Now that the New York Times’ latest restaurant critic, Sam Sifton, has moved on, the hand wringing begins anew about whether career food critics are doomed because of Yelp and food bloggers.
Let’s ask a different question. How have food bloggers changed restaurant reviewing? Here’s what I see as the biggest shifts:
1. Food bloggers don’t wait to review. In the old days, reviewers waited a month or so for the restaurant to get its groove. Bloggers figure that if they’re open for business, they’re fair game.
I like this approach. It implies there’s no cozy relationship between the two. Except that sometimes, there is. See No. 2.
2. Restaurants have opening events for bloggers. Print reviewers go to restaurants undercover and hope not to be recognized. They have expense accounts or get reimbursed as freelancers, whereas most bloggers write for free, as a hobby. So restaurants pay for them to come sample a meal. The cozy relationship is back.
3. Bloggers are more likely to cover an event than to review the food. Cover means “I went there and this is what I had,” versus. reviewing, which requires opinions about the food. At a poorly-attended panel on restaurant reviewing I attended recently (everyone was next door at a molecular gastronomy demo), a blogger said she doesn’t write reviews because her trips to restaurants are comped, as that would be a conflict of interest. Instead, she writes about the event of eating a meal.
Does less reviewing by bloggers have something to do with their confidence in generating opinions? Perhaps. Josh Osersky made that argument in Time magazine. “The current crop of food writers, at least the online ones, are a cacophony of dazzled novices, opining confidently in an intellectual vacuum,” he says.
4. Blog write-ups are more positive than print reviews. Another blogger at the aforementioned restaurant reviewing panel said that she doesn’t write anything at all if she doesn’t like the food.
The idea about “not saying anything at all if you can’t say anything nice” is not new. Your mother probably told you that. But it is not that relevant in restaurant reviewing, since most restaurants are neither horrible or stupendous, but somewhere between. (Except in the case of these food bloggers, who got duped. They were served frozen food and videotaped, without their knowledge, so some of them outed the organizers.)
“Mostly good” is the norm that qualifies for a restaurant review, because it allows critics to write the pros and cons while still recommending the place. Bloggers, however, are more prone to puff pieces, with gushing headlines such as “Yet another fabulous meal at [Restaurant]” and “[Restaurant], Will You Marry Me?”
5. Bloggers celebrate all kinds of restaurants, not just fine dining. They write about food trucks, joints, far-flung meals in monasteries, underground dinners, and tons of topics most traditional reviewers won’t touch. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why some newspapers have added reviews of less expensive places.
So, some of these five trends are positive, and some, for me, are problematic. What do you think?
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