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Sep 5, 2006 04:28 PM

What makes a good / superb restaurant reviewer?

From bbqboy in topic 323073, this deserves its own topic:

What makes a good, or superb restaurant reviewer, in your opinion?

Experience in the Kitchen or Front?

No experience in Same?

A mom who can cook?

I'm just interested, because as someone who likes to eat good food but has never worked in the industry, I come on here to tell folks about tasty/new places in my area, or answer travel/dining questions, not to critique places that are less than stellar.

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  1. I'm a reviewer, and try to do a good job, so those are interesting questions to me--but I mostly have no idea.

    More generally, what makes a great artist? I know good painting, music, and food work when I see / hear / eat it, but I don't have any general theory of what makes one artist great and another lame.

    Generally you have to be disciplined and work hard, but dedication to craft alone won't make you a great artist. And in any creative field there are always a few genius types who seem to have the craft by instinct and toss off masterpieces.

    1. Well, there are several criteria to be considered a serious food critic... those are well documented. But strictly in terms of form, here is what needs to be in ANY good review... It's really simple:

      1) Explain what the thing you're reviewing is. (Remember, we get TONS of visitors and Google hits from this site, people will not automatically know what "Zuni Cafe or Hungry Cat or A Chilaquile is....)

      2) Explain how you feel about the thing, and why. (What made you happy, what didn't...)

      3) Have a POINT. If you've gone long, tell people what they should do, in your opinion, based on the review. (Would you go back again? What youw do different with the recipe? Take a stand!!!)

      Again, it seems REALLY simple, but I see bloggers and people trying to be taken 'seriously' on this board who miss one or two steps.. :p


      4 Replies
      1. re: Dommy

        I appreciate your point about form and content - but I think there's a big difference between a real review by a serious food critic and what we do here or on blogs. I got from RL's post that he was looking for what made a good professional critic, not necessarily a ch contributor.

        Here on ch, the most useful bits of info are descriptive - not necessarily subjective feelings. Even after I've gotten to know a poster pretty well, I still go by detailed descriptions of taste and presentations more than feelings.

        OTOH, a professional column would probably need more of the personal statement - the essay - than just a description.

        I think that the answer to RL is that while all of the above (experience, growing up with great food, etc.) are important, there really are only two skills that will make or break you. Those are you're constant ability to learn and appreciate new things, and your ability to communicate what you've learned.

        The great critics have, above all, been great writers. People are willing to forgive technical mistakes, (the horror of Reichl calling dipping sauce Dashi instead of Tsuyu!), if the piece is entertaining and shows the critic learning and passing on what they've learned effectively.

        1. re: applehome

          Being able to learn and communicate clearly what you learn pretty much defines good writing, I agree. But what makes one persona able to do that and another not?

          You don't necessarily have to work professionally to be a great writer--as Kumar said to Harold, just because you're hung like moose doesn't mean you have to do porn.

          "I got from RL's post that he was looking for what made a good professional critic ..."

          Right, this came up in reference to the comment "Someone like (Chronicle food editor) Michael Bauer gets a job as a restaurant reviewer because he has certain expertise," made in a Chronicle (!) article, to which I responded that he got the job because he was the editor of the section and forced out two much better restaurant reviewers so he could get the gig.

          He was terrible when he started but learned on the job well enough that he's decent today. But he's still not as good as his predecessors Patricia Unterman and Stan Sesser had. I think he lacks the chowhoundish instict to appreciate great food in humble surroundings.

          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            On the other hand, there are consumers who care about the whole restaurant experience, including service, decor, furnishings, and so on, who don't enjoy good food, so Bauer maybe a more useful critc to them than to food-obsessed types who will put up with anything if the food's great.

            It's not my idea of how to be a great reviewer, Bauer certainly has thought through and formalized his review process:


          2. re: applehome

            I agree with your post. I think there is a difference between an article about a restaurant and an actual review. On my blog I write articles about my experience at a restaurant. It's my own personal perspective and more based on my emotions involved with the meal instead of judging the restaurant as part of an official review. I don't get into giving out stars or ratings. I also only write articles about places that I enjoyed. I feel that reviews should be left to professionals but see a place for bloggers to share their experience in a less formal way.

        2. I went through arts training and there were definately rules for critiquing others people's work. I've found them to be helpful and transferable to any review process but of course modified. As I recall, they went something like this (very loosely):

          1) Always state a positive, regardless of how much you don't like it. At least attempt some fairness and congeniality.

          2) If you have a negative, explain why and your perspective but be constructive and straightforward. Conversely, the archtypical "catty" non-constructive review is what gives critics a bad name.

          3) Try to understand what the artist/creator/chef is trying to do...ask them but also do your own homework. Having a bias is natural, YET not doing background and being at least fairly open minded can reflect on your own limited views. A good interview, review or research starts with a foundation.

          4) Direct comparisions can be a careful. The term "derivative" can be over used.

          5) Be in the moment, use your senses and know if you're in a bad mood going in.

          6) Be civil.

          Beyond that, the best piece of advice I heard was something like, "critics defend what they like be it pop-culture, academia or vices." Understanding this helps you decide what to take seriously in a review and what to toss away.

          In regards to food reviewing in particular -- specific experience and knowledge is helpful but can also be limiting unless that person is reasonably open minded. I'd say a good reviewer should understand specific processes and technique but not nessecarily specific experience. Levity is also very, very helpful and apreciated. It might be the reviewers life to review but most people want good information and to be enteretained while there.

          ...your mileage may vary...

          1. I believe the main focus on what constitutes a good reviewer is first and foremost their ability to write (i.e. readability). I see this akin to a good college professor where one could be a brilliant mind but loses the audience in the lecture hall because they have no gift of speaking.

            I am not entirely convinced that one needs to know the nuances of every type of sauce or food preparation in order to be a superb reviewer. I think someone who can share the experience, be honest about what they experienced, and make it all readable would be very good at what they do.

            I would also give bonus points for any reviewer that lists actual prices in their reviews instead of abstract ranges like "Entrees $15-$45."

            3 Replies
            1. re: Seth Chadwick

              A restaurant reviewer who doesn't notice subtle differences between dishes won't be much use to readers who do.

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                Likewise - a reviewer who knows and describe every nuance and detail can be overbearing for a reader who only wants the basic low-down. Though journalistically, they should be able to extrapolate that from the first few grafs.

                Thus, I think food reviewers (esp. professional ones) are in the quandry of striking that balance of details that satisfies both--within that dreaded wordcount limit!!! :)

                1. re: AquaW

                  One element of good writing is knowing your audience. A town like San Francisco that's full of self-indulgent food-obsessed hedonists demands a different style of review and reviewer than I imagine would be appropriate someplace where food's less of a passion.

            2. You all make some good points. I too have read good and bad reviewers in my time, and while no single factor can determine "goodness", to paraphrase the late Justice Potter Stewart, I know one when I read one.