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What Are the Ethics of Reviewing a Restaurant During Soft Opening?

In light of chef Neil Rankin’s reaction to a review of Temper City

Neil Rankin
Paul Winch-Furness

“Please go fuck yourself you unprofessional tosser,” was how Anthony Scaramucci chef Neil Rankin ended a comment under an online review yesterday, addressing the writer for good measure as a “massive, massive prick.” Temper City, indeed!

In fairness, many chefs would side with Rankin on this one, since the reviewer — Ben Southwood of Straight Up London — broke one of the restaurant scene’s great unspoken taboos, reviewing on the basis of a heavily discounted soft opening. It’s a huge no-no: when I suggested I was planning to write about somewhere I’d hugely disliked during soft launch, a fellow critic privately took me very politely, but very firmly, to task.

The question of when and how to review a new place has come up a few times in the past few weeks: first with the furore over the Hollywood Reporter’s review of a week-old (but full-price) Vespertine; and secondly, and closer to home, with the massively varied set of critical responses to our very own XU. In the attention-grabbing, clickbaity economy, there is clear merit in being through the doors first; Marina O’Loughlin’s review suggests, though, that giving a place time to find its feet and flesh out its offering — XU didn’t even offer pudding when Fay Maschler visited for The Standard — might be a surer route to accurately capturing its true essence.

Southwood’s review, it’s worth noting, largely abstains from critiquing the cooking and composition of specific dishes; it does spend plenty of time (repeatedly) unpicking the concept and taking issue with portion sizing and pricing. There are also moments – especially the analysis of some “pointless” curry plates complete with “sad” tomatoes and “bland” potatoes – where you do very clearly understand where Rankin is coming from; as he argues, the reason soft launches are discounted in the first place is to “iron out problems” just like these.

Is that all soft launches are about, though? Are they not also — in this era of influencers and hype-hungry PR — a vital marketing tool; a handy way of building some initial buzz to guarantee you’re chock-full from the start? If ironing out kinks is all they are for, surely all response — positive and negative — should be embargoed until the doors open at full price? Rankin had no qualms about retweeting praise of the “great” meal a Twitter user enjoyed at Temper City, or reposting the same sort of stuff on Instagram; it’s also easy to be a little sceptical of his claim (as he went to war below the line on Straight Up London) that post-opening he would likely increase portion sizes and / or decrease prices. Opening a restaurant is a difficult endeavour (especially in today’s brutal climate) but there’s no getting around how, on a purely intellectual level, that feels a little wonky.

Let’s give restaurateurs the benefit of the doubt on this one: a negative review is far more dangerous to a new opening than an inaccurate review is to a writer. XU is a rare outlier: few places have the skill or nerve or cash reserves to survive an initial critical mauling. It is, undeniably, brutal to do violence to a kitchen that has signalled its vulnerability and compensated you for any likely missteps by offering its customers a discount upfront.

But chefs can’t have it both ways. If they’re happy to use soft openings to build some early buzz, they have to accept some rough with the smooth. Not as rough as that Straight Up London piece, perhaps — it’s genuinely wrong-headed to tell your readers you won’t be going along at full price on the basis of something so embryonic — but constructive criticism, caveated accordingly, surely must have a place; it might even help highlight some kinks to iron out. Writers and chefs working together, rather than in opposition? Temper your expectations: surely that sounds too good to be true.