How much power do food critics really have anymore?

Do newspaper food critics really hold much weight anymore?

ego.gifThere’s been much grumbling in the online food world after San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer jabbed a crooked-tined fork at perennial Wine Country favorite, Bistro Jeanty last December.  

Though the restaurant had earned a Michelin star, was a fixture on the Chronicle’s own Top 100 and is a French bistro icon in Yountville, Bauer’s scathing review of the once-loved restaurant  — from bent silverware to cold food and raw pork — has many of the restaurant’s fans up in arms.

Others, however, wonder why it took Bauer so long to point out what they’ve also seen as the restaurant’s decline in quality over the years.

But who’s right? The answer may be…everyone.

In the past, food critic’s words were pretty much the definitive opinion of a restaurant, if for no other reason that dissenting voices didn’t have an opportunity to do much but grumble to themselves. Critics like Michael Bauer, Gael Greene and Ruth Reichl had the power to make or break a chef and all but close down a restaurant with a flick of the pen.

That’s not the case anymore. Though critics can certainly wield influence, shine a spotlight on an unknown restaurant or cause some serious panic with a bad review, their words no longer go unchecked.

The rise of Yelp, Chowhound and hundreds of other food blogs, not to mention the comments section of their own newspapers, throw into question even the most powerful of food critics. Chefs can give their own side of the story in a very public way. Fans can challenge negative assumptions. Naysayers can undermine positive reviews. And most of it is anonymous, so we can’t always know if commenters simply have an axe to grind (with us or the restaurant).

It’s a brave and scary world out there.

Things are changing. Quickly. On the rise is a new kind of dining journalism — tapping into the community and making the whole process a bit more democratic. For better or worse.

Gone are the days of wigs and costumes for “anonymous” critics. Any critic who thinks they’re not recognized (and thereby getting a “real” experience) is severely deluded — most chefs and staff know the second they walk in. As with Bauer’s review, that doesn’t always translate to a great meal, even when they do see you coming. But by the time a critic gets there (usually waiting 4-6 weeks after opening) it’s too late.

Bloggers get the word is out almost the second a restaurant opens. You’re open, you’re being blogged.  Anyone with a camera and a website can have  as much influence on a restaurant as anyone else. Unlike print newspapers, the online world has a long memory and a Google search can turn up a whole lot of information quickly — usually to the one who has the best search engine optimization rather than the most relevant opinion.

To that end,  number of newspapers have recently lost experienced critics and are either not replacing them or are hiring less experienced (read cheaper) writers to put together shorter, one-visit “experience” pieces rather than tradition “go three times, anonymously, order everything on the menu” criticisms. They can’t afford the time or the money. Websites are relying on forums and comments to flesh out their reviews.

And we’re all painfully aware that with dwindling ad revenues, it’s a cat and mouse game when an unchecked critic writes a deadly review and pisses off advertisers. It’s a game fewer and fewer newspapers are willing to play.

Which isn’t to say they’re not always justified. Criticism is an insanely subjective thing. Sometimes I have crummy meals at great restaurants, other times I have great meals at crummy restaurants. Sometimes I just don’t like the food. Sometimes I’m having a bad day. Sometimes the restaurant is. I don’t always get it right. Neither does anyone else. That’s what criticism is.

What worries those who get paid to have an opinion is the amount of bad information that’s out there. Not every write-up should be a glowing one or a nasty one. It should be fair and balanced, truthful and critical when need be. True journalists spend our lives learning how to be fair and accurate (even if you disagree) in our writing. Our jobs are on the line if we mess up and our real names are attached to what we write.  

It is a bit sad to me to think that we may ultimately lose the voices of well-seasoned restaurant veterans to the din of the masses. Bauer (right or wrong) knows food. It’s sad to me that great food writers are finding smaller and smaller audiences. Because sometimes the masses are wrong. But it’s the way things are going.

Frankly, though. I see hope for the future. I like shorter reviews that don’t preach at me or make me feel stupid for not knowing what salsify is.

I get that my opinion is no more or less valuable than most others. I may have a little more eating experience than most folks (mostly because I get to eat out on someone else’s dime) — though that’s not necessarily true. I may have a bigger audience to tell people what I think — though again, not always true. I just happen to have a soapbox and a big appetite. I’m riding this train as long as I have fingers to type.

I’ve always thought that well-thought-out reader comments hold as much (if not more) power than my own reviews. Well-thought-out. Not the raving lunatics or PR people posing as commenters. The regular folks who have real-life opinions. Because word-of-mouth is the most influential decider on where people go out to eat. Not critics.

I simply start the conversations–you finish them.

In the end, there will always be critics of some sort. Trained or not. You can agree or disagree. Read it or don’t.

