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Industry opinions on how food writers could improve their reviews?

As a sometime food writer, I was intrigued by industry comments in a recent thread on Boston-area "professional" reviewers, e.g., a working sommelier (CH name: hotoynoodle) lamenting the obvious lack of wine knowledge on the part of some local scribes. It made me wonder: where else do industry folks see restaurant reviewers betraying their ignorance of what's important about a restaurant experience? More important, how might writers close that gap?

Owners, chefs, designers, hosts, sommeliers, bartenders, servers: what sort of training or experience would you like to see reflected in the work of the so-called pros who review your places? Formal wine or culinary school training, a stint as a server or bartender, apprentice work to a sous chef or pastry chef, etc?

I know many writers who say, "My expertise is on the dining out experience from the customer's perspective, and since that's what my audience cares about, that's all I need." I'm not sure I agree, and I'd love to hear some industry responses to this notion (not about specific writers, just in general).

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  1. If food writers need formal training before reviewing restaurants, by the same reasoning food and wine industry people should go to journalism school before reviewing reviewers!

    1 Reply
    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      A review is one person's opinion. No formal training ought be required.

      Personally, there are people I like to read and then there are those who I choose not to.


    2. I write about the restaurant/wine/spirits industry from a business perspective and I also do some critic writing, both for my employer and as an author of a dining fuide.

      I am self taught. I have taken cooking classes and wine classes, but much of my opinions and knowledge are from others more learned than I and from my own research.

      I try to apply my opinions to the tasting/service/ambiance situation, based on a combination of my experience and the knowledge/resources available to me.

      I believe that most of the people who read my opinions have,a wide variety of knowledge -- many more than I do. So I try to back my opinions with facts.

      In the end, I think readers are interested in what we think, but want to make up their own minds.

      In really food-centric situations -- New York, San Francisco, LA, etc. -- critics sway more opinions than in smaller markets. Whether that is good or bad, I don't know.


      8 Replies
      1. re: Bob Mervine

        Critics don't have that much power in San Francisco. Michael Bauer raved about La Suite, presumably because they recognized him every time and smoothed out the usually erratic service and food, but word of mouth closed the place in a year.

        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          Bauer raves about Farallon, and that just don't make no sense. That place is waaay underwhelming. I have no idea what he likes so much about it. I hold him personally responsible for a wasted meal and wasted money....

          1. re: uptown jimmy

            A lot of people like Farallon, judging from the frequent recommendedations by regulars on the SF Bay Area board.

            The decor's certainly unique.

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              What about Marlena Spielers reviews? I enjoy reading hers..especially her Slanted Door review.

              1. re: melly

                She's not a reviewer, at least, her Chronicle columns aren't reviews. Where did you see that?

      2. Your question is loaded with negative implications about food writers and, by extension, their readers: "the obvious lack of wine knowledge on the part of some local scribes"..."restaurant reviewers betraying their ignorance"..."so-called pros," etc.
        Then you ask "how might writers close that gap?"

        Writers don't have to review your way. They work for media outlets that pay them to review restaurants from whatever point of view they hire them to take. And they all have different styles.

        Criticism is subjective. It is one person's opinion with which I am free to, and often do, disagree.
        Restaurants are also subjective presentations, run according to the style set by the owners, and I am free to criticize them according to whatever standards I think are important when I hand over that credit card.
        I like to be fed well, treated like an honored guest, made comfortable.
        When I am not, I don't want someone saying it's because I don't have the appropriate training to know how to evaluate the experience the restaurant has just "honored" me with.

        An ignorant food critic is quickly found out. His words are right there in print. Letters to the Editor pour in. He gets fired. That's the best training in the world. If he's wrong, your restaurant succeeds and you get the last laugh - all the way to the bank.

        4 Replies
        1. re: MakingSense

          I have to disagree with your last points. Bad food critics never get fired. Hardly anyone sends letters to the editor, too proactive. Anyone who actually cares enough to spell it out articulately (you, me, other members of this board) tends to post it here, where it's not going to do much good.

          I work at a publication with a bad food critic. Really bad. Never, ever get a letter from an irritated foodie; the reviews are just published, and the column gets less and less respect from readers, I'd imagine.

          1. re: wittlejosh

            Never occured to me to send a letter to the editor of our local paper telling him that the food reviewer is a cretin.

