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Food Critics vs. Bloggers

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The recent threads about whether a restaurant reviewer should remain anonymous and the propriety of taking photos of restaurant food prompts this comparison. Made me think about the differences, if any, between the restaurant reviews I turn to in my local paper as opposed to the blogs and websites I follow on the internet.

Newspaper food critic -- paid. Blogger -- volunteer.

Food critic -- regular schedule. Blogger -- posts when convenient.

Critic -- big time, Bruni, Reichl, Virbila, Bauer -- influences thousands, can make or break a restaurant. Blogger -- at best influences a handful. For example, I follow The Delicious Life by Sarah in L.A., but more for the writing than for restaurant recs. I contribute comments and suggestions to Bandini for The Great Taco Hunt, and have checked out some places because of his postings. Some major restaurants in SoCal recognize Chowhound, but fewer ethnic places than you'd think -- even many of those that are often cited on the board.

Critic -- should try to remain anonymous. Blogger -- telling the establishment of your blog is equivalent to "Do you know who I am?" to a police officer stopping you.

Critic -- sends a photographer for pics. Blogger -- not only snaps every dish of every course, but reveals the game by first taking shots of the entrance, sign, every page of the menu, but never any people.

Bottom line: I look forward to Wednesday's L.A. Times, where I'll find the weekly food section with a careful review that I often find irrelevant or ridiculously out of touch ("We loved the innovative three-bite miniscule appetizer at $22.). I pick up the L.A. Weekly to read J. Gold and when back home in St. Louis grab Sauce magazine or the Riverfront Times. I have become a Chowhound addict. I catch up on ruhlman.com and egullet, though I still haven't figured out how to follow their postings and replies.

I often punch up the links to blog entries and flicker photo galleries mentioned in Chowhound postings. But as I wrote in response to the question about photographing food in restaurants -- If you are anywhere near me -- no flash. No getting up from your seat for a better angle. If I'm lucky enough to be splurging at Cut or Craft or Mozza and your blogging is distracting me, I'm going to ask the management to require you to cease and desist.

Critic -- if restaurant suspects, tries to impress. Blogger -- restaurant tries to tolerate.

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  1. Nosh,

    Very interesting post. I had been thinking of this too, although not as in depth as you have. I don't know if blogging can lead to a gig being a critic, but I sometimes think of bloggers as wannabes. But as Blogging becomes more a part of the mainstream, blogging may lead to a niche all its own although I still can discern a difference between the two. I would think that bloggers can serve a purpose of discovering that awesome neighborhood ethnic place that the critic won't find for months if not years, but many bloggers don't seem to want to try very hard to fin those places. That is one point of uniqueness, flexibility and timeliness that bloggers have over critics.

    1. One of the nice things about blogs is that they can be as broad or as obsessively focused as they want to be.

      Slice (http://slice.seriouseats.com/ ) is JUST about NY pizza. Ono Kine Grindz (http://onokinegrindz.typepad.com) is only about Hawaii restaurants.

      1. Nice post, that's a very fair appraisal. One of things that bugs me about bloggers is the lack of rigor in their reviews. Most of the time I find the quality of the writing to be poor and their research (or knowledge of the subject) is not always solid. Seems that some of them cover their weaknesses with nasty or rude comments. I prefer reading people who know their topic and have something constructive to say.

        Where I think the bloggers do well by us, the reading public, is in their ability to stay focused on a micro-topic like burritos in the bay area in burritoeater.com, and other such blogs. A critic would never be able to sustain a career on such a narrow topic.

        1 Reply
        1. re: sgwood415

          I have to agree on the negative comments aspect. It seems that some people start blogs as some sort of catharsis for daily frustrations. Makes reading those blogs very unpleasant and hard to take seriously when so few things are positive.

        2. "It may be happening in tech first, but there's no reason the same thing won't happen, eventually, in every media niche" ..


          1. Your last sentence is more telling. The restaurant tries to impress critics, thereby getting a more favorable review.

            Bloggers let others know how the general public is treated and how their food presentations look.

            I have been invited to some local restaurants for a meal, set up a time and date but go there first as a 'regular' patron. I take photos of my meals (no flash). When I have gone back, as the known blogger, and asked for the exact same meal, the portion sizes are decidedly larger, more and a larger variety of sides are given and presentation is flawless.

            To me, the critics are being 'bought out' to give a good review and bloggers are telling it as they, and others, will see it when they patronize the place.

            (and, when the meal is then told that it is "free", I tip by paying the entire bill to the waitstaff. I have never been bought out)(I have, however, not bothered to blog those places where the service and food served to me as a regular person was of lesser quality than when I was a known entity.)