But all those of us who earn a paycheck trying to boil down information can do is hope that our voices continue to remain relevant — even if they’re no longer definitive. Engaging with the readers rather than creating a one-way conversation from behind our computers. Whether we like it or not.

What’s your take on food critics? Do you think they’re fair? Do you value their opinions? Have it out in a civilized fashion. 


19 thoughts on “How much power do food critics really have anymore?

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  2. How does this tie to on the list of other posts? Possibly I’m blind… due to the fact I could’ve been on a differnet website. lol Nevermind. At any rate, it had been a solid publish. Later

  3. How valuable is the traditional food critic’s opinion to me? Not much since I usually test out the review of any food “expert” by looking at reviews posted by regular people in forums such as, etc. before I go to a new restaurant.
    There’s no way any food journalist can be “objective” or “unbiased” and people know it because food is such a personal thing. It seems to me that many journalists who are paid to critique food go out of their way to find new adjectives to explain why they like or don’t like a particular restaurant. After all, they’re getting paid to write and who wants to read the same thing right?
    They wield their thesaurus like a double edged sword seeking to devour any restaurant that doesn’t live up to their vaulted ideal 100% of the time.
    Wine critics are 1000 times worse, however, particularly in terms of the air of superiority and snobbery, and I like them far less than the food critics.

  4. Hey Jeff.
    Thanks for chiming in. I was off last week, so I didn’t see your note until today. I’ve mentioned a bunch of times that as an employee of the NYT, we’re obligated to uphold certain ethics standards. I’ve always assumed you follow those and have never heard otherwise.
    Regarding that post…There are always haters out there (i like the post by Toby down below) and i take my share of beatings too. I usually leave ’em up because they’re so obviously misguided and its entertaining to snark about them.
    But yeah, its not really necessary to be mean and slanderous of you, fellow eater! You’ve got your gig and I’ve got mine and I think we pretty happily co-exist.
    Keep it real, Cox!

  5. Heather–Please. You read these comments. Here’s one: “I rarely agree with Jeff Cox (in fact have heard that he makes a point of announcing his presence).”
    I have never once EVER announced my presence. I use phony names to make reservations and go with friends to be as inconspicuous as possible. People on this site say I take free meals. I have NEVER taken one free meal ever in all my years reviewing restaurants. Fer goshsakes, I’m a journalist, degree in journalism, years spent on newspapers as reporter, city editor, etc. I take the reviewing work very seriously.
    If someone doesn’t agree with my review, fine. If they think I’m pretentious, that’s their opinion and I’ll defend their right to say it. But don’t accuse me of lapses in journalistic ethics. Stick up for me, Heather. It hurts to read this uninformed gossip. –Jeff

  6. Sorry, but I can’t take someone serious who claims to be a food critic and still thinks that tater tot casserole is yummy 🙂

  7. Great thread! One thing to think about… I think it is important that this doesn’t become an “Us vs. Them” thing. I respect Jeff for what he does and Michael for what he does. I don’t know either of them personally, but I know what they do isn’t easy. Compared to them, I am clearly a gastro-neophyte (which I see as a plus, rather than a minus since I’m never afraid to ask really dumb questions) and acknowledge the time it takes to learn any craft.

  8. Heather,
    Love the attitude, thoughts and the picture of Anton Ego, very good choices! I enjoy reading your comments and read them all the time. I have only very very rarely agreed with anything from Jeff Cox, or Michael Bauer and I have waited on Cox and worked at a restaurant when Bauer was there. Both men may think they “know food”, but I would disagree. They may have studied food things and eaten at lots of places, but… they don’t understand the dinning experience. Bauer often gives interesting reviews, but is not my kind of reviewer.
    I also agree with you that even shows like Check Please guests bother me more often than not, but that is because as you said, everyone is different. I have been in the restaurant and hospitality industry for over 25 years and love it. I love many places for how I feel when I am there and not just because of one, or two things. I also agree that word of mouth is everything in this and many industries.
    Thank you for all of your words and to you folks who comment on them, it is all good and a dialog is a good thing always!

  9. I ate at Bistro Jeanty around the same time as MB and had a totally different, very enjoyable experience. As always, any visit to a restaurant depends on the night, the crowd, the staff and the kitchen on duty. The reviewer’s opinion probably isn’t consistent since, after all, the reviewer is human and subject to variations in palate, attitude, etc.
    Bottom line, for me, is that I go where I like to go and rely on my own opinions of places. I rarely agree with Jeff Cox (in fact have heard that he makes a point of announcing his presence) or Michael Bauer, but enjoy reading their opinions all the same.

