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Dec 1, 2006 09:05 PM

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.