Are Restaurant Bloggers Still Relevant?

May 132014
 

EmptyTableI know restaurant bloggers still exist, but I can barely find them.

I’m not the only one. The annual Saveur Best Food Blog awards doesn’t even list “restaurant blogs” as a category.

Sure, there are people who write reviews for websites such as Tasting Table and urbanspoon.com. But it seems that there are few individual food blogs based on restaurants.

Instead, restaurant writing takes three main forms these days:

  1. Full-time restaurant critic. These people are paid well. Of course, there are very few jobs, and most are at daily newspapers.  (The fact that Eater just hired three male restaurant critics has made some writers ask whether men get all the top jobs, and delve into the issues women critics face.)
  2. Freelance restaurant writer for websites and publications.
  3. Reviewing for free on Yelp and other sites. Yelp is the main place to read online restaurant reviews. Yelp has posted more than 53 million reviews since it began in 2004.  (The reviewers use lots of analogies to sex and drugs,according to a study.)

So this is all quite fascinating. But where’s the restaurant blogger category and why are there so few? I have a few theories:

1. Lack of confidence. Most food bloggers are amateur cooks. Many have told me they don’t feel qualified to critique the dishes at restaurants. I always tell them they are representing the consumer when writing a review, and consumers haven’t been to culinary school.

2. Eating out costs money. Paying your own restaurant bills is expensive, especially if you like dining in upscale places. If you’re blogging as a hobby, as most people do, you can’t write off your bills.

3. Restaurant reviewing is local, but blogs are international. Maybe food bloggers want to write about more universal subjects, and not be limited to their own cities or neighborhoods?

4. Recipe bloggers sometimes write about restaurants. They are invited to soft openings and cover the opening as an event. Then they go back to writing recipes.

What do you think? Why are there so few restaurant bloggers?

(Photo courtesy FreeDigitalPhotos.net.)

 

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  48 Responses to “Are Restaurant Bloggers Still Relevant?”

  1. I used to love blogging restaurant reviews, but I stopped along with posting travel posts when I refined what I wanted to blog about. The reasons you cited are all true, but I still love to read about food and eating out even though I don’t cook for myself at all.

    • No crime in that, Jeri. Some bloggers are generalists and some close in on a passion and stick to that. Good luck with your travel essays.

  2. Hi Dianne,

    Good question, and one we’ve pondered at work. I think #3 has a lot to do with it. Historically, bloggers have earned money on display media, which requires pageviews. It’s very hard for most individual bloggers to build a large following reviewing restaurants, because usually the audiences are smaller and the subjects are finite. As a result, there is less of a culture of bloggers forming community and trying to make a business from their hobby.

    In the larger cities, it’s expensive, and there is stiff competition from traditional media. But there are a few who make it work.

    -B

    • Oh good, I’m so glad other people are ponding this question as well. Just to play devil’s advocate, Ben, most food bloggers are hobbyists who aren’t trying to make money, so they probably don’t have ads. They may not be so ambitious about page views either. But I take your point about trying to form a community where you live. Also, if they can’t get the views they probably aren’t invited to very many restaurant openings.

      I did find a restaurant reviewer in New York. Just one.

  3. I’ve never reviewed restaurants on my blog and refuse most of the (daily) invitations I find in my inbox, despite this, to openings or menu launches. I don’t feel unqualified to write restaurant reviews but it is a responsibility I am not comfortable with.
    I think that, to be completely fair to the restaurant, reviews need to be based on more than one visit – and that can get expensive.
    I travel a lot and am quite happy to mention distinctive places I’ve tried in my travels, but I don’t go so far as to actually review their offerings and I only write about places that I’ve really enjoyed and which have added to my travelling experience.
    I don’t have a problem with bloggers reviewing their experiences, so long as they disclose any freebies. In fact, many bloggers these days have extensive writing or kitchen experience themselves, however I dislike the sycophantic posts about fashionable chefs or restaurants that often show up.
    There is a lot of noise around at the moment about whether bloggers have the right to write reviews and it’s an argument I’m, for the most part, happy to stay out of. However, if the more prominent restaurant reviewers in my country (Australia) think that they can dine unrecognised anywhere here, thus ensuring a genuine and objective experience, they are simply kidding themselves. They are big fish in a small pond and, unless they are prepared to go to the lengths Ruth Reichl describes in her wonderful book, their experiences are always going to be different from those of the bloke on the street.

