Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Beer, burgers, and blogging (SPTR)

Standard burger (SPTR)

If you're expecting insightful commentary about the burger I had at the South Philly Tap Room, you should probably head on over to AHT for a more comprehensive (read: less idiotic and more objective) review. If instead, you're looking for a post that's full of poorly written descriptions, and some thoughts on on food blogging... then you're in for a real treat.

South Philly Tap Room external

If it isn't inherently obvious yet, I'm currently killing my free time (and vacant stomach space!) by writing about the burgers in Philly for AHT. It's like every fat kid's dream job, I get to eat a buttload of burgers and not pay for any of it. Sure there's the requirement that I write about the places afterward, but... let's be honest, I do that anyway. So no biggie. Those shooting pains in my left arm? Completely worth it for the amount of beef I get to have.


On 'assignment,' I went to SPTR, since it's pretty well known for its bar menu. Their burgers (including the occasional Mexican burger) all get rave reviews, so I figured it'd be worthwhile to check out... even if it's in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Everything I said on Serious Eats is entirely true. SPTR has a decent burger decked out in beer flavored toppings. The mustard is made with beer and the bacon is braised in beer. Hell... I wouldn't be surprised if the patty is secretly infused with beer. Overall, their burger is decently good, but nothing phenomenal, and certainly nothing to write home about (what am I doing then...?). The patty was sort of mushy (probably since I asked for rare) and kind of formed an amorphous blob of ground meat and oil soaked bread by the end of the meal. Actually, that sounds disgusting. I assure you it was more appetizing than my description.

Taps w/mini blackboards

Now let me hit you with some thoughts on food writing. On my trip to SPTR, I had some questions for the waitress/bartender who took my order (so I could write a factual post without resorting to using made up words like fantabulous). General questions, like... cooking method, seasoning, size of burger etc. I was first responded to with a look of bemusement, followed by some 'answers' which turned out to be straight lies, and then the cold shoulder. I started wondering at what point food writing becomes obnoxious to the wait staff, and if I had crossed that line (possibly by going to a pub and not ordering any beer). Honestly, I feel like it's well within a customer's right to know what they're eating... so no, I don't feel like I crossed any lines there. Was it because I was taking pictures of the food? Couldn't be. If the chef were offended that I wasn't eating his food immediately, then that I could understand, but why would a bartender care? I came to the conclusion that the bartender was just having a shitty day/being a bitch. That's perfectly understandable, people have off days. The problem that arises from this is the true problem I have with food blogging...

How much should the dining experience affect the writer's opinion of the food? Should it be ignored? 25%? 50? What if you taste the greatest [insert your favorite food here] you've ever had, but the waiter repeatedly laughs at how unfortunate your dining companion looks at throughout the meal (edit: this did not actually happen, just an example). How would you write that post? Seriously yo... food writing is tougher than you'd think.


Steph said...

A rare, mushy patty sounds kind of gross, but I guess it can still taste good. Did the bartender think your date was ugly? How rude~~ If anything should be left out of the experience, it should be just the tip.

Nicholas said...

Steph - lol, I should've clarified, I was just using the most extreme example I could think of (short of the waiter punching me in the face or something). No one was laughed at, and no feelings hurt during the visit. Ironically, I still tipped 20+% out of habit.

Anonymous said...

I think the "experience" counts. It's doesn't have to be a castle and I don't have to be waited on hand and foot but I do expect certain things. Napkins, a place to sit, clean glasses, etc. When I review I base my review at least 1/3rd on the establishment. But then I'm usually reviewing a restaurant or bar, not JUST the food. I always visit at least twice before posting or submitting a review as well, just to see if it was a bad day or if it was me.

Danny said...

ooh look at you, moving on up! Congrats on the writing gig with Serious Eats. See, do that more and you can stop being an engineer yo. And I think everything plays a part in the experience. To expect that people can always accurate be an automaton when looking at the world is a hard expectation. I just feel like if you're reading one particular writer for a while, you'll know what their bias is like. So if a shitty server affects the review, one would know how that final grade is affected.

James said...

The experience counts insofar as it supports the meal itself. Think atmosphere. Case in point: I can only describe Ippudo NYC's dining experience as an obnoxious impediment to the kitchen's fantastic food. The dining experience at other New York ramen joints just makes more sense... Ramen is a cozy, dignified food, and being in a cozy, dignified place without an hour-long wait makes the entire meal that much more enjoyable.

That said, rudeness to me is never acceptable -- not because I love being waited on hand and foot (I actually hate it), but because contrary to popular belief it is REALLY EASY to not be an asshole. Most of us are not assholes on a daily basis, so it's not an issue of "service" to me as much as it is an expectation of baseline decency.

When it comes to reviewing, you just need to be clear in the individual stories you write. Sometimes you're there to report on a single burger. Sometimes your'e there to judge the big picture. A single rude employee is different from a consistent stream of assholes, and if you haven't gone enough times to make that call, then there's no shame in saying so. In the end, it's your story, not the end-all judgment of a place, so write what you can stand on :)

Nicholas said...

Anonymous - I can definitely see where you're coming from with the visiting frequency thing. The problem for me, is that I don't have the luxury of visiting repeatedly, in which case I'm also kind of reviewing their consistency. If they can't replicate their success every single time, should I keep that in consideration? Or should I mark that as a criticism? As an engineer, I'm partial to the idea of the former (leniency in replicating experiments), but I feel like some might suggest I follow the latter.

Danny - thanks man, but I don't think any amount of my food writing would ever make up for my student loan debts. Going to two private schools does that. Unless my site suddenly blows up as the next big thing in food writing... I think I'm screwed. As for the experience... I guess I shouldn't have said 0 percent. I don't think I've ever had a truly substantial audience reading my opinion, so I never felt like I ever had to justify any of my opinions, and that I could blabber about whatever I chose to. I only began to think about it when everyone started having differing opinions on what I wrote...

James - I know exactly what you mean about ramen. In Japan, it's like soul food, and is something to be enjoyed in close company and in a relaxed environment. Ippudo somehow has marketed a laid-back dining experience into something posh, which completely detracts from the meal. That's not to say their ramen isn't absolutely phenomenal, just that it affects whether I'd go to Ippudo or Sapporo for instance.

LOL, also agreed. Not being an asshole is pretty easy. Maybe it's a one day thing, which I can understand, as a server, I'd expect you to be able to keep that under control as well.

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oh snap. I can control the text here?