Review Review: The Poverty of Restaurant Criticism
Introducing a new series by way of old writing.
Some housekeeping: I’ve left social media, which makes me dependent on you, dear reader, to share my work. (I’ll never know, but I thank you, in advance). In any case, I’m out of the plane and in the open air; we’ll see whether this parachute works in time.
In today’s newsletter, I introduce a new series, “Review Review,” by way of a old post. Published in March of 2021, it covers some of the terroir I intend to dig into. Basically, the series will examine restaurant criticism broadly by way of individual reviews. I’m playing the role of food critic critic, or writing food criticism criticism. (I’ll stop now.)
The first reviewed review will be Le Bernadin, from the New York Times. Stay tuned and have a lovely weekend. -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 they liked a place or 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, for example. Thanks to a growing interest in food and restaurants along with the spread of social and participatory media, customers are much better informed, 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 often ignores the negative sides of the industry – e.g. labour conditions, sexual harassment and assault, the environment, class, race. Most critics are not up to doing this work (i.e. reporting) – and, to be fair, food-tainment fans largely don’t want to read it, I suspect.
In the end, I’d like to see those resources – i.e. 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.
My original intro: 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