            7 Replies
            1. re: Cathy

              An anonymous critic can't be "bought out." If a restaurant tried to comp my meal or otherwise tipped me off that they'd spotted me (hasn't happened so far), that would be the end of the review.

              Critics' meal expenses are reimbursed by the publication.

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                I was commenting on the last sentence of the OP- restaurant will try to impress only certain people, instead of all patrons.

                I am glad you remain anonymous. Most 'reviews' I see read more like ads- every one is positive, all presentations are perfect, unspilled and plentiful.

                1. re: Cathy

                  You live in San Diego? Naomi Wise's reviews often point out dishes that didn't work and other problems.

                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    Yes, and I was not talking about Her.

                2. re: Robert Lauriston

                  Some of the best restaurants wouldn't tip off the critic (or blogger) -- they would just make an extra effort to ensure things were as good as possible. Even if nothing was comped, if the effort that went into the food and service was above and beyond what the average diner would receive, then the review or blog would not be accurate.

                  1. re: limster

                    Which is precisely the point of dining anonymously.

                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                      Point was that a critic or blogger can't always tell if they were dining anonymously or not. Just because there wasn't a comp isn't sufficient indication; restaurants could more more subtle than that.

              2. I've met restaurant bloggers who make an effort to remain anonymous.

                1. This is one of the most pertinent discussions being conducted regarding mass communication today. And the esssence is, now that everyone with access to the internet has the ability to reach everyone else with the same access, how necessary are the journalists, critics and other professionals that are paid to write about their respective subjects.

                  I, for one, never read professional food reviews. But I religiously look at food blogs and messageboards in order to find food gems both where I live and where I travel. For me, food reviewers are completely unnecessary, as they represent only a single viewpoint which in my mind has a small chance of coiniciding with my own personal taste. Whereas with blogs or messageboards the community aspect of the medium gives me an opportunity to experience a larger sample of opinions and form a (hopefully) more valid conclusion in the process.

                  But I was never a fan of food reviews before the internet. Way back then I was much more interested in checking out the listings and brief descriptions of the local Urban Weekly or picking up a copy of Zagat's than waiting for this week's review to come out. I could see how someone might like the taste of a reviewer or maybe appreciate the thorough appraisal of the restaurants offerings. But I can't help also think that a large aspect of restaurant review is add some authority to your own dining experience, the chance to tell your friend, or date, or business associate that "This place got 4 stars in the paper", and have it mean something. Rather than relying on your own viewpoint, which is certainly more valid for yourself and could be more valid for your fellow diner as well than that of any reviewers.

                  1. Increasingly these are not mutually exclusive categories--many professional critics (e.g. Frank Bruni, Michael Bauer) have blogs that tie in with their columns.

                    Personally I don't think the medium is important. After I've read a particular critic / blogger / Chowhound poster for a while, I learn to what extent I share their taste. Certain people recommend a place or dish highly, I'm in a hurry to try it. Same goes for tips from friends, acquaintences, and coworkers.

                    I presume the same is true for people who read my column. Though I also know for a fact that many people aren't even aware that it's not always the same writer.

                    6 Replies
                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                      I couldn't agree more with your points. The mixed blessing of media today is that we are getting information from just about every angle that we turn, and the abundance of information leaves it up to the individual as to where to turn, who to read, listen or watch, and how much of it to absorb.

                      I still feel that I am a true novice when it comes to the various cuisines and even more so when it comes to the multitude of eateries that offer their interpretation of food. However, I for one would have never become interested in food if it weren't for two sources - PBS and Jonathan Gold. These two sources offered me a whole new palette of colors to see, taste, and smell.

                      PBS opened my eyes to so many different cuisines and so many different takes on those cuisines via the talented chefs that hosted their shows. Some were more talented in their culinary skills, some more so in their imaginative twists on dishes, some just better at pulling you in with their personalities and storytelling.

                      Jonathan Gold, whose talents were finally recognized, caught me with not only the incisiveness and unabated interest of the food of which he discussed, but of course his great writing talent. His reviews made me realize how accessible and varied food was in So Cal.

                      Once one develops a deeper interest and appreciation for food, filtering out the noise from the music really is up to the individual. So many great bloggers are accessible today, but so many more bloggers view their blogs as more of an online diary. That is fine as that is their choice. And it is our choice as individuals to skip, skim, or read in great depth.

                      Something similar can be said for critics as well. Some tend to skim only the surface of places that really only apply to a very few (i.e. Michael Bauer's recent review on LA restos) while others' collection of reviews can cover a broad spectrum of cuisines and socioeconomic ranges (thanks, J. Gold!). But I think what it really boils down to is becoming attached to those whose writing style is appealing to you, whose tastes may be similar or interesting to you, and of course who seems to really "put the beef on the table," for you as well.

