What a Critic Is Good For
In a post today, Clay Risen asks what the point in describing a liquor you'll never be able to taste could be, when you'll only be annoyed that it's beyond your reach. He extends this to wondering what the role of a food critic could ever be, when you won't be able to taste exactly what the critic does. Not as honorable as books, film, theater, or dance! he says. Or, at least, not as useful or helpful to a reader as a piece of cultural criticism.
I'm compelled to disagree, of course. And I do write restaurant reviews. But I also believe that a restaurant critic has an enormous field to write about, including the farmers, cooks, and food producers around it, the cultural life of the city, food fashions, the role of small businesspeople versus large corporations ... the list is long.
And, unlike Clay's $760-for-a-few-sips snifter, I do think readers can and will have meals similar to the ones I review. That's the idea, even if, as is almost always the case, a critic is recognized. Food doesn't change that much between the time a critic writes and a reader tries a place; with luck, restaurants get better at what they do and things go more smoothly, and of course chefs are always working on dishes, often for the better. Any night's meal is different from the last.
But I do think the food critic has a real role to play, and is at the service of the reader, all aimed at the decision of whether it's worth spending the money or not. And, unlike Clay's $760-a-few-sips snifter, we pick meals the reader can buy!
When Sam Sifton came on last year as the New York Times critic, I wrote a defense of critics in the Internet age, in which I said that the paid single critic, as opposed to crowdsourced opinion sites, serves as a love-him-or-hate-him benchmark:
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.
I'm always glad to have Clay's marvelously lucid thoughts on the site—and, maybe because it's my greedy nature when reading about something that sounds really good and in fact incomparable, I'm dying to experience one of those hundred-dollar sniffs.