Can a restaurant which has officially been open for just two weeks be a credible choice for restaurant of the year?

Oregonian

Like this: "How is it possible to visit the restaurant more than once in a month or less, conduct an in depth interview and write a piece all the while writing and compiling the rest of your list?... I think the reason people are upset is because it's very unprofessional to do any of those things."

And this: "What, you couldn't find a restaurant that just opened this week to name as your 'Restaurant of the Year'?"

Worth noting: In the past, Michael Russell held to the widely accepted standard of a 30-day minimum before a restaurant is open for review, let alone his biggest honor. For example, in Diner 2013, released that June, he put Levant on a list of spots "too new to review," although it had opened that February. That same year, both Old Salt and Sen Yai were named "too new to review" although they had also been open for more than a month.

(Critic Michael Russell and his editor, JoLene Krawczak, did not respond to request for comment. During an extended series of shout-outs to his "posse" on Twitter, Russell thanked new Oregonian editor Mark Katches who he said "inspired this bonkers plan on the way to drink pisco sours," so it is fair to assume the whole posse was behind the pick.)

No one cares about newspaper critics arguing about professional ethics, of course.

So we asked Portland restauranteurs and chefs—all included in The Oregonian's food issue—what they thought of Russell's choice. We insisted they remain anonymous so they could speak freely without consequence.

Here's what they said.

Person #1:

"As much as any food writer in town I think Michael conducts himself carefully. He's a guy who is clearly very principled. I do respect him a lot. He makes a real effort to assess the restaurant for the restaurant. The critique I'd have of Willamette Week is I think you like to say your two cents about the people in the restaurant—there's a social commentary there. With Michael it's truly the food and experience..... But people chasing the scoop dictates the stories. Being the first becomes more important than other things. Consistently excellent service and consistency of product are, in my opinion, the two most important qualities of a restaurant. In making this choice, you have to ignore both. That is what it is. Renata may end up being the best restaurant in the history of Portland but time will tell. Personally, I think it's a B-minus... When I went in there were 30 people working—there were three hosts! We don't know what the restaurant will be like in two months because can a restaurant really sustain that level of staffing? If you give me $1 million and tell me to run the best restaurant Portland has ever seen for three months I could do it, but is that sustainable? We don't know."

Person #2:

"If anything the drag here is that it promotes a mentality of 'the newer the better,' and while that's not necessarily intentional, I would call it irresponsible. It fucks with our food and small business culture because the old and not so old standbys that do superb work get overlooked. Along with that, we end up with people even more interested in trends."

Person #3:

"I have mixed feelings. I haven't eaten at Renata, though I've heard really good things and plan to at some point. That being said, my feelings about restaurant criticism—both by established critics and in social media—is that it's by nature extraordinarily subjective. Maybe more subjective than any other type of criticism. And while it is unusual that Renata got the #1 ranking after such a short time being open, maybe the critics went there 5 times in that span and were so blown away that they thought it justified. Who knows? But I've been to places open 10 years that have been resting on their laurels for 8 of them and keep getting great press, and to some places which are amazing who can't buy a rave for a blowjob. It's all pretty much a crap shoot, and I for one don't really believe in rankings for anything."

Person #4:

"Well, I certainly think it is odd. Given how far in advance these things are sussed out, they would have had to have been chosen before they even opened to the public. That said, I’m not a fan of the bitter talk going on about them. Having to “live up to” being named ROY before most publications would even consider reviewing them is going to be really stressful, I imagine. If anything, I do wish that publications would explain their criteria on these lists. There often seems to be no rhyme or reason to much of it."

Person #5:

"My biggest problem is the fact that, at two weeks old, a restaurant doesn't even know what the fuck it IS, let alone how it does it. It takes months for the best restaurants to learn exactly what they are going to be—often years! Owners can have the best idea of what they'd like their new place to be, but there is no way to know what it will become until it has time. This award was an award for a concept, and a really good PR team. They sold the story so hard that the Oregonian bought it up. I don't doubt Renata is great, and that it WILL be great. I was looking forward to trying it after they got their legs under them. Looks like I won't be doing that for a few months. But... the true mark of a great restaurant is that it stands up to its ideals and execution over time... time and time again!"

Person #6:

"I think every restaurant on the list deserved to be on the list. I think my team and I were surprised at certain rankings.... With Renata, it's a wonderful newcomer to the Portland dining scene but I think the owners themselves would be hard-pressed to say they deserved to be named the restaurant of the year after just two weeks in business."

Person #7:

"It’s bad enough they’re ranking the restaurants in Portland... it’s arrogant to think that someone like Michael Russell is qualified to compare across cuisines, etc., in such a crass way. It’s also ridiculous to think that you can know if a restaurant is consistent and on their game in less than a month, especially a fine dining restaurant, which you assume will be changing its menu seasonally.

Also, fine dining restaurants often bring in consulting chefs or their A-game chefs to open a new place and then have their B-team continue on. Maybe that B-team is really an A-team in waiting, but you won’t know until they’re on their own under pressure. Just like it’s not fair to a restaurant to make a definitive judgment too early, it’s not fair to customers to make a definitive judgment too early.

No restaurant is going to be the same all the time, but you have to give them some months (I would say it really takes a year without changing management/chef) to see if they will be able to maintain consistency. A lot of restaurants also have to get to know their customers and find out what works. There are a lot of really good restaurants that started off mediocre the first month or so. And there are a lot of restaurants that started off great, that totally drop the ball once they get busy or staff gets burnt out. And when you’re talking about a big award like Restaurant of the Year, that restaurant is going to be slammed afterwards. It’s unlikely that customers will get the type of service and execution that the reviewer received when they were slower even a year in.

But with less than a month in? The staff is still training for fuck’s sake. If it were me, I’d both be excited at all the business and scared shitless that we couldn’t handle it. Mediocre servers and cooks are still being let go and new ones brought it to see if they will be better... It takes me probably a month to know if a staff member will be able to keep improving to get to where they’re actually good or if they’re going to peak at mediocre or even be just shy of sufficient. If asked, I’d probably have to admit that I wouldn’t want the Restaurant of the Year, yet. It’s too easy to lose customers permanently when they have high expectations and you let them down. The chances of letting them down that early in when you’re slammed because they think you’re the best restaurant in Portland are pretty high."

Person #8:

"I feel sorry for the restaurant. I wouldn't want that burden that soon. Otherwise congratulations!"

Person #9:

"I don't like when I feel as though food writers are trying to be the first to review something. The art of food writing involves knowledge, nuanced descriptions, attention to detail, and an ability to give a reader the feeling that your opinion is one to trust. If you can achieve that then you shouldn't care who reviewed it before you because your review will be the most respected. I don't agree with the politics of this decision at all."