The Internet suddenly seems filled with people lamenting the demise of the restaurant reviewer. Latest to chime in is The Atlantic Wire, which has run several pieces recently on the decline of the career food critic. Being a restaurant reviewer myself, I poured over these with interest.
The good news is that most of the decline has occurred in big-city daily newspapers, which fewer and fewer people are reading anyway. The major dailies still have restaurant critics, of course, but what has faded is their “influence.” Back in the day, Craig Claiborne made or buried restaurants during his tenure at The New York Times. So did Mimi Sheraton, and to a lesser extent Ruth Reichl. The latest batch of Times critics—William Grimes, Frank Bruni, Sam Sifton—have been gifted writers who have regularly turned in thoughtful pieces, but their opinion no longer means life or death for the establishments they evaluate.
The make-or-break venue for restaurants is now the Internet itself. Sites such as Yelp or Chowhound, which are filled with reviews from supposedly impartial consumers, are likely to be the first and only stop for diners seeking advice. If I’m visiting a strange city or country, the first place I’ll look for restaurant guidance is Trip Advisor; if I’m considering dropping a pile of money in a Michelin-starred establishment, I’ll head straight for eGullet. Like most people, I value the opinions of my peers more than the word of an imperial critic.
One of the obvious problems is that critics, like everyone else, have personal biases. They tend to favor eateries that are grand, formal and expensive over those that are casual and modest (most people would, if they didn’t have to pay). If their tenure extends for a long period of time they tend to become recognized, which leads to different treatment than the average person receives. The longer someone stays in the position, the more effort he or she has to exert to see things clearly.
Yet there is one thing that critics provide for their publications—the assumption that cuisine and dining are art forms, which should take their place next to books, film, theater and architecture, and which should be evaluated according to a set of shared cultural standards. Try to find that on Yelp, Chowhound or Trip Advisor, and more often than not you’ll end up Googling The New York Times.