The Changing Food World: An Ex-Critic Reflects



While I haven't been doing nearly as many bookstore appearances and such for the Born Round paperback as I did for the hardcover, I recently hit Boston and Portland and last night was in San Francisco, and I'm struck by how frequently some of the same questions come up: by how many people are curious and inquisitive about the exact same things.

So I thought it might make sense, beginning with this post, to share some of those questions, along with my usual answers.

Q: Are sites like Yelp making newspaper restaurant reviews obsolete?

A: No, not if restaurant consumers are smart. While I think more information is, in a broad sense, a good thing, and thus applaud the existence of Yelp and its siblings, I think people need to understand and be realistic about the quality and reliability of the information they're getting. When you're reading a rhapsodic customer review on a site with user-generated content, how do you know it's not the chef's aunt or the restaurateur's next-door neighbor doing the raving? Or if you're reading a hit job, how do you know it's not by a former employee with a grudge? If the rave is authentic and unbiased, is it based on multiple entrees and multiple visits, or on one dish on one charmed night? You can't always be sure, and although a restaurant whose 500 customer reviews are 90 percent positive is probably indeed a safer bet than a restaurant whose 200 reviews are 80 percent negative, you probably can't and shouldn't come to conclusions and judgments a whole lot more specific than that.

In contrast, when you're reading a review by Sam Sifton in the New York Times, you know: a) he paid for his meal independently and isn't indebted to the restaurant; b) he visited the restaurant multiple times and worked his way across the menu; c) he has no economic stake in the restaurant or the review; d) he brings to his assessment the context and authority of nightly forays into the New York restaurant world and real knowledge of what's possible, achievement-wise, in restaurant food. [Curator's note: I agree with Frank! See my piece on the advantages of paid, professional reviewers here.]

Q: Is classic formal dining over? Or dying? And is that upsetting?

A: Clearly, the number of restaurants offering the white linens, the majestic floral sprays, and all of that has decreased significantly. It's an idiom of dining less broadly valued than it used to be; it entails a price tag that turns many diners off. But it hasn't gone away and won't disappear soon, because it's a kind of traditional, archetypal experience that diners in a particular mood, on particular occasions, will seek. It has a merit and logic all its own—no other idiom communicates a sense of pampering and coddling any more effectively—and it connects diners to the past.

In any case, the proliferation of more casual alternatives isn't really a threat to "fine dining" that signals less regard for the restaurant experience. Quite the opposite: what we're seeing is a reconceptualization of fine dining and proof that more people, straddling more age groups and more income levels, are sophisticated about food, adventurous in their appetites, and insistent on participating in food culture. That culture has evolved to accommodate them. Chefs of enormous ambition and skill strut their stuff in cosmetically humble theaters that don't demand a certain code of dress, a platinum card, or for that matter a two-hour commitment to a four-course meal. That's easily as exciting as the ebb of white linens is upsetting.

Q: How have your restaurant experiences changed since you turned in your critic credentials?

A: When I head out to eat, I get to respond to my own whims and wants and moods, and I can repeat experiences I like instead of moving on to the next new place, and then the next new place, and then ... There's also a downside: the absence of obligation means I haven't made it yet to restaurants I am truly curious about and want very much to try. Colicchio & Sons. Má Pêche. Those two come to mind right away. The upside is that I can be a regular again, and establish steady, comfortable, intimate relationships with restaurants in a way that a critic, for a whole host of reasons, can't.

One of the shortcomings of restaurant criticism—and there's no way around it—is that the criteria and method that a critic necessarily uses aren't able to factor in fully how well a restaurant works for its regulars. A regular doesn't assess the aggregate or median quality of all 10 appetizers and all 8 entrees; a regular gets the few things he or she has come to love and trust the most. A regular operates in a glorious self-determined rut. I go frequently now to some restaurants that, if I were forced to review them, I might not be as high on or kind to. But I'm using just a sliver of the menu. I'm dropping in at what I know will be the least frantic, most pleasant times. I'm interacting in an unloaded fashion with proprietors and staff who have a special talent for such interactions. I'm not a critic, I'm a regular.

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