I recently rounded the corner in the kitchen of a posh Midtown restaurant—the sort where things are set aflame tableside and the golden light in the ladies’ room makes you feel like Charlize Theron in a Dior ad—and there they were.
Some of the photographs on the wall were of people I know by face, some I know only from the pages of their publications: a longtime city magazine critic, the 90-plus-year-old grand dame of restaurant criticism, even a remarkably grainy shot of The Gray Lady’s ever-elusive reviewer.
It’s one of those restaurant-world secrets that isn’t really a secret: Restaurants know how to spot critics. And it got me thinking: In this day and age, when best-burger lists are a dime a dozen and restaurants are built for Instagram, do restaurant critics really even matter anymore?
Every few years, restaurant criticism is put under the microscope. A couple of years ago, it was about the charade of anonymity, as some critics, like New York Magazine’s Adam Platt, decided to make big reveals. More recently, writers tackled diversity in the industry as well, mainly that there aren’t enough minorities or women with seats at the table.
So why are we talking about it now? Well, for one, Eater just named a new San Francisco critic, experienced food writer Rachel Levin. For me, it sparked curiosity around the fact that many of the same people have been the gatekeepers of opinion for years, even decades, meaning new voices are few and far between—so I started talking to other editors, the critics themselves, and chefs about what’s going on in food criticism.
I’ve been writing about food in one capacity or another for more than a decade, once upon a time as the editorial director of this very publication. You can take my opinion or leave it, but I’m soundly of the mind that at this very minute, critics matter more than ever.
Dismiss restaurant criticism as too subjective or argue for the democratization of reviewing on Yelp, but ask yourself the next time you’re presented with a $50 check for an avocado toast and a coffee: Whose opinion do you trust?
Photo: Chekmark Eats
Sure, the roster of bold-faced names hasn’t changed much in recent years. And why should it? Reviewing restaurants is a plum gig: “When someone gets one of those jobs, they tend to clutch onto them with their talons until they're blowtorched off decades later,” Platt tells me. “They're not the types of jobs that people gleefully leave.”
And then there’s that old chestnut: money. New critics aren't joining the scene in droves, because the money simply isn't there. In a climate where media dollars are increasingly scarce, and alt-weeklies (once a bastion of great criticism) and publications like Lucky Peach are closing up shop, many outlets can’t support a critic's salary, or a dining budget for multiple restaurant visits (which, for traditional restaurant criticism, is standard) for that matter. Some city magazines have stopped running critical reviews altogether.
But it's this shifting climate that makes it a really interesting time for restaurant criticism—and why Eater's bold step in going pen-to-pen with the hegemony of 30-plus-year San Francisco Chronicle veteran Michael Bauer, whose reign and influence (as well as his partner, Michael Murphy’s) were the subject of Rebecca Flint Marx's brilliantly reported piece last summer in San Francisco Magazine, grabbed my attention.
It’s a strategic move by the digital-only publisher, which, although known for being ahead of the curve, is investing in an old-school, relatively formulaic form of food journalism. And these aren’t small investments: Bill Addison, Eater’s national critic, estimates that he visits 25 to 40 cities a year, with the publication covering all of his travel and dining expenses. He wouldn’t disclose his budget, but it’s safe to say that’s not chump change.
“We invest in restaurant reviews not for traffic, but for brand building," Eater editor-in-chief Amanda Kludt explains. "It’s a way to say that we care about this industry in a real way.
“There’s so much money in San Francisco. It’s always good to invest where the centers of power are. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to put a woman in that role,” she adds.
Whether or not Levin’s voice makes an impact remains to be seen but: “It’s great to have more voices, regardless of the platform,” Marx tells me. “What will be interesting is the narrative the critics create by which restaurants they choose to review. Right now, you have a narrative with someone who’s in way too deep with the city’s restaurants.”
And that's just the thing: “A review is rarely about that one particular restaurant,” LA Weekly’s Besha Rodell says. “It’s important to think analytically about why something’s worth talking about. There’s a bigger cultural point to be made.
In any given year, reviews serve as a snapshot of the dining scene of a particular city, and the good ones put them into the context of what’s happening nationally, not only in food but in culture.
