The End of the Career Food Critic
Sam Sifton didn't want to be a restaurant critic forever. Smart career move.
On Tuesday, two high-profile critics made news by ceasing to be critics. The New York Times' Sam Sifton, after two years as a restaurant critic, got a big promotion to the editor of the paper's national desk, while the Chicago Sun-Times' Pat Bruno, a 27-year veteran, announced he'd been fired. Both represent major changes in their papers. But it also demonstrated how the role of food critic has morphed from the kind of job one holds for decades, with increasing local power and seniority, to the kind of job one holds for a few years, before going off and doing something else. For those who have dreams of moonlighting as a critic, it's great news. For those who thought they could turn their palate into a 401(k), it's a tough slog.
Not since Ruth Reichl and her famous disguises left The New York Times in 1999 has a critic so reined over a city. Reichl, who held the job from 1993 to 1999 after a nine-year stint as critic and dining editor at the Los Angeles Times, had a reputation as a kingmaker in the restaurant world -- one whose very word could ensure success or failure. She lived entirely in her role as food critic, taking elaborate caution to protect her identity with disguises that were more like alter-egos. "When Reichl donned a costume, she went whole-hog, developing finely honed characters -- complete with their own credit cards and personal histories," wrote Rebecca Traister in a 2005 Salon profile. When she stopped being a critic, Reichl kept close to food. She went on to edit Gourmet before it folded. Now she speaks, blogs, and writes books, and advises Gilt Taste, the food portion of the shopping site.But she does not review restaurants. Similarly, Gael Greene, New York magazine's critic of 40 years, didn't take up another full-time position after the magazine let her go (though she does contribute reviews to Crain's New York). She started a blog, and does various other food-journalism things, but not as much as a Reviewer with a capital R.*
Since Reichl's departure, The Times has filled the role with staffers from elsewhere in the paper. It's always chosen high-quality writers, but none have been career foodies. Reichl's replacement from 1999 to 2003 was William "Biff" Grimes, a theater columnist and culture reporter who went on to review books. After him, Rome bureau chief Frank Bruni returned to New York to take the job from 2003 to 2009 before moving on to the op-ed page. Then Sam Sifton, editor of the culture desk, took over for just two years before leaving, imminently, to head the national desk. Reichl herself pointed out the waning power and prominence of the New York food critic in a 2009 New York Observer story marking Bruni's departure:
“From the time of Craig Claiborne—who basically invented the genre—there has been a waning power among each Times restaurant critic,” said Ruth Reichl, The Times’ restaurant critic from 1993 to 1999 and the current editor of Gourmet. “Claiborne could make or break restaurants. Mimi Sheraton wielded that power with more glee than anyone before or since and she, too, could make or break restaurants. But over the years, we’ve seen decreasing amounts of power. … I think people read the column with interest especially when it’s a good writer, but whether people take that word as gospel? That has really changed. There are so many knowledgeable people weighing in!” she said.
These days, a restaurant like New York's Fish Tag can get zero stars from Sifton and still succeed (it does have four stars on Yelp after all). And while whoever holds the Times critic role will have a lot more power than any single Yelp reviewer, it's safe to say that diners look to online review sites like that or MenuPages as much or more than the Times dining section when choosing a restaurant, especially if they're searching by neighborhood, price range, or the other metrics those sites specialize in parsing.
Sifton, for his part, edged the role of food critic away from strict arbiter of culinary taste to, basically, really good Yelper, writes Baohaus chef / owner Eddie Huang , to whose venture Xiao Ye Sifton gave a goose-egg in October 2010. Huang, who developed a huge affinity for Sifton, wrote on Wednesday:
I didn't give a fuck whether there was a table cloth, two forks, and maitre d, I wanted to know who was in the God damn room, what music they're playing, is it a ill date spot, what are my odds of smashing after Fat Radish? Things people who are still alive care about. He understood that dining extends beyond the plate. I give a fuck who's sitting next to me. I give a fuck what scene I'm buying into by patronizing the restaurant. As a kid who still has ideals, aspirations, and a tribal mentality, I needs to mother fuckin know. I don't want to know how xyz French restaurant compares to abc French Restaurant from the 80s. I want to know that M. Wells "recalls the moment when Greg Ginn, of the punk band Black Flag, wore a Grateful Dead shirt onstage." And in the same vein, Sifton's time at Dining was like Snoop rockin' Tommy Hill on Letterman for hip hop heads. We had a vote.
Fewer and fewer cities still have an Anton Ego-like personality dominating the food scene. As we noted here last month, Portland, Oregon lost its Ego analogue last year and has been surviving with a young, former crime writer on the restaurant beat (the food scene there flourishes). More and more, as newspapers shed their longstanding reviewers, those reviewers go on to write independently about food generally, and their jobs get folded into the paper's general food-writing staff, such as when the SF Weekly replaced longform critic Meredith Brody with critic/blogger Jonathan Kauffman. The days of the all-powerful critic have already been declared over, but there will always be a need for smart people to write about food in a way that makes you want to eat it or not.
*Correction: An earlier version of this story overlooked Greene's work as a contributing reviewer for Crain's New York