My argument against food critics

I have a love-hate relationship with food criticism.

This is not Michael Bauer. But wouldn't it be funny if it was?
This is not Michael Bauer. But wouldn’t it be funny if it was?

This is not Michael Bauer. But wouldn't it be funny if it was?
This is not Michael Bauer. But wouldn’t it be funny if it was?

I have a love-hate relationship with food criticism.

At its best, it can be transformative, entertaining and highly useful (Jonathan Gold is a god, and Pete Wells’ review of Guy’s NYC resto is a classic). At its worst, it can be clueless, pedantic and plain old wrong (and trust me, food critics do not have an endless gravy train).

But an age of Twitter, Yelp, Facebook, Tablehopper, Chowhound, Zagat, Foodspotting, etc., official reviews tend to be, well, kinda after the fact and pretty out-of-touch. Not that crowd-sourced reviews are all that brilliant, but you at least get a good sense of the place. And sometimes get far better information from people who’ve asked the right questions and ordered some of the best dishes.

My beef with critics? They’re missing the STORY of the chef, the food, the ideas behind the food, the inspirations and the successes and failures. They’re simply documenting a couple of meals. Very subjectively. Which to me, feels useless.

Case in point…

This week, Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote about Harvest Table, a new St. Helena restaurant by Charlie Palmer.

Here’s part of the review…

“However, a few items, while good, seem to come out of left field. Pan-roasted shrimp and grits ($14) with slices of andouille sausage and bits of bacon would do New Orleans proud, but seemed like an unlikely contrast to such dishes as foie gras torchon ($26) with rhubarb and pistachio.”

I also recently wrote about the restaurant, and after talking to Charlie and to Mezick, found out this little gem…

Most recently hailing from the acclaimed 1833 Restaurant in Monterey, Mezick said Palmer had only one request when it came to the Harvest Table menu: Shrimp and grits.

Raised in Virginia, Mezick’s roots are in Southern cooking, and this signature dish ($14) was a perfect fit for Palmer’s Progressive American style of cuisine. Made with Anson Mills grits (a Southern institution for stone-ground heirloom grains), shrimp, bacon, Andouille sausage, cheddar cheese and a secret blend of Mezick’s favorite herbs and spices, it’s heartbreakingly good.”

Hmmm. That doesn’t sound out of left field. In fact, if you had only read Bauer’s review, you might avoid it altogether. Which would be tragic since it’s one of the best dishes on the menu.

SO here’s the takeaway: Read food critics with a grain of salt. They aren’t omnipotent, and sometimes they get it really, really wrong by not knowing the story behind the food.

What’s your take? Do you read critical food reviews? And are they all that useful anymore?

[Caveat] Bauer knows food, and is one of the hardest working guys in the biz, and his reviews can easily make or break a restaurant — which I am certain he knows. He does not take his job lightly. He probably also doesn’t spell the chef’s name incorrectly (which I did through my story), use improper grammar or have spelling mistakes all over his work (like I do). As a food writer (I am NOT a critic, but I also pay for my meals as a general rule), I’m very fallible. So I’m not here to cast aspersions on someone I respect immensely. I’m just questioning how useful they really are to readers anymore.]


6 thoughts on “My argument against food critics

  1. Kathy McMorrow stole the words right out of my mouth! While Bauer isn’t my favorite, he does a solid job critiquing. You argue critics just aren’t needed. I see that point. But when they aren’t lazy, they are helpful to those of us who appreciate some input from a trained eye.

    Yelp and others give us the broader strokes. The atmosphere. The feel. And once a place has more than 100 ratings, the averages, like a good hitter in baseball, weed out the wanna be Bauers. You can get a pretty good feel for a oft-reviewed place.

    Probably because he works for your paper, the local critic couldn’t be your example of a useless critic. But as Kathy writes above, Caesar salad…again? Jeff has been writing about his Quixotic quest for stand-up-spoon chowder and Tijuana-inspired salads since at least 1988.

    He writes for a Sonoma Co. paper but at least a third of his reviews are for Napa restaurants. Wonder if that has anything to do with the fact he lives over in Napa? His reviews are lazy (see Caesar salad/chowder and his insistence of staying in Hwy 29) inaccurate and often very damaging to small business owners.

    Are all critics useless? No. But the impetus is on them to blend their old skills to today’s modern crowd-source styles and social media.

