In a recent article, former restaurant critic Robert Sietsema argues that conventional restaurant criticism has profoundly changed for the worse.
Sietsema claims competing with amateur web-based restaurant critics such as bloggers and Yelpers has forced the pros to shorten the lag time between when a restaurant appears and when they write about it.
Sietsema says print criticism occurs one to two months after the debut of a new spot, whereas the standard was formerly three to six months.
But Sietsema insists the more profound change is that newspapers and magazines have drastically trimmed their reviewing budgets. So while the number of published professional critics may not be waning, their budgets are.
“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.”
Sietsema believes this results in reviews being less reliable because food quality, freshness of ingredients, and a dozen other factors can vary from day to day.
“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.”
One could argue that if the quality of any particular restaurant varied from day to day by as much as Sietsema suggests, why would anyone risk going there to begin with? Because at a true quality restaurant, without exception, quality food and service is a consistent experience. But I digress.
Sietsema goes on to complain that when the New Times chain took over the Village Voice six years ago, the first conversation he had with the editorial director involved money. At the Voice, he used to have a budget of about $500 per week, which was reduced to $345 when the weekly was sold in 2005.
The bottom line is that Sietsema claims he was forced to subsidize his own reviews, and he concludes professional restaurant criticism is essentially becoming a leisure-time activity conducted by those who can afford to work for almost nothing.
But Sietsema’s argument is flawed, according to Slate’s L.V. Anderson. “The psychological phenomenon of spending your employer’s money is taken for granted for everyone who’s not a restaurant critic.”
Anderson reasons that buying something on your boss’s dime is a very different psychological experience from paying for something out of your own pocket, and suggests one solution may be to include a reviewing budget in a restaurant critic’s salary.
By paying for meals out of his salary, Anderson says a critic’s experience of going to a restaurant, evaluating the prices on the menu, and paying for the bill at the end of the meal would be much more similar to the experience of an average diner.
“And that just might lead to reviews that more fully convey what it’s like for the rest of us when we dine out.”
I’d like to point out that Anderson’s perspective is well worth considering, especially in view of the quality restaurant reviews FriendsEAT co-founder Blanca Valbuena provides on a regular basis, covering an incredibly wide range of cuisines at restaurants all across Europe and the United States.
To Blanca, who receives no corporate media budget, money never even enters the equation, because restaurant reviews to her are a true labor of love for which she receives no compensation other than the joy of eating and sharing her experience with FriendsEAT readers.