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Apr 13, 2009 03:17 AM

Are the critics usually "right"?

I was going to preface this post with a whole analysis on the very premise of this question, but as soon as I realised it was opening a can of worms on the topics of subjectivity, critical theory, aesthetics and every other philosophical conundrum since Socrates scoffed some hemlock (the critics told him it would be good, you see), I gave up.

So here it is, simply: Do professional food critics' opinions of restaurants often align with your own? If so, why do you think that is? If not, why not?

While casting a wary eye at said can of worms, I will simply say this: Yes, often the critics are "right" in my view. Which is interesting, as in pursuits such as music and film for example, I find that perhaps only half the time or less I'm on par with the critics, the other half not. This might be because music and film are more closely intertwined with the "fine arts" where subjectivity plays a larger part. I think when it comes to food, there is something deeper -- perhaps biological -- within people whereby it's easier to agree on what is tasty and what is not. Yet clearly we don't always agree, else critics wouldn't exist.

I live in Sydney where we're blessed with many great restaurants of which I'm privileged to be able to eat out at reasonably frequently. I've found with restaurants the critics bat at maybe 80% with me. This I find helpful, as I follow restaurant reviews quite closely to give me ideas for new places to try and I'm rarely disappointed. Whereas if I strike out on a blind grab, I find I can be often disappointed. Critics are a guiding light for me, but not my only light. Or is it that the critics are influencing my opinion? Which came first: the chicken or the egg?

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  1. Movies, theater, music, food - it's all the same to me. There are people who share my tastes and those who don't. After reading enough critiques from enough sources, I can trust certain people that I know will give me a certain level of advice for certain things. No critic is fully in sync with my tastes on every single subject, and that includes food. Someone may share my native understanding of sushi and Japanese cuisine, but have a completely different idea of q. In fact, a negative critique from someone that I completely disagree with could be as good of a clue as a positive correlation.

    And that's why professional critics are wrong and Chowhound is correct. ;-) Chowhound is about a) the preponderance of evidence, and b) the ability, over time, to get a large body of work from an incredibly diverse group. That has more value, to me, than any single opinion, no matter how well educated that opinion may be. Finally, if there is a c), it's that Chowhounds are encouraged to find and try new places. Most professional critics want to be known for their ratings of the popular places, not necessarily the new finds. So stick around here. And above, all contribute - write your reviews about your impressions and experiences here, because that's the most important piece of information any of us want to hear.

    3 Replies
    1. re: applehome

      "Movies, theater, music, food - it's all the same to me. "

      It's not the same thing, though. When you read a movie review or an album review, you know that the critic is reviewing *exactly* the same product that you will get if you decide to see the movie or buy the album. There is no variation in storytelling or acting between one showing of 'The Dark Knight' and the next. That is less true of theater, and it's even *less* true of restaurants, where two people can go to the same restaurant, order the same dish, and have two objectively different experiences depending on who's in the kitchen that night, the quality of the ingredients that day, whether the diner is a regular or not (or a critic whose face is known!) and any number of other factors.

      CH has a lot of information on it, but just as you have to read a critics' reviews to figure out whether their tastes are similar to yours, you have to hang around CH for a while to learn which users' tastes are similar to yours, which users know their stuff, and which don't.

      1. re: Buckethead

        These differences are simply a matter of degree. If you have seen a print that's been played 1,000 times on an ancient projector, shown on an old screen in a theater that's lucky to have stereo, then you've seen something that's very far from what it's supposed to be - the experience isn't optimal. Ditto when the exec is gone and the food just isn't as consistent as it should be.

        But absolutely, CH is about figuring out who you generally agree with and who you don't. That's why the searches are so valuable. If you see a review that is pointing you somewhere, you can look up that reviewers past posts to see if there are any places that you already know about that he/she has also reviewed. You can do this on various Newspaper sites and Blogs as well, but the ability to build a personal history - a virtual directory of people that you know and trust here on Chowhound makes it a better tool. That's just my opinion after using this site in that manner for the last 8 years. I'd rather look here than read any so called expert critic. Of course, YMMV. And as I said, the value of this site is only as good as its participants - if you eat somewhere, try a new recipe, or just have read or found out about some new food fact, post about it.

