Restaurant critics stare into the abyss

With Yelp and an infinite number of food blogs, do you care what the professionals have to say?

Topics: Restaurant Culture, Food,

Restaurant critics stare into the abyssSam Sifton, Ruth Reichl, Alan Richman and Frank Bruni

Pity the poor restaurant critic. Sure, they dine every night at the finest tables, someone else picks up the tab, and they call it work. But imagine being in their shoes, working in the age of yelp.com and where everyone and their sister has a food blog telling you about where they had dinner last night. Wouldn’t you feel a little bit like your profession is just staring into the abyss, waiting for someone to give you a push? (I was a writer for a magazine printed on dead trees. I know that feeling well.) A panel at New York University last week discussed the viability and purpose of professional restaurant critics, and the differences of views were stark.

Alan Richman, of GQ magazine and the most decorated food writer known to man, thinks the jig is up: Though he ripped his trademark witticisms, his eyes grew sad under his bushy eyebrows as he lamented the loss of detailed, crafted reviews in favor of “something like my blog posts, which I have to finish in half a day.” Critics can no longer “appeal to a higher authority,” he says, and find it difficult to be “constantly attacked.” “Every time I write something, hundreds of people call me an asshole,” he said, though to be frank I thought I also detected a hint of pride in that statement.

Mitchell Davis, the vice-president of the James Beard Foundation, expanded the thought: “We have a very different relationship to authority. In the 1960s, Craig Claiborne [the New York Times' first critic] could ‘educate’ his readers. But now we’re a bit different. We’re democratizing everything. If anyone can be president, why can’t we all be critics?”

You Might Also Like

I wondered about that, and I can’t help feeling that it’s because we view restaurant critics very differently than cultural critics, the best of whom don’t concern themselves simply with whether or not you should shell out for that movie, say, but who bring thoughtfulness and perspective to their subjects, who challenge our interpretations and assumptions and create a larger dialogue not just of the film, but around it. We invest in them a sense of authority that we appreciate and don’t begrudge.

Though the best restaurant critics have entertained and transported us through their descriptions and narratives, it seems to me that for the most part today, people read restaurant reviews because they want to know if they should eat there, what dishes are good, and how much it’ll cost. If you just assembled a chart with that information on it, maybe with a dash of snark, most people would be perfectly happy with it. (And if you quantify it, all the better: Just look at the pre-Internet dominance of the Zagat guides, and now, of course, at Yelp.)

But Davis takes a larger, more generous view of the role of restaurant critics. In his recent dissertation (congratulations!) on the cultural impact of restaurant criticism of the New York Times, he writes:

The popularity of user-generated-review Web sites, such as yelp.com, means the restaurant reviews and food discourse increase exponentially by the day … [but there is still a] continued dominance of elite media in matters of opinion making about food, chefs, and restaurants. Traditional restaurant reviews, especially those in the New York Times, continue to exert a significant influence on taste that is demonstrated in a number of different ways, such as the similarity of the rankings of top restaurants across media outlets, including consumer plebiscites, such as Zagat Survey, expert-driven tribunals, such as the Michelin guide, and even user-generated review Web sites, such as yelp.com, which at times appears to be nothing more than a sounding board for consumer reaction to the opinions expressed by the Times. Now, more than ever, a favorable Times review is what chefs and restaurateurs are hoping for, whether their restaurants are located in New York City, or not … [T]he overwhelming amount of information of unknowable origin available online, which makes the opinions expressed in traditional reviews written with an adherence to journalistic ethics seem more trustworthy.

So here’s a question for you: Do you read professional restaurant critics, and if so, do you read them for information on where to go and what to eat, or for some other reason? Help me think this through! 

Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>