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Behind the Review: H. Harper Station

cookiesWhy, yes, this is a blurry photo of half-eaten sandwich cookies, thank you for asking.

Now, I could have had the inimitable Becky Stein shoot some delicious-looking and not-yet-eaten cookies from H. Harper Station,  which I reviewed in today’s paper.

But I wanted to all to see these particular cookies. Why?

Because they were sent to our table as a small gift from the restaurant’s owner, Jerry Slater. I’ve met Jerry before and worked with him on a panel discussion before I returned to the reviewer’s chair. Like many restaurateurs, he likes to offer a little treat to acquaintances and V.I.P.’s — a group I guess I belong to, though I personally consider myself  “very inane” rather than “very important.”

But I am also the dining critic, and every bite I put in my mouth in a restaurant is potentially something I might praise or disparage. So I don’t like to accept any food I don’t pay for.

What’s the best way to handle this situation?

I’ve tried them all. I used to adamantly send the food back. Once at Floataway Cafe, a waiter refused to take a dessert back to the kitchen. We went back and forth until a curious patron at the next table said, “I’ll take it!” It was hers.

When I stopped reviewing but kept writing food stories and columns for the paper, I decided to change my tactic. I accepted small gifts (a cookie, yes; a steak, no) but “paid” for the extra food by adding the price of it to the waiter’s tip.

Now I just don’t eat it. I’ve found that arguing over small things can be uncomfortable for my table mates and embarrassing to the server. So I thank them for the gesture and then don’t touch the food. Those bites from the cookie were taken by my friends.

Sometimes that can be a bit of a drag, truthfully. Later that week I was at a restaurant in my neighborhood. I was dining with a regular customer at the restaurant, who’s not in the food industry. The chef sent out a very nice-looking flatbread as a kind of middle course between our appetizers and main course. Frankly, I was starving and ready to pounce on it, but instead ate two big pieces of bread and waited for my entree. I wasn’t planning to review the restaurant, but still have to think about every bite of food.

17 comments Add your comment

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March 4th, 2011
8:26 am

I still don’t get your star rating system. One of your reviews last week was a 1-star, which automatically leads me to want to not even consider the place. How do you think your rating system is working overall? Are you getting mostly positive feedback? I find I have to read the whole review before I can tell if actually like a place. I much prefer the AJC’s movie system of A, B, C, etc. If I see a D by a movie, I’m not even going to bother to Netflix it.

Lynn Normand

March 4th, 2011
8:53 am

Is there a bakery in Atlanta that makes dairy and gluten free cupcakes? Thanks


March 4th, 2011
9:03 am

Carolyn’s Cupcakes on LaVista has gluten free cupcakes and I think they have dairy free as well. I’ve had their gluten free version and it was as good as the regular offerings with a slightly different texture.

Jenny Turknett

March 4th, 2011
9:34 am

You can also try the Cake Hag and Sally’s Bakeries. They both have gluten-free options. Cake Hag has low-carb also.

Lynn Normand

March 4th, 2011
9:57 am

Thanks for the replies. Carolyn’s Cupcakes has some gluten cookies and cupcakes on their website, but does not have any dairy free items. Cake Hag has a couple of gluten free items, but not much and nothing dairy free. Sally’s Bakery does not have cupcakes.


March 4th, 2011
1:00 pm

@A I agree with you about the star system. I am confused when restaurants get only 2 stars but a very positive review. On a scale of 1 to 5 I would interpret 2 stars as a D which is not even average.


March 4th, 2011
3:16 pm

Exactly @lal! If I see anything less than 3 stars on a restaurant review anywhere else, I won’t even bother reading it. John and crew–have you thought about tweaking your system at all?

Bill A

March 4th, 2011
4:41 pm

Folks! If you read the legend accompanying the star ratings in the reviews, I think that you will find a good explanation of what the stars mean. Seems pretty clear to me.

