Media Dinners – Injecting Commercials into the Discussion

Media dinners have been part of the “food media” scene for quite some time now. A restaurant will invite a bunch of writers (online or otherwise) to try out a new menu. The implicit bargain is that said writers will turn around and tell their readers about what they just ate. Is this a review? I don’t take it as one. The dinner is a setup. Is it PR? Sure. Is there anything ethically wrong with a writer going to one of these things and then, well, writing about it? As long as they disclose the circumstances of the meal, absolutely not.

The problem is the space these media dinners now occupy in the broader context of how we, as diners, read about food. The list of professional reviewers and those who actually provide analysis of our local food scene is getting shorter by the week. What we are left with is a scattered landscape a couple of professional reviewers, message boards/discussion sites, blogs like Eater/Serious Eats, and Twitter.

Looking outside of the professional ranks, food discussion sites (and, more recently, Twitter) have been and continue to be valuable tools for finding the best food. Take the experiences of a bunch of “regular people” who are passionate about food, aggregate them, and the best food should (hopefully) emerge.

The problem is that “regular people” don’t necessarily stay “regular people”, especially in the world of food when restaurants can pretty easily figure out who has an influential voice. And this is where we come to the problem of the media dinner. There are nights when all of a sudden several of the food people you know on Twitter will all start tweeting from the same restaurant. In the middle of an LTH thread, you’ll see multiple accounts of the same dinner on the same night. What’s happened here? The discussion has been interrupted by a commercial*. Instead of a critical analysis of the food a restaurant is putting out, we get a press release by proxy of a new menu.

I wonder if this sort of thing actually works for restaurants. They keep doing them so I assume there must be some sort of return on the investment. Personally I tend to ignore accounts of these media dinners and rely on the opinions of people I know and respect in evaluating a restaurant. Actually, the most effective PR (at least for me) is hearing directly from the restaurant/chef what’s new and exciting. Take Mark Mendez of Vera for example. He comes up with something new, takes a picture of it, and puts it on Twitter. There’s no press release. There’s no event. It’s just “here’s something awesome I just came up with and you should come eat it”.

As diners we’re exposed to too much PR these days. It’s hard to escape, and it can become tiresome. We need more directly from chefs. We need more people talking about what they had for dinner at a normal night in a restaurant. Like every other part of our lives, we need fewer commercial interruptions.

* It’s only fair to disclose that I’ve had three comped dinners myself, but I’d like to believe I got them as a result of being a good customer of a restaurant. The first was a truffle dinner at Sweets & Savories (RIP), the second was the first anniversary dinner at Graham Elliot, and the third was a friends and family night before the first Next menu.

3 thoughts on “Media Dinners – Injecting Commercials into the Discussion

  1. Mike Gebert

    Well, I had a longer conversation on this topic with Anthony Todd yesterday— coming soon to iTunes near you— but having been at the very same event (Homestead), here’s a condensed (if not short) version of what we talked about.

    Previews are necessary, helpful and not necessarily pernicious. A new restaurant absolutely should want to get known to people who are going to be influential. And as the media shrink, PR folks are desperately trying to find others who can be influential— bloggers, discussion board people, widely followed twitterers, etc. In fact they’re pretty desperate to find more of those as major outlets disappear; like a lot of things right now, they too wonder if it really works for restaurants, but they have to try whatever they can think of to survive. So it’s no surprise that Dave Andrews, who participates on LTH, invited Ron Kaplan to Homestead.

    What becomes an issue, I think, is when writers feel they need to repay that, or find it hard to say bad things about someone who just plied them with food and drink. I went to a lot of previews that I just didn’t write about because they were somewhere between middling and disastrous. And there’s no good answer there: it’s unfair to sugarcoat that for diners, but it’s also kind of unfair to the restaurant to damn them for a dinner off a set menu for 20 people at once before they’ve actually opened. Maybe the food will be warmer when they’re cooking for four-tops. Maybe the chef will learn to season things. Maybe they’ll decide that heavy country club food doesn’t go with their sceney wine concept and they’ll fire their chef and get a new one. Maybe, by the time Kenny has lunch there and raves about it, the menu will make sense.

    So those dinners were educational for me as a guy covering the scene but I chose not to educate readers at that point because I felt the circumstances of the dinner just weren’t close enough to actually dining there to be worth anything to readers. But writers have to make choices and do their best to be honest— and yes, I saw glowing things written the next day about each of the flameouts I described above. (In this case, it’s hard to see the point of bemoaning that Ronnie wrote a glowingly positive writeup as opposed to… Ronnie’s usual glowingly positive writeup. He’s not, to my mind, trying to be a critic at all— as his sigline “Driven by passion, not aspiration” would seem to agree. And we could have a long, unprofitable talk about the long history of quid pro quo on LTH, which started long before Barn & Co.)

    But I don’t know an answer for this that doesn’t involve a time machine. The number of people who are paid to be critics alone and can remain conventionally pure is rapidly approaching zero; anyone making a modicum of a career in this business has to be out non-anonymous in the world, dealing with people for pre-opening stories whom you’ll review a few months later. And they have to figure out how to do it while seeming straight yet knowing that they’re walking the line of never pissing anyone off too badly. (“Funny, Brendan Sodikoff won’t return my calls for this Travel & Leisure piece I’m pitching.”) I feel like I’ve found a reasonable midway point that I feel ethically good enough about, but if anyone wants to come at me like Robespierre on behalf of the Citizens of France, it’ll be a stammering, self-contradicting defense that comes out of my bourgeois mouth. In the end, it’s kind of up to you the reader to decide what’s worth listening to, and what isn’t.

    Reply
    1. jesteinf Post author

      I think this is right on. There’s no easy answer to this and it’s an almost impossible balancing act for everyone involved. I will say that one of the things I liked so much about Grubstreet is that it didn’t act as just a pass-through for various PR efforts.

      And yes, totally up to the reader to evaluate what to listen to (regardless of the source).

      Reply
  2. Kenny Z

    I hope the Gebert/ Todd discussion becomes something for public consumptions. I don;t think his intentions are bad, but he definitely falls on the dark side of my imaginary line for these things. Rarely does he disclose his freebies, and it seems that every time he goes out to dinner he puts out a Plotnicki-style tweet announcing that he’ll be there, never failing to put the restaurant’s twitter handle in the announcement. I find it icky.

    Reply

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