Checking Out a Restaurant Before It's "Ready"

Moving from Dallas to Seattle means I get to do a few things I've never before done, including piloting a U-Haul truck across the Rocky Mountains and visiting restaurants before they're ready for review.

I've held out on eating at Cane Rosso, Jay Jerrier's immobile pizza kitchen in Deep Ellum, because the restaurant hadn't yet reached its 2-month birthday. As a critic, I believe in delaying my first meal at an eatery until it's had adequate time to find its stride. But with my moving date just weeks away, and the possibility of my reviewing Cane Rosso removed, I decided there was no good reason not to go for dinner.

As I expected, the restaurant was still very much unpolished when I ate there Friday night. The room had a frantic energy: Our server, who seemed unfamiliar with the menu, had trouble keeping track of our order. When he was approached at our table by an overwhelmed hostess who wanted to know whether he could manage another two-top, I was almost tempted to answer for him. (I later learned from Jerrier that he'd had a significant staffing turnover the previous night.) Yet my experience made me wonder whether I've been too strict in enforcing my self-imposed exile from new restaurants.

There are eaters who believe restaurants should be considered eligible for review as soon as customers are forced to pay full prices, but since it's impossible to rehearse a restaurant in the same way as a ballet or a piano concerto, I support the waiting period on writing. It's fair to customers, who want an accurate depiction of the restaurant, and it's fair to restaurant owners, who don't deserve to have their beginner mistakes immortalized in a bad review -- and typically aren't yet equipped to handle the traffic spurred by a good review.

The rules regarding the review calendar are generally accepted, but there are no formal policies governing when a critic should first show up at a restaurant. I've always avoided premature visits, fearing a horrible dish or inexcusable service error could unfairly bias me against the restaurant. What I've missed out on, though, is watching a restaurant's progression.

I think of my reviews as snapshots, but perhaps reviews should function more like flip books, showing a restaurant's growth. A restaurant's core values and strengths might be clearer to the eater who has a chance to observe the sorting out of problematic issues. Having endured and enjoyed the madcap mood at Cane Rosso, I wonder if visiting a restaurant sooner would heighten my appreciation and emotional investment.

I probably won't change my reviewing strategies. But I have two more weeks in Dallas to visit young restaurants, including Sutra, Komali and Cedars Social. Should be fun.