Grace Keh BookRestaurant.com customers love to dine and dish on their experiences!  That’s why we introduced our Verified Diner Ratings and Reviews this fall.  Now, you can easily share your dining triumphs (or tragedies) with others, but what should you say?

We consulted professional food writer Grace Keh, author of “Food Lovers’ Guide to San Francisco” and the managing editor of “San Francisco Food” at sffood.net to get her tips on how you can write a restaurant review like a pro.  Check out her advice below, then head out to a new restaurant to try your hand at a Verified Diner Review!

By Grace Keh

Reviewing the dining experience isn’t just about breaking down ingredients or listing out menu items or prices; it goes beyond explaining whether service was good or bad—it’s being able to take someone with you through the experience.  A well-written review by a non-professional can easily ring truer than that of a professional food critic, and oftentimes, I find them to be more accurate. The endorsement of a food critic may carry more weight—but as a potential diner, a good food review should be equally compelling, if not more.  After all, most of us are regular food lovers; not all of us work in the food industry, write about food, and certainly, most of us are not world-renowned chefs!

Guide

Just as there’s a checklist when anything is about to take off, be it a plane or an event—there are some basics that need a little attention in a good review. What’s the ambiance like? Knowing this tells me the occasion this restaurant is ideal for as well as the dress code. How is the service? Is it comparable to the world-class service of French Laundry? Or do they treat you like family like an old Italian restaurant in a hidden corner of North Beach? What about parking? How much planning and lead time do I have to include getting to my reservation on time? And where is it? Is it hard to find? Are they open all 7 days and until what time?

A good restaurant review should aim to eradicate additional research by the reader unless they want to read on. Everything they need to know to plan a dinner out and make a reservation at this restaurant should be included in the review, if possible.

Engage

Whenever possible, start a food review with an opening statement. An overview is useful in terms of engaging the reader to either (1.) read on, or (2.) move on. Obviously, the objective is to catch their attention in the first two sentences. Much like any story, you have to draw the reader in and make it impossible for them to not complete reading your review.

Considering the reader when you write is key to good food writing.

“I’ll tell you a little later how Restaurant A served me the tastiest—yet ugliest—bowl of spaghetti, but first, let me tell you about how I met the world’s nicest server on this evening.” is one example of an opening line.

The same could be written as: “The service was great at Restaurant A. I loved the food.”

Which would you continue reading?

But make sure you follow-through on giving the reader what you promised, as very little in life is as irritating as getting to the bottom of a 5000-word review only to not get the promised satisfaction.

Compel

Assume I’m reading your review because I haven’t been there myself. Cheap or expensive, good or bad are general descriptors that offer little in terms of “beef”. To compel me to go to this restaurant tonight, beg my social networks for an open reservation or start a savings account so I can eat there in one month requires making me feel like I was there with you. It has to convey that this experience is not to be missed.

In every instance, this is about the food.

The reader isn’t there with you, but your words draw out the image for them, describe the aroma and reenact the sensation and experience. Where the thyme comes from is extremely important in a factual sense, but what the scent of thyme did for that dish is something more conceptual and sensory that the reader can virtually experience. The objective of all food writing is to get the reader to salivate, swallow and mumble, “Wow, I want to eat that, too!” or in some cases, “Wow, that sounds disgusting—I’m never going to go!” as not all reviews are necessarily good ones. Whichever chord you’re aiming for, the key is to strike it–hard. Whichever sense of the reader’s you’re trying to engage—lock it in.

When you keep in mind at all times that your goal is to have the reader relive the experience through you—it becomes clear what you have to focus on in your review versus what information, as pertinent as it may be to the experience, is best left out.

Direct

Even if you raved about only one or two items that you tried during the meal, I suggest offering up some sense of direction for the reader to provide an overall picture of what they should, and will be eating at the restaurant. After all, a meal is much more than one dish. I find that many of my readers ordered exactly what I suggested—even sharing the very dishes I suggested they share. Unlike some others, perhaps you got the chance to try a lot of dishes on that evening and all of them were exquisite; to properly review, you have to enable the reader to do as much, providing a way in which they, too, can have a bite of it all. Recommend they bring more dinner guests and share each dish; suggest they skip appetizers and order two of the main dish because that’s the only thing that’s tantalizing; split this, skip that, order two of those but don’t forget to add that. Provide direction on how to relive your experience.

Summary

Most people write restaurant reviews in an effort to share their own experiences, but also to convince others to either (1) have the same experience, or (2) avoid the entire experience. In either case, a solid restaurant review needs to convince the reader to agree upon and follow-through with the included call-to-action in the review: go, or don’t go.

The key is to include what’s closest to objective, solid and fact-based points focusing on the food, and use the subjective, biased points for the overall summary of the restaurant. Sentences like, “I found remnants of lipstick on my water glass. Avoid this nasty place! ZERO STARS!” serve no real function and carry little value as one dirty glass does not necessarily make a horrid restaurant to be avoided at all costs. Instead, include a statement such as this one: “The only catch to this evening was that I did find a little bit of lipstick on my water glass which was quickly exchanged with an apology, and had no bearing on the quality of food.” The reader has then been informed—but the weight placed upon this information is minor and fair, and the ultimate focus stays with the quality of food and the overall experience that the reader can expect at the establishment. Just as we don’t want to be judged on one thing, make sure to give an overall judgment on restaurants based on the whole picture.

Restaurants are businesses first and foremost, and when you view your own critique as a review that could potentially sway many guests—it’s not fair or proper to ding a restaurant for one hostess who didn’t smile at you when everything else was topnotch. If you can guide, engage, compel and direct with a fair and objective voice—you’re sure to increase your credibility and following in the food review world.