The End of the Restaurant Reviewer?

A Facebook friend, Mary Luz Mejia, posted a fascinating link on her page today (see below).  The piece takes off from Sam Sifton’s resignation as restaurant reviewer from the NY Times to take over the National desk at the paper.  From there it describes the decline of importance in the position of being a restaurant reviewer.  True dat.

Here’s the thing: If you’re going to a new city and want to eat well, how do you decide which restaurants are worth your time and money?  I recently had this experience in New Orleans.  I made the determination of where to eat by cross-referencing Frommer’s & Fodor’s, asking chefs what they knew, asking other folks who write about food–not critics–what they thought, and looking up recent James Beard award winning chefs.  I ate at 12 restaurants in five days, some low-key in the Treme, and some fancy-pants, and all were great.

If I was coming to Boston, I’d do the same.  You certainly can’t rely on the reviews written by local newspaper critics.  Honestly: They don’t know food.

Which raises the question: Who is qualified to be a restaurant reviewer?  Unlike chefs, cooks, wait staff, or hosts/hostesses, restaurant reviewers don’t have trainings, are not required to have worked in restaurants, and do not share a common understanding of what the job is about.  Tony Scott, at the NY Times, as a movie reviewer, is highly skilled, literate, and evidently knowledgeable about movies and literature.  Can you say the same about most restaurant reviewers?  Nope.

Compensating for limited knowledge of restaurants and chefs is the good writer.  If at least the reviewer can observe, document, demonstrate a good sense of humor, and recognize the hardship of running a restaurant, that is a good place to begin.







2 thoughts on “The End of the Restaurant Reviewer?

  1. I know that when I’m visiting a new city, I consult blogs written by ornery hobbyists who try new restaurants once every few months, then profess to make sweeping pronouncements about what is or is not available in that city.

    Here is some excellent local food writing that you won’t be able to even comprehend because you are so limited in your ability to recognize change:

    Reply: I knew you would take this bait, McSlim. This is way too funny. First of all, Boston is #23 in the Travel & Leisure survey noted in the blog. That about says it all. #23?! Go ahead, defend the city. Losers defend, winners change. Travel & Leisure isn’t The Boston Phoenix: It has writers paid well to eat very well and who actually know food and travel. But say the blogger (you) wants to convince us that somehow #23 is wrong. Omigoodness, ref is making bad calls! Boo hoo. Unfair! But citing Boston’s “regional French” restaurants? With the exception of pseudo-Alsatian food at Brasserie Jo, what is he talking about? Name one real French restaurant in the city of Boston. Just one. Wait, can I guess? Menton? The name is Provencal. The food isn’t. Same with regional Italian cuisines? He must be ironic here: There’s not a single good Italian restaurant in the Boston area let alone one with a regional character. Chinatown? Fried and cheap food. I think he is right about coffee and beer. Hence, Boston #23. BTW: I do absolutely love the “McSlimjb” name; here’s an unpaid blogger with time to post paragraphs while writing a food column for The Phoenix and no doubt collecting from the family trust. I do recognize your private schooling. Who else would use the words, “consult,” “profess,” and “pronouncements” when talking about food. Talk about a hobby.

  2. “Travel & Leisure isn’t The Boston Phoenix: It has writers paid well to eat very well and who actually know food and travel”

    Um, professor? It was a reader survey. Next you’ll be defending the guy who wrote a one-star Yelp review of French Laundry because he couldn’t give a reservation.

    You have a bias against restaurants in this city, and you’ll never have an enjoyable experience at one unless the chef has New York cred (hint: you’re the only one who likes Om). Have fun keeping up with the Joneses. I’m sure Alan Richman is too busy pinching waitresses on the ass to read anyway.

    Reply: T&L has editors who vet the surveys. Anyway, are you saying that because you disagree with the survey results that it lacks validity?

    What don’t you like about OM? I can’t be the only person who likes it. I think you’re being silly when you say that.

    No bias: I am writing a book about Craigie. Not a NY restaurant. The book is for Berkely/Penguin and is all about Tony Maws and his restaurant as I think he and his business are first rate. He is 100 percent Boston area. The book is out in 9/12. No joke. (Remind me please: when is your book coming out?)

    From Eater National: Craigie on Main Book to Look at the Psyche of Restaurants
    “Food writer Scott Haas has signed with Berkley to write a book about recent Beard Award winner Tony Maws and his Boston restaurant, Craigie on Main. But this won’t be your standard restaurant profile: Haas will use his background as a clinical psychologist to make ‘a broader inquiry into the psychology of restaurants.’ The as-yet untitled book will look at the psyche of restaurant employees as well as diners and how they interact.”

    The fact that Boston lacks a great restaurant scene means that cooks gravitate to other cities. That is really unfortunate. It is also unfortunate that the NY chefs pay more for our regional products and limit access to them. Both these pieces of information come from Boston chefs who report to me that it’s hard to recruit good cooks and get what they want consistently from purveyors. That you insist on ignoring this only delays changes needed to have better Boston restaurants. Either you are an idiot or you have a very limited palate. Or both. Let’s say both.

    I am not biased against Boston restaurants. I wish we had more good ones. When you ask Boston restaurant industry folks they will tell you the same. Seriously: Ask a chef or cook in Boston where they enjoy eating in town. You’ll hear Craigie, O YA, Rendezvous, Legal, and then all the bakeries.

    Where did you hear that about Alan Richman? If you mean the following exchange, you’re pretty amazing to find Richman guilty without any facts. (I think you’re frustrated to lack notoriety, but who knows?) “Obraitis e-mailed Richman that a server “received a hardy pat on the ass from you,” an action that Richman vehemently denies and claims he went “bone-cold when I read that.” From there, Richman’s piece becomes almost uncomfortable to read, as if the reader had become an unwitting voyeur of something better left out of print. In the midst of his summary of events, Richman does make a larger point about the deterioration of restaurant service:
    ‘I wish I had never been so forgiving in my reviews of New York restaurants. I should long ago have paid attention to this disastrous decline in service. Casualness in restaurants does not automatically make customers feel more relaxed. It often has the opposite effect. Remember how tense my friends became when we received no attention at M. Wells.”

    When the trust runs out, how will you make rent?

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