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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. (Does Bella Italia have two of the best restaurants in Norwich?)

Updated: Mar 4, 2022

I named this post after a review I read of another restaurant in Norwich. I'm going to embark on the thorny subject of restaurant reviews, but the proviso here; I promise I'm not having a rant! It's fashionable for some restaurant owners and chefs to let their feelings be known about individual reviewers or the system (mostly Tripadvisor) in general. I'm not about to grind any dirty axes in public, but I think the issue needs examining from the owners perspective, yet again.

Review ratings are a fact of life for businesses of all stripes now, and their consequences potentially devastating or enhancing, but the hospitality industry has a long and fractious history with critics, which has led us to have a more hate than love relationship with them since the invention of print. Like the Theatre, Cinema, many consumer experiences, we were judged by self-appointed 'experts' who were able to declare the efforts of a chef or establishment as good, bad or indifferent, based on their extensive comparisons with similar and disparate eateries. It could of course be galling to have the menu you have been sweating over condemned by someone who has just reviewed a McDonalds or a Michelin star restaurant in the same week, but it's fair to say that many restaurants escaped such scrutiny and were able to function and continue to market themselves by word-of-mouth recommendations due to the sparsity of these judges. Dealing with critics could be a rare occurrence, that is, until everyone became a critic.

I don't want to belittle the work of the professional food writer. Some, (naming no names) I don't have time for, their opinions wax and wane according to their moods or prevailing trends, their rhetoric is chosen to please the reader, not their genuine opinion. Others, Like Jay Raynor and Grace Dent, have a way with words and a willingness to be persuaded that is a joy to read, equally whether they are tearing into a (cauliflower) steak or tearing into a chef. (Frankly, some of them deserve it!) Their opinions may carry weight with different audiences, but readers are at least given enough information with which to make their own assessment, and decide whether it would be wise to test the critic's verdict at their own expense.

Now for good or evil, we live in a world of egalite; Everyone's opinion carries equal weight, and fills our similarly curtailed attention span. A paragraph seems enough for most readers, and whilst it would seem sensible to look at the overall score an establishment receives, apparently most people make their decisions based just on the last three reviews. So, you would imagine that I have no need to complain; We haven't had any negative reviews, in fact nothing less than 4 stars, in two years. However, perversely, the reason that is so, is that I no longer cook to please others, rather than try to make dishes that I think other people will want, I simply cook what I like to eat. If you want to know what sort of restaurant I'd like to eat out at? Come and eat at mine! Some of our worst reviews date from a time when I was trying to please business partners, existing staff, and established customers, vegans, vegetarians and meat eaters, trying to keep all the critics on side, but you can't please all of the people...

Without doubt, many of the Tripadvisor reviews are triggered by genuine experiences of good or bad food and/or service, but you have to suspect the motivations of some people; If you're choosing somewhere to go for the night, you might happily take the opinions of the most recent 3 reviewers at face value. If however, you're a restaurant owner, and you've just received one of these reviews, face value might be the last thing you'd accept. I often find myself checking the history of every contributor. Some are mixed, offering opinions on the great, gross and average in equal measure. Others are strangely polarised; A scathing review has been written by someone who only posts bad notices, conversely, praise comes from a customer who never has a bad thing to say about anywhere they eat. You might fall into one or other camp, but this is in no way different from everyone's experience. You remember the best meals out, you can't forget the worst restaurant dinners you ever had, but how many of the 'OK' occasions lodge in your subconscious? Even if the meal itself was decent, circumstances might colour it for you: Many years ago I was staying in Kidderminster and dining at the hotel I was residing in, along with my client at the time (this was when I was working in exhibitions and promotions.) I was intrigued by the special on offer on the menu of: 'Braised Black Bean.' I couldn't imagine what the dish could be, but ordered it to sate my curiosity. Imagine my surprise when I was presented with a fish! I feel sorry for the chef, all day, no one had ordered his 'Braised Black Bream' special, and the first person who did sent it straight back untasted! All because of a spelling mistake on the menu! Don't worry, I didn't leave a review! (It was before the days of Tripadvisor or Google.) A simple misunderstanding could have led to unexpected consequences.

In general, I like to use my reviews to promote businesses that I feel deserve support. If you're a business owner, you are prevented from commenting, either good or bad, on the local 'competition.' Go further afield however, and you can praise a restaurant for their valiant efforts to serve vegans or use local produce etc. In most cases though, you and I will be of one mind in only thinking to pass comment on those businesses which do not meet our expectations: Either they excel, and the meal you have is beyond that which the menu predicted, or they failed to live up to your hopes of a Michelin starred establishment or somesuch. The review sites are filled with people who were either surprised or disappointed, very few who turned up expecting a decent meal out, and got it! What's more amazing is the number of people who are serially disappointed, or constantly surprised! It could be that there are those who just like to encourage, and I have definitely spoken to at least one person, who only leaves reviews if he doesn't like the establishment (I quote: "If I don't like it I pan it!") Of course there are also those people who are happy to praise a place, but will never leave five stars, only four or four and a half? Perhaps they feel that perfection is unobtainable? Or just that even in the best establishments, there's always room for improvement!