            What if the reviewer just reflects the generally unsophisticated tastes of the average reader in a particular area? Is he then doing his job appropriately?

            1. re: danna

              I've read certain daily-paper reviewers of long standing who clearly seem to be aiming for what I'd call a lowest common denominator perspective (the reviewer at the Palm Springs daily comes to mind). I've never seen a serious review of, say, The Outback Steakhouse in the Boston dailies, but those do appear in other markets.

              I'll speculate that this is a conscious choice on the part of the editors, a decision that this is what its readership wants.

              1. re: MC Slim JB

                Might be the critic's call. In some less fortunate places, Outback might have some of the better food around.

        2. Of course, anyone is welcome to respond to this thread, and yes, the question is a bit loaded, inspired as it was by a CH poster who works in the industry and had some critical things to say about certain writers' depth on one point of dining out. I am hardly surprised to find food writers responding defensively to its implications. Maybe someone should start a thread in which food writers defend their place in the time-honored tradition of criticism, point out that A.O. Scott isn't Scorsese, and nobody expects him to be, etc.

          But that's not really what I was after in this thread: at the title suggests, I'm interested in industry (FOH, BOH) perspectives on the topic.

          1. ny times reviewer frank bruni did an undercover stint working in a cambridge restaurant for one week. it was an eye-opening experience for him to say the least.

            i can only speak about the boston reviewers. for example, in polls, most people say service is a more important factor than the food. yet in column after column, unless the service was truly awful, it gets only a fleeting mention.

            i could flood this thread with my wine peeves, but here's just one. better dining industry standard in boston now is wines by the glass hovering around $10. yet most reviewers don't seem to recognize this and then complain the prices are too high. if it's more common than not, clearly it's what the market will bear.

            over the years, i've waited on all of our local critics, numerous times. invariably they will describe something they ate incorrectly. even after checking back with the chef afterwards.

            why don't they more frequently lament the same-ness of menus? oh, gee, just what the city needs another tuna tartare appetizer...

            they certainly don't need cordon bleu certificates to do their jobs, but to write with less tunnel vision would be an improvement.

            3 Replies
            1. re: hotoynoodle

              If the cheapest glass of wine is $10, by San Francisco standards that's a ripoff. If wine prices have gone up much faster than inflation due to restaurants increasing their markups, then it's a good critic who stands up and calls restaurants on it.

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                i'm not in san francisco. boston is a much different restaurant city -- we don't have the plethora of mid-price dining you guys do. i did preface the comment with "better dining". not talking mom-and-pop ravioli shop.

                restaurant wine prices have been at this level for quite a few years, and as i mentioned it's the norm, not the exception. mark-ups haven't changed, but the quality of wines being served by the glass is much much better than it used to be, now that owners realize people drink wine by the glass the way they used to drink cocktails.

              2. re: hotoynoodle

                Thanks, hotoynoodle, this is exactly the kind of thing I'm looking for. I am hopeful that more industry folk will contribute to the discussion.

              3. Food critics, like other kinds of reviewers and reporters, are supposed to be both a watchdog and an intermediary between the industry and the public.

                They're supposed to bring some behind-the-scenes insight to the issue, otherwise they're no better than any other restaurant-goer.

                I expect a food critic to be able to tell me whether than $25 entrée is worth the money or if it's just a markup; to tell me what to look for (or look out for) when choosing a restaurant or dish; and explain the rationale behind certain decisions or trends in the industry. That's one thing Bruni does well, at least in his blog.

                That said, it doesn't mean I'll always agree with that food critic's taste. But that's not something you can reason about, anyway.

                4 Replies
                1. re: piccola

                  To know whether a $25 entree is worth the money, you mostly need to have eaten $25 entrees at a lot of other restaurants in the same town.


                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    You also need to know how much it cost to put together that dish, how much skill is required to make it, and whether the markup reflects industry standards or exceeds them.

                    1. re: piccola

                      Not true. For example, I know from experience that first-rate Italian restaurants in most San Francisco neighborhoods charge $15 for an entree-sized portion of housemade fettuccine al ragù. Thus I can say, all else being equal, that $13 is a bargain or $17 is expensive.

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        I'm not debating that. I'm just saying that the added insight is part of the critic's job.

                        Plus, a critic could tell you whether $15 for an entrée of fettucine is too high an average, or if it's actually reasonable.

