About seven years ago, I started writing a column titled “Are restaurant critics obsolete?”
I got a few paragraphs in; I wrote that there were fewer critics than when I’d started in journalism and explained how new media platforms were diminishing their roles. But I added that critics still had voice, that they were one element of a more participatory conversation rather than arbiters of taste delivering verdicts from on high. I don’t remember why I shelved it. Maybe it felt too insidery? Maybe I ran out of steam? Maybe I suspected that it would be insulting to editors whom, at the time, I depended on for work?
Seven years later, that restaurant critics are obsolete is less a hypothesis than a statement of fact.
Yes, the New York Times still has a restaurant critic who is perceived as very powerful. But the Times still has a Warsaw bureau chief, too. Does your local paper still have a Warsaw bureau?
The restaurant critic was once nobility, granted high status by colleagues, readers, and restaurateurs alike.
I started in this business about 12 years ago, as a critic. And although I had no training or education in writing or journalism (I had spent the previous six years cooking), co-workers treated me like I was above the general-assignment reporters, who had all worked incredibly hard to finish their degrees and to stand out amid fierce competition from their peers just to land entry-level spots in the newsroom.
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Before the internet led to the democratization of opinion writing, it was expected that a critic would write with the voice of authority. We see through that now, the idea that one person knows everything. But while most newspaper writers strove for a neutral tone, I was encouraged to write with an imperious one. And my opinions — about the value of products and services at small food businesses on which owners had staked their life savings — were printed in the paper next to heavily researched truths.
At the time, I was entrusted with a dining budget of tens of thousands of dollars. Occasionally, I saw other critics write super-nasty reviews, which succeeded in keeping their bosses convinced of their power, which justified their budgets. I felt pressure to do that, too. And it was only in hindsight that I could see the formula: find a terrible restaurant owned and frequented by wealthy people (so that your audience can read guilt-free) and savage it.
This was just before the recession put journalism in a sleeper hold and the internet delivered a crushing elbow drop from the third rope. Back then, the critic could be small-business champion, product tester, consumer advocate, and professional snoot all at once. For the average reader, critics helped advise them where to spend their hard-earned dining dollars. For the publication and its higher-ups, they offered prestige. Friends of the publisher or the editor-in-chief — the kinds of people who can afford to eat in the kinds of restaurants that demand to be critiqued — could sidle up at a party to debate that week’s review.
It was believed that a good or bad review could keep open or close a restaurant. And maybe that was once true: this was an age when a smaller media industry had a stronger hold on a larger audience. (Similarly, it was only in an era with three TV channels that a show like The Love Boat [1977–1986] could run for nine seasons.)
By my time, the reign of the critic was over. But legacy media were still holding on to the illusion. Chowhound, an online forum where the public discussed food, had disrupted the monopoly that critics had on opining. Yelp would eventually supplant Chowhound. As the recession and the decline of the newspaper industry were cutting into dining budgets, online review forums were in their ascendency.
Anonymity was once the gold standard of critics. The theory, which I also took as gospel, was that if the restaurant didn’t know who you were, then they wouldn’t treat you differently from any other customer. Thanks to Ruth Reichl’s influential 2005 memoir, Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, this had become a marketing tool as well: it bolstered the idea of critics as rigorous and impartial observers and added to their mystique.
By the mid-2000s, cellphones with cameras had made it impossible for critics to maintain that anonymity. Most tried. But it became a trend for critics to reveal their faces and admit that the hidden identity had, for some time, been an affectation. It was particularly farcical with New York magazine’s Adam Platt, who looks exactly like his brother Oliver, who himself even played a restaurant critic in the 2014 movie Chef.
When I started reviewing restaurants, in 2007, Toronto had six professional, full-time critics. There are now two. When Chris Nuttall-Smith stepped down as the Globe and Mail’s full-time critic, in 2016, the paper didn’t replace him.
So, what became of our restaurant scene? Did customers, lacking qualified recommendations from professionals, decide simply to stay home?
No. For the most part, Yelp has replaced the critic. It’s also a platform for venal people to extort restaurants for free meals and for angry people to attempt to hurt small businesses because they don’t like their politics. But it is, for the most part, where people go nowadays to decide whether a restaurant is good or not. Local publications, the kind at which editors used to declare proudly that they had no interest in acting as de facto publicists for chefs and restaurants, have become just that, creating content SEO-engineered to appear at the top of diners’ Google searches.
Word of mouth still remains the most powerful tool for endorsing restaurants at which you’ve had a great time or warning potential diners to stay away from clip joints where you feel you’ve been fleeced.
Is this better or worse?
I miss the old ways. I miss the sense of discovery and sharing that came with reading and writing reviews. When I was a critic, I always tried to write as an impartial observer, while never pretending that the restaurant review could be anything but subjective. When I suspected that a critic had biases toward a style of cuisine or service, that was something I could dependably filter their opinion through.
When my career took off, my grandmother was in her final years. I’d visit her on Saturdays, and we’d read the reviews together. By that point, she didn’t eat much beyond Boost protein shakes. The columns were her last connection to food. I don’t follow sports, so those Saturday reviews were as close as I ever came to seeing whether my team had won or to watching an unqualified fighter get pummeled by a pro. The best critics, equal parts sober judge and rabid wrestling villain, had a thick skin: they weren’t your friend, and they weren’t the restaurateur’s friend. Their not needing to be liked made them a joy to read.
Restaurant critics haven’t held real sway since the ’90s. But for an extra two decades, the genre kept running on fumes. Like that of the samurai, the legend of the critic was too potent to let go of when its era ended. So we continued to overestimate their influence. But, in doing that, we kept the sport, the theatre of it, alive. I miss that.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly suggested that Chowhound and Yelp had been founded after the 2008 recession. TVO.org regrets the error.