Wednesday, July 20, 2005

No Scrutinizing the Scaloppini in Springfield

“So come to the ________ if you want to get sick and die and leave a big garlicky corpse. P.S. Parking was amble.”

What Springfield publication would print such a scathing and vitriolic review?

And what restaurant was made to publicly suffer the indignity of having their cuisine butchered so mercilessly?

The answers: The Springfield Shopper and the Legless Frog.

Of course, we’re talking about the fictional Springfield here and a particular pointed review by one Homer J. Simpson.

Ruth Reichl, who served as the New York Times restaurant critic during the 90s, defended her harsh criticism of some of that city’s toniest joints by declaring that her responsibility was to the common man, not the haughty restauranteers. I suppose if the fois gras with cape gooseberries at Lespinasse was not up to snuff, then Bennie the dockworker deserved to hear it straight.

A quite different approach to restaurant reviews is taken in our Springfield. Jimmy and Johnny of AM Springfield never fail in their quest to be treated to a wonderful meal. The Illinois Times’ Penny Zimmerman-Wills and her dining companion are always magnanimous in their praise, no matter where they visit. And then there is the Springfield Business Journal.

A good example of the Pollyannaism that pervades food criticism here is the rating scale for restaurant reviews used by the SBJ. The scale tops out at Exceptional, but dips no lower than Average. The problem with this is that most people have taste buds that register sensations that fall well below what could be considered ordinary. What’s more, it is difficult to believe that their reviewer, at some point, hasn’t ingested things that have activated her gag reflex, making for a decidedly below average dining experience.

There are many reasons I can think of why publications would want to put a positive spin on reviews.

For one, restaurants can be counted on to fill-up advertising space, but not if their signature dish had previously been disparaged as unfit for human consumption on those same pages.

I wrote about a few restaurants while working for Springfield Magazine and understand how this bottom line position can temper a writer’s instincts. At one establishment, I was greeted by the manager through a veil of smog that cast her as an apparition. As my lungs filled with secondhand smoke, I knew that I hadn’t found my lede. Nor would this distasteful scene find itself anywhere else in my draft, not if I wanted to continue writing for the magazine.

There’s also an accountability factor. Nick Rogers can trash Herbie: Fully Loaded with little fear that Lindsay Lohan will call him on the carpet and question his credentials. But take a stand against some gastronomical affronts being dished out at a local eatery and the critic and his editor may face the wrath of a chef scorned. Not to mention his legion of regulars who may take up arms in the letters-to-the-editor section.

But perhaps the main reason that restaurants receive at least a passing grade from local critics is the same one that prompted a school district in Virginia to discourage their teachers from handing out zeroes for missing assignments. There’s a feeling that by doing so you are jeopardizing someone’s livelihood. That’s not an enviable assignment.

So while it’s understandable that local publications steer clear of bare knuckles restaurant criticism, do the articles serve any purpose if the reader knows going into the review that the reviewer came out of the restaurant with only good things to say?

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