Category Archives: Food media

An Opening and a Closing

Probably the most significant Chicago restaurant world stories of the last week and a half were the opening of Three Dots and a Dash and the closing of West Town Tavern (followed by the opening and then closing of Chicago Taco). How did the Chicago food media handle each?

Let’s start with West Town Tavern. I never went, but everything that I had heard led me to believe that WTT was a nice neighborhood spot and it always seemed to be kind of just chugging along. A little googling revealed that the place had been open since 2002, so basically it was ancient by restaurant life expectancy standards. On July 22, seemingly out of nowhere, WTT abruptly announced that they were closing. Three days later we found out that the restaurant would be re-opening the next day (under the same ownership) as Chicago Taco. Chicago Taco opened for a night, and then closed, and that, it seems, is that. So what happened? Perhaps this would be an interesting story for a local food journalist to pursue. Well, apparently not. At this point we’re stuck with Eater comments (potentially the lowest form of discourse known to man) and Twitter speculation.

On the other hand, Three Dots and a Dash is now open. Paul McGee/Lettuce Entertain You’s tiki bar/soon to be bro vs. cocktail hipster Octagon of Truth is now fully operational underneath Bub City. I know this because Twitter was flooded with pictures and talk of the free drinks from friends and family. I also know this because Time Out Chicago posted this. Is it an opening report? Maybe. Is it a review? Coyly no, I guess. It does sound like the author and companions had a great time boozing it up, and we’re left with the comment

So how was everything? We’re planning to review Three Dots and a Dash once it’s been open for at least a month, but we’ll say that we finished every drink in front of us.

Well, if you’re going to review it in a month then don’t say anything. Besides, I’m pretty sure that I’d be pretty excited about any bar where I drank the entire menu (on someone else’s dime I assume). So in the end, what’s the point? Is this any better or more valuable than a press release? I will say that the upside to this potential tiki revival is that we’re finally going to get some pictures of cocktails that don’t look like this (found via Google Image Search)

Image

The difference in coverage between these two stories is pretty typical of the Chicago food media these days unfortunately. Non-critical coverage of the latest PR driven opening, and non-existent coverage of the closing of a venerable neighborhood restaurant. I don’t blame any individuals for this, at least not entirely. But this is what happens as media outlets cut budgets and people. All of us really come out worse off.

UPDATE: This was a major oversight on my part, but if you are interested in a substantive discussion of tiki that goes beyond “ZOMG we drank all of the drinks” check out the latest Airwaves Full of Bacon podcast here. It’s a great listen on tiki and other subjects, and really represents the best of non-PR driven journalism right now.

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.