Service 101: Why Restaurants and Diners Need Restaurant Critics

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?

Other Service 101 Posts:

Service 101: Why Servers Don’t Get Any Respect

Service 101: Restaurants Are Not Picnic Tables

Service 101: Waiting Tables is An Honorable Profession

Service 101: Why You Shouldn’t Eat Out on Valentine’s Day

17 comments

  1. Pingback: The death of professional restaurant criticism « Show Me Eats
  2. Tamar@StarvingofftheLand

    Brooke — I’m with you. I’ve certainly gotten bum steers from both pros and the yelping amateurs, but the pros have a much better track record.

    So where do you stand on Zagat, which essentially splits the difference?

    Of course, now that I live in a restaurant wasteland, it’s all moot.

    • Food Woolf

      Tamar, to tell you the truth, I’m not a fan of Zagat. I could go on and on, but I’d never pay for the print version of Citysearch.

  3. Adriano

    I enjoy reading the reviews of respected critics like Sam Sifton, Sherry Virbila, Michael Bauer, et al., but pro critics are also zealously defending their turf, as per the Ozersky article. Jobs are literally at stake.

  4. Larry

    Brooke, –You make some excellent points. I, too, am in the biz.
    I agree completely with your ‘code of ethics’, and agree that the yelpers and other diners that post are a complete mixed bag. Not unlike the guests we deal with every night in our restaurants! There is clearly room for guidelines and maybe a ‘common language’ that will help guide readers of these sites as to what is helpful and what is somebody having a bad day.
    Unfortunately, I think that too many in the ‘food review’ business are charlatans. For every fair and balanced professional, there are many more who have become all too enamored of their own power, and truly do a disservice to their readers, and the restaurants and their employees, by not truly being fair in their assessment. Sometimes the nastiness and smug attitudes make we wonder if some of these reviewers even like restaurants! Worst of all, though, are the many publications where it is the ‘unspoken’ agreement that listings and reviews come with the price tag of advertising in that periodical. That happens way more than you can imagine.
    I am not as familiar with the scene in LA, but in my home base of Chicago, much of this ‘journalism’ occurs, and it does not help the restaurant business because it does not really fairly represent what people like or need to know about what is out there for them. As much as I love Phil Vettel of the Chicago Tribune, one of the good ones you spoke about, he is probably a wiser and more important voice now precisely because every diner can post about their experience.
    As a long time restaurant person, I was taught early in my career by some brilliant mentors that my guests would be the only voices that really mattered. I have found that to be true. That, and adherence to a real vision of what one’s restaurant should be, is what makes one restaurant stand out over another.
    I for one would not imagine that professional restaurant criticism will disappear. If it morphs into a better craft of food writing, which is what the best reviewers do now, then we will all be better off.
    BTW, I love your site. Keep writing!

  5. Dianne Jacob

    Hi Brooke,

    Nice job.

    Restaurant critics are becoming an endangered species because they’re usually older than the social media set and have different values; they’re steeped in Eurocentric ideas of dining; and most importantly: they’re expensive.

    Papers (and a few magazines) pay for 3+ trips to upscale restaurants. The critics who have been around longest are paid the most. Whoever replaces Sokolow will not get his salary, I bet you. And he (probably, because that’s how our system works) will probably also be younger.

  6. johanna

    i love reading the restaurant reviews of both irene virbila and jonathon gold–i trust them and they are enjoyable to read. i hope they stick around. i don’t take the ”reviews” section of any online site like citysearch seriously, i don’t enjoy reading them either. i do feel they should be allowed though.
    i love both larry and julie’s response posts above–well said! well thought!

    i enjoyed this the most of all the ”service 101” posts–
    nice!!!

  7. Sally

    I completely agree that websites that try to write reveiws are just plain out ridiculous! I only trust food critics that actually give a hoot about their job. I myself am a food critic in the making so please help me tell the truth! By the way I LOVE your site!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. Warren Bobrow

    I review restaurants for a national magazine, it’s refreshing to know that saying something “truthful” still garners an emotional response. People are still reading magazines and newspapers. As a food journalist, I seek the foods that speak clearly of the place- however, let me say that I don’t always choose my stories.

    It’s not the death of professional restaurant criticism, but a broader example of what it means to be a critic. I have no agenda to destroy a restaurant, I know how hard it is to open and maintain one. My goal is to have the chef/owner do better. They have to possess passion, otherwise get out of the restaurant business.
    Food journalists and to a greater extent, bloggers (because they have ALL the power) are important parts of the food biz.
    Take a class in Food Writing at the New School with Andy F. Smith or Food Blogging with Steven Shaw- or Professional Food Journalism with Alan Richman.
    You can’t get into these classes. Food is HOT.
    Take a class in Social Networking at ICE. The world is your oyster! EAT IT!

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  12. Kristen

    I see a place for both professional restaurant reviews and casual, everyday citizen reviews. I personally take both with a grain of salt, not necessarily believing either word for word. The article seems to be based more on the author’s fear of losing his job or title than any perceived cost to the diner or restaurants.

  13. judah

    I feel restaurant review as a profession, like other theatrical critiquing, is art in itself and therefore should be judged by someone trusted in any such artistic world or community; and this process happens at varying degrees of class. I also feel that due to the availability of the internet and the ability to amass information online people are receiving the information and reviews they require from high end critiques to low class blatant loud mouthing about hygiene. The kinds of people judging your restaurant online become an ear marker to your restaurants class prestige. If brad pit twits and bad mouths you for cutting him off at the bar or cooking his steak rare you get exposure. This exposure is not necessarily bad. the internet may be dismantling old forms or criticism from trusted “academic” or artistic communities and is replacing it with the amassing of information yet blatantly stratifying it into class groups of information online. Yet was the old world of criticism so much better: bad reconstructions of French and Italian snobbery?

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