Why Do Restaurant Critics Think Criticism Is Dying?

Categories: Kauffman
ruthreichl.jpg
Have user sites like Yelp terminally eclipsed the professional critic?
This week, the Columbia Journalism Review published "Everyone Eats," a must-read history of restaurant criticism in New York written by Village Voice restaurant critic Robert Sietsema. Like most of Sietsema's writing, it's an erudite essay that pulls from research as well as reminiscence and tracks the interrelation between how we dine and how we write about dining. I found the essay fascinating ― and troubling.

Sietsema credits the history of the modern restaurant review to Craig Clairborne, off-and-on critic at the New York Times starting in 1957, who established journalistic standards for restaurant criticism that most paid critics still adhere to: anonymity, multiple visits, no free food, etc. Sietsema then traces the history of the restaurant review through Gael Greene's hyperbolic sensuality, Ruth Reichl's gift for dramatic narrative, and his own focus on low-priced, so-called ethnic restaurants.

Then he succinctly, even-handedly lays out the ethical issues that the Internet age is bringing to restaurant criticism: the rise of restaurant-discussion sites fed by quasi-anonymous contributors, the death of anonymity for paid critics, the rising prevalence of the media dinner, food bloggers who eat for free and don't acknowledge it in their writing.

At the end of the essay Sietsema waxes elegiac:
As with many things on the Web, this profusion of voices is often touted as a wondrous blow for democracy, a long-overdue rising up of the masses against the elitist overlords of the culinary realm. . . . Craig Claiborne, and those who followed him, lifted the restaurant review out of the realm of marketing and made it a public service--a job defined by professional standards and expertise. Today, despite whatever benefits come with the every-man-a-critic ethos, we are in danger of losing that public service.
And that's where he loses me.

This whole Henny Penny take on the state of professional restaurant criticism pops up every few months. Case in point: Francis Lam's "Do Restaurant Critics Matter?" essay on Salon a couple weeks back. And every time the argument comes up I find it crotchety, if not short-sighted ― mostly because it assumes that Yelpers/bloggers and paid restaurant critics are working in opposition.

I for one love and consult Yelp, Urbanspoon, Chowhound, blogs, and e-newsletters. I think the fear that they threaten "professional" restaurant criticism is about as valid as the threat we once feared Starbucks posed to neighborhood coffee shops. Starbucks created coffee's Third Wave, and unpaid food writers are not going to make the pros go away ― they just might make us better.

What I think Sietsema gets wrong is his assessment of the general public. For one, we're not all that gullible. No one takes individual comments on Yelp and Chowhound as the gospel truth. Everyone knows that Yelp reviews (especially) are salted with posts from the restaurant owner's best friends, cranks, and people who don't know diddly about food. But those faults communicate themselves more often than not, and most of us read every individual comment with an eye for undue bias. What makes Yelp valuable is in the collection of comments, the group-think assessment, the sense that five minutes of skimming will give the person who consults the site great dishes to try and potential problems we might encounter.

If the side effect of having their bullshit meters perennially cranked up is that people read professional restaurant critics like Sietsema and me, as well as bloggers who may or may not be accepting free food, with the same watchful eye ― good. It makes the critics who do practice strong ethics stand out, and makes review readers more open-minded diners, who aren't content to merely follow in the footsteps of a critic (the "I'll have exactly what he had" approach to dining out).

Secondly, most of us are now sifters who consume multiple media. In the good ol' days, the diligent foodie might compare the Times review against the one in New York magazine. Now, most of the people I know will regularly consult dozens of different sources before picking a restaurant for the evening: two paid critics, say, plus a couple of blog posts that show up in an Urbanspoon search and as many Yelp or Chowhound comments as we can skim through before we get annoyed. We weight each source, then triangulate.

Sure, individual restaurant critics may be losing some of our power to make or break a restaurant. The only kind of restaurant criticism that might suffer from this loss is the one that pretends to be objective about a highly subjective experience ― no two restaurant experiences are ever the same, no matter who you are ― and demands readers to blindly trust the critic or the institution that employs him or her.

I, for one, am happy that throngs of unpaid eaters are taking back that particular power. It belongs to them, and frees me up to think beyond "Potatoes good, server bad" to focus on the why of those assessments. The value that professional restaurant critics offer to the public isn't just journalistic ethics but the resources and time to make informed opinions and articulate them convincingly. And I think readers recognize that.

As fervidly as I subscribe in their code of ethics, my own role models for writing reviews aren't Craig Clairborne or Ruth Reichl. They're Anthony Lane and Pauline Kael. Both are film critics whose reviews I still read, often years after their publication date, because they're funny as hell, because I love their turns of phrase, because they help me interpret a movie I've seen by showing how it relates to a broader cultural context, because they inspire me to see movies I wouldn't have considered. They make me a more educated film viewer, and therefore one who enjoys what I'm seeing more.

These days, when I'm considering going to see a movie, I'll scan Metacritic to see what its composite score is. Then I click through the site to read the full text of Owen Glieberman and Manohla Dargis's reviews, the opinions I most enjoy reading and that seem to resonate with my tastes.

Clearly, since I love my job, I hope that restaurant critics aren't going away. In fact (and sadly), we seem to have much safer gigs than theater, visual, art, movie, and book critics. Magazines and newspapers have recognized that robust restaurant coverage attracts both regular readers and regular advertisers, online as well as in print. Someday, perhaps, I'll be replaced by user-generated content or a puff-piece drafter who's subsidized by the restaurant he or she "reviews," but I don't see that day coming any soon. I'm staking my career on it.

Follow us on Twitter: @SFoodie. Follow me at: @JonKauffman
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