    You have actually done a very good job of doing just that! So kudos to you. And if Jeff is reading, get over to Sonoma Co. a bit more, and please PLEASE stop writing about Ceasar salad and clam chowder!

  2. Michael Bauer CAN be an excellent food writer, but he also really plays favorites. I can tell you from years working in the Napa Valley restaurants that some of his reviews are simply mean for the sake of not liking the owners. As for the local reviewer, the less said the better.

  3. I agree with you about professional critics, sometimes they are right, and sometimes they are wrong, but they will never admit it. With all the social media, and yes, even Yelp, you have to read between the lines. Many people will go someplace one time, have a bad experience, which may be due to multiple reasons, and bash the restaurant, staff, food…but when looking at a review of anything, you have to toss the extremely bad, and sometimes the extremely good comments and see where, in the middle of everything, they come out. More 4 stars then 1 star…probably good to go. More 1 stars, I’d think again … Cheers

  4. Thanks for the feedback, Kathy. Sometime I am a bit myopic, and I do think there is room for many different voices.

    Regarding the positivity of my articles, I do hear that often, as well as that sometimes people don’t have such great experiences based on places I recommend…

    1. I am totally BUMMED when people have a bad experience. That’s happening a bit at Homemade Tortilla, and I think its due in part to places like that getting overwhelmed. Those folks had NO idea who I was, and were very excited to share their food. I hope that people will tell the owners if they had an unsatisfactory experience and tell me. If I hear enough complaints, i will take down the review (I’ve done that before).

    2. I do realize I come across as Mary Sunshine in my articles. That also leads people to make assumptions about my ethics. That’s totally fair, but wrong. I don’t write negative reviews, because I can’t stomach shutting down or hurting someone’s dream. If the place sucks, the public will speak louder with their actions than rather one nasty review — trust me I’ve seen it happen many times. I also feel that my readers will dress me down in the comments if I am legitimately wrong — and I LOVE that. I know some critics say they are doing a public service by being critical, but I also feel that one person’s experience once (or twice) is kind of bullshit no matter who you are.

    In that case, I feel its better to tell people what’s good if they chose to go, and what they might like. One person’s favorite restaurant might be one I think it appalling…but that’s just my opinion.

    Finally, I don’t take free meals or comps as a general rule. So I’m not writing to plug someone because they treated me specially. I usually try to reserve a table with a different name and not make a big deal about being at the restaurant. I do receive free meals on various media “preview” dinners, but I feel that is different and is pretty much a dog and pony show for all of us. I does not affect my opinion in any way. I always return and pay to make sure the service and food were actually good.

    If a chef knows I’m coming for dinner, yes, I will get special treatment. But it’s also shocking how BAD the food can be even when they know I’m there. So it goes both ways.

    Okay, long story, but I really think that transparency is important in this biz. I’ve heard too many horror stories of critics demanding special treatment and comps, and it makes me queasy.

  5. It depends for me upon the critic. I find Bauer’s reviews very helpful and when I’ve gone to places he’s reviewed, pretty spot on to match what I experience.

    I just read the review you linked to and really do not see a problem with the content of it or the blurb you cited. All he was saying was that menu item seemed odd given the rest of the menu. You had inside information from talking to the owner/chef, but I wouldn’t expect a critic to announce his presence in the restaurant or even interview the owner/staff. I’d expect the critic to stand in as me, order from the menu and report on what he experienced, not announce his presence. Otherwise he could/would get better treatment than the average customer.

    I also really enjoy your postings, and trust them in general, they’re down to earth, albeit a little too positive about everything. I have gone to some places you raved about and found the food plain awful. I’ll keep following your tips on places I’d otherwise not hear about, but I think sometimes you receive better quality food than the average bear does when we go.

    The “formal” PD critic, however, his reviews are useless to me, talk about pedantic. If I read one more time how the caesar salad he ordered is not classic enough in his opinion, or about his standing-up-spoon test for clam chowder, I will go bonkers.

  6. I personally find your brand of food writing to be much more useful to me as a consumer. Your approachable, realistic and often hilarious take on all things food is more applicable to the vast majority of diners. I feel the Michael Bauers of the world’s reviews are most useful just to frame and put on the wall of the restaurant reviewed or, if it’s panned, to “rally the base” of fans of that restaurant.

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