The banning of a local blogger from three Portland restaurants has provided a virtual feast for food lovers around the globe, with readers hungrily dishing on the controversy online and national websites serving it up as their hot plate of daily gossip.

The food community has been chattering about the banning of mainetoday.com food blogger John Golden from Hugo’s, Eventide Oyster Co. and The Honey Paw, three well-regarded Portland restaurants that have received a lot of national attention.

The restaurateurs asked Golden not to write about The Honey Paw, but he did anyway. News of his subsequent banning raced around Twitter, showing up as far away as Australia. The story was retweeted by newspapers such as The Boston Globe, the New Orleans Times Picayune and The Guardian in London, and was picked up by people interested in media and freedom of speech, appearing on the websites Jezebel and jimromenesko.com. Locally, readers posted hundreds of comments to the Portland Press Herald website and its Facebook page and shared the story more than 50 times.

Meanwhile, one of the owners of the restaurant group said he doesn’t regret the decision to bar Golden, who has been a polarizing figure in the local food community. The owner, Mike Wiley, declined to comment on whether the restaurants will consider lifting the ban, which experts say is legal.

Wiley and his partners, general manager Arlin Smith and chef Andrew Taylor, banned Golden last week, saying that Golden and his writing are both “unprofessional” and at times “mean-spirited.” Golden’s reviews of the trio’s restaurants have been mostly positive, but the restaurateurs objected to the general tone of Golden’s work, citing a review in which he called another restaurant a “goiter.”

Golden’s blog, The Golden Dish, is hosted by mainetoday.com, which is owned by MaineToday Media, publisher of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. Golden served as the restaurant critic for the Sunday Telegram for eight months, an assignment that ended about a year ago.

The tone of the online chatter about the controversy has been “honestly, shocking,” said Wiley, who with Taylor was a nominee this year for a James Beard Foundation award.

“Just to read really terrible, insulting things written by complete strangers about yourself online is certainly a new experience for me. It felt pretty hurtful,” Wiley said. But, he said, “there was also an outpouring of people in the industry, restaurant owners and regular customers who went out of their way” to offer support through phone calls, emails and text messages.

Readers who disagreed with the ban called the restaurateurs “childish,” “petty,” “pompous,” “pretentious” – and worse – and said they were overreacting. Supporters cited Golden’s “awful photography” and “poor writing style,” saying he “lacks basic knowledge” and is “all ego.”

“I do regret upsetting so many people, but I don’t regret us making an effort to try to distance ourselves from John Golden as best we could,” Wiley said. “Clearly that’s backfired hugely, but maybe two weeks from now it won’t be as big a deal as it is now.

“At the end of the day, we probably are going to lose some customers and I feel bad about that, but that’s one of the things about restaurants in the modern world. You are exposed online in places like Yelp and Trip Advisor.”

Some local chefs were surprised by all the attention the story got. Others said it’s to be expected in a small town that cares passionately about food. Several speculated there was more to the story than appeared in print.

Krista Desjarlais, a former Portland chef and James Beard nominee, said the three partners “basically threw a big rock in a little pond. It causes a big splash when it hits, and then it’s going to ripple out.”

Over at Vinland, about a 15-minute walk from the trio’s restaurants on Middle Street, chef/owner David Levi said he wouldn’t ban a blogger or critic himself because he welcomes the chance to win them over with his food. Steve Corry, chef/owner of Five Fifty Five and Petite Jacqueline, noted that dealing with bloggers and “aggressive reviews” is “going to happen, and there’s no way to control it.”

Still, Corry was surprised by the amount of response to the story. “The number of people who are talking about it is crazy,” he said.

Several chefs say they have been tempted to take the same step, especially with bloggers who demand special treatment or free food. Desjarlais said she often did not find out that a professional national writer had dined at her restaurant until days or weeks later, but she always knew when a blogger was there.

“You don’t want to censor anybody and you can’t discriminate against anybody, but as a chef and a business owner you have to wonder ‘who are these people and why are they writing all this stuff?’ ” she said.

This isn’t the first time a blogger has been banned from a restaurant in Portland. Harding Lee Smith, owner of four Portland restaurants, said he banned a blogger from Munjoy Hill News for bothering customers and for “very mean and unprofessional and bad writing.” He has no problems, however, with Golden.

“He’s a character,” Smith said. “The way he writes and he dines and the way he carries himself, he probably elicits strong opinions on either side of the aisle. I think there’s a place for characters like John and writers like John because they’re entertaining.”

For his part, Golden said the controversy has only raised his profile. Since Tuesday, he said, he’s had “a landslide of people following me on Twitter and Friend requests on Facebook, so my social media profile has risen enormously. And I’m very pleased that most people are overwhelmingly against what they did.”

After some 24 hours of tumult, Wiley said that despite the comments online about him and his partners, he does, indeed, have a thick skin. And he still believes in restaurant criticism.

“I think it’s a good way to elevate discourse about food,” Wiley said. “I think it can improve a restaurant community. It can help restaurants learn from their mistakes.”


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