Opinion: A matter of taste

News  /  Opinion

Over the years, I’ve heard from outraged restaurant owners and investors about the Indy’s food reviews. Occasionally, they’ve pulled advertisements because of our reviewers’ opinions. Seldom has anyone asked for a re-do, and no one has ever invited me to come and try the food or bring others with me.

Until Mitch Yellen, that is.

The Indy published a scathing review of Yellen’s restaurant Trainwreck in the month after its opening. Yellen was upset and asked to meet me, as the publisher and executive editor, about the review. I obliged, believing little would change — but I always want to be fair, particularly when jobs (like the people who work at Trainwreck) are at stake. I heard him out. Upset is an understatement. He was livid. He said things that he later retracted.

Trainwreck is a new concept for Yellen, who admits his hospitality record is spotty. Vine and Wheel is a big success locally, and our Food Editor and Critic Matthew Schniper said as much in his May, 2022 review. Till was a little too pricey for Colorado Springs in its first iteration, Yellen also acknowledges. Northside Social became a casualty of the pandemic and is now operating as a venue called The Pinery North. Garden of the Gods Café is a standard breakfast and lunch facility for Downtown residents.

Trainwreck though? A different kind of concept. The space can fit hundreds of people, with outdoor activities during the summer months. There are volleyball nets, fire pits, a 9-hole mini-golf course. During winter, people can play virtual golf on any one of 1,800 courses around the world. Yellen even plans to offer lessons from a golf professional. There are huge, colorful murals and an even bigger television.

He said he got the idea when he took up pickleball and wanted to combine the game with a social bar and restaurant. When North Side Social failed in the pandemic, he created Trainwreck, switched pickleball for volleyball and opened a Downtown hub created from an abandoned building near the train tracks. (Hence the name…)

But we’re here to talk about the food. (Full disclosure: Yellen sat with a group of people from the paper and had a conversation about this restaurant and his future plans during our meal.)

Yellen acknowledged that the food side of the bar had some kinks to work out in its early days. And he credited his staff with working them out. His pricing, as Schniper (and a host of online critics) said, was too high at first, and he addressed it by lowering the costs. Other big issues: Staffing was a big challenge, and the dough used for the pizza took some weeks to get exactly right.

It’s a bar, mostly. The goal is to bring people together for drinks and fun games – so the food is what Yellen terms “elevated bar food.” Think: pizza, burgers, fries.

And as bar food goes, based on our visit in late November, it’s pretty good. The kitchen staff did the hard work to correct issues in the earlier review. Would we all go again? The four of us agreed that we would when we discussed it later.

The sourdough pizza crust was New York-style pizza with crispy pork belly. The burgers are a ground mix of sirloin and ribeye – and were cooked perfectly. They came with a bun that was baked in house, Yellen said. (That’s another change: At one point, the baked goods were made off site and brought in. Now, all are made at the restaurant, Yellen said. It made a difference.) Our quartet also tried the tacos and the cauliflower wings, both of which we liked.

For dessert, we had a brownie dish, and the baker among us suggested the kitchen toast the nuts before making the brownie. The staff took notes. And the ice cream cookies were made with ice-cream churned in house. I really liked the ice cream sandwiches, which were far too large for one person. I will be the first to say I’m not a food critic, and neither was anyone sitting with me. But as Schniper always says, food reviewing is subjective at its core. His reviews reflect his tastes and experience. Our visit reflects ours and is not meant to undermine his earlier review.

This trip and ensuing conversations created a long discussion internally (and it got heated, folks) and inquiries with other publishers at newspapers across the country. For his part, Schniper was strongly against my writing about my visit to Trainwreck here, concerned it would undermine his credibility, or worse, set an unintended precedent.

(For the record: It’s probably not something I would do again, nor do I expect it to come up again.)

What we learned: Many newspapers are cutting reviews in favor of lifestyle features and restaurant profiles. We recognize we offer a service to our reader through these reviews. So, we’re going to take these occasional negative experiences on a case-by-case basis. We might do multiple visits and place more time between them. We will stay in dialogue with disgruntled restaurateurs. But we will maintain the integrity of our review process and be honest with our readers at all turns. Just as we are doing now.

No one will do anything other than tell the truth about the experience. We owe that to you. And we owe it to restaurateurs who need to know where they fall short, as well as when they soar.

Here are the points of contention:

Is it fair to revisit a place that earned a negative review — and how soon after? Is it selling out to go at the owner’s request? What do and don’t restaurateurs deserve, regarding professional reviews?

What do you think, reader? Let us know.

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