“Some of the best critical voices started out as reporters, not food people,” Hanna Raskin, who recently won the first-ever James Beard Local Impact Journalism award for her work at Charleston’s Post and Courier, notes. “It’s very seductive these days for kids to just jump into the food world at a PR internship or something like it, but as a critic you have to be willing to be outside of that.”
It doesn’t mean that critics are immune to the pressures of digital media and the changing landscape: Many are writing a mix of reviews, features and lists. (Whether or not they like them is a different question. But the fact that easily digestible lists perform well online and that readers like them isn’t likely to change anytime soon.) But in their most essential sense, critics help us sift through the noise.
For better or worse, sites like Yelp have given everyone an opinion, and social media adds another layer of confusion. Consider the rise of the Instagram influencer, whose witty captions and photos of runny eggs and cheese pulls may look appetizing, but they’re not arbiters for whether anything is actually worth eating. Plus, it’s no industry secret that said influencers are accepting free meals—not exactly a basis for objectivity.
Read a critic, on the other hand, and you develop a relationship with an educated person who's not looking for freebies.
“You may think I’m too easy on restaurants, but if you read me, you get an understanding of what my tastes are and what I’m looking for in dining in America in 2017,” Addison tells me. “On Instagram, you might get a comment like, ‘Yes girl, love that triple-decker sandwich, omgggggg,’ but that’s not the same as a relationship between a reader and a seasoned writer.”
Food writer Kevin Alexander of Thrillist, whose 2016 profile of The New York Times’ Pete Wells nabbed a James Beard Award, likens it to the film industry: “Do you need a movie critic when something gets 96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes? Some might argue no, but there’s something satisfying when you find a critic you can identify with. They’re the smarter friend who gives you more insight on why you might like something.”
And it’s important to remember that in today’s media climate of name-calling and fake news accusations, having a critic who’s willing to put their name on a negative review isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, negative reviews can push chefs harder and improve the dining experience for everyone.
“There’s a feeling these days that if something is negative, it’s de facto unfair, that if you have a negative opinion you’re somehow compromised or biased,” Brett Anderson, the longtime restaurant critic for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, says. “We have a president who’s attacking news organizations that are reporting the truth, and when he doesn’t like it, it’s ‘unfair.’”
He continues, “Pete [Wells] had a couple of reviews go viral recently, and in both cases, the story became more about the reaction and the fallout from those reviews. But he had some bad experiences and said what happened. He was just doing what he does every week.”
In his travels, Addison has seen the impact of fewer critical voices: “In cities where publications have done away with critics or alt-weeklies have closed, the dining community doesn’t have the same layer of focus. There isn’t a whole lot of ‘Let’s do better.’ Attention may keep a business afloat, but smart criticism makes a business better.”
Of course, it makes sense that critics would defend their own jobs, but they're not alone. Chef Ari Taymor of L.A.’s Alma, who has been vocal about food media and its effect on his restaurant, agrees, “When a Yelp reviewer compares us to, say, Jon & Vinny’s or Bestia, which are great restaurants, it’s not helpful in the sense that those restaurants have nothing to do with what we do, and it’s not going to make me any better. I’m still into the craft of cooking, and I want feedback that’s going to make me better.”
He adds, “We need courage in moments like this. Regardless of the shit you're going to take, the fear of experts has such wide ramifications. Educated critics can have a more nuanced understanding of how restaurants interact with the community, even in how they source and how they staff.”
All this isn't to say that the industry should remain unchanged, especially as new questions keep arising: Do stars matter anymore? Should critics still bother trying to be anonymous? Where do curated sites like Resy fit into the mix? Does the name of the publication matter more than the critic herself? What about certain critics who never write negative reviews? Do old-school critics understand the “new” ways people want to eat, such as all-day cafés and their ilk?
For me, it’s most interesting to think about where restaurant criticism goes from here. Will audio reviews, like the one Raskin tried earlier this year, take off? Will an entirely new format unfold?
“I don’t think the old model of restaurant critic, the guy reclusively sharpening his pen and trying to scare the shit out of people, exists anymore,” Platt says. “Even dinosaurs like me have to adapt; the challenge is to change with your audience. But at the end of the day, there’s still a market for the measured, harrumphing, old-fashioned, written-on-the-page or cyberpage restaurant review.”
I agree with him. And my challenge to the critics would be: Keep harrumphing. Maybe even do more of it, so we can all reap the benefits on the plate.
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