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Robert Sietsema on Restaurant Criticism and his Responders


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Eater this week featured a piece by former Village Voice Robert Sietsema on the current state of restaurant criticism, updated from an essay that he did for the Columbia Journalism Review. This, in turn, garnered these provocative responses on Slate by L. V. Anderson and Luke O'Neil. Thoughts?

The rebuttals are more correct than the original column, but all three pieces left out several important pieces of information: one is that, traditionally, a print restaurant critic is a journalist who takes an interest in food, i.e., (s)he is a writer first, and learns about food, restaurants, and wine "on the job," with a salary and expense account to subsidize their on-the-job training (I realize this is changing; I'm talking about the way it used to be). This is precisely why traditional print restaurant critics know virtually nothing about wine, even after working for twenty years. Wine (and expertise about other beverages) is its own labor of love - a completely separate skill set - and, quite often, about 50% of the final bill at a restaurant. Therefore, right off the bat, even if the restaurant critic got everything else perfect, the review would be helpful to the diner for, at most, 50% of the bill.

What the internet has done is allow bonafide food and wine experts to step in, immediately, on their own dime, and voice criticism. They didn't need ten years of experience to become "experts"; they already were. Yes, Yelp is populated with 99% buffoons, and only time and the free market will separate the true experts from the pretenders, but the experts are out there - if you know where to find them. And they're paying for their own meals with their own money. Can they write well? Not all of them (writing is also a completely separate skill set), but I'd rather read something by Thomas Keller than a journalist who likes to eat.

Aside from the intractable "50% Problem," there's the issue of three visits being the industry-accepted norm for finalizing judgment on a restaurant. Once that judgment is finalized, the review is written, and becomes "the review of record" even though it begins becoming outdated immediately. Although this is still a rampant problem with traditional print reviews (review one place, move onto the next), the internet has forced restaurant critics to admit that restaurants are a moving target - an ever-changing entity that, with the loss of a key sous chef for example, can go from "great" to "good" overnight. This forces modern critics to keep tabs on thousands of restaurants, and this inconvenient truth has yet again upped the qualifications of being a restaurant critic - even now, virtually nobody does this, one exception being the publication you're reading right now. Sous Chefs are another example of what was never mentioned in a traditional restaurant review - factual information was obtained from PR reps and owners, and if you were lucky, a token mention would be thrown in about the chef de cuisine's history. Restaurant critics twenty years ago didn't even know what a sous chef was. I would venture a guess that 2005 - maybe a year or two before - was the first time that a sous chef was ever mentioned in a restaurant review. I know this because I pioneered the concept - before, if restaurants were football teams, there would be an occasional mention of the quarterback, but that's about it - nothing about linemen, or receivers, or linebackers. The bar has been set much, much higher now, forcing a vastly more thorough knowledge of the staffing situation. It was obvious to me ten years ago that this was not being done, anywhere, and so I took it upon myself to do it. So it wasn't just a total lack of wine knowledge; it was a total lack of staffing knowledge, among several other things I'm not even going into here - restaurants were judged upon the perceived quality of what showed up at the critic's table, and that's it. That, my friends, is not the real world, and never has been.

What the internet has done, even more than allow a bunch of know-nothing amateurs to become restaurant critics, is expose just how completely, totally wrong the "old system" of restaurant reviewing was. The interesting takeaway? People *still* don't realize this. But it's there, for all to see.

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Three interesting reads/perspectives, thanks for this.

I am tired and full of travel fatigue, so just a couple stream of consciousness thoughts here"¦

From Anderson, "That's because buying something on your boss's dime is a very different psychological experience from paying for something out of your own pocket, whether you're using a company credit card or filing an expense report later"¦the fact remains that they do not experience restaurant-going in the way normal people do, because they're not spending their own money."

That's one of several flop points deflating the buoyancy of the Anderson piece.  Any professional reviewer would never be like a "normal patron."  Time in seat counts.  Practice makes perfect.  Thousands of hours dining and reflecting means a more thoughtful review, hands down, regardless of who foots the bill.  This article is yet another, unapologetic, instant dismissal of credible experience via the t-shirt wisdom "it's an <insert demographic identity badge here> thing, you wouldn't understand".

From Sietsema, "Increasingly, professional restaurant criticism is becoming a leisure-time activity conducted by those who can afford to work for almost nothing."

This reminded me of an excellent post regarding the question "Should I be doing this work for free?"

