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.