What does a bar reviewer look for?

what-do-the-critics-think
We know that a bad review can make or break a bar. But how does the process work? What does a bar reviewer look for? Should you reach out to them via your PR agency, when will they be in — if at all? We put these questions and more to the well-regarded freelance food and drink writer – and critic — Max Veenhuyzen, to see how a critic thinks.

What is it that you’re looking for when you’re on assignment to review a bar?
Broadly speaking: does this bar deliver? Does it do what it says on the box? If it’s a wine bar, does it tick the wine bar boxes? If it’s a neighbourhood corner pub, has the food and drink package been designed with accessibility in mind? Is that new place really a craft beer bar or just another operator trying to scramble onto the band wagon?

Most people have a limited budget for entertainment: I like to think in my role as a bar reviewer, I can help them make a better, more informed decision about where they’re spending their money while they’re out. Drinks, naturally, are a big part of this, but they aren’t the only consideration. The setting. The service. The price point. The food. The bouncer that greets people on the way in. All these come into play when writing my copy on venue XYZ and its strengths, its weaknesses and — most important of all — why people might want to spend their hard-earned there.

How do you go about finding new bars to review?
Multiple sources. Facebook. Stalking people and venues on social media. Talking to people at bars. Government and city council websites (it’s amazing what you’ll find in council meeting minutes). Other media. People reaching out to me. Secrets don’t stay secrets for too long in the hospitality industry, at least in Perth, anyhow.

One thing I think is worth mentioning, however, is that “newness” is only one aspect I consider when choosing a bar to review. Naturally, people are interested in reading about a new opening and how to get the most out of their visit there (I think a good bar or restaurant review should provide people with some sort of plan of attack for enjoying themselves) but there are plenty of other news angles worth exploring. Perhaps a new wine region or distillery is the current flavour of the month and a bar has been pushing that barrow without recognition for some time and you want to rectify that. Perhaps there’s been a major changing of the guard people need to know about. Or maybe it’s just checking in on an old favourite and high-fiving them for staying relevant in a really dynamic market. 

What are your thoughts on PR people approaching you to review a place? Does it happen a lot, and is it of any use to you?
Whether we like it or not, PR and marketing is a crucial part of the hospitality industry. I’m always happy to hear news from publicists about venue openings and appreciate it’s their job to circulate information, but at the same time, attending an opening is of no use to me from a criticism point of view.

For years I was really strict on not attending opening nights and hosted media events, but I’ve eased up on that front a little. With the (perhaps unsustainable) number of places opening at the moment, these sorts of events are one of the few ways I’m able to keep up with what’s happening. I’d never write a review based on a hosted or media event, but these events do provide a handy baseline from which to compare subsequent visitors against (I try to keep a low profile at these events and not wear name tags, just to try to retain some semblance of anonymity, but it’s getting harder these days).

When it comes to the debate about when to review a bar, do you think critics usually wait to review a place or is it a case of, when you’re open, you’re open?
From a bar point of view, I like to give a place a couple of weeks to find its feet and iron out all those inevitable opening kinks. Despite the name of the gig, I think good criticism is about adding an informed voice to the discussion rather than simply panning or praising a venue. The bar experience you get at a place in its second month of trading will — or should — be vastly different than the same place on day one. Ideally, I try to get to a place at least twice during its opening period, it’s a great way to get a feel for how much somewhere has changed and evolved.