Dishing food with passionate fans

Critic's Notebook

Cruel and kind, posts to restaurant blog help stir the pot

September 16, 2007|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,[sun restaurant critic]

Last week a reader posted the 1,000th comment on my restaurant blog, Dining@Large (baltimore sun.com/diningatlarge). I was ridiculously proud of the fact. Our Web site's marketing manager even sent him a stainless steel Baltimoresun.com travel mug.

For those of you who aren't sure what a blog is (and if you're reading this in print you probably aren't in the minority), it's a personal journal of comments, thoughts and information on the Internet.

Readers post responses to an entry - sometimes insightful, sometimes humorous, and sometimes critical. They can be anonymous, although most people use a first name, their whole name, or a pseudonym like Ravngrl. Here's a typical example from Stan, commenting on a photo I posted of overcooked ribs:

Wow. That is one unappetizing-looking half rack of ribs. I've seen cows struck by lightning that came out better.

I have readers who post regularly on my entries - Kathy, Hal, middlevrmuncher, Darlene, Eric, Janet and Robert, to name a few - and those who drop in every once in awhile like Marginal Foodie and Piggly Wiggly. They only occasionally give me clues about who they really are, their ages and what they do. When I don't hear from names I've come to recognize, I wonder what happened to them.

I love comments because they are instant feedback. I know someone is actually reading what I wrote and thinking about it. I appreciate even the ones that aren't - shall we say - very complimentary, like this one complaining about I mistake I made:

Hopefully you can start getting something right, or maybe just go away into your tasteless culinary abyss.

OK, a little over the top but, much as I hate to admit it, he had a valid point.

Most people who post, though, are actually quite civil. More so than readers who used to call me or write when they weren't happy with a restaurant review. Many years ago I picked up the phone and Jim Palmer was on the other end. The ex-Orioles pitcher was the most important celebrity ever to give me a call; and he had some really ugly things to say about me and my review of his friend Hersh Pachino's Orchard Inn, now closed. That was actually pretty typical of the feedback I got before the Internet.

As former Sun Magazine restaurant reviewer John Dorsey once said, "Make a mistake and they will fall on you like ravening wolves."

Most of the readers of my blog aren't like that. They seem to realize a blog is a joint effort, and our interaction is a critical part of its success. A restaurant owner recently referred to me as the Dalai Lama of local reviewers, which I thought was pretty funny; and some readers still think I should be all-knowing. But as a critic I only get to a couple of places in a week. If you consider that six months is about the shelf life of a review - after that, it probably isn't accurate - you can see I can use all the help I can get, particularly with Dining@Large's most popular feature, Top Ten Tuesday, which lists things like Most Romantic Restaurants or Best Places to Get Pizza.

Sometimes the discussion can get quite lively, even heated, as when I posted a Top Ten on places too youth-oriented to take your parents to. Regina aptly summed it up at the end when she said:

Talk about opening a can of worms. This is hilarious because the issue became my parents are cooler than yours instead of addressing the real issue of older folks seeking a different experience than a twenty something.

When someone posts a comment at the bottom of the entry, an e-mail alerts me. Until I read and approve it, the comment doesn't show up on the site. (So forgive me if you post it at 3:30 a.m. and it doesn't appear for another three hours.)

I don't edit posts for grammar or content, and I've had to kill only a very few.

I recently published these guidelines for commenting on my blog after I got a couple of posts that were questionable:

1) I can't "publish" comments that might get me and/or you sued. If you get a burnt steak at a restaurant and want to talk about it, that's one thing. Saying that a place has rats unless the health department has reported it is another, even if I know you're probably right.

2) I'm assuming that faithful readers have two things in common, no matter what their differences: They love good food, and their Holy Grail is the perfect restaurant experience. That seems to me a good enough basis for a certain degree of civility when you're responding to other posts.

3) Posts that make me queasy are off-limits. To paraphrase Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop, my stomach is my life. And, of course, profanity etc. etc.

4) I'm fair game, but not other reviewers, or really hateful comments about anyone else. See rule #2. And frankly, if I'm having a bad day, really hateful comments about me aren't going to get published either.

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