How to write a restaurant review: the first impression, Part 3

We continue with this tasty series of the late Sam Worthington’s short book, “How To Be A Savvy Restaurant Reviewer,” with his chapter on the first impression you get of a restaurant.

How to write a restaurant review: the first impression, Part 3

“If the building looks tidy, and the outside is inviting, that is good.”

It seems that just like when meeting people for the first time, first impressions really do count…

Why your first impression of a restaurant is important

This section is very much about getting into the review and can be as long or as short as you think is needed – it introduces the place.

To start with it is not a bad idea to let your readers know why you choose this particular restaurant … “a friend mentioned,” or “a reader was good enough to suggest,” “I was walking past and the lobster on the menu caught my eye,” or something similar, or “in France I often pick a restaurant for lunch because it has a full car park.”

Then having explained why you picked the place you need to write what you think is necessary to give a feel for it.

“I booked a table and was told there were two sittings” tells your readers it is a busy restaurant and they might be hassled out if on the first sitting.

Efficiency at all levels is a good sign, though of course calling in the middle of a busy service period is a not a good time in a small restaurant without a full time receptionist. In a big one, however, it is reasonable to expect an efficient booking process. Certainly losing a booking because it has not been written down is big minus – more so if booking way in advance is needed.

How to find the place can also be important if it is not easy: a general description of the location always helps. That is particularly relevant if the place is hidden away in the boondocks, or down an obscure urban side street.

Sometimes when you know exactly where a place is, it can seem superfluous to go into details of how to find it.

Catch up with Part 1 and Part 2 of this delicious series – click on the green links

Put yourself in your reader’s shoes and imagine that you have no knowledge of the area – then how easy is it?

The outside and then walking through the door are the moments when your first views are formed. If the building looks tidy, and the outside is inviting, that is good. In a rural setting the external appearance is often more important than in a city.

However if you are driving around looking for a meal with someone else, how often do you say, “that place looks good!” And because of that appearance you may walk past another place to look at the menu, or peek inside – appearance always counts as any self respecting gourmet will tell you

Then the critical moment: walking through the door.

That first sensation can be critical – it maybe elegance, it may be that the place is buzzing, it may be the prompt, warm, genuine reception, or it may be something totally different. The smell can be very significant; a nasty smell will ruin any perception.

The most common one is the pervasion of cooking oil which could be old oil that should have been changed, or that there is no extraction system in the kitchen. Either way it is not a good smell to walk into.

On the other hand good food smells are just what you want … or flowers, especially if there is a good display … or even furniture polish. A most memorable smell to me was a restaurant in Budapest with only one real menu item: roast pig hocks. It had all these spits gently turning with hocks on them – the place smelt of gentle roasting pork.

Writing this years later I can still smell them and my mouth is watering. Not so good if your idea of food is a well washed dandelion leaf but to any meat eater…..!

How you get treated as you arrive is incredible important.

If you are quickly greeted – even if not dealt with – but if a busy person smiles and says “one minute please,” you feel reassured. Conversely, even if they’re busy, if everybody is scampering about and you are ignored you will quickly take offence.

How to write a restaurant review: the first impression, Part 3

Sam’s book makes a great little gift – available on all the Amazons. Click on this cover to go to the UK Amazon.

A walk-in (without a prior reservation) cannot complain if they are greeted and then asked to wait a moment whilst a table is sorted. To an extent the same applies if there is a booking and the place is busy.

Of course you may be directed to a bar and looked after there. There is no fixed format: everywhere is different. But the issue is simple. Are you looked after and made to feel welcome?

Exactly what constitutes a good welcome is up the establishment itself, as well as the guest’s perception. On that note any restaurateur will tell stories of unreasonable and selfish demands.

As a reviewer, it is your job to be Ms or Mr Average.

You may have high standards, but at the same time you acknowledge that staff members only have two hands and that good food takes time to prepare and deliver.

It has been said that the first impression is the most important in almost all relationships and it is certainly so in a restaurant. If a few minutes after you have arrived you are sitting, feeling relaxed and cared for, then you feel welcome and you will be more tolerant of everything else that follows.

Needless to say vice versa is just as true. Being waved to a table in a busy bistro is fine, whereas in a place providing fine dining more attention is expected. And we all have our own ideas of what is a good setting and what is not. As a reviewer you need to set the scene and few words will normally suffice.

Next time: the menu and the wine list

Any questions? Drop Suze a note on

Image thanks to wlodi.