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Why some restaurants never taste as good the second time around

By Troy Johnson

It’s date night. You Google a few restaurants you’ve been hearing about. You read the first few articles you come across: “The duck will rejigger the molecules of your piehole!” “Huge portions!” “The chef is Jesus!”

Encouraged by these reports, you make reservations. You arrive to find the place understaffed by gum-smackers who say HAIR-IH-COT VURRRTS, the 1-oz duck wing still partly frozen, and the chef apparently drunk in the walk-in.

Or maybe you go to a restaurant during its first few months, have a Prozacian-good experience. So you take your food-snob pal to the place six months later—and it’s sheer sludge on a plate.

What happened? Where is the disconnect between media and your current god-awful dinner?

A few restaurateurs have given me a theory: You and the press have been successfully manipulated by The Openers.

The Openers are smart. Shrewd. Darwinian overlords of the restaurant industry. The Openers are restaurants that fake greatness out the gates during the media rush, then cut staff and quality when the spotlight subsides.

It makes so much sense.

When a restaurant opens, every food writer, blogger, weekend TV reporter and super-Yelper makes a beeline. They want to hang their name as one of the first to rain judgment down upon the new kid in town. The great bulk of literature (ahem) about that restaurant will be locked into the informational totem pole within the first three months. Those stories will most likely be the Front Page of Google that will define the restaurant for a few years, if not indefinitely.

This is where The Openers tactical approach works wonders. They hire a consulting “opening” chef. They buy top-shelf proteins and luxurious microgreens. They heap food on your plate and keep menu prices low. And they have enough staff to make sure ugly, finished food never lingers on your table.

They do all this for, say, three months. By then, the media spotlight is dim, if not entirely gone. Most of the media will have set their opinion in stone. And they won’t return to that restaurant for at least a year (much longer if it’s a high-end restaurant, which makes repeat visits for poorly paid journalists very inconvenient). Even if they do, they probably won’t write a follow-up report. Very few modern media outlets want to run a second story on a year-old restaurant. They want new, new, NEW!

Of course, not every restaurant whose quality dips means they were intentionally manipulative out the gates. Sometimes they simply looked at their numbers, realized they were a few bad nights away from sleeping on their parents’ couch again, and made hard economic decisions. As well, a restaurant is such a difficult, complex entity to operate for the first few months. Some owners overcompensate (more staff, top-dollar food products) just to ensure your experience is great.

For The Openers, it’s a very intentional manipulation. Their business plan includes a few months of excellence to lock their reputation in place, followed by steep cuts to staff and quality to make money off the newly golden hen.

So when searching for reviews of places, take a gander at the date the story was published. If the media outlet—including SD Mag—hasn’t checked back in since the time of The Openers, consider getting a second, more recent opinion. And if you identify a restaurant getting great reviews out the gates, by all means go, take advantage of The Openers bounty.

Tomorrow, SD Mag will make an announcement about a major shift in our Dining Review policy.

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