                2. - Many get too caught up in yapping about everything but the restaurant & food. There's one critic who spends 3 quarters of the column writing about her friends, etc. I don't mind a few, well-crafted observations to help establish a unique voice, but most of us want to hear about the place.

                  - Fight the reluctance to only review mainstream safe bets. Most avoids chains, which is good. But most also avoid places in creepy neighborhoods, blah strip malls, places with less than 15 seats, joints with cheap decor, steam tables, no table service, owners who struggle with English, etc. These are often the best places to eat. Not dine. Eat. I want to know about the Mexican eatery in the car wash, the walk-up Vietnamese sandwich window with no seats, the little old lady with the taco grill, the bacon wrapped hot dog vendor.

                  - Not so much for the reviewers, but for their bosses... we need more reviews. I'm guessing most daily papers have one person, right? One person writing about one place each week? Not enough. Some have a few more, but that's rare. You can't possibly pay enough attention to the local dining scene. Most cities have hundreds, if not thousands of places to eat. And we eat out quite often. We need local experts to help.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: tastyjon

                    The economics of food writing are important.

                    Essentially, if I may step outside the editorial function and examinine the business of running a paper, the bottom line is that subjects that attract advertisiers are what get the budget.
                    Now why don't restaurants advertise more? Because they are afraid of a bad review.

                    Our daily has one critic, but two or three other reporters/editors who cover food at home and food as a business.

                    The critic writes a Friday column that includes a review, a Sunday dining review, a once a month dining review outside the market and semi-regular news stories about dining subjects that run in the rest of the paper.
                    When you factor in the research, eating several times in a place, and the writing, that is a lot for one person.

                    In other words, yes the daily could use a second critic doing the same thing. But they, like most daily newspapers, are cutting staff and budget, not adding people. And should they add staff, it will be in the "hard news" sections, not the "features."

                    The result is that consumers are looking in other places, primarily the Internet, for their news. Forget radio and television. There's no place for it in those tightly-formatted environments.
                    The result, frequently, is the kind of poorly researched and written stuff you refer to -- written by people with little or no experience. Or even worse, written by civilians who ate in a restaurant once who either praise or pan it with no backup other than their one experience.


                    1. re: Bob Mervine

                      Actually, in my local daily (SF Chronicle), it's quite definitely features that have been expanding in recent years. They have hired a second full-time critic and run more reviews per week.

                      "Subjects that attract advertisiers are what get the budget."

                      It's not quite that direct. Content attracts readers, readers in turn attract advertisers. The demographics of the readership is probably more important than the raw numbers.

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        I agree. That's a crucial difference to those of us involved in the process, including advertisers.

                        That said, I don't think the reader cares. The evaluate the quality, or lack of it, in a reviewr's portfolio athe number of reviews that they get.


                  2. Sorry Bob,

                    But this is exactly why a lot of newspapers are loosing $$$ to the internet. You are trying to be all things to all people, rather than be the local experts on what's in your city. The Googles and Yahoos of the world can't beat the person on the street expertise. Meanwhile papers, after staff and budget cuts, still employ a film reviewer and auto writer - despite those being, in essence, national beats. I'd be happy reading Ebert's review or a Motor Trend article. I read the local paper to get a take on things like the city council, local sports and what to do and see in the area. Anything national has already been read online (and is already dated in print).

                    This is exaclty why papers should be putting more effort into things like restaurant reviews. Audiences don't have time to be full time roamers of the local dining scene. Meanwhile, most reviews have a longer shelf life - helping the paper's website become a primary source for repeat visits on dining data.

                    My major daily has one critic in a city that has grown 39% since 1995, but whose circulation has been stagnent. As you mentioned, there are few restaurant ads. Yet the local, free alternative weekly has pages of ads, despite having much more "attitude" when it comes to reviews.

                    A lot of papers seem to be catching on, but in many markets it's easier to find hidden gems on chowhound than via the local daily. Look at Vegas, for example. For years there have been hundreds of posts regarding the Thai eatery, "Lotus of Siam." It's probably mentioned most in a city of many dining destinations. Yet there's no review in the local daily. 560 unique discussions on CH since 2002 and not a mention in the local paper. That's sad. Almost negligent.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: tastyjon

                      To be clear, this isn't a problem with my paper -- a weekly business paper that does do some critical commentary in addition to writing about the restaurant, wine and spirits industries. It's the daily that I'm describing.
                      They have done an average to slightly-below-average job, in my opinion, of using their restaurant review resources as online content. Some of it is there, some is not, and much of it is mixed in with paid content without making the difference very clear.

