It’s a recurring battle in the food world—restaurants versus restaurant critics—that’s most recently been argued over by anybody who caught word of the big throw down
between restaurant tycoon Jeffrey Chodorow and New York Times
food critic Frank Bruni back in 2007. This battle of the prose elicited the food critic in everyone to post his or her own thoughts on the matter of what determines a fair restaurant review.
This time, however, the topic deserves another look since the severity of this recession has altered the climate of today’s restaurant industry. While the phrase, “people have to eat” still holds true, restaurants now realize that people don’t have to eat out. Of course, we’d be snuggling peas in a pod if critics strictly wrote reviews that gleamed with adoration. But often, it’s the scathing review that evokes the wrath of those affected by it.
Restaurant critics will continue to write about restaurants, despite a crumbling economy, waxing both lyrical and glib about their favorites, worsts, and the unpredictable encountered during their evening out. And inevitably, a writer will write that merciless review.
But how productive is a scathing restaurant review in a state of an unstable restaurant industry? Should critics be sensitive to the economic turmoil restaurants are faced with?
One Los Angeles chef, whose restaurant was recently reviewed in the Los Angeles Times
, feels that critics should be mindful of the economy saying that they can
be a little nicer, though not lenient. “Critics need us and we need them, but they need be to building up the local dining scene, championing great things happening in the city, not tearing down the efforts of a restaurant right now,” he says.
That sounds reasonable enough, if the experience is great, of course. With as much influence in the food scene that restaurant reviewers have, they could certainly help boost their own industry in addition to critiquing them. Or should they? What exactly is the responsibility of a restaurant reviewer?
New York based restaurant writer and reviewer Irene Sax, feels that the responsibility of a reviewer is “to present the reader with a fair picture of the restaurant’s food, décor, value, and service.”
Andrea Strong, founder and writer of The Strong Buzz
, feels similarly. “My responsibility is to my readers. I try to offer them a fair, unbiased assessment of the food, service, decor and hospitality of a restaurant,” she says.
The problem, then, appears to be with the meaning of “fair,” revealing a subjectivity in the job of a critic that’s often interpreted as absolute: what’s fair to some is biased to others. Sax, like most reviewers being that they’re writers, admits to the occasional hankering for writing dissentingly figurative prose. “It's not hard to write rebukes. In fact, it's all too easy to do. It creates amusing prose and is therefore a temptation that the reviewer has to resist.” She adds, “In my beat, which is inexpensive restaurants, I don’t write about places that are terrible; I just ignore them. But if a place is reasonably good but one dish was bad or one waiter was rude, I’ll mention it.”
A negative review is an imperative that many critics warrant, occasionally, of course. “I have written a few scathing reviews in my time though I don't relish it,” says Strong. “I know how much hard work goes into making a restaurant come to life and work. But at times it has to be done. I have no issues with scathing reviews as long as they are justified and written by an unbiased reliable source. It's hard to trust people who just bash restaurants because in that case it seems they are just miserable people who get off on being mean. That's unacceptable and really unproductive.”
In the end, restaurant reviewers don’t owe anything to restaurants: good or bad, a restaurant reviewed in any publication is mass publicity.
But in this case, context should matter.