The Food Critic In the Internet Age

The breathless anticipation over who would succeed Frank Bruni as the New York Times restaurant critic seldom acknowledged the question that was really being asked: what role does a newspaper critic have in a wired world where anyone can get as much information about and as many user reviews of a restaurant as she or he could want?

To craggy veterans who have spent our lives trying to make a living as writers, the answer is obvious: of course a paid writer is more reliable! We've spent years learning perfect impartiality, fairness, and enough about the business of cooking and feeding people to give us extra-special knowledge that confers godlike power to pass judgment. Oh, and we've learned how to write, too.

Obviously, I'm being facetious. But also I'm not. The wired world is a part of life--I rely on it, every critic relies on it. I've just used the Internet to book four tables at two different reservations (yes, under four different names), and revel in the ability to look up menus rather than always surreptitiously stealing menus (I still steal them, to be sure I've got the right information).

Paid critics: that's the difference between the very, very few of us left and the Web world, and I think the difference in reliability.

What I don't do--perhaps quaintly, along with the antiquated print world in which I toil, as Boston Magazine's restaurant critic--is look on forums and various sites to see what people are saying about restaurants. And don't read the work of the other paid critics in Boston, who don't work for monthlies and by definition can get the jump on me, until after my review has gone to press (again, quaint).

Paid critics: that's the difference between the very, very few of us left and the Web world, and I think the difference in reliability. Bloggers sometimes write about meals they got free, or about staff people they broke up with, or any number of other reasons that lead you to doubt their reliability. But, of course, you don't know those reasons--or whether they're there at all (most bloggers, I assume, are aboveboard).

You may love or hate a critic, but you know you can use that critic's taste as a yardstick for your own, especially after the critic has been writing awhile. And that you can learn more about a restaurant in one article than you would without spending a long long time browsing sites to get an aggregate opinion and figure out if that place is right for you.

(As for anonymity, let's not go there. My picture is all over the Web--heck, it's right on our site!--and any restaurateur who's interested knows what the local critic looks like. As one very experienced maitre d' once said of a critic's famous disguises, "If you put a wig and lipstick on a tank, don't you think I'll know a tank just came in?" Whether or not I'm recognized is always a crap shoot, but what I've learned over years is that I often go unnoticed in places where I do know the chef and am recognized in places I least expect it, because a server has waited on me in the past.)

Aggregate opinion in one place you can use it, with criteria for the checkpoints you need (price, view, open late, child-friendly, sexy pickup spot) is of course the form the Zagats mastered long ago, and put in (yes) print form you can easily take everywhere. I keep a full set at home and the local edition in my car. Every critic is constantly looking at a Zagat Survey for the perfectly digested information she or he needs, and not just on a BlackBerry or iPhone (Zagat is the highest-grossing travel app on iPhones out of 75,000, the Zagats tell me).

So I asked Nina and Tim, our gracious and never-frequent-enough contributors, what they thought the role of the newspaper critic is in a world where the whole wide Web has copied their approach. They could hardly be more central in the restaurant world: they live it day and night, as I've experienced with them and can't wait to do soon again. Of course they had the right answer.

"A good restaurant critic can paint a full portrait" as few blogs can, Tim told me. He added his own wish list for any critic: that she or he touch all the bases--service, decor, prices, who goes to a place and who can take best advantage of what it offers. This is something he's often mentioned to me, including (sigh) about my own writing. A critic needs to be a Michelin inspector (though preferably one who knows something about food that isn't French, as no Michelin inspector seems to) when it comes to seeing every detail of a restaurant and the experience it offers a diner. Knowing and mouthing off about the food won't do it for a professional.

And, he added, something else: good critics should be great writers. After all, they're getting paid!

The Times hired a great writer in Sam Sifton, as anyone who has read his recent New York Times Magazine series knows. I particularly prized the brief reviews he wrote when he edited the paper's Dining Section--just as I prize those of my friend Pete Wells, who during his interim assignment before Sifton made his debut found an utterly distinctive and confident voice with astonishing speed.

It takes time for a city with the scope and cacophonous opinions New York does to get used to a critic, particularly the most powerfully placed restaurant critic. I knew from his first review that I'd follow Pete wherever he went (in his last of this series, to Brooklyn), both to whatever restaurant and, crucially, to the end of the piece. I'm really looking forward to following Sam Sifton everyplace he goes.