Monday, November 12, 2007

Bear with me on the Black Bear

The Black Bear may be the hardest restaurant I've ever tried to rate. Why? Because it makes no sense. It's a roadhouse dive bar and some of the most inventive haute cuisine around. It is dingy and tacky and exciting and wonderful. It is one of a very few places I always want to go back to.
Now... whenever I write a review, we hear from readers who have had a very different experience. If I say it was good, they say it was terrible. If I hate it, they love it. And most of the time, they have good reason. We probably are having very different experiences. No critic can be omniscient. We can only go by our experience.
Here's how my reviewing experience usually works. I go anonymously to the restaurants, without anyone knowing the place is being reviewed. I always bring at least one other person, and I always go at least twice. I try to keep my trap shut about what I think, letting the other diners decide for themselves.
Sometimes we all really like a place. Sometimes we all really hate it. Much of the time, it's a mix. We like some things, and others a totally average, or noticeably bad. How do you rate something like that?
Well, we don't have a checklist of 230 items like Mobil Travel Guide. It comes mostly from subjective comparison with other area restaurants, in terms of food, service, setting, value, and overall experience.

Critics can get a hard time from readers for giving restaurants a hard time. When it comes to writing a restaurant up, the toughest challenge is to overcome the urge to hem and haw. Believe it or not, I'm a very polite, nice guy, who generally wants people to succeed. I don't like to make a fuss. As a civilian, I've never sent a plate back in my life. But what good is encouragement and euphemism in a review, or a reviewer? You come up with literary mush. The idea is, after all, to let diners know whether it's worth going or not, and what they can expect. That's what I try to do. It's as simple as it is difficult: did you like it? and why?

So, what did I do with the Black Bear. Well, my three visits convinced me that the food is excellent. Really excellent. The service was helpful and nice. It's not what you'd find in Manhattan, but on par with anything on Highway 24. The setting is just plain odd. I give it top ratings for food. A middling rating for everything else, but in the end, it's still one of my favorite places.


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