    • Well said, Amanda. A true reviewer goes more than once. Otherwise you have a skewed experience. But I have written reviews in the past by going only once, simply because I couldn’t afford to go 3 times, and the publication still printed it. And I find that when bloggers go only once, it’s more about the event, like a soft opening, and not a true review.

      Your approach sounds right for travel blogging. Usually these pieces are more of a round-up.

      Of course bloggers have the right to write a review. They just have to be realistic about what to say if they only go once, and if the restaurant staff knows who they are.

  4. One of the real advantages of a blog (or even a webpage) is leverage. If everyone with a connection to the internet wanted to see your content, they could. By reviewing restaurants (especially in one area) you are creating a niche (which is great) but you are essentially forcing your blog to be ‘local’ (unless you are one of the bloggers that can genuinely review either nationally internationally). I used to do a lot of restaurant reviews on my blog and it got me a lot of local readers but found it limiting in terms of the size of my market. The other thing that got to me were the incessant PR’s who want to give you a free meal in order for a review (which my conscience can’t handle). It became too much of a hassle so I have wound my reviews right down now.

    • Fascinating! So you agree with my premise about a small market.

      I didn’t think about all the pressure from p.r. people. That can certainly get old after a while. In fact someone recently asked me if I thought bloggers should go if they had to promise a restaurant that they would write a post. And I said no.

  5. I never really thought of the impact Yelp has had on restaurant reviews. A good writer will inspire me to read. Honestly, I read Yelp, and I filter out people who don’t write well, don’t make sense, and those who who have very different taste in restaurants than I do.
    I am not sure that most bloggers are really relevant when it comes to covering a restaurant. My local papers have some good restaurant critics and I personally love their reviews. I don’t really seek out other Houston food blogger’s opinions when it comes to trying out a restaurant.

    • Exactly. My local paper has a multiple-award winning, longtime critic (Michael Bauer) and I love his reviews. He only reviews high-end places, so when I want something local and inexpensive, I poke around on Yelp. You have to take those reviews with a grain of salt, of course. And you never know how many of the posters are relatives and friends.

      I have no idea about bloggers reviewing restaurants locally, and I don’t know how much I trust their opinions.

  6. I like being “local”. The biggest blogs will always be about recipes, I guess, but there are other measures of success than traffic and visitors. Putting bums on seats in unjustifiably unsung restaurants is right up there among them. My readers like the nimbleness and immediacy of my reviews.

  7. Interesting points, Dianne. A few years ago, I felt surrounded by restaurant bloggers in my city (Melbourne, Australia) and that I was in the minority of restaurant/story bloggers. This is definitely changing – rapidly.

    I am regularly invited to review restaurants and attend launches/soft openings and almost always decline. It’s much less to do with confidence and more to do with relevance. If a product or restaurant fits the interest of my readers I’ll consider it, and am comfortable expressing a well-researched, objective opinion on a place.

    But, increasingly, establishments are reaching out to bloggers that they know will accept any invitation that comes their way and write a glowing review of the place in exchange for free meals. In my mind, that’s bad business practice on both ends.

    IMO, some of the great restaurant bloggers have realized that the trend above is taking over their corner of the internet, and have decided to switch over to recipes, or abandoned altogether. In a way, the ambulance-chasers have reduced credibility for enthusiastic eaters (not paid critics) who write restaurant reviews. I feel this is a sad development, as I much prefer to read a full-length blog post about a diner’s experience vs a few lines on Urbanspoon.

    • So Yasmeen, you fall into #4, where you sometimes write about restaurants, among all your other interesting posts.

