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Notes on Criticism
Some thoughts, somewhat coherent.
Some thoughts on restaurant criticism, from a former would-be food critic. FWIW, when long-time (too long) Montreal critic Lesley Chesterman stepped down in the fall of 2019, I wrote a proposal/application for the paper. It caught the attention of the editor-in-chief, at least very briefly. -JRS
My views on restaurant criticism (and criticism in general) have changed in recent years. I used to write “reviews” on this blog – I still think they’re fairly well written, particularly for someone working without an editor – and regularly read mainstream restaurant criticism.
Now, I’m not only “over” them, I think they’re sort of useless. At its best, criticism engages with a subject matter, situates it in a historical and contemporary context – an “explainer” of sorts – and walks the fine line between the business on the one side, and the customer on the other.
That rarely happens, however; typically, critics tell us only whether or not they liked a place/meal. In which case, so what? You had money to eat out, and eat out you did. I don’t see much difference between that and an experienced Yelp reviewer. Thanks to the growing interest in food and restaurants along with the dominance of social and participatory media, customers are much better informed anyhow, and will make their own decisions.
On top of that, few publications are able to fund multiple meals at a restaurant, and while critics once had the pretence of anonymity (many “top” restaurants could spot them), that’s no longer the case. Despite what some critics might argue, this matters. (Ruth Reichl’s double review of La Cirque back in the day comes to mind.)
Another, obvious vector: Restaurant criticism ignores the negative sides of the industry (labour conditions, exploitation, sexual harassment and assault, the environment, class, race, you name it). Most critics are completely incapable of doing this work – and, to be fair, food-tainment fans largely don’t want to read it.
I don’t think (personally) the liberal reflex to diversify criticism is an answer; I’d like to see those resources (the power, privilege, money) thrown behind food writers who can tell the stories that matter in the face of our manifold crises. A pipe dream, maybe. But I am seeing publications make space for diverse writing on food, cooking and restaurants and I’m grateful for it. (Example here.)
Footnote: a rare blessing of the pandemic – no (or few) “Best Restaurant” lists. I know they’ll be back, but I’m enjoying the respite.