                      1. re: bulavinaka

                        Most big cities have so many chowy places that all the media can't come close to covering them or doing them justice. Therefore, just as important, if not more so, is to transition from a consumer of chowtips to a producer of chowtips. By that I mean throwing away the guidebooks, columns, blogs and websites (yes, even chowhound.com), going out to look for good chow and doing some on the ground treasuring hunting. Only then can we find new deliciousness and avoid a monoculture. That's what chowhounding is about!

                        1. re: limster

                          Although I'd never toss Chowhound as well as my other coveted sources of food information, I do agree that there is no other way to confirm as well as discover great food - be on the ground and of course keep an open mind... Thanks, Limster!

                          1. re: bulavinaka

                            Don't thank me, I'm just reiterating the ethos of this website. :)

                          2. re: limster

                            I can't agree as regards San Francisco and environs. There's too much diversity and too many people constantly seeking out and reporting on new places. I do legwork all the time and rarely come up with places that haven't already been "discovered" on Chowhound and Yelp, and when I do they're usually discovered within a week or two.

                            If you made a point of trying, say, every restaurant in the outer Sunset, you might come up with an undiscovered gem or two, but you'd also be eating a lot of mediocre or worse meals.

                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              "If you made a point of trying, say, every restaurant in the outer Sunset, you might come up with an undiscovered gem or two, but you'd also be eating a lot of mediocre or worse meals."

                              Chowhounding isn't about eating good food. It's about FINDING good food too. And by the law of averages, that entails eating a lot of average meals.

                              That's what I did back when Iived there. Started in the Inner Sunset and moved outwards and added Richmond, but had to move before I was done. There were tons of places that I had zero information on or there were dishes that hadn't been reported on before, and if I wanted to know how good it was, my only choice was to try them. Came across a few places that I liked, a few that were great, and had a fair number of average meals, but none that were really bad as competition keeps the average level fairly decent.

                              With the growth of the internet, perhaps things have changed since, but in the Boston area, there's even more places where the only to get information about place is to try them, these can even be places that have been open for years.

                              I vaguely remember Jim Leff mentioning how he stumbled on a bunch of chowy places in SF that were barely mentioned anywhere else and how not picked over things were.

                      2. After reading your post, I have to wonder if Phoenix and much of the Southwest is on a different path regard food blogging.

                        While I would agree with your first two points, after that, things get murky or are completely opposite in my neck of the woods.

                        Yes, I am a volunteer. Yes, I post at my convenience. Yes, I may only "influence" a handful a people (depending on what you consider a "handful").

                        I have never used my blog nor do I know of any other food bloggers in Phoenix who have used their blog as a "Do you know who I am?" ploy. Most of the other food bloggers in town eat their meals, take their photos and then head off to the salon or DMV or the doctor or do one of a hundred errands that have to get done.

                        After having had dinners and lunches with several bloggers, I have never encountered one who shot a photo of the sign or entrance before heading in (I always do it after I have paid and am walking to the car). I have never seen one take a photo of every page of the menu (I, like everyone else I have dined with, grabs the paper menu on the way out the door or simply look at the menu on the website.). You do have me at taking a photo of every course. The photos are a very popular part of my blog (and of many others) because the narrative along with the photo has so much to say.

                        As for a restaurant trying to impress a critic and tolerate a blogger, my experience isn't about tolerance because I don't tell them I am a blogger. But when I am seen taking photos, I usually get the same question: Would you like me to take a photo of you and your friends? Sure! Why not?

                        I think, however, that I am not on board with the "Food critic vs. food blogger" anyway. I didn't start my blog with starry-eyed dreams of being the next critic of the L.A. Times et. al. Nor am I in competition with them. I am just your average work-a-day common person who loves to eat. My reviews are completely narrative and are weaved into some slice-of-life story. Some people like that. Some people don't. But since I am the one paying for the webhosting fees and paying for my own meals, I write they way I want to.

                        I am just offering one opinion on what the "average Joe" might experience when they go to restaurant X.

                        1. I'm a food blogger and I am not, nor do I ever want to be a restaurant critic. I wouldn't even dream of using my blog as a 'do you know who I am' tool. That's utterly ridiculous. I read dozens of food blogs on a regular basis, and none of them are restaurant reviewers. I don't read the ones that are unless they are in my area. What's the point of reading about a restaurant halfway across the country??

                          I blog because I love food. Period. I have no grandiose notions of it sending my soaring to stardom but it has it's own faithful audience that I truly appreciate. I share my recipes, talk about my meals, the quirky things we eat (and don't eat) and share a piece of myself. It's an outlet and that's all.

