No one cares about newspaper critics arguing about professional ethics, of course.
So we asked Portland restauranteurs and chefsâall included in The Oregonian's food issueâwhat they thought of Russell's choice. We insisted they remain anonymous so they could speak freely without consequence.
Here's what they said.
"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 restaurantâthere'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 workingâthere 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."
"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."
"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 criticismâboth by established critics and in social mediaâis 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."
"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, Iâm not a fan of the bitter talk going on about them. Having to âlive up toâ 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."
"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 beâoften 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!"
"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."
"Itâs bad enough theyâre ranking the restaurants in Portland... itâs arrogant to think that someone like Michael Russell is qualified to compare across cuisines, etc., in such a crass way. Itâs 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 wonât know until theyâre on their own under pressure. Just like itâs not fair to a restaurant to make a definitive judgment too early, itâs 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 youâre talking about a big award like Restaurant of the Year, that restaurant is going to be slammed afterwards. Itâs 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 fuckâs sake. If it were me, Iâd both be excited at all the business and scared shitless that we couldnât 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 theyâre actually good or if theyâre going to peak at mediocre or even be just shy of sufficient. If asked, Iâd probably have to admit that I wouldnât want the Restaurant of the Year, yet. Itâs 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 youâre slammed because they think youâre the best restaurant in Portland are pretty high."