Unsavory experiences: Restaurant owners who cried foul over rancid reviews

Unsavory experiences: Restaurant owners who cried foul over rancid reviews

Few jobs are as fulfilling as being a restaurant reviewer. You dine at a restaurant and get paid to have an opinion about your experience. It’s low-risk and high-prestige — it’s every gourmand’s dream job.

But as with other dream jobs — such as being a personal injury attorney like us — there are also challenges to being a food critic.

Famous food-lover Julia Child once said, “People who love to eat are always the best people.” That is unless the people who love to eat also love to articulate their dislike of a meal you cooked.

Owner of Goodfellas restaurant in Belfast accuses food critic of being a bad dudette

Not all restaurants get stellar reviews. Those that get bad reviews may thank the reviewer for the feedback, or ask for a second chance by offering a meal on the house. Ciaran Convery, the owner of an Italian restaurant called Goodfellas in Belfast, Ireland, is not like most restaurant owners.

In 2007, Mr. Convery sued The Irish News, the paper that published a bad review of his pizzeria, and claimed that reviewer Caroline Workman’s criticism was “defamatory, damaging, and hurtful." In the review in question, Workman stated that the staff was unhelpful, the cola was flat, and the chicken masala was too sweet, making it hard to eat.

According to the Belfast jury’s verdict, Mr. Convery deserved to be compensated, so he was initially awarded £25,000 in damages. According to the Irish paper and food critics everywhere, this was a clear violation of freedom of speech.

What spiced up the initial verdict was that the original trial jury reached a decision in under 90 minutes. The jury members also appeared to have had difficulty knowing which aspects of the review were comments and which ones were facts — an important distinction that could have made a significant difference in the outcome.

Eventually, however, the court overturned the ruling, which meant no 25 grand for the pizzeria.

From a legal standpoint, scathing food criticisms are a matter of a highly subjective personal opinion. They are generally accepted as acts done without the intention to harm an establishment’s reputation. That applies even in scenarios where a critic delivers a biting criticism that everyone — least of all, the establishment owner — doesn’t agree with.

Philadelphia critic gets in trouble for saying this steakhouse doesn’t have the chops

The owner of Philadelphia steakhouse Chops wasn’t pleased with food critic Craig LaBan’s assessment of a meal at their joint. Per Mr. LaBan’s, the steak he had was “expensive and disappointing, from the soggy and sour chopped salad to a miserably tough and fatty strip steak.”

The three-sentence review was met with a 16-page libel lawsuit disputing Mr. LaBan’s misclassification of the steak he’d had. According to the lawsuit, Mr. LaBan had a steak sandwich, which he shouldn’t have confused with a fancy, fine-quality steak.

We don’t imagine this lawsuit went further than getting a one-time coverage at the food section of Philadelphia dailies to serve foodies a sizzling plate of gossip. It’s worth noting that fighting food writers for their unfavorable feedback is a notoriously difficult battle to win.

Customer calls ramen restaurant a bad noodle

Favor shifts toward a restaurant being reviewed when it is proven that the writer of an unfavorable review meant harm, as in the case of Samurai Noodle and an unhappy customer.

In 2019, the Houston ramen restaurant was the subject of a negative review posted on Facebook. Restaurant owner Thomas Tang was able to disprove the customer’s claim that she and her party waited for more than 15 minutes for their order, when, in fact, they only spent 10 minutes at the eatery, as the restaurant’s video footage showed.

Mr. Tang was also able to spot the distraught diner’s deliberate attempts to demean their establishment by forming a troll army to launch scathing reviews of Samurai Noodle.

Bad news for the Dallas Morning News food writer

Small details can make a big difference in restaurant reviews, as this case in Dallas shows.

In 2004, the Dallas Morning News published an 11½-out-of-15-stars review of the restaurant Il Mulino written by Dotty Griffith. Like many restaurateurs who receive a critical review, Phil Romano had a beef to settle; he claimed that Ms. Griffith was unqualified to write restaurant reviews.

In the lawsuit, he cited the article’s several factual errors mostly concerning the components of certain dishes, e.g., where there’s a vodka ingredient in one of the sauces, Ms. Griffith tasted butter.

Mr. Romano also claimed that the writer was friends with an Il Mulino competitor’s restaurant and that unlike Ms. Griffith, many of their other patrons were pleased with their experience at the ristorante. Unfortunately for Mr. Romano, the Dallas Morning News has a much wider readership than those other critics.

Nowadays, opinions are freely and abundantly given; it has become much tougher to distinguish between facts and opinions. In Texas, as well as in Washington and in most states, defending against libel or slander involves demonstrating that the supposedly defamatory statement was accurate to prove that the defamation claim is baseless. Even so, debating sandwich classifications and disputing the accuracy of the ingredients in a porcini ravioli dish around this legal clause can still be tricky.

Buckingham, LaGrandeur, & Williams are attorneys whose opinions on family law and personal injury law in Washington state you would want to obtain should you want to serve, or otherwise get served with, a lawsuit. Call our law offices in Renton, Seattle at 425-448-6419 or drop us a message.