and answer any questions they might have about my experience.
Another thing I take into account when I’m writing a restaurant review is my audience and my location. Namely, I have a very different set of criteria when I’m reviewing a restaurant in Canterbury than I do in London. Canterbury caters to a very different audience, who expect something different from a meal out, and have different budgets than your average dining Londoner. We also don’t have as many options with chefs and ingredients, so while we still produce fantastic foods and concepts, I feel it is unfair to try and compare the food in both cities, because they are simply too different.
Essentially, what I think it all comes down to is as a blogger, I have to work to gain your trust so that you know what what I’m writing is the truth, regardless of who has paid for my meal, and if the restaurant has tried to alter my experience for the better because they know I’m there acting as a critic. I’d love to open up the floor, as I really want to hear your thoughts on what you look for in a bloggers restaurant review, and how you feel about bloggers eating for free for review purposes. You can either leave your thoughts in the comment section, or get in touch over Twitter. I’ll be re-tweeting your comments to get the conversation started.