                      As for your comments about Vegas and the Thai restaurant, that's exactly why I am a Chowhound regular.


                      1. re: tastyjon

                        independent restaurants usually don't advertise in major dailies because it's wildly expensive and not very cost-effective from their perspective.

                        further, the scene here is so corrupted that the city magazine that bestows the annual "best of" awards, only bestows plaques on restaurants that buy ad space. it's a joke, yet hamstrings places because it's publicity they want.

                      2. When I was first hired to write restaurant reviews for a group of local magazines, my editor was delighted that his newest reviewer had trained as a chef, had worked in test kitchens, and had cookbook writing experience. What his previous reviewers were lacking, he said, was the knowledge and terminology to adequately portray what the kitchen had done right when critiquing an exceptionally good dish, and how to explain what was wrong with something that was not to her/his liking.

                        My guidelines when I started were to focus on the food, explaining the good and the bad in detail, write only the bare minimum about the decor, and create a review that was lively to read.

                        4 Replies
                        1. re: FlavoursGal

                          Do you think your editor was right?

                          I've taken a couple of trained professional chef friends on review dinners. They don't seem to have any more insight than good home cooks who eat out a lot.

                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                            I don't think it's necessarily the professional training but, rather, the palate training, which is something that comes with time, experience, and a passion for gastronomy. I think the key word here is passion which, when applied to food, cooking, and dining out, essentially amounts to an insatiable desire for culinary learning in all its permutations and combinations.

                            Having read some of the previously published reviews in the magazine for which I'm now writing, I can see where my editor is coming from. His past reviewers' writings lack the depth that comes with extensive knowledge of gastronomy.

                            Having gone through chef school (as a 39/40-year-old amongst 18/19-year-olds) with many people who I am certain will never achieve this passion for gastronomic knowledge, I'd have to say that, no - professional designations do not guarantee a good restaurant review/critic.

                            1. re: FlavoursGal

                              I agree both with the comment(s) that having kitchen experience helps a critic to understand why a particular dish on a particular night was off -- not so much on -- because it's fairly simple to figure out what went wrong if you know how the dish is supposed to look and taste.

                              I also strongly believe tht a cultivated palate is the best tool a food writer can have. I'm reminded of the Hell's Kitchen show last season when Gordon Ramsey singled out one woman who had fallen off dein her earlier, stellar performances. "You have a palate," Ramsey said (or some approximation of this quote), "And that's a special gift. Not everyone has it, and you should learn to use it to your advantage."


                              1. re: FlavoursGal

                                I think my palate needs training...how do I go about it?

                          2. Thought I'd offer up this link to St. Pete Times food critic Chris Sherman's last column.

                            He's bowing out of the job because, as he says, "After two days in the hospital last month I went home with a stent in my heart and a diagnosis of Type II diabetes. I won't blame restaurants for too many calories or carbohydrates or my lack of exercise. I must eat more wisely at every meal, cook at home and not have a ready excuse for overindulgence."

                            It's a very well done piece that really speaks to all sides of the issue of food criticism for a mjajor daily newspaper.



                            1. One famous NY Times reviewer wrote two reviews of the same restaurant, side by side. In one she was recognized and given the royal treatment; in the other, she was not recognized and treated quite differently. The NY Times wouldn't print both, claiming a restaurant could only have a single rating with so many stars, period. So she combined the two. Her book showed the separate reviews and it sounded as if she were reviewing two different restaurants. Food for thought, right?

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: EclecticEater

                                I quite enjoyed Reichl's "Garlic and Sapphires", but I have long believed that anonymity is important to a reviewer. The obvious reason is that recognition yields special treatment, an experience the typical diner doesn't enjoy. That reader will wonder how you could be so wrong about the place, and never trust your opinion again.

                                The other reason is that I am likely to revisit places that I may have been less than kind to in print, in which case it's a matter of health not to be recognized.

                                The alternative weekly I write for has a fraction of the circulation of the dailies or the town's other big alternative weekly -- I don't think the local luxury-class places exactly fear the opinions of our food writers -- but I dread the day when I learn that my picture is now on some kitchen bulletin boards.

