A great Boston restaurant reviewer who goes by the handle “MC Slim JB” links (via Twitter) to a [mag: Columbia Journalism Review] history of food reviewing. The review is essentially divided into three themes:
* how food reviewing tracked the expanding universe of ethnic foods available in New York City
* reviewers’ perspectives on anonymity — specifically, whether they felt obliged to remain anonymous to prevent favorable treatment by the chef
* the questionable ethical guidelines followed by today’s amateur food reviewers.
The first bullet is interesting. The second is as well, and for the record I think reviewers should always be anonymous; there’s no question in my mind on this point.
To the extent that Internet reviewers make a name for themselves and drop anonymity to get special dishes at restaurants, that’s obviously bad. The [mag: CJR] piece focuses on a few amateur reviewers who prostitute themselves in this way. For what it’s worth, I’ve never heard of any of these reviewers.
What the [mag: CJR] piece doesn’t bother to examine is what happens when *everyone is a reviewer*. When chefs only need to be on the lookout for Ruth Reichl, they can post her photo up in the kitchen and keep an eye out. But when every one of us could go on Chowhound and tear a restaurant to shreds, presumably the culinary standard always has to stay high.
Of course there are caveats here. First is that, when everyone can talk, everyone’s voice is correspondingly diminished: why should someone listen to me when there are thousands — millions? — of other people on the Internet just like me? But that just changes the point a little: chefs now have to make nice not only with the Reichls of the world, but with *the entire Internet*.
The Internet speaks with many voices, of course. What you’ll find on Chowhound is that one man’s pigsty is another man’s foodie bliss. Sometimes this reflects the quirks of the particular day the reviewer went. Other times it means that the reviewer has no taste. You have to judge on your own. Certain Internet reviewers get rated highly by their peers; MC Slim JB gets that honor on Chowhound. Does that rating mean anything? Maybe their peers are all dolts; this is certainly how I feel about highly-rated Slashdot posts (whose quality, from my once-yearly checks, has declined from even its already piss-poor station).
So you just have to decide how you like the reviewer and how you like the venue where he posts. I find that if a number of Chowhound reviewers have good things to say about a restaurant, if their tastes match up with mine, and if the reviewers sound intelligent, then I should probably check out the restaurant. Over time, who knows whether this will remain true: maybe the world at large will discover Chowhound, will fill it with “EAT THE FRIED SHRIMP AT TGI FRIDAYS IT IS TO DIE FOR LOL”-type reviews, and will therefore kill its allure. As more idiots fill up the forums, they’ll tend to promote reviews that they themselves like. And so on down the drain we’ll go. All I’m really entitled to say is that as of this moment, Chowhound is my place to go for good restaurant reviews.
The world is more complicated now. I think it’s unquestionably better. Previously, you had two or three professional voices to rely upon, and the voices of your friends; if your tastes weren’t in line with the reviewers, tough luck. Now you can find people who share your tastes and follow their recommendations. It’s a happy world.
I’ve thought of this in other contexts, too. Lots of people venerate the wine reviewer Robert Parker, the man with the million-dollar nose. He certainly knows more about wine than I ever will, and he may even be better equipped, biologically speaking, to do that job than I am. Precisely because he’s such a different a wine consumer than I am, why should I necessarily base my wine-purchasing decisions off what he says? Is it at all clear that I’ll enjoy a complicated wine as much as Parker does? I certainly don’t agree with Dave Barry’s joke, probably 20 years old at this point, that no one can tell the difference between wine and melted popsicles. At the same time, I can’t detect many of the flavors that Parker can. What he considers a superb bottle of wine may turn out to be a waste of money for me.
Another way to view Parker’s job is as a *teacher*. Here I think the possibilities are more hopeful. I may not be able to taste, as Parker did during his road-to-Damascus moment, the “main components of a Riesling.” (Or maybe I can. Not sure.) But if Parker tells me that a wine contains such-and-such flavors, I can start looking for things that I wouldn’t have thought to look for before. Drinking a wine with Parker by your side may be akin to staring at an abstract painting in a museum with an art historian by your side. It looks like a jumble until someone puts together the pieces for you.
When reading Parker on wine, or Anthony Lane on film, or Michiko Kakutani on books, the question I think we’ve always asked is whether the reviewer is similar to us. If Lane says he dislikes a film for some particular reason, we have to decide whether that reason is something we care about. If it’s not, we should find another reviewer who focuses on other things. One reviewer may not like [film: Avatar] because he thinks the story is silly; another may love it for the visuals. If you’re into visuals, maybe you should listen to the second reviewer.
None of this is rocket science, of course. But it’s worth thinking a bit about why and how we read reviewers in the first place, before we decide that the Internet is the death of professionalism.
This, of course, gets into some of the territory covered by the Netflix Prize. You want to take information about what other people like, weighted by how similar they are to you and predict what you will like. I think it would be pretty great to have an automated mechanism like this in a site like Yelp; I don’t want to read everyone’s reviews or even see all of their star ratings, but I don’t want have to individually vet a network of reviewers either.
I’m amused that you think restaurant reviewers should be anonymous. For the record, I agree. But your comment section requires a name and an e-mail address, so anonymity is supposed to be out here. I disguised my name because I’m a restaurant reviewer and the story I tell below would allow someone to track me.
I used to think that a reviewer’s name ought to be published. “Stand by your words.” But I review for a small-town [50k in the city, 250k including the surrounding county] paper with a circulation of about 23k weekdays, 26k Sundays. The food reviews appear mid-week in a section with movie and video game reviews. It’s their policy to have the food reviews be anonymous.
I’ve come to the conclusion that anonymity is important, I think, in a small town paper. What changed my mind was the following: I’m doing a monthly feature where the review in the first week of each month is of a local BBQ joint. It’s been ongoing for six months, and the reviews have included an ongoing history of BBQ, BBQ trivia, and a few other things to give the monthly feature a bit of a “feel” to it.
I’m a fairly kind reviewer. Even when the place isn’t that good I do try to find something good to say, or offer suggestions for improvement. But one of the reviews was of a BBQ place that just wasn’t any good. I won’t bother with the details, but I’ll just say that everything was pretty flat. the only good thing were the wings, and I said so.
Well, the owner of the place has spent the past four months calling the paper threatening lawsuits for driving down his business, he’s accused me of being on the payroll of some restaurants in town (I wish! I get paid $25 per review, plus reimbursement for one entree and one appetizer. So, this job costs me money.) because from time to time I’ll say something like “this place doesn’t quite do this dish as well as Restaurant X in town.” If I give a middling or poor review of a place he calls the owner is trying to organize a group to make some kind of public protest or something. He claims I’ve destroyed his business.
Given that experience, I’m on the side of anonymous reviewers–in small towns, at least. If only for simple protection rather than for getting special treatment from a chef.