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Why food criticism has become Charlotte's dirtiest secret.

In a January piece for Charlotte Magazine, Keia Mastrianni made the case for food criticism in Charlotte.

This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.

Feathers were ruffled. Undies were bunched. Yours truly even participated in some high salt content subtweeting. Her key areas of criticism were that the mingling of ad-supported content and comped meals inherently poisons the journalistic objectivity of a food critic.

[Note: Inside 485 proudly does not take money or free meals from any restaurant you read about on this site.]

Your average Instagram foodie or culture webzine writer never asked to be a journalistic paragon of brunches and cocktails. Some people just like to take pictures of their food after a long day at their 9-5 bank job. To hold these Grammers to a code of ethics is as silly as holding your friend to the Hippocratic Oath when you tell them about a bad rash.

But points were made. I've often complained about a culture of high-fives and back pats in Charlotte. Still, Keia's call outs cut deep because I didn't see them in the conversations I was having. Everyday I hear from people who openly share what meals disappointed them, even those that were comped. If Keia and those who agreed with her could participate in more of those conversations, I reasoned, they would see that food criticism is Charlotte is alive, vibrant, sharp, and diverse.

With time, however, I began to consider the venue of these conversations.

Last week, I gave a tepid review to Noda's The Goodyear House [5.2]. The public reaction was mixed, with many saying it was too soon to make such a call, one person even calling it "irresponsible." But my DMs, texts, and emails were a different story, filled with near unanimous agreement with my criticisms, and stories of similar experiences.

A week later, Queen City Nerve's Aerin Spruill posted a disappointed review of Anomaly, a pop up which touts itself as "Charlotte's most immersive restaurant experience." Noting dirty glasses and lukewarm food for her $315(!) price tag, I reached out to other diners who'd tried the popup. One popular Instagram foodie told me "It was the worst fucking meal I've ever had."

Again, publicly the presentation of the experience is friendly, amicable, focused on the good. But in private conversation, the truth comes out with sharper edges. Charlotte food criticism isn't absent. It's just whispered, like junior high school gossip.

Why is food criticism, particularly unfriendly criticism, something that's become a dirty, underground secret in Charlotte?

Here are the three takes I've heard regarding the matter, and why I think they don't hold water.

1. "New restaurants won't have everything figured out."

Tweet from @kathleenpurvis, food journalist.

By design, Inside 485 mainly covers new restaurants. There's an old school rule still held by some in this city that suggests waiting 3-6 months for a restaurant to mature before reviewing it. Those who adhere to that rule find it unfair to judge a restaurant on its expected early wobbles.

I disagree. When a restaurant is ready to take your money, it's ready to take your criticism. If it's so expected that restaurants will be rough around the edges in their first month, why is it so offensive to point out what those flaws are? I doubt the owners and chefs improve much without knowing what isn't working.

Plus, this 3-6 months rule seems to only apply when there's negative things to say. I doubt you've ever seen someone give a glowing review of their dinner at a new restaurant and heard another friend respond, "Now hold on! You can't say that yet! It's too soon!"

2. "Just let people enjoy things."

There's an admirable sort of kumbaya quality to the millennial mantra that we should "let people enjoy things." It encompasses a laissez-faire style of discourse that suggests each person not only has a right to their opinion, but a right to relative protection from opinions different from their own.

Take for example the rise of nerd culture as a profitable entertainment medium. "Let people enjoy things" would've been a great defense in the late 90s, when reading a comic book or playing with a Star Wars action figure (not a doll, mom!) could still get you bullied. Now, Jennifer Aniston and Martin Scorsese can't express dislike for Marvel movies without being bullied themselves.

We can let people enjoy things, but I also suggest that we let people not enjoy things too. The presence of negative opinions on, for example, Midwood Smokehouse shouldn't be taken as an attack on those who do like Midwood Smokehouse. Positivity deserves no particular buffer zone from negativity, and vice versa.

3. "If this concept doesn't succeed, other people might be too scared to try new things."

Tweet from @scallionpancake, food writer and podcaster.

Charlotte's extremely friendly food criticism scene is based on a shared insecurity about the quality of our cuisine. Everyone wants national-worthy concepts, and there's a fear that if we don't give restaurateurs the space to make mistakes, we'll never get those concepts.

Last week on Twitter, I asked the followers of Inside 485 to weigh in on how many chances they'll give a restaurant before they decide it's no good.

Over half (58%) said they'd never go more than twice. Almost a quarter (22%) said they'd only give a restaurant one shot.

I would ask: in a space this competitive, where 80% of restaurants only get 1-2 chances, do we really owe any restaurant anything?

Every time we make a decision to dine, we are choosing to give one restaurant money, and choosing to not give money to dozens of other restaurants. And when food critics in public positions decide how and when to toss out negative reviews, they're unwittingly making a key decision for restaurateurs who aren't so lucky to curry the favor.

Food critics who think they're protecting a restaurant are actually hurting a lot more restaurants, ones less savvy with media and influencer types, ones who might just be better at that food thing.

It feels noble to say what Charlotte deserves, but what goes missing in the undercurrent? If a Charlotte couple has one night out a month away from their new baby, suppose they try a $315 immersive experience they read a glowing review for. Now, suppose the critics have decided for this couple that this experience is too important to harm with a negative review. I doubt that couple will be eager to spend another $315 when the city's second and third immersive experiences come through.

What is there to make of all this?

First, I believe we need to drag food criticism out of the DMs and into the public sphere. This is a conversation, not a public trial. Saying a meal was bad will not cause the instantaneous homelessness of an entire kitchen staff or the collapse of the food scene.

Second, we've got to stop thinking about each other and our restaurateur friends and start thinking about consumers. We are beholden to diners, not to restaurants or PR agencies.

Lastly, we need to have a little courage. It's easy to say food is good, so easy in fact most foodies make their career off of it. Negative reviews aren't as fun. They don't get the likes and retweets and impressions platforms need to survive. Hedging your bets by keeping it positive is tempting. It's nerve-wracking to put your time and money into something and not know if it's going to pay off.

But that's the very same thing diners go through. It's time someone started sticking up for them.

1 Comment

Stephen Philpott
Stephen Philpott
Feb 13, 2020

Having been to art school and working in a career that constantly faces criticism, I agree and disagree.

First, the disagreement. A new restaurant is like a new baby. It has it's kinks and for many restauranteurs and chefs, this is their first or second outing. Parents need a few months to years with their first child and should not be judged on their missteps in infancy. This is why people hate cancel culture. It's too quick to judge.

Now for the agreement. Restauranteurs and chefs are artisans and skilled laborers. It is always a combination of both. Some restaurants lean closer to artisan than skilled laborer and vice versa. But no matter which way you lean, if you suck…

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