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Are Philly-area restaurants ready for the return of bells and critical reviews? Is the critic? | Craig LaBan

It’s been a long time since I’ve uttered a peep of constructive criticism about a dining experience. But it’s bubbling robustly back to life now, as hungry customers return to reopened dining rooms.

When is it fair game, ethical or even needed for a restaurant critic to return to their consumer reporter function of holding restaurants to a consistently high standard?
When is it fair game, ethical or even needed for a restaurant critic to return to their consumer reporter function of holding restaurants to a consistently high standard?Read moreCynthia Greer

I’ve been looking for a sign that it was time to return to reviewing restaurants, especially as Philadelphia lifts most of its coronavirus restrictions this week and the Big Reopening accelerates. And I was certain this box of spring produce was it.

I’d gone to meet the Green Meadow Farm truck at its Center City stop one last time. The farm that sustained my family’s home cooking during the pandemic was ending its year-long pivot to retail because its wholesale restaurant business had finally returned. I was thrilled for the Brendle family but sad for mine, because it’s been such a privilege to cook with their special ingredients. But I did a double-take at the name of a previous customer scrawled on the recycled box I was handed: Bloom Southern Kitchen.

Earlier that morning, I’d made a reservation for dinner at that very same restaurant in Chester Springs. This wasn’t a coincidence. This was fate!

So it was with joyful anticipation we took the 45-minute drive to gather with good friends later that evening, unmasked at a table for the first time in over a year. We lifted our drinks to toast our first step back to restaurant normalcy, took deep sips and...Cough! Cough! Cough!

The bartender had forgotten to add a balancing splash of sweetness to Bloom’s potent take on an Old Fashioned. It was easily fixed with some simple syrup. But that was just the first of many slips in a meal that would cost the four of us nearly $300, from gumbo that was muddled with separated oil, to shrimp that weren’t quite cooked over otherwise tasty grits, to long waits at each course looking at plates of hot food, but with no silverware to eat it.

Perhaps the eight-month-old Bloom is not yet ready for its real review. And I’ll concede: I’m still hesitant, too.

It’s been a long time since I’ve uttered a peep of constructive criticism about a dining experience, let alone rated a restaurant with bells. I spent the past 15 months instead writing about restaurants simply struggling to survive the coronavirus disaster, about chefs overcoming sickness, combating systemic racism and business restrictions. I’ve focused on recommendation lists of takeout and outdoor dining highlights, nodding to the pop-ups, concept makeovers and social justice initiatives that kept Philadelphia’s culinary scene simmering through it all.

But it’s bubbling robustly back to life now, as hungry customers return to reopened dining rooms and roughly 60 new restaurants have opened or are still-coming across the region since the new year — more than at this time in 2019, according to my colleague, Michael Klein.

» READ MORE: Starr, Schulson, and Garces are 3 of the big names opening new Philly-area restaurants in summer 2021

So when is it fair game, ethical or even needed for a restaurant critic to return to their consumer reporter function of holding restaurants to a consistently high standard?

John Kessler, a Chicago-based food writer who was the food critic for 18 years at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, argued in a thoughtful April essay in Plate Magazine that local food critics can still have an essential role in providing context for both readers and restaurant operators during the “mad scramble (post-pandemic) to set up a new dining order in each city.”

As critics weigh not simply their words, but the extra element of ratings, the pace and tone of each city’s dining revival may require a distinct approach, .

“Very few of us have really continued to do the restaurant critic’s job [during the pandemic] in the way it’s traditionally been conceived,” says Devra First, my counterpart at the Boston Globe. “People would like them to be champions of the industry...but I [still] see the goal of the critic as being the champion of the consumer with a fairness toward the industry... Do I see myself returning to star-rated criticism callouts when things aren’t great? I don’t see myself returning to that within the near future. In two months, everything could feel different.”

Washington D.C.’s restaurants were less-affected by the economic pressures of the pandemic than other cities, says Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema, who’s been writing reviews for months, but also without his usual ratings: “I don’t know when I’m going back to star ratings... I know I will, but I don’t know when.”

While the sight of busy restaurants may give the illusion of “back to normal,” nothing is normal behind the scenes yet at all, especially as restaurants struggle with a severe labor shortage that has led to job fairs, signing bonuses, service charges and the occasional realignment of traditional tip-distributions between the front and back of the house. That workforce challenge includes places like Bloom, which opened in October but, despite a recently busy dining room, is only at 60% staffing capacity, according to partner Michael Falcone: “From dishwashers to line cooks and even upper-management, we’re challenged to find qualified people because they’re just not coming out for jobs right now.”

That hasn’t stopped the co-owners of Bloom, who also own Oori in Pottstown, from opening yet another restaurant soon, Bella Trattoria in Spring City. Which once-again begs the question: Why shouldn’t all these new business ventures be assessed thoroughly with fair criticism?

» READ MORE: Philly-area restaurant owners put the bar in bar mitzvahs as they get into the events business

At least one restaurateur thinks they should.

“People are ready. They need to be ready,” says Nicholas Elmi of Laurel and the new Landing Kitchen in Bala Cynwyd, which is part of a complex of new venues. “I’d be surprised if anyone stood up this summer and said, ‘I’m free to be here and make money and not be judged on it.’ We’re judged every day on what we do in this industry, and we should be held to a high standard.”

The myriad challenges of re-booting, though, have undeniably impacted the realities of running a business, says Eli Kulp, a partner in High Street Philly, Fork and who also hosts the CHEF Radio podcast.

“There’s been a real [social justice] awakening which has been good. But then you’re paying up to 30% more for staff, you’re still trying to support local agriculture, and you still can’t charge more than $14 for a salad,” he said. “For a lot of owners I talk to now, the effort has not been on making the food or service great. We’re returning back to normal, but people have had to make a lot of shortcuts to survive.”

“Is it time yet [to review restaurants again]? It is getting close. But there has to be fluidity to the whole thing, right?”

I agree the situation is fluid, but also progressing fast enough that it’s time to take deeper dives into what’s working — and what isn’t — in the full restaurant experiences rapidly becoming available. But I’m going to wait on resuming ratings. The reviews can acknowledge the adjusted expectations and cultural conversations of a snapshot in time. But the Inquirer’s bells have a long history of standards behind them that endures beyond any particular moment, and they simply can’t be applied usefully to what restaurants are still dealing with now.

At some point, they will ring again. But when?

One person with actual experience on determining that kind of elusive transition is Brett Anderson, the former critic at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, who paused that newspaper’s bean-rated reviews after Hurricane Katrina for nearly three years.

“I probably could have done it six months sooner, but I always felt I might be missing the real story to suddenly decide the most important thing was...whether the trout meunière was up to snuff,” he said. “It’s hard to shift gears when you feel traumatized.”

The trauma is no doubt felt in some measure by all who’ve lived through this pandemic. But a return to writing about restaurants in all their diverse new incarnations, with all the hope, joy, creativity and flaws they embody, can be an essential step forward in recovering one of the most dynamic and vibrant barometers of our city’s shared culture.

When Anderson finally started reviewing New Orleans restaurants with bean ratings again in 2008, it made front-page news in the New York Times, where Anderson is now a contributing writer.

“I think a return to restaurant criticism,” he said, “can be a sign of hope.”