        1. re: applehome

          Even so, if you see a movie, and there are blips, pauses, sound issues, you can usually differentiate the movie experience from the theatre experience. I once watched a movie during which at least one scene was just a white screen with no sound until the issue was resolved by theatre staff. That caused me more to wonder what I missed than to determine the movie was poorly constructed.

          On the other hand, there is so much variation in food in a restaurant (each preparation of the dish, sometimes each serving is so unique) that you can only take a reviewer's opinions, add a margin of error from better to worse (to account for possible differences in the ingredients, cooking techniques, service, etc.), and then consider the similarity of your tastes to that person's (as you say, consider what the reviewer has said about places you are also familiar with).

          I sometimes find myself thinking how could they say that duck was amazing? It was nothing special to me... And then I remember: They didn't eat my meal, and I didn't eat theirs.

          It's happened to me enough times that I've gone to a restaurant I've been to before, ordered the exact same dish I ordered before, and been served a completely different dish than the one I had before... Perhaps it had the same ingredients, but different proportions, cooked differently, yielding a completely different experience... usually disappointing.

    2. I think it would be too broad to say that they're usually "right" since these things as you said are very subjective; I do take those critics in what I deem to be serious publiciations/websites more seriously. Does it sway me in one way or another? No, not really. But critics, be they food, movie, music, etc. do have the very distinct advantage of doing the same thing, in this case eating and drinking, usually way more than the average person. What does this do? Well, if you do something long enough, theory is, that you'll eventually get very good at it and eventually become an "expert". I think Malcolm Gladwell has a theory about this in his newest book, I think 10,000 hours makes you an expert at something. Interesting, I think.

      1. Depends on the critic. Some I find myself more in agreement with than others.

        1. Some interesting answers here. Thanks guys for taking to the time to offer your opinions.

          1. One of the New York critics, in the New York Times, went to reveiew a restaurant and their service knowing full well they could probably tell she was the NY Times critic. Then she went back and wore a wig and hid her identity and got a completely different view of the restaurant, service and food and she wanted to publish both reviews, but they wouldn't let her. Their philosophy was only one review would stand. I think she finally negotiated a sort of half and half review. But the point was made and it is a direct answer to your question.

            5 Replies
            1. re: EclecticEater


              I think it's way easier to 'fool' a critic on service rather than food. You can always be more attentive than usual to the room to make it look like it's usual practice, however, you either got it in the kitchen, or you don't. In my experience at least.

              1. re: EclecticEater

                That definitely happens, but there are still reviewers out there who are anonymous and don't need to wear a wig to receive the same service & food as everyone else. I wonder whether that reviewer will wear a wig on future reviews, or is she going as herself?

                1. re: Full tummy

                  Unless I miss my guess, EclecticEater is talking about Ruth Reichl, who left the NYT critic job in 1999. That review and others that she wrote in and out of various disguises are detailed in her book 'Garlic and Sapphires'. It's been a little while since I read it, but if I remember correctly, going to a restaurant as herself was often a much different experience than going in disguise, mainly on the service side of things but also on the food side. For example, she would get the absolute best piece of meat the restaurant had on hand (and always cooked to the proper temperature because someone was babysitting it), larger portions, riper berries, more generous wine pours, etc. I distinctly remember her ordering the same dessert at the same restaurant twice, once as herself and once in disguise, and getting a much better dessert when they knew who she was.

                2. re: EclecticEater

                  This is the review:


                  Your post is sort of right, but Reichl was recognized AFTER being treated shoddily, not before. And her account thoroughly covers her experiences both as an anonymous diner and as the NYT critic, so she did indeed publish both reviews (they're just part of the same article).

                  1. re: small h

                    Le Cirque happens to be a classic example of the kind of restaurant where celebs and bigshots (not just food critics, but certainly them as well) get special treatment.

                    On the bigger subject, I don't think it's possible to generalize. There are some critics I tend to agree with. There are some whose heads, I believe, are firmly rooted in a place that prevents them from distinguishing good food from bad. If you read someone enough, and try the same places, you can get a sense of whether or not their tastes agree with your own.