Rob Ullman illustration
Russell Cook, the chef at Balliceaux, notices a pen mark on the new tabletop and rubs at it irritably. "That's what happens in a new restaurant." After all the time, effort and money, not to mention brain-busting anxiety, a customer sits down and carelessly inks up your beautiful tabletop without thinking.
It's tough to open a restaurant. It's expensive and risky. The city doesn't seem to want to help, and, in fact, sometimes it's hard to discern exactly what the motivation is behind all the hoops that small businesses — especially restaurants — have to jump through in this town.
So once you get to opening night, you're exhausted already and operating mostly on adrenaline. It took Balliceaux owners Lainie and Steve Gratz a year and a half to gut the old Bogart's building and transform it into a cool, airy space that started out as an idea for a neighborhood, kid-friendly bistro and became that and so much more.
"Opening a restaurant is one step forward and two steps back," Cook says. There was a lot of anticipatory buzz about the place because the demo and construction process took so long. "There were traffic jams on Lombardy as people slowed down to look inside of the big window at the front," says Cook. That meant that when Balliceaux opened its doors, they were instantly slammed. "The word of mouth did it," says Cook. "That soft opening? It was not so soft."
And then, the food bloggers came.
I'm a food blogger. In fact, my blog, Brandon Eats, was one of the first on the Richmond scene. So that makes me a sort of blogging grandmother to all the little baby bloggers writing away out there. Ancient and full of wisdom, despite my defection to print.
But Grandma's not so happy.
One blogger had a great experience at Balliceaux and called Cook "a genius." Although normally that might be a wonderful thing to say, this time, Cook says, "It started a backlash. Suddenly the assertion was that I wanted to be the next superstar chef. That's crazy. I'm just trying to open a restaurant and be a good chef."
A few years ago, a new restaurant would open and it would be two or three months before the critics rolled in to judge and print their opinions. It takes awhile to get things right and very few (if any) restaurants can work out all of the kinks and anticipate what might go wrong before they unlock the doors for the first time. Critics also go more than once before writing a review since bad things can happen any night of the week — the random must be separated from the general before an opinion sees print.
Reviewers know that what they say can directly affect a restaurant's bottom line. That they can, in fact, put someone out of business with a damning review. It's a big responsibility and, frankly, not one to be taken lightly. However, if a restaurant is turning out terrible food and its service is in shambles three months into the game, the reviewer has an obligation to readers to say so, and back up the argument with concrete examples.
The world has shifted however, and shifted again with Twitter and Facebook. As Cook says, "A lot of people make their decisions and form their opinions based on other opinions." In the past, I've lain awake at night agonizing over a bad review or whether or not I went too easy on a place that deserved harsher criticism.
I'm not the first to caution bloggers against hastily posting online, but I feel a responsibility to weigh in and remind everyone that people believe what they read. They really do. It doesn't matter if it's in a magazine or on a computer. Words carry weight and affect people's lives.
So, before you write, and more important, before you believe what you read, think carefully. Imagine how you'd feel if your performance were judged on your second day at a new job. Aren't you grateful that the world doesn't usually work like that? I know I'd really hate to have to fire you.