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Sietsema on the Current State of Restaurant Criticism

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In 2005 when the newly founded Yelp was already beginning to strike terror into the hearts of restaurateurs, and critic-bloggers had just begun revealing their deepest thoughts about the free food they just ate, pundits predicted the end of restaurant reviewing as we knew it. Who needed a professional reviewer when a smorgasbord of web-based criticism provided a more immediate reference? After all, bloggers and Yelpers arrived at new restaurants within days of opening, and gladly poured forth a torrent of opinion demonstrably more democratic than conventional critics had been serving up.

But what was once a trickle of web-originated criticism soon became a tidal wave, and navigating what were sometimes hundreds of reports available on a single dining venue — running from the condescendingly negative to the outright adulatory — became a test of any reader's perseverance and ability to read between the lines.

The doomsayers who had predicted the end of conventional restaurant criticism now readily acknowledge they were wrong, and the number of published professional critics has remained static or even grown as dining out has remained a popular preoccupation with the public. But the pundits were right in one regard: conventional restaurant criticism was profoundly changed, and maybe not for the better.

In order to compete with the web-based and largely amateur product, critics shortened the lag time between when a restaurant appears and when they write about it. As a rough estimate, I'd say that much print criticism occurs one to two months after the debut of a new spot, whereas the standard was formerly three to six months. The public wants to know about new places, and it wants to know about them fast.

But a subtler and perhaps more profound change has occurred. Newspapers and magazines have in many cases drastically trimmed their reviewing budgets. While the standard established by Craig Claiborne in the 60s, and widely adhered to in succeeding decades, involved visiting a restaurant three times with a crowd and eating one's way through the menu, trying some dishes twice for consistency, many modern reviewers visit only once, usually with one other person, and write their review based on that single visit.

Questions of fairness to the restaurant aside, this invariably results in reviews being less reliable. Restaurateurs, chefs, and line cooks will tell you that the quality of the food served can vary by time of day, freshness of ingredients, whether a kitchen is fully staffed or not, how many diners are currently being served, and a dozen other factors. A place that usually deserves three stars can have a one-star day, and vice versa. Thus, if a critic visits only once, the review is likely to be of limited reliability, and reliability — whether or not you agreed with a critic's viewpoint — was one of the things conventional criticism once had to offer.

I know critics in a dozen cities, and when we get together we never fail to talk about pay and expense money. Which is why I know that both have been drastically cut back in the last few years as print publications have shrunk and looked desperately for any way to save money. When the New Times chain took over the Village Voice six years ago, the first conversation I had with the editorial director involved not scope of coverage, philosophy, or writing style, but money.

Under the previous administration, I'd been spending about $500 per week on a mixture of cheap and mid-priced restaurants. By comparison, a New York Times critic during that era was reported to be spending $1600, which makes sense considering the higher end places they were then reviewing. New Times — soon rechristened Village Voice Media — immediately cut my budget back to $345 per week. Eventually, they tried to cut it back even further to $200, which I managed to resist until the time of my firing. In many of today's mid-priced restaurants, that figure would buy one meal for two. Increasingly, my budget had to be stretched to also fund blog entries, which often featured "first looks" at restaurants in what had become a deluge of new openings.

Increasingly, I found myself dipping into my own pocket to subsidize reviews. A fellow critic in the same chain in another city reported that she'd taken to asking her guests to pay part of the tab in order to eat enough food to do a fair review. But this sort of budget squeeze – in the context of the average restaurant meal becoming more expensive – is all too common. One critic I know who is paid $250 for each piece is permitted to expense only one meal for two, while another, who is paid $200, must cover the same meal out of the fee he receives for the piece. Meaning that the writer ends up with almost nothing for what can amount to 10 hours of work. Increasingly, professional restaurant criticism is becoming a leisure-time activity conducted by those who can afford to work for almost nothing.

But, as many will say philosophically, it is what it is. Print criticism remains a prominent feature of the restaurant landscape, and I think the quality of the prose in many cases has improved over the last decade. But the strangulation of reviewing budgets on the part of publications means that we often read print criticism for the witty and thoughtful writing more than for a comprehensive view of what a restaurant has to offer.

Note: This piece is partly an update of an article published three years ago in the Columbia Journalism Review.
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