  10. Toby proves my point, which is that anyone can have an opinion…even if it is completely wrong.
    One thing that I do want to correct is that critics accept free meals. Some may, but it is New York Times policy (we are owned by the Times) that we may not accept free meals when writing about a restaurant. I pay for the meals and am reimbursed by the company. I would never expect special treatment or not pay for a meal I am writing about. Most chefs know this policy and as much as I appreciate generous offers, I cannot accept them. I am bound to honor the NYT ethics code and consult my superiors when there is a squishy situation I’m unsure how to handle.
    That extends to my family as well. On rare occasions my proud mama has been offered a free meal and I insist that she pay too.
    I do fall into a strange category, being neither official critic nor a “staff” writer for the PD. I’m a food and wine writer with an opinion, a blog and a column on Sunday. I am in the same species, however, as the critics. Maybe with slightly different spots.
    My experience is in my resume, which you can easily find online, though I haven’t updated in a couple years.
    As for staging photos: I do sometimes ask chefs (after eating at the restaurant and paying for a meal) if I can return and take pictures. That was the case at Cyrus. It’s rare, though. I usually am at the mercy of whatever available light is around. In the past I’ve also taken photos for WineTravel magazine of food/restaurants which is outside my job as “blogger”.
    All I know is that I have a great gig and a lot of really cool readers.

  11. I rely on critics and non-critics (your average diners)for restaurant feedback. Why not have all sorts of infornmation about a restaurant that you will spend money in. In these “tight economic” times, I personally don’t have an extra $100.00 or more to spend in a restaurant that doesn’t deserve it. So keep on with the hoity-toity, and also the taco trucks…cuz the more info (in any situation) the better.

  12. I think food critics have a large place in sinking a restaurant when they write bad articles (especially when they don’t get a free meal!)but can help a new restaurant get known on the other end.
    I have seen local critics articles hurt local restaurants before and I think readers need to take on themselves to go try something instead of making their minds up when reading Bauer’s or Cox’s articles. Their taste is totally different then ours for sure.
    I wished they were a bit more sensitive when writting articles instead of stepping all over the place when they dont’ get their free meal or special treatment…

  13. Heather, I think your comments are thoughtful. Nope, we won’t always agree and who would expect we would? or should? I take your opinions into account and then try to decide for myself if I have occasion to try out the place. I like your style as it is breezy and fun.
    What is the deal on Bistro Jeanty as I have not been there in awhile?
    Also may I volunteer to be a non -professional food-interested [obsessed?] “go along with you” –if you ever need one? Seriously, not obsessed, but generally knowledgeable. In any case keep on eatin!

  14. I enjoy Bite Club. I don’t always agree, but I do note that when you make a negative comment, you do it judiciously, and often when I go to the restaurant later on, they have changed the thing was bugging you! So, yes, I think you do have power, and I feel you use it well. I like being informed of new restaurants, and I look toward your blog for that. I am not a fan of the P.D.’s food critic, I agree with others here that his attitude is off-putting.

  15. I would tend to agree with some of the comments, Particularly Christine. How is the Nepalese place in Glen Ellen doing? I stopped by there the day after opening and was very impressed with what they served me. Plan to go back soon

  16. Most of the food critics I read locally and nationally have obvious extensive background in food and wine. One must remember food is a lot like art…everyone has an opinion and not everyone likes the same thing. Look at some of Bite Club’s own surveys. Think Sushi. We like Japanese Hana in RP, Toyo in SR, and Hiro’s (sushi only) in Petaluma. I cringe at the great reviews of some sushi places in Sebastopol and many in SR. Some of us hold our sushi to a higher, fresher standard.
    We don’t eat red meat(s) and prefer eating healthy so when critics like Jeff Cox tend to focus on more red meats and rich preparation (fried, heavy dressings & sauces), it’s difficult.
    I also think when we moved here 10 years ago, Jeff tended to treat all local restaurants with “kid gloves” so found his reviews not consistent with what we would find when we ate there. He seems to be a little more critical now. That’s a plus.

  17. Heather – Just wanted to say that I applaud what you do. I may not agree with you at times but not everyone’s taste’s are the same. Keep up the work. Hey you should see about doing a contest to invite readers to come an join you when you go out and eat. Might be great to have a non-professional with you!!

  18. So tell me Toby dear where do YOU get your information that Heather isn’t trained? Perhaps if you googled her you might be surprised how much experience she does have. I didn’t know newspaper restaurant critics had ‘training’. Is there a college course specific to that job title? I prefer her ‘part time blogs’ to Jeff Cox’s pretentious reviews that half the time I don’t agree with. My experience, in case you are interested, is that I have owned 2 restaurants and eaten in hundreds around the world. So please take the attitude portion out of your comments from now on. Thanks!

  19. Good points, except everyone in the industry knows that you are not a trained critic, but a part time blogger with little background. Someone who accepts free meals from restaurants, no less, or stages photo shoots in the name of doing a “review.” So please take the first person experience portion of this article out.

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