Saying Grace Period

When a restaurant first opens to the public, there's always a period when things--both little and big--go decidedly wrong.

No matter how many hours managers devote to training staff on the menu, they flub up when asked about ingredients. Still unfamiliar with the dining room layout, food runners deliver entrees to the wrong table. Line cooks struggle to master the peculiarities of a grill that, say, heats ten degrees beyond what it should--that sort of thing.

And so there's a consensus amongst food critics that a restaurant should not be reviewed until it has a chance to work out some of the kinks associated with the first few weeks of operation. In fact, restaurateurs anticipating a write up even consider it highly unfair should the critic visit within a month of opening.

Pretty cut and dried, right?

But this unwritten agreement has always troubled me to some extent. If a restaurant deems itself open to the general public, shouldn't they be fair game? Probably--but the argument has always been that mishaps resulting from early jitters would skew any review, causing a mismatch between food service once the place settles into rhythm and whatever the paper subsequently prints in its listings.

We run into a version of this already, however. Restaurants suffer ups and downs resulting from key staff going on vacation, equipment breakdowns and the normal slumps of any business. A chef may tweak things after one critic rips a certain dish, causing the next reviewer to find things much improved.

Besides, if things are really that bad during a restaurant's first month of operation, shouldn't they charge customers a little less?--I mean, at least until they get up to speed. The break critics give to restaurants, simply put, is not passed on to the consumer. While chefs and management bitch when writers hit them too early, they think nothing of gouging their guests for a less than stellar performance.

Ah, but suppose they did shave a few bucks off regular prices. When things returned to normal, it's likely many of their early victims--I mean, customers--would return the compliment by voicing loud complaints at the sudden increase. Anyway, the reason restaurants open before they've fully trained staffers and worked out all the bugs (figuratively) generally has to do with rent.

You see, owners sign a lease agreement and begin paying for the space before reconstruction begins, before they hire staff, before a liquor license is in place...At some point, they need to generate income. Charging less might ease, but not solve, the problem.

Investors sorta get annoyed when debts mount up, after all.

Savvy diners know all this, so they avoid brand new restaurants, at least for several weeks. But most people are drawn to recently opened spots, wanting to bask in atmosphere while the venue is still hot (i.e. before it becomes commonplace). The so-called 'Fickle 500,' therefore, get to enjoy all the little miscues--and pay for the pleasure, too.

Their own fault for being so trend-dependent, really.

Actually, there's nothing wrong with stopping by a brand new place--just as long as you're prepared to excuse a few hiccups. Some restaurant owners avoid all this by wisely employing the 'soft opening' strategy, quietly easing into things before announcing their presence.

But for the rest...well, I generally adhere to the month-long grace period. Unless the restaurant makes some adjustment for growing pains associated with an opening, however, part of me wants to consider them fair game.


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