      Yes, I’ve written lots about bloggers who feel they have to gush about a place because they got a free meal. I think their readers will figure this out eventually, and perhaps they will stop reading. Plus, it’s boring to gush in every post, so perhaps that is why some have moved on.

      A few words on Urbanspoon is okay with me if I’m going somewhere quick, but otherwise, like you, I want more.

  8. I think the situation is a little different in Australia, where the majority of food bloggers review places they have eaten. There are very few top blogs that have recipes only, usually a mix of reviews, recipes and travel. Our blog has no recipes at all.

    Perhaps the local market is not as saturated with online and professional reviewers here (there’s only a handful of major newspapers), leaving lots of room for bloggers to write about places they eat. Yes it’s local but that seems OK.

    Alison

    • Hmm, that’s so different than here in the US. I have noticed that when I want to write about restaurant reviewing the Australian bloggers take note more than from anywhere else. So your blogging culture is definitely different, Alison.

      You could be right. Maybe it’s because Australia does not have as many websites that do restaurant reviews. There are at least a half dozen that I can name right off the bat here in the US.

  9. This is such a valid post. I write restaurant reviews, but also have some recipe, wine and travel content on my blog (it’s got a magazine layout, so doesn’t look as hotch-potch as it sounds. Hopefully…) So I suppose I can add a perspective where I can compare restaurant blogging to other aspects of food blogging, ie. culinary travel and recipes.
    The restaurant reviews are my favourite pieces to write, and yet, are my least viewed. There is always some good organic traffic upon release of the post, but it wanes fairly quickly. Recipes however get pinned or posted elsewhere and are constantly returned to, and the culinary travel posts get constant search traffic. Brhau raises the key point – page views. It’s not just about advertising, but providing content you know your readers will be interested in. What’s the point if nobody wants to read it?
    The other issue I have is the quantity of content I can provide. I only have bloggable experience about once a fortnight (I will never write a rated restaurant review on a freebie, nor will I post a terrible review, because in this part of the world – Middle East – you get sued for that kind of thing). This means my content is spasmodic, and does not create a true picture of the local dining scene. It’s great for picking up a couple of highlights, but that’s about it.
    Finally, the content you put out for a restaurant review loses it’s validity so quickly. A restaurant can rise and fall so quickly, management changes, staff move on, venues go bankrupt, change name, renovate. A post I wrote three months ago might already be out of date. So even if I could get traffic to return to it, I don’t know if I want to. Heaven forbid I send someone to a hell-hole that used to be good.
    As I said, great post. It has got me thinking – maybe I need to change the way I look at restaurant reviews….

    • Okay, Sarah, so you fall into #4, where you write reviews some of the time. Interesting that they are the least viewed part of your site. I wonder why? Is it because readers can find reviews in so many other places, online or in print?

      Re posting once a fortnight, that has nothing to do with your quality. I’d rather see fewer high quality posts than someone who babbles on every day.

      That is also a good point about restaurants coming and going. What’s new is always in, but then the place is on your site a year later and has changed, or closed and you have to take it down. Whereas recipes and how-tos last forever and, as you say, create more interest online.

      Fascinating!

  10. I think your theories 1. and 4. go hand-in-hand. Bloggers that know their way around the kitchen are well versed in what makes a good meal in a restaurant. Additionally, restaurants are looking to reach for new audiences. Hosting a blogger dinner allows restaurants to tap into a variety of new readers through blogs as well as their social media connections.

    • Well, I’m not sure if I agree that bloggers have to know there way around the kitchen. Many professional reviewers do not cook! That’s one of those dirty little secrets. But they know their stuff anyway.

      Hosting a blogger dinner is fine as long as bloggers still feel they can be truthful about a free meal, knowing that the restaurant will read their post. My guess is that it rarely happens.