Some of the entertaining reviews come from the customers who didn't get what they expected, but usually the most amusing belong to the diners who completely misunderstood what they were about to receive, and for that, may the Lord make us truly thankful! I am always tickled when people turn up expecting 'healthy' food. Notwithstanding there are no health claims on the menu, or the website, and customers have a clear view of what dishes are available as well as seeing into the kitchen to know how they're produced. Nevertheless, there are those who will helpfully point out that frying food does not make for 'healthy vegan dishes,' regardless of whether that is what they were looking for. All the more ironic when commented by someone who had recently been praising up an omni restaurant for the quality of their Fish and Chips! Of course, sometimes it's not the restaurant failing to meet up to the customer's expectations, but the reverse; Back before the days of Covid we hosted occasional 'Dinner Dating' nights organised by our good friend Brigid Haywood. So, when an unaccompanied lady arrived without a table booking on one such night, it was assumed that she was to be seated along with Brigid's Guests, even though she was distinctly early. It was only after chatting with her that it became obvious that she was not actually looking for a 'speed date!' Much of her subsequent review was based on how humorous the front of house staff thought the situation was... She didn't think it was at all... I beg to differ!

Genuine mistakes do happen: We have been praised to the heights by people who actually ate somewhere else but clicked on the wrong restaurant to review, and I have come across similar write-ups on other restaurants' listings. If something seems out of place; They're talking about a dish that's not on the menu (or meat when it's a veggie restaurant!), or it's the one good or bad review in a sea of contrary opinion, then its worth a second look, perhaps it's not talking about the place you're going to at all? Then there is a real problem with malicious or black-mailing reviews. Thankfully we've never come across the sort of customer that demands a discount in return for not posting a scathing review, but there are certainly people about who will write a salacious description of real, or imagined, horrors in order to exact revenge or attention. I read one on another vegan restaurant's tripadvisor recently suggesting (and this is the worst possible insult) that the place was 'rat-infested!' Closer examination revealed the writer was using 'rat' as a metaphor for the management whom he didn't like. I may or may not get on with the people in question, but that sort of insult could bring down a restaurant if taken at face-value, and I reported it, as, I suspect did the restaurant in question, because the comment was taken down shortly after. On the other hand of the same coin, there are those self-appointed 'Influencers' who feel that they can get discounted, or even free food, in return for a glowing review. An erstwhile partner of mine was a sucker for such publicity, but I think that readers can spot the genuine from the 'paid-for' review.

Now we come to the question of 'right to reply.' The review platforms allow business owners the ability to respond to verdicts, in fact they encourage it. It seems that responses to reviews can lift your ranking in the algorithms that are used for these things. I have done replies in the past, but these days prefer to keep my powder dry. Just as the reviews themselves can often be interpreted different ways, so the responses can give rise to unintentional consequences. It's true, when you put your heart and soul into a dish or a menu, and your creativity is challenged, then it can feel a personal slight, and the temptation is to produce an extensive justification of every element used. Whilst this might have validity, it usually comes across as defensive and rarely constructive. This might seem obvious, but only when you're reading it in someone else's responses do you begin to think "I wonder if I sound like that?" Other responses can vary from the apologetic: "Thanks for your feedback, we'll try to do better if you give us another chance," to the formulaic: "Thank you for your review, do follow us on twitter etc. for the latest offers," (copied and pasted on each subsequent contribution.) I decided, rightly or wrongly, to hold my peace, and let the reader make up their own mind, but I'll tell you, biting my tongue is often the hardest thing, and here's my guilty secret: I do sometimes write responses in full, before consigning them to the rubbish bin instead of publishing. It's cathartic, but heaven forfend I accidentally press the wrong button one day! Still, you never know, I went to a boys' Grammar School where sarcasm and passive-aggresive put-downs were an 'A' Level subject that no one failed (we had the BEST teachers, more's the pity.) I'm still waiting for the one deserving reviewer who wants to start a fight, because believe me, I'm up for it!

So, all of this brings me to my query addressed in the title of this blog: Why does Bella Italia hold two places in the top 30 restaurants in Norwich? Yes, I'm sure they're very pleasant, but are they really better than Michelin starred restaurants or the city's most beloved cafes, or even other popular chain restaurants? One thing's for sure, they certainly have had a LOT of top reviews in the last two years, almost no dissenting voices! Another noticeable absence is the comments on the actual food, whereas the front of house staff are mentioned by name in glowing terms several times each week. Someone, somewhere along the line, is being incentivised to get these reviews that have pushed the chain's outlets in front of people's faces. All of which goes to show... You can't believe everything you read, on a popular review website.

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