Banning Food Writers: Why Do Restaurant Operators Think This Is A Good Idea?

A group of restaurateurs in Portland, Maine, generated some dubious publicity this week with their decision to banish local food writer John Golden from their establishments. The proprietors, Arlin Smith, Andrew Taylor and Mike Wiley, had reportedly warned Golden not to write about his April visit to their newest spot, the Honey Paw. Undaunted, Golden wrote about it anyway. The owners responded with an email informing Golden that he was no longer welcome to dine at that location or any of their other places.

Blacklisting a critic like this is an "unusually drastic step," as the Portland Press Herald put it, but not unprecedented in the sometimes tense world of restaurant-critic interactions. Just last summer, celebrity chef John Tesar similarly banned Dallas Morning News critic Leslie Brenner after her lukewarm review of his latest restaurant, Knife. What's different about the Portland case is that Golden's review was overwhelmingly positive, describing the food as "fabulous," "fun" and "utterly fantastic."

So what's their beef with the guy? Apparently the partners disapprove of Golden's writing style. In an interview with the Press Herald, two of the Honey Paw's three owners described Golden and his work as "unprofessional." As an example, they cited one of his earlier articles, which refered to Taylor, shown in an accompanying photo wearing a bright orange knit cap, as a "hat model and chef/co-owner."

Such cheeky commentary is not uncommon in restaurant criticism. And as far as personal digs go, that one is pretty innocuous. But like many self-viewed artistes, chefs and restaurateurs can be sensitive creatures. As such, they may be prone to obsessing over the tiniest speck of negativity, ignoring the larger positives in the process.

By lashing out at this perceived injustice, however insignificant, the Honey Paw's proprietors may have done more damage to their own reputation than Golden ever could. They called his remarks "petty," but their heavy-handed response is the very definition of the term. A critic is supposed to be critical. That's his job. Likewise, a hospitality professional is expected to be hospitable. In that regard, the Honey Paw guys may have shown their true stripes.

How is the dining public supposed to react to Golden's exile? It's been said that in the age of Yelp, everyone is a critic. If that's true, then any Portland-area diner could be subject to the same brash treatment over the slightest complaint.

Admittedly, I am a bit baised toward the reviewer in this instance. As a former full-time restaurant critic, I firmly believe that it's the writer's duty to roam, report and comment freely, regardless of how the management at any particular establishment may feel about his presence or opinions. I've been called unclassy and an idiot, among other things, when people have disagreed with my comments. But no one ever said I would be effectively barred from returning to the premises. Quite the opposite, in fact: The most active response from any chef was a public challenge to come back and eat again.

In this particular case, I had suggested that a popular modernist cook should do away with all the fussy "foams, gels and other things that sound like hair products" and just make me a sandwich instead. I was sort of half-kidding, trying to make the point that sometimes simplicity is the best policy. But the chef took me at my word. And sure enough, he whipped up a pretty amazing sandwich. I like to think that incident helped us both to understand each other a little better. Nothing personal. We're just two guys trying to do our jobs, and do it with a little flair.

My advice to the Honey Paw gang: Rescind your ban. Invite Golden back. Bury the proverbial hatchet. Maybe even share a sandwich. In other words: Act like professionals.