A big bravo for the O'Neil piece.  Market demand for instant news is up, and the restaurant reviewer needs to respond to this urgency.  Software companies and other rush-to-market products do it all the time, getting stuff out there before it's fully baked. In very few fields do you hold out all information until it's 100%.  Reviewers need to trust the reader base to layer in the context of time-stamping.  In addition, consumers will be triangulating what any reviewer says with social media and other data points.  It's 2013.  Information is never going to be perfect, only less stale.

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 This is precisely why traditional print restaurant critics know virtually nothing about wine, even after working for twenty years. Wine (and expertise about other beverages) is its own labor of love - a completely separate skill set - and, quite often, about 50% of the final bill at a restaurant. Therefore, right off the bat, even if the restaurant critic got everything else perfect, the review would be helpful to the diner for, at most, 50% of the bill.

A nitpick:

If you say wine is "quite often" 50% of the final bill, I'd assume that a reviewer that got everything right got at least 50% right, not "at most".

That's also the assumption that a) everyone drinks wine with their meals, b ) they drink enough to make it 50% of their meal, and c) that their enjoyment of wine is at a level where a poor wine list will give them a bad experience, yet they don't know enough to find something of value on it or to avoid it completely. In other words, that they just pick whatever is suggested and then say "oh god, this sucks".

Obviously, I'm going off of anecdotal evidence here, since that's all I have - I'm not a wine guy. It's rare that I'm at meals where everyone or even most people drink wine, and at that, even rarer that it hits 50%. Past there, even amongst the "wine people" I'm with, in all my experience, I've only ever heard one complaint about the wine at any restaurant, and that was due to vintage on a very specific wine - and really not that the wine was bad, just that it wasn't as good as the previous year's vintage.

Contrast that to food and service portions of reviews, which everyone hits at every single meal they have at a restaurant. Unless you're going to (say) a wine bar, that's why you're going to a restaurant, right? Food? And the service to bring it to you?

Don't get me wrong - I love seeing reviews of which restaurants have good wine or other beverage programs, which ones are overrated or overpriced, etc. But I trust specialty publications and reviewers for that - I'll take (say) Derek Brown's take on a bar versus Tom Sietsma's, or Don's take on wine versus Tim/Tom/Todd. If the 3 Ts were writing for a specific food magazine (for instance), not general publications, I'd expect more time dedicated to the beverage side (or, preferably, a separate reviewer who handles that part) but I think it's something you cannot expect in a "general" publication, especially given these budget times.

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That's also the assumption that a) everyone drinks wine with their meals, b ) they drink enough to make it 50% of their meal, and c) that their enjoyment of wine is at a level where a poor wine list will give them a bad experience, yet they don't know enough to find something of value on it or to avoid it completely. In other words, that they just pick whatever is suggested and then say "oh god, this sucks".

SeanMike, you make some good points here. One thing about my perspective is that, since I came into this whole thing from Wine World, that biases, perhaps prejudices, my line of thinking. It was great for developing my palate; maybe not so great for taking a balanced view of things.

In fact I'd bet that wine sales, as a percentage of total industry revenues, have dropped substantially in the past twenty years, coinciding with the rise in popularity of beers and cocktails which, on the surface, seem less expensive, with prices often in the single digits.

There could be an entire book written on this subject. It's much easier to fleece the consumer by jacking up your drink prices and keeping your food prices low. *Everyone* is going to raise an eyebrow at a $40 pork chop, but what about a bottle of wine that costs $40? The answer, of course, is, "It depends on what the wine is." And of course that also raises the question: "How many people are going to buy a $40 bottle of wine?"

But what about a $7 beer, a $12 glass of wine, or a $16 cocktail?

I wrote this column in 2005, and I'm proud of it even today. The greatest compliment I received was by a colleague, who told me, "Don, you made it look *so easy*." Well ... it wasn't; it was grueling, gut-wrenching, and extremely stressful. I'm straying off-topic now, and would prefer not to make this thread about me, so I'll end this response by agreeing that the 50% figure (which I pulled out of the air) is almost surely wrong - there must be an industry publication that breaks down industry-wide revenues by food versus beverage, so whatever that figure is, it is. Thanks for your thoughtful thoughts.

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...If I were being taken out to dinner, and not paying for it, I'd quite possibly go to Atlas Room. The dining guide doesn't factor in price or formality - the criterion is: "If someone were taking me out, and paying for it, where would I go? (Assuming, of course, I didn't care whether I got dressed up or not.)" If Toki was the same price as Atlas Room, nobody would go there! This is why some things are ranked higher than italicized places, but not in italic themselves...If I had only one meal left to eat on H Street for the rest of my life, it would be at Toki.

There is a tie to this idea and the Anderson piece, but it's not yet gelling in my Kopper Kettle-addled brain...

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