                                1. re: MC Slim JB

                                  It's a shame that many food critics, and I'm thinking of two (one in LA, one in Baltimore) have been reviewing long enough that anonymity is lost. Every restaurant in town knows what S. Irene Virbila looks like; she never wears disguises, etc. She's been pointed out to me on two separate occasions. In Baltimore, the Sun critic Elizabeth Large (if she's still doing it), has been the critic forever and a day. It's a small town; there's now way she can be anon any more. So while it's important that the reviewer remain anon, how often do you think they really are? Can you imagine Frank Bruni in a wig?

                              2. P.S. A lot of reviews are puff pieces for the restaurants, just ads without the necessity to pay for them, and contain nothing critical. The justification is often, if it's bad, we omit the reveiew; if it meets a certain standard, we'll review it. Depends on the paper where the line is drawn. I prefer the review that, in effect, says, Don't waste your money on x or y but try z; If you're in the mood for steak, this is not the place; Surpringly good value for an honest price; Wine by the glass is/isn't overpriced here. Etc., etc.

                                4 Replies
                                1. re: EclecticEater

                                  Which specific reviewers are you talking about here?

                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                    This happens every Thursday in the San Diego Union/Tribune. Every Thursday in the local/metro section is a full page column by "Wolfgang something or other" in which he extolls the virtues of 1 or 2 places. The expanded entertainment section also appears in the Thursday paper (similar to the Sunday pink pages in the SF Chron) and this guy has another half page column. If you look hard enough in the entertainment section you'll find other mentions and usually a coupon or two for the restaurants mentioned in the 2 Thursday columns.

                                    These are essentially paid advertisements disguised to look like restaurant reviews. Quality of the restauants varies from truly terrible to really pretty good.

                                    1. re: DiningDiva

                                      I don't find a Wolfgang byline in that paper's online restaurant review archive, only staff critic Maria C. Hunt, editor Michele Parente, and freelancer Maria Desiderata Montana.

                                      Most likely that *is* an advertisement. Standard publishing practices regarding such ads include:

                                      - a disclaimer at the top or bottom fo the page or inset saying something like "advertisement" or "special advertising section"

                                      - content cannot be written by staff or contributors

                                      - advertising must use different typeface, layout and design

                                      If a newspaper doesn't follow the rules, it may be disqualified from receiving awards from professional associations such as the ASNE.

                                    2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                      am responding in the wrong spot..but, Marlena's "Roving Feast" is sometimes about restaurants. I loved the Sacramento Ala Carte she did. I read the SF Chronicle and love her column.

                                  2. MC, every profession has a handful of pros that we point to and say...that guy/gal started it all...the mentor...leaders if you will. Who are these people among food writers?

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: HillJ

                                      I have to admit I have not read a lot of professional food writing, though I'm trying to. I haven't touched the works of many of the oft-mentioned greats, like Fisher.

                                      As I mentioned, I've read Reichl's latest and at least one earlier one ("Comfort Me With Apples"), and quite enjoyed them. I can recall reading an Apple essay or two over the years. Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential" was a very entertaining read. Last year I read Jay Jacobs' "A Glutton for Punishment", also fascinating (he covered NYC restaurants for Gourmet, and there's a lot of interesting backstage-politics stuff). I only got about halfway through Jeffrey Steingarten's "The Man Who Ate Everything", though I was probably just distracted by the 50-high-and-growing pile of books that always await me.

                                      I thought the title essay of David Foster Wallace's essay collection "Consider the Lobster" was just amazing: one incredibly bright, funny guy.

                                      A lot of book-length food writing is essentially memoir: "my life journey eating/cooking/writing about food". Maybe I don't gravitate toward that kind of stuff because I tend not to read a lot of memoirs of any kind.

                                      I got the new "Best Food Writing of 2006", and have to say I find what's in there very uneven. I did really enjoy one piece by Joe Yonan of the Boston Globe, which documents a hunting/gourmandizing trip by four Boston chefs.

                                      So I guess I haven't read enough food writing to really have a personal hero yet, though I can think of plenty of non-food writers who inspire me.

                                    2. MFK Fisher. I love her book (published in 1937) Serve it Forth..the art of eating. A great food writer!