Slate's Bewildering Attacks on Restaurant Criticism
One of the downsides of the Internet is that you can get a lot of attention for saying stupid things loudly, as the food editors over at Slate seemed to have figured out. The site's been on a pointed tear lately against the established rules of restaurant reviews, publishing story after story railing against critic anonymity, expense accounts, and waiting at least three weeks to a month after the restaurant opens to write about it. (The author of the former two articles, assistant editor L.V. Anderson, also wrote a delightfully inane rant yesterday against the word "heirloom" in reference to vegetables on the grounds that it's classist.)
Flickr/myDays / S.Lee
There are plenty of interesting debates to be had about the place of restaurant criticism in a world awash with online reviews, of critic anonymity in the age of social media, and of shrinking restaurant budgets (read Robert Sietsema's thoughtful piece on Eater about that trend), but Slate's willful misunderstanding of the modern challenges of restaurant criticism is not adding anything meaningful to the conversation. It's just spreading old misconceptions and stereotypes around.
Take Anderson's reasoning behind making critics pay with their own money at restaurants:
...buying something on your boss's dime is a very different psychological experience from paying for something out of your own pocket ... If it's a restaurant critic's duty to convey what it's like for a normal schmo to dine at a restaurant, then the existence of a reviewing budget contradicts that duty.
It's a restaurant critic's job to convey what it's like for a "normal schmo" to dine in a restaurant, inasmuch as reviews are recommendations to eat or not eat somewhere. But it's a fallacy to assume that the critic's dining experience is anything like the average person's. Eating somewhere for a review is work, just like reading a book or seeing a concert for a review is work. In order to write 1,000 words about something, you have to pay attention on a level that the casual consumer does not.
Moreover, to get the best and fairest impression of a restaurant, you need to order as much of the menu as your budget can afford -- including things you'd never order normally, and foods that might not be your favorite under regular circumstances -- which means that you need to have the flexibility to take risks. An expense account that isn't directly tied into your own income enables you to order all the interesting-sounding dishes even if you have a feeling they won't work; it also enables you to visit restaurants that might not be good but are still worth writing about. (It's not even worth going into the ludicrousness of the argument that a critic can't imagine whether a menu item is a good value or not, even if they're not personally paying for it.)
Anderson has never been a restaurant critic, a fact she admits in the piece on expense accounts, and so her uninformed rants on various aspects of the job can be written off as just that. But Luke O'Neil, the author of Friday's post "Critics Need to Stop Coddling Restaurants," claims he has been a critic, which makes his argument that reviewers should visit restaurants right when they open that much more puzzling. He calls the three-to-four weeks critics usually wait to review a place "part of a restaurant's optimized marketing scheme" and dismisses the idea that restaurants might not be great out of the gate:
Granted, the choreography of running a restaurant may present some unforeseen challenges, but not that many. The nuts and bolts of the operation -- the composition of the dishes, the competence of the waitstaff -- should be figured out by the time the restaurant's door opens. It's not as though opening night is the first time the chef and team of cooks have cooked, or the servers served, or the bartenders mixed drinks.
That's an extreme and inaccurate oversimplification. The chef and team of cooks haven't cooked together, they don't know what the diners will want, they need some time to establish their rhythm, tweak their menu, adjust their table layout and portion sizes. Aside from a few soft openings, they haven't had time to rehearse like a theater troupe does, or go through rounds of edits like a book would before publication.
But more than that, I personally don't want to start reviewing brand-new restaurants because, for whatever reasons unique to the industry, brand-new restaurants are rarely very good. They need time to find themselves. Reviewers aren't "coddling" new restauranteurs by waiting; they're buffering themselves against having to write, over and over, things like "Service was confused -- drinks were forgotten, one of the dishes was cold, our bill took far too long to arrive -- but the place just opened yesterday, so hopefully it will start to come together soon."
The Internet has sped things up, and people are hungry for information about restaurants as soon as they open, which is why websites like Eater and GrubStreet are so popular. Critics should have time, and financial space, to form broad impressions over time and pass that information on to their readers. Otherwise, there's a site where "normal schmos" talk about their impressions of restaurants the day after they open, after spending their own money. It's called Yelp.