Do food critics matter?
Venerated (and feared) food critic A.A. Gill. Photo: Nick Moir
Nobody ever believes me when I say this, but if you like going out to eat, reviewing restaurants is a terrible way to make a living.
Why? Because reviewing and enjoying restaurants are pretty much antithetical. The assiduous critic, that is, can't just sit back and relish things; he or she has to be constantly trying to figure out what went into a dish and maybe what went wrong with it and then how to evoke the sometimes complex sensory experiences of an entire meal, and its surroundings, with mere words. It ain't easy.
Add in the fact that critics often have their choice of restaurants determined by their editors, or by their own sense of duty to their readers, and, frankly, I wonder sometimes how they talk anyone into taking the job. Reviewing restaurants is a bit like being put out to stud: the basic activity involved may be pleasurable, but when you have to do it, and with whom you're told, it loses a lot of its appeal.
The conventional restaurant critic might well be an endangered species anyway. In this age of Yelp and TripAdvisor and their ilk, not to mention the 20 billion-or-so food bloggers who record and critique their every mouthful, fewer and fewer people seem to care what the experts have to say; they'd rather get restaurant recommendations from their friends, or even from random strangers.
The man usually identified as the first restaurant critic was a wealthy Parisian lawyer called Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de La Reyniere. Between 1803 and 1812 he published annual editions of his Almanach des Gourmands, compiled with the assistance of 17 well-born friends and colleagues. The Almanach didn't exactly review restaurants, though: Grimod invited the chefs at the best establishments in Paris to send dishes to his residence, where he and his fellow epicures sampled and passed judgment on them.
The earliest volumes that actually covered restaurants seem to date from the early 20th century. The oldest example I've been able to find, published in 1906, is a delightful volume called The Gourmet's Guide to Europe, by one Lieutenant-Colonel Newnham-Davis. This was an account of menus, with some comments on the clientele, service and surroundings, that Newnham-Davis had enjoyed at restaurants across the Continent, from Moscow to Madrid. By the 1920s, restaurant guides to Paris, London, New York, Chicago and other cities were appearing with some regularity.
The first regular American newspaper restaurant critic was Craig Claiborne, a pernickety Mississippian who talked himself into a job as food editor of The New York Times in 1957.
Claiborne approached his job in what was then a revolutionary manner: he dined anonymously and always paid his own bill, and he insisted on visiting a restaurant at least three times before delivering his verdict. The same rules were soon adopted by virtually every credible restaurant critic in the US and their numbers grew rapidly in the 1970s and '80s.
In France, Henri Gault and Christian Millau challenged the venerable Guide Michelin with chatty, detailed reviews in their own restaurant guides and magazine. Around the world, magazines and newspapers signed up critics of their own - all influencing their local restaurant industries and delighting, or infuriating, readers.
The game began to change, though nobody realised it at first, in 1979, when husband-and-wife attorneys Tim and Nina Zagat published an informal guide to New York restaurants, with comments and ratings from questionnaires they'd sent out to friends - thus inventing crowd-sourcing a quarter of a century before Yelp. Today, Zagat is owned by Google and, with the general public commenting and voting, there are Zagat guides in print and online to cities throughout the US and in about two dozen other countries, from Austria to England. Earlier this year, Zagat launched in Australia online through Google+ Local.
Zagat now competes with Yelp, TripAdvisor and other user-rating sites (and with all those opinionated blogs) in offering restaurant reviews written by the guy next door. An increasing number of diners report that reviews on social media influence their restaurant choices all, or at least part of, the time.
Will professional restaurant critics survive?
In order to do so, I think, we'll have to become real critics, not just reviewers. We have to write better and more intelligently. We have to address issues raised by the style and attitude of restaurants. And we should ask of chefs and restaurateurs what Goethe once said theatre critics should ask of playwrights: what are they attempting to do; have they done it and done it well; and, was it worth doing? If we can do all that, then we're offering readers value that no crowd can provide. If we can't do that, well, maybe we should just be put out, not to stud, but to pasture.
Colman Andrews is the editorial director of thedailymeal.com and an award-winning author who has written eight books. He will appear at the Crave Sydney International Food Festival on October 6.