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The Art of Being Fifth or Sixth

"Dining Review" politely withdraws from the race to be first

By Troy Johnson

Our dining review in this month’s issue of SD Mag is of 100 Wines in Hillcrest. It opened last August. Most media in San Diego have already given their critical opinion. Am I a tragic slacker? Do I start in Lodi when a restaurant opens and walk slowly, as David Carradine in Kung Fu, toward the restaurant? What the hell took us so long?

It’s because we identified a critical error in this age of digital media, how it unfairly hurts restaurateurs, and our role in it. SD Mag will no longer review restaurants until they’ve been open at least three months, give or take a few days.

New media champions pole position. It champions first. Second? Sorry, slow-thumb. Why don’t you go over to that dark corner of Twitter with your friends, Mr. Third and Mrs. Fourth, plus the other million people who ceased to matter 16 seconds ago when some guy’s avatar had a premonition that this specific cultural event was going to occur. Sanjay Gupta just called that guy. That’s why you see Yelp reviews of restaurants before they open (happens all the time).

YELP REVIEW: “First review of this overrated hot spot! Admittedly, I liked the idea of Mr. Chang’s Un-Fusion when I heard about it six months before any of you did. Fusion went out with leg warmers (ha!). But now I’ve seen the logo on and I can’t support this restaurant. The logo looks like a bunch of chopsticks having a really unorganized orgy. I expected more. Plus, the construction workers are malodorous and failed to whistle when I walked by (yes I walked by twice). When they open next August, I hope no one will waste their time. One star.”

But restaurants are not consumer products. They are not a TV or a Chrysler LeBaron. When a new TV or stylish LeBaron is released, they are as perfect as their designers thought they could possibly make them for the target audience and price point. They don’t need time to evolve, adjust practices or “hit a groove.” So it’s fair to evaluate them the exact moment they are released to the general public.

With restaurants, it’s the polar opposite. Restaurants could be no less perfect than the first day they open. Sadly, the only way to get it right is by letting the public in for real-world trial and error.

A restaurant, like any business or entity that depends on flawed things called human beings, is a living, breathing organism. It needs time to learn how to make all the moving parts walk together in a straight line, let alone run. Some of the newly hired waitstaff will need to be fired because they’re doing illicit things in the walk-in fridge. Some sous chefs will have exaggerated resumes (“Six months under Joel Rubochon” means “I squatted in his basement.”) There’s new kitchen equipment to master, new knobs to gauge, noise-levels to fine-tune in the dining room. Maybe the seafood guy is farming the Dover Sole in his college dorm fishtank.

In my half-decade plus as a restaurant writer, I’ve often asked operators and chefs: How long before a restaurant should be firing on all cylinders? I’ve heard one to two years. I’ve heard months and weeks. No one has ever said, “Opening night.”

“It depends on the operator, but I wait at least three months to eat somewhere,” says Trey Foshee (Note: We’d already settled on three months when I asked him). “I believe the New York Times waits six weeks before their first visit.”

I didn’t check with the NYT. I Googled it, but all I could find was a lot of mean stuff about Guy Fieri. Six weeks sounds logical.

The Dining Review in San Diego Magazine is an estimable space. I read it and wished to be writing it long before I started doing so. I am paid to inform and entertain. I’m a research-based word monkey. But my specific skill and area of study—day after day after day—is restaurants. I’ve seen thousands of ‘em by now, and like to think I can take a look at a restaurant, identify its peer group, hold it up against those, and make a somewhat well-founded, if not at least painstakingly obsessive, critical evaluation of where it lands on the sliding scale of awesomeness.

Why? I just like writing about dinner. And you only have so many nights out. You only have so many dollars we can expend toward pan-seared halibut. I’m trying to find you the best one, in the best environment, with the best service. I’m trying to find you the best experience.

And to do that, I’ve finally decided: **** the digital age. We won’t be first media outlet to review restaurants. But we feel that when we do, that restaurant will have had the right amount of time to become all that it can be. Or have failed at it pretty miserably.

After all, first is very rarely best. Just ask the guy who first tried to fly by jumping off a building with a kite strapped to his back.

(NOTE: This just applies to the Dining Review. SD Mag will continue to cover news about new restaurants in other areas, including here.)

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