  11. You have hit the nail on the head again! I often wonder if my readers care to read my opinions on the restaurants I review. But since my readers are truly in a niche of like-minded eaters (healthy, vegetarian leaning, or kosher at home and vegetarian when away from their kosher kitchens) I feel that it is essential to share my finds with them.
    I have received some very grateful feedback from readers who say that because of a particular review, they tried a resto and did indeed, find that it had lots of choices to suit their tastes.
    I do not accept free meals nor do I write about a place if I don’t feel that I can recommend it highly. Nobody wants to read where NOT to eat.

    • Great that you get feedback from readers that they find your reviews worthwhile. Also great that you do not accept free meals.

      However, I do think people want to know where not to eat, because so many places are mediocre. There is no reason not to write about them occasionally. You don’t have to trash them. Otherwise your reviews will all be the same — places you like. Variety is important too.

  12. I have to agree, you don’t see many food critiques any more and it is sad that mostly men get these jobs. I actually love reviewing resturants/food – I have done a few articles recently on my website from my honeymoon road trip. I’m just an home cook (not professional), and I understand what you are saying, how some may feel they don’t have the expertise. I feel that way sometimes when trying to describe my food. I’m still learning but I think you have a point in that consumers want to know what a regular person thinks too.

    On another subject I will be at the blogher14 conference and saw you are a speaker, I am very excited as you are one of my inspirations and I am reading your book and love your blog. Look forward to meeting you. xo

    • People want to be entertained and they want a good story. Describing food is part of that but certainly not all. I wouldn’t worry about it. Bloggers are known as home cooks so people are not expecting more from you.

      See you in a few days at BlogHer! Thanks for saying hi, Kristin. Bring my book and I will sign it to you.

  13. Founder down buy viagra toronto is the huge.

    This is a great post that I find both insightful and inspiring. The comments are awesome too – thank you! :D I enjoy both recipe and eating/dining storytelling and my new food blog tries to cover both. I think it’s great to mix it up a little for the reader and writer’s sake. There’s a lot of excellent restaurant bloggers in Oz for example, but it’s hard to read/follow them all so only the best/favourites remain. From my humble experience, writing food blog posts is very time consuming, and involves the prep of both beautiful words and pics. For me, finding the right balance of words and pics, and keeping content fresh so that readers are entertained and loyal is the key.

    • Thanks Padaek. Perhaps you are right to mix it up. Writing recipes and photographing the food is very time consuming, so it’s nice to cover a restaurant meal. But then you have to have great photos, which is challenging in a restaurant.

      Yes, I am learning that Oz is where all the restaurant bloggers live! Long may they reign.

  14. This is a great post. Thank you for writing about this topic. I review restaurants, but I do it in a niche market. My blog is about gluten free dining in the Bay Area, and I interview restaurants to find out their safe gluten handling in the kitchen. (If a restaurant doesn’t know how to handle foods and prevent cross contamination, people with Celiac Disease and gluten intolerance can get really sick.)

    I find I definitely struggle with being a “local” restaurant blog in an international world. I have people contact me weekly to add their city to my database of restaurants. Because of the time it takes to talk to each restaurant, I haven’t been able to expand to a more national setting.

    I am doing what Sarah Walton mentioned above. To keep my blog from being too “local” is to feature gluten free recipes from the restaurants I interview. I also include some of my own recipes. Gluten free cooking can be challenging so having a resource that can be used by anyone has helped me keep a following well outside of the Bay Area.

    My recipes are the ones with the high page views. The restaurant reviews are read, but it is the database where I store the details in an easily searchable way gets more page views than the actual restaurant write up.

    I also do not accept free meals, but I will sample a dish if it is brought out to test it. (When I say test, I mean make sure I do not react to any gluten from cross contamination. I will not write up a restaurant if I get sick from the food.)

    • This sounds like the best of both worlds, Sandi. How interesting that you mix it up with recipes, which is what gets the page views. And it makes sense to me that your searchable database gets more views than the actual review, because it is so useful to people.

      I’m also glad you don’t take free meals. That way you can be honest about reviewing.

