Food blogging: The dirty little $ecret.

25 Jul

I chatted recently with a publicist/friend, who mentioned what a Wild West world she’s in now with all these new food bloggers and Twitter kings and Chowhounders and Yelpers weighing in on who’s good and bad and where to find the best lobster roll. Who do you pitch? Who do you follow? It’s a puzzle.

Then she mentioned another phenomenon that made my jaw drop: bloggers who ask for free meals and/or preferential seating and/or last-minute reservations—like one local gal who asked for a free Mother’s Day brunch at a  hotel restaurant—with a promise to write about it afterward. My friend said, “What could I do?”

Oh, this really burns my bacon.

People? No soliciting free stuff. No calling a restaurant or a publicist with threats of a bad review if you don’t get a reservation. No quid pro quo. Calling it a blog doesn’t exempt you from basic ethics.

So let me take this opportunity to come clean about my own practices: Sometimes restaurant publicists invite me out to a meal at a client’s restaurant as a way of introducing a new menu or drawing attention to the asparagus specials, or just to show the client that they’re plugged in to the media scene. I never ask for these meals, but I sometimes accept the invitations. The restaurant publicists in town are generally a delightful bunch, and it’s nice to see them. If I ever eat such a free meal and blog about it afterward, I’ll always point this out. To that end, I should mention that the Opa-Opa watermelon beer I recommended in a recent Tweet was served at a publicist-funded meal at Coda.

I very rarely attend press dinners or luncheons, in which a group of writers is invited to sample the goods for free. As above, if I ever do, I’ll come clean here.

In my mind, these meals all fall into an ethical gray zone. Very much standard practice, useful for sampling new stuff, perhaps okay as long as I’m not a restaurant critic. After all, if a restaurant wants to get the word out about the new rice pudding bar in its Cambridge location (if only), doesn’t it make sense for the owner to invite some writers over to sample the pudding (yes, please)?  And yet I can’t guarantee that these meals don’t inform my opinions in some way, and is that really fair (who cares…pudding!)? I don’t generally hold forth on a restaurant if I haven’t also visited as an anonymous, paying guest, but what if the pudding served at visit #1 is a step above the everyday pudding (impossible!)? Wouldn’t that bias my overall vote?

I make restaurant reservations incognito and well in advance (I broke this rule once a couple of years ago and still squirm about it). I was raised Catholic and have a hair-trigger guilt response.

So…I’m interested to hear what you think. Should I turn down all invites, or accept as long as I’m honest? Would you deny me my imaginary rice pudding buffet?

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One Response to “Food blogging: The dirty little $ecret.”

  1. Patrick M July 28, 2009 at 10:39 pm #

    I think you should accept the invites, and as long as you disclose that one of your visits was part of a publicist’s promo, that’s fine. Boston’s dining community is so small, most food writers are recognized by savvy restauranteurs, and most writers know, and are friendly with, lots of industry staff and owners. I agree with your instinct. Actually it would be refreshing if more food writers would disclose their relationships to the restaurants and the staff of the places they write about.

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