                          1. Ditto to what Seth and cooknKate have said. There are many endeavors in which paid professionals and amateur hobbyists exist side-by-side. Astronomy is one example. Professional astronomers have acknowledged the contributions of amateurs. In cooking, amateurs who enter their foods in state fairs have always complemented professional chefs. Now, the Internet has begun to make food writing and criticism more accessible to the amateur practitioner. Even though their motivations may be different, pros and amateurs complement each other.

                            As for the "Do you know who I am?" question -- I don't want anyone outside a trusted circle of family and friends to know who I am. The blog is about the restaurants and their food, not me. In addition, I am not paid to blog and therefore want to retain anonymity in order to separate my unpaid hobby from my paid job duties, which have nothing to do with food and are readily Google-able to anyone with access to my real name.

                            1. I disagree with some of your points. Food bloggers can get paid, and they CAN influence more than a "handful" of people. For example, Amateur Gourmet is a well-renowned food blogger who started out as just that and now he's a published author. What do you think about that?

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: Chew on That

                                When amateurs cross into professional territory, I think it's great if the crossover is deserved. After all, the Beatles were amateur musicians who couldn't read music when they started. I have no illusions of making my hobby into a profession, but I would certainly not begrudge anyone else's crossover success.

                                1. re: silverbear

                                  George and Paul were hardly amateurs.

                              2. I think that bloggers and critics are complimentary as you say. To take full advantage of city's culinary offerings (especially a city/region the size of los angeles), you need every resource you can get. Critics tell one side of the story and bloggers tell another. One critic in LA is not sufficient enough to cover all basis. Also, there can be 10 bloggers cover one restaurant. Even though they arent pros, at least you can form a consensus and get multiple points of view on the same place.

                                Usually I love tracking the bloggers, but before making my ultimate decision to dine somwhere, I check Irene and Jonathan for their opinions. If the bloggers give it a thumbs AND jonathan AND Irene, then the place is a must. I really respect the critics we have in LA, but sometimes I dont agree with their assessments.

                                You can never have too much information if you know how to organize it. I hope food blogigng gets more popular. I think it makes the city more of a foodie town.

                                1. Some input from someone who works in a restaurant...

                                  Everyone knows who Irene and J. Gold are. Not only them, but food reveiwers from countless magazines. There is hardly such thing as an anonymous food reviewer anymore.

                                  I agree with the point that a professional reviewer generally has more knowledge and can write with better intelligence and resources. I get tired of the wannabe revierwer writing from home. Flowery descriptions, overly ornate word usage, barf. We laugh about it in the restaurant. When I first joined chowhound years ago (before all the site changes) it was to find great ethnic food, and it was more of a place to find holes in the wall. Reading about 50 reviews of Mozza/Sona/Opus by people who take themselves far too seriously is not what I'm here for.

                                  There was that article in eaterla hinting at a slowing down of business at Table 8, and Govind Armstrong was quick to reply. Then Eaterla made some bullshit comment like "The first step in recognizing a problem is denying it" or something like that. This is absolute crap. And very damaging. These are not comments that critique the food or eating experience in any way, and only add rumors and hype that a restaurant might be on deathwatch, no matter how false that may be. Eaterla should be ashamed for engaging in this kind of crap.

                                  Most restaurants try to make the dining experience equal for everyone. Granted, the food and service for Irene is going to be top notch, but not outside of the realm of what someone else might experience. Food reviewers are quick to pick up on this, and the results are not favorable. We do our best to give everyone that experience, we just tighten the ship a little more when a reviewer comes in.

                                  I understand that most people who blog here do it just because they like to. Fine. At first, it seemed that it was going to be impactful. Word of mouth is the greatest advertiser after all. However, as the internet becomes saturated with hundreds and thousands of individual blogs regarding food, I think it's all sort of going to turn into background noise. Most people would agree that Urasawa is good, that it is worth going to. Does someone need to read 100,000 words written by 20 different bloggers to convince them? No. Which to me defeats the purpose of chowhound. I liked the original ability to pore over massive amounts of information and cut to the chase. Sometimes I feel like I have to read someone's life story just to get to if they liked the restaurant or not.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: fooddude37

                                    Even though Jonathan Gold's picture was published when he won the Pulitzer, and that picture's surely hanging in the service area of every L.A. restaurant of a certain type, he's still unlikely to be spotted as a critic in all those cheap ethnic dives he reviews.

                                  2. I blog as an outlet, plus I love cooking and restaurants. Being that I'm constantly telling my friends and family about restaurants, a blog was the natural progression. It's fun but I do get some weird looks when I take pics (discreetly).