The Rockpool Files

Review Season: A Snapshot

Zoe Burbage

It’s that time of the year again, when reviewing season is almost done and dusted for another year.

For those who dine out frequently, and fervently, restaurant reviews in The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide, The Age Good Food Guide, the Australian Gourmet Traveller Restaurant Guide and other such publications are an important point of reference and recommendation.

The guides are collections of restaurant reviews, each scored or ranked on a scale of worthiness after troops of reviewers have painstakingly sifted their way through each city’s throng of restaurants.

Reviewing season typically starts in February and may continue through to June. While we expect our employees to provide consistently good service throughout the year, of course we give them a little nudge come reviewing season: it’s a great incentive to keep staff on the ball and to challenge them to even greater things. Our teams take great pride in their work, and it’s rewarding to receive recognition, praise and a strong rating in one of the country’s renowned restaurant guides.

Contrary to popular belief, if a recognised reviewer dines with us we don’t fuss, or over-work the table, to the detriment of other diners. We go about our business of offering the finest service possible, as we do for all our guests.

In reality, the guides have leagues of reviewers, some of whom would not be known to restaurant staff. We also serve an average of 1700 guests a week, so it’s possible for well-known reviewers to fly under the radar. We also serve an average of 1700 guests a week, so it’s possible for well-known reviewers to fly under the radar.

Long standing reviewers generally book under another name and arrive after their dining companions have been seated. They are always humble, gracious and, contrary to popular belief, they pay the bill in full.

Of course it is never going to be a true experience if a reviewer is provided with the best table, the most knowledgeable waiter, a sommelier at the ready, and specialty items sent out from the kitchen. Seasoned reviewers can see through such obsequious behaviour and if they feel singled out, or favoured they’re likely to send along an unknown accomplice to catch us unawares.

For the most part reviewers are fair and if a restaurant has an uncharacteristically bad night, they’re likely to revisit to give a venue the benefit of the doubt. Reviewers may seek a
second opinion from a colleague if their experience is borderline, and some restaurants are reviewed up to three times before a review can be considered fair.

Professional reviewers are careful with their words, yet honest. But in reality with the rise of online review platforms – from TripAdvisor, to restaurants’ own Facebook pages – every diner has become a restaurant critic, and review season is in fact every day.

Google any restaurant and you will find a number of reviews, from the highest appraisal to the derisive rant of a disgruntled diner. That’s not to say negative feedback isn’t sometimes deserved, but it can also be misleading. An untrained critic may respond with harsh negativity to a dish that simply wasn’t to their taste, as opposed to one that was poorly prepared.

At Spice Temple we have been criticised for our Korean dishes, when we only serve Chinese food. We’re also frequently compared to restaurants in China Town, the bone of contention being our higher price, yet we use some of the best produce in Australia and deal direct with farmers and fishermen with sustainable practices, which arguably sets us apart.

An every-day diner’s critique can be just as damaging as a negative review in a reputed restaurant guide. Our solution? To strive to deliver the very best dining experience, every single day. For us, ‘reviewing season’ is a daily occurrence. During the official reviewing period – when we’re given a profession rating alongside our peers – the pressure, and the stakes, are a little just that little bit higher.

Reviews, both professional and amateur, are crucial to staff training and development. We learn from legitimate complaints and address these with our team. On the other hand, positive reviews motivate and inspire team members: they’re a reminder that when they go above and beyond, it gets noticed, and that hard work is rewarded.

My advice during reviewing season – be that the official period, or the everyday – is do what you do well, yet always try and achieve a little bit more the next day. Recognise loyal customers and tailor their experience, while endeavouring to make the dining experience just as memorable for first-time customers. Be consistent: the only difference should be improvement. Invest in and train your staff: give them the tools to be the very best they can be. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, learn from your mistakes and from legitimate negative reviews. Turn it into a positive and move forward, or the reviewers will always be one step ahead of you.

Zoe Burbage, Restaurant Manager, Spice Temple