Clearly, food is big business. More and more people—big corporations and media groups—want in on the current obsession with food. The Huffington Post has food coverage, the Food Network is looking to expand to a double network, and CNN just added a dedicated branch of its online division to culinary news.
But as the power of the food as entertainment grows, the force of the critic recedes. Yesterday on Time’s online magazine, Josh Ozersky wrote about the fleeting life cycle of newspaper critics and warned food lovers that web site forums like Urban Spoon and Yelp minimize the power of the newspaper critic and threaten to end the lifespan of the professional food criticism.
What’s in it for the restaurants and the diners?
1. A Restaurant Critic is a Trusted Voice
Most restaurant critics have been at their job for years (if not decades). Because of this long term presence, the reader begins to understand their position on food and restaurants in general. The singular voice of one restaurant reviewer is much easier to follow than the massive chorus of Yelpers that tend to sing multiple songs.
Ozersky points out that with restaurant critics you develop a kind of relationship with this trusted voice of criticism.
When you like a critic, you trust his judgment not because he has a doctorate in food letters, although such things do apparently exist. He’s proved himself over a long period. You know what he likes or dislikes…Maybe you don’t always agree; but when you’re looking at…dropping three bills on dinner, you need to minimize risk.
2. Systematic Code of Reviewing:
Though no restaurant reviewer is without their faults and obvious affections —here in Los Angeles our The Los Angeles Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbilla tends to fawn over the old-guard chefs and overlook their obvious weaknesses, LA Weekly’s Jonathan Gold appreciates the unsung heroes within the ethnic food scene—the newspaper critic offers a valuable service to diners: a systematic code of reviewing.
The professional critic writes reviews that reflect opinion and emotion. They must uphold a certain criteria of observation before passing judgment. They must sample more than a few dishes, visit multiple times, take note of the ambiance with an eye for the general public (not their personal tastes), and—among other things—remain anonymous and deny freebies (or bribes). The professional critic must bring years of experience in the world of food, professionalism, passion for the subject, and be able to offer judicious examples of successes and failures.
But when it comes to online reviewing there are no standard practices. Reading a Yelp or Citysearch review is like listening to gossip from an untrusted source: you can’t believe everything you hear. Rather than offer balanced criticism, these sites have a way of offering up a deep well of negativity that often doesn’t reflect the true nature of a restaurant and its mission.
Granted, some bloggers and online reviewers uphold certain standards, but most of the contributors that write on sites like Yelp are motivated by negative experiences or contribute out of the odd desire to be one of the first on the scene to give their impressions.
3. Trusted Reasons for Criticism
Though some restaurateurs openly admit they don’t care about the star rating system of the food reviewer of their city, you can be assured that they scrutinize every word the restaurant critic writes about them or their competitors. Because, regardless if they agree entirely with their newspaper’s review, the smart restaurateur will find clear markers of successes and failure of their business within those critical graphs. For underneath all the ego and the disagreement with perspective, restaurant owners (and diners for that matter) know that the professional reviewer must dine multiple times, attempt to be unbiased, and give restaurants a fighting chance to put their best dish on the table.
But when it comes to write ups on Yelp or Citysearch, the business owner or restaurant manager tends to approach the feedback with a huge dose of skepticism. Sometimes the posted comments are used as learning tools for how to deal with belligerent customers or demanding guests that don’t get their way. Other times those reviews become reason to fictionalize reviews that work to fight the negativity.
For some diners, negative reviews makes avoiding the pitfalls of service or food preparation of a certain restaurant easier to avoid. But often, there are whole sections of “criticism” that feel more like personal attacks and less like true reporting on a situation.
Where to turn for trusted information in the future?
If the newspaper and magazine restaurant critic becomes a profession of the past, how will diners make an educated decision on where to spend their hard earned dollars? Perhaps consumer reviewers will begin to adopt a kind of code of ethics? Almost a year ago my friend and writing partner and I wrote The Food Blog Code of Ethics, a kind of manifesto about the need to uphold a certain code of ethics when writing about food. We decided it was important to take a stand about maintaining a certain ethical standard on our blogs, even if our blogs were—in effect—written for ourselves. And though I don’t make a point of writing reviews about restaurants—I do after all make a living as a waiter in the food industry—we both wanted to take a stand about maintaining a high level of courtesy to any food business and our readers. Our side-project blog hit a nerve and talk about blogger ethics spread across the internet.
Would the future of food criticism be less bleak if restaurant reviewing bloggers, Yelpers, and Citysearch contributors were held accountable for their words? Perhaps. But with consumers bearing the cost of investigating new restaurants and food products, how could the free content continue to be a sustainable source of information? Surely the cost of a newspaper is far less to the diner than the value associated with the product of the restaurant reviewer. Would diners be willing to pay cents on the dollar for insider information about a restaurant that could save them hundreds of dollars over the year?
Do you think restaurant critics are a valuable resource for information about restaurants?
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