  15. I hadn’t given this topic much thought, but now I’m inspired to review some restaurants on my site! :) Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  16. I can think of a few local Bay Area restaurant blogs that yielded jobs in food writing: Marcia of Tablehopper and Virginia of The Perfect Spot. I almost wonder if it’s that someone does a good enough job of it on their personal blogs that then they are able to transition to one of the forms of restaurant reviewing that you mention in primary circulation. Both of these two former bloggers are so smart and know our local food scene so well that their experience, history and contacts keep them in a role of expert, which is one they earned over time.

  17. Writing and food are a passion of mine. I have a tab on my blog dedicated to places that “Feed my Soul” which encompasses articles about restaurants, farmers markets and food venues in Northern California. Hopefully, the reviews of restaurants inspire people to visit local eateries and make a decision to spread the word. Why aren’t there more writing on the subject? I think your comments are on point. Also, the show on PBS discusses a wide range of food topics with details worth watching. The show is called “Check Please”.

    • That sounds like a great round-up, focused on your beliefs.

      And I have seen “Check Please.” It’s a fun show, but I think it’s only local to the SF Bay Area.

  18. I think you are right on point with the idea that it is too hard to get a large following when you are just reviewing local restaurants. And yes, Yelp is the first source for many people when they want to read a review or find a new place to try.

    • I guess that’s true, unless you live in a huge city like Shanghai or New York! Lots of potential followers there.

      And yes, everyone uses Yelp, as long as it’s taken with a grain of salt.

  19. All your comments about why bloggers don’t do restaurant critiques are probably right on track. Since we dine out at nice restaurants quite often, I have included restaurant reviews on my monthly e-newsletter, but not on my blog. But now I think it’s worth pursuing again. Since 99.9% of my followers are local so far, I think it’s a good addition to a blog about food. I do take pictures quite often of our food at restaurants; obviously, a critique about the food is limited to what the blogger and dining companion order. I think people in our dining area are also interested in decor, vibe, location, which all diners can write about. Service and the bar are also important. Another good reason to eat and drink out!

    • Indeed Carol. It sounds like you have lots of blog fodder for your local readers. Good idea to spread it further than the newsletter.

  20. A very interesting observation Dianne. I agree with you that restaurant bloggers are very few. I like to write about restaurants where I have had an experience – be it street food or fine dining, not necessarily where I have had great food. Then again, I like to share recipes that I have learnt along my travels or masterclasses I have participated in. The 4 most popular posts on my blog are from 4 different categories altogether – 1) Things to do in Dubai; 2) Phuchka – a street food in Kolkata; 3) A post on Bengali cuisine and 4) Bu Qtair, a fish shack in Dubai. I have always tried to analyse what readers look for in my blog… and I am shocked that most people will write mails asking – 1) do I know the recipe of Phuchka? 2) Do I know the recipe of the masala that goes into the shrimp that is served in Bu Qtair? 3) What are the best things to eat in Dubai and can I share a few of the recipes on Middle Eastern cooking? So in my blog, it all boils down to recipes! Again, if it’s a restaurant that no one knows and one is writing about it – well, then there’s a lot of interest there. But subsequently, it wanes. But readers continuously search for recipes, as my analytics show.

    The only food blogger I know in Dubai who consistently concentrates on restaurants is Samantha (FooDiva) and Arva (In a Frying Pan)… covering diametrically two opposite spectrum of the Dubai dining scene.

    A different category for me please!

    • That is so interesting, Ishita, that people ask for recipes when they read your blog. I wonder why they are not content with descriptions of food? I suppose it’s a good thing that people want to cook, but still, if you do not offer recipes, it must be frustrating.

      I know both Arva and Samantha and they do a great job. Re what category you are in, I suppose you are a food and travel writer.