John Kessler

March 5th, 2011
9:34 am

Thanks, Bill A. We want each star to mean something; systems that cram all the good restaurants between 3.5 and 5 stars seem to offer less information to us.

John Kessler

March 5th, 2011
9:42 am

A – Honestly, we think our star rating system works great. I think that once readers familiarize themselves with the ratings key, they make sense. Unlike sites that aggregate lots of reviews of places good and bad, we are trying to find two good restaurants to review each week, so it’s better that our ratings tease out the difference between neighborhood places and destination-worthy restaurants.


March 5th, 2011
11:14 am

The problem lies, however, with what the public has been taught. When every other review paints 2 stars as being at best mediocre or even less than mediocre, but your system is based on something completely different, you’re attempting to re-educate an entire populace and that is not always effective. True, your “new way” may be much more reasoned and informative once it is understood and accepted. But even the best of us when we do a casual glance at a review and see “2 stars”, because of years and years of preconditioning, we interpret, “I’ll pass on that one”.

Dunwoody Don

March 5th, 2011
12:54 pm

I like the rating system, especially when stars are coupled with $ signs. It is very similar to the rating system used by Food & Wine in its Wine Guide. If meals at a 2-star restaurant are in the $-$$ range, I feel like I’m getting good value. I avoid 1-star/$$$ places, but don’t mind occasionally paying $$$-$$$$ at a 3-star.


March 6th, 2011
7:02 pm

It’s a damn good thing that your boyfriend/girlfriend/wife/husband never had a star rating before you met them. You would have never dated. Pathetic.

Soupy Sales

March 7th, 2011
6:36 pm

While I “get” the new AJC star rating system (now), I do agree that it can be confusing to the uninitiated. And I think that confusion stems from one thing: the constant inclusion of the graphic showing the total “5 Stars” possible in a review, no matter what individual rating was earned by the restaurant reviewed.

Example: In a vacuum, if I see a restaurant review graphic granting one or two stars to a place (a la the method currently used by the NYT in its featured reviews), then I think the reviewer must have found some merit in the restaurant. But if I see a review where there is a graphic showing a total of 5 stars in each review, and the same restaurant has earned a one- or two-star review, then – - to me – - that says “One out of five” (the equivalent of a D letter grade) or “Two out of five” (a C-). Same restaurant, same starred review. But a very different PERCEPTION of the review, and all because of the inclusion of a graphic showing the three or four stars that COULD have been earned but weren’t.

My two cents: drop the superfluous stars graphic. Just include the number of stars earned in the review (if any).

(As described above, here’s an example of a NY Times-starred review (with 1 star): )

Edgewood Adam

March 8th, 2011
10:48 am

Its confusing to rubes. And rubes only. Just getting one star in New York City is considered a big deal. Go back to yelp if this is too confusing for you morons.

Random Wine Geek

March 8th, 2011
2:20 pm

I understand the importance of avoiding even the appearance of impropriety, and that there is no perfect solution when you get “freebies” from restaurants. But I’d rather see a policy of full disclosure instead of simply not eating the dish, particularly if you let friends or family benefit from the “freebies.” Let the reader decide whether the “freebie” was likely to influence the review. Frankly, if I thought your favor could be bought by giving you or your friends and family a couple of cookies, I wouldn’t read your reviews in the first place.

I recognize there are at least a couple of problems with the disclosure approach. You would still be accepting something of value from the subject of the review (but if friends or family can benefit under your current policy, that’s accepting a benefit, too). Logistics would also be a problem, possibly forcing you to maintain a database of “freebies” received and to consult it whenever you write about a chef or restaurant, since I suspect “freebies” often come during meals that do not coincide with reviews. And I understand that it could definitely feed the trolls.

If you are going to keep the current policy, then you probably should expand it so that neither you nor anyone with you benefits from the “freebies.” Giving the food away to a table of strangers, OTOH, doesn’t seem likely to impair your objectivity and at least keeps the food from going to waste.