  21. Thought-provoking post Dianne thank you. I agree restaurant bloggers are the minority even here in the UAE. Slightly biased obviously but I do think those that are impartial and pay their own way with a no freebies policy do have credibility and relevance in this market – more so than some of the publishing houses who have no freedom of press. And hence why our honest opinions can have a strong voice and impact. As long as we’re constructive in our feedback, there’s no reason to worry about a backlash from the local authorities. Or perhaps I just love taking risks! In my case FooDiva started as a passion but it’s now also a business and does earn revenue through direct and indirect opportunities so I am able to justify the restaurant bills – to the point of recruiting guest reviewers as well (I cover their food bill). Can we have another category please?!

    • Excellent that you are able to make it work while keeping your standards high, Samantha. Sorry to say that you seem to be in the minority.

  22. In Austin, a large portion of our bloggers are restaurant bloggers. However, I think the definition is changing. These people aren’t reviewing a place in the traditional sense, but share photos and a tiny bit of commentary on their meals. The restaurants love this of course, and as a result there are now “media tastings” every single week (Austin certainly isn’t lacking for brand-new restaurants). Most of the invited bloggers happily share their experience after the free meal (and if you don’t, you eventually drop off the invite list, as I know from experience!), but IMO there’s no real critique going on in most cases. How can there be, if you are only attending a soft opening or a night specially designed to woo the local media?

    As a recipe blogger, I find the restaurant blogging culture here very interesting. These people are also considered some of the stars of the city, but aren’t known outside it at all. I think they’re OK with that; they’re hobbyists, only getting paid in free meals rather than free product, I suppose.

    • Yes, this is exactly how most food bloggers write about restaurants. There is little if any critiquing. I think they find the invite to a hot new place so compelling that they can’t risk being critical, because they would be dropped from the list. Who wants to give someone a free meal in exchange for negative criticism? Or, as you say, it’s too dangerous to not post because you could be dropped as well. There is lots of status in being “on the list,” enjoying the excitement of being chosen.

      I guess I don’t have a problem with this system if the bloggers are clearly disclosing that the meals are free. Are they disclosing, Megan? And probably they say that the opinions expressed are their own.

  23. Interesting observation – I wonder if it’s location specific? I know where I live, in Vancouver, restaurant bloggers make up the majority of food bloggers in the city by a wide margin. I feel like a very tiny minority most days. I think that’s likely because we have one of the highest rates of restaurants per capita in N. America. And a housing market that means most people who live in the city live in tiny apartments with nearly non-existent kitchens! But, even our membership at Food Bloggers of Canada shows that the numbers are pretty evenly split between restaurant and recipe bloggers and we haven’t noticed a decline as of yet.
    I do agree though, that many restaurant blogs center around openings, menu launches and other media type events. I don’t know that I’d classify many of them as true “review” blogs – they’re more “person about town” blogs. Nothing wrong with either format if it’s clear which they are when you read the post.

    • Yes, I’ve heard that about Vancouver. Your explanation as to why makes sense. I look forward to meeting some of these restaurant bloggers at the Food Bloggers of Canada conference this fall.

      Agreed that there’s nothing wrong with either format, as long as readers know they accept free meals.

  24. I used to do the occasional restaurant review but they were a lot of work and required more time to write than other blog posts. And I didn’t have many readers then, so it really wasn’t worth the time I was spending on them. I have a larger readership now (although, still nowhere near where I’d like to be) but my time is tighter than ever.

    The other issue for me is the cost issue. I simply can’t afford to eat out often, and even when I do, I’m restricted to how much I can spend. I take photos everything (much to the chagrin of the restaurant staff, I’m sure) just in case I decide to write something up.

    I began limiting my restaurant reviews to places outside of my home area–since I was traveling, I had to eat out in restaurants anyway, so I figured I’d might as well make a review out of it.

    But with so many bloggers out there writing reviews, it’s hard to find a place for yourself.

    • Hey Roberta. Do restaurant reviews take any longer than recipe posts? I wouldn’t think so. But I can see the part about how spending your own money adds up. Re where you review restaurants, I guess that depends on your audience, or the audience you want to have.

      Re so many bloggers writing reviews, there are too many food bloggers too, and that doesn’t seem to stop anyone.

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