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Jul 17, 2013 04:18 AM

About food criticism

Food criticism is a field in the sense that there are a lot of people practicing it, pro and am, but it differs from other areas of criticism in that it is lacking in a long tradition of academic scholarship. The notion of a food writing collegiate course has only emerged in the past few years, and nobody's offering a degree program for it. That's pretty different from art, music, and film criticism, to name three.

That said, good food criticism is more than just expressing personal preferences, I think. I favor critics who are persuasive, well-informed, factually accurate, and compelling writers. After that, it's mostly about trust in their freedom from unfair biases and a sense of shared sensibilities, the feeling that we tend to like and dislike the same sorts of places. That last part eliminates anonymous reviewers, since you can't figure out where a person is coming from if you don't have a body of their work to read.

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  1. the alternative to a known reviewer is crowd-sourcing reivews ala yelp. I do not trust them implicitly, but i would give any restaurant that gets a high rating a shot.

    12 Replies
    1. re: cambridgedoctpr

      Based on a lot of places I think are sub-mediocre to awful, yet regularly have lines out the door, I'm less inclined to trust the wisdom of faceless crowds.

      1. re: MC Slim JB

        Often at a casual restaurant, the server will mention that a certain dish is his/her favorite. DH then asks if they liked "Titanic". If the person loved it, he can't trust their taste.

        1. re: judybird

          Why? How does ones taste in movies compare to their taste in food?

      2. re: cambridgedoctpr

        Yelp can help to create a list of restaurants you might like in an unfamiliar area, however their ratings need to be taken with a (huge) grain of salt. To be truly keep Yelp in perspective, you need to make sure to scroll down to the bottom of the review page and click on "X# Filtered", which they then make you enter a CAPTCHA to add another layer of protection for their paying customers. You see, for businesses who advertise with Yelp, most of their negative reviews go into this 'Filtered' black hole most never see. However if a business doesn't advertise with Yelp, well then the negative reviews stay and the positives tend to get more heavily filtered. Of course some Yelp sales people will tell business owners that this can be taken care of... Yelp hides behind the complete BS excuse of an algorithm which protects consumers and keeps out unreliable reviews. Some would call it extortion, unscrupulous at best.

        1. re: Gabatta

          The bigger problem with Yelp is that it is comprised of people about whose opinions I know very little. The wisdom of crowds is what keeps 80 middling to bad North End restaurants (and countless unspeakable chains) in business. In aggregate, Yelp is about as trustworthy as stopping a stranger on the street for restaurant advice. Individual Yelpers, on the other hand, can be as useful as individual Chowhounds. But like here, you have to do the the legwork to identify specific, trustworthy contributors by reading a body of their opinions.

          1. re: MC Slim JB

            Not to stray too far OT but I'd be interested to know who these 80 middling to bad NE restaurants are, and do you actually have personal experience of them? I ask because I hear this claim a lot, yet I've only read a few lousy reviews, certainly not about 80 or so places, and I've been here a pretty long time. Perhaps an answer in the NE/Neptune thread is more appropriate.

            On topic, I prefer Regina's, FWIW.
            And Open Table is pretty accurate along with Trip Advisor not far behind. Yelp isn't reliable to me.

            1. re: CapeCodGuy

              Phwoah. Can't say with perfect accuracy, but I'd guess there are probably a dozen to 15 I've never been to (e.g., La Summa), including a few new ones I intend to try (e.g., Benevento's, Panza, Aria), and forty I haven't been to in at least five years (many of which I feel fairly confident I could never visit again and still live a full life, e.g., Pat's Pushcart, Piccolo Nido, La Dolce Vita, Sal's Lunch). The rest I'll guess I've been to at least once in the past five years, the top 20 or so once or twice in the past two years, my ten or so favorites at least once per year.

              My ratio was helped quite a bit by a period three or four years ago when my office was in the neighborhood. I hit a lot of places I hadn't tried or been to in a long time.

              So it's fair to say I don't have an up-to-date, complete picture of the entire neighborhood. Then again, I don't expect to have to revisit Mother Anna's or Pagliuca's semi-annually to believe I have an accurate feel for what they're about, and that's probably true for many, many North End places.

              A friend lives in the neighborhood and is horrified by the amount of premade Sysco crap he sees being delivered in the early morning hours. Not as many scratch kitchens as people might imagine.


          2. re: Gabatta

            I use Tripadvisor...I wonder if that is any better.

            1. re: observor

              To the good, TripAdvisor reviewers have fixed identities, so you can read enough of a reviewer's work to get a sense of their trustworthiness, reasonableness, etc. To the bad, a lot of TripAdvisor reviewers are doing travel reviewing, so: a) it's harder to judge shared sensibilities, as you may not have been to many of the same places they have for comparison purposes, and b) many do not have local context by which to judge places, which I think can be important.


              1. re: MC Slim JB

                I don't really read the reviews, generally, I just look at the bar graph rankings for places that have a lot of reviews, to get a statistical breakdown.

              2. re: observor

                Tripadvisor does not filter reviews in the manner of Yelp, which can create the issue of people stacking fake positive reviews to raise the ranking of a particular establishment. Not ideal from a reliability standpoint, but as Slim points out, if you look for specific reviewers it can still be useful. This is still more palatable to me than Yelp bullying small business owners. Yelp is a really despicable business.

              3. re: Gabatta

                How curious! Nearly all of the filtered reviews I see when I check are one-shot, so-glowing-they-blind, five-star positives.

            2. It's funny (in a good way) to see you say this as you are a good food reviewer. I have a friend who reviews wines and when you suggest it is anything less than a sciene he just goes off on you.

              3 Replies
              1. re: L2k

                Thanks for that, L2k, but I've always held the Chowhound's distrust of any reviewer who brags about their credentials or makes claims to authority. Getting paid to review restaurants for local print publications doesn't change that.

                As Pete Wells of the Times put it, "My culinary background is very strong: apart from an early flirtation with a liquid diet, I have been eating solid food for almost all of my time on this earth. I’m satisfied with this as a qualification for writing about food."

                I do think that training can improve a person's wine writing. However, past a certain point, I suspect that some of it is genetic. I will never be a super-taster or Master of Wine, no matter how much time and effort I put into it.


                1. re: MC Slim JB

                  Except that I'm a much more effective understander-and-describer-of-tasting-experiences post-culinary school. It changed my understanding of flavor. It also changed the qualities I watch for in food quite a bit.

                  Anyone might be good at tasting, but I think some training raises the chances I'll be able to effectively communicate to others (not necessarily the kind I did; cooking every night at gramma's knee would do it).

                  Cases in point: The restaurant at the end of my block my amateur friends pan because the "food is bland." It's great in texture, concept, execution. They avoid the place entirely; I just ask for a half a lemon and some salt and reseason it. If I were reviewing the place, I'd mention the underseasoning problem, but I wouldn't pan the whole place.

                  I also know a place that consistently overcooks beef. I don't pan it; I understand from training that well-done beef falls apart more easily in your mouth, so it's easier to chew for folks with dental problems (such as old folks with dentures).

                  MC, I think you're thoughtful, articulate and (most important to me) even-keeled - but it amazes me that not Reichl, nor Bruni, nor Sifton nor Wells had serious food training (although I do know NYT reviews are sent for crash courses in food that probably help). I don't think _every_ food writer, or even most food writers, needs pro training, but the incredibly low percentage surprises me.

                  (Mods, break this thread out?)

                  1. re: enhF94

                    Again, thanks for the kind words. I have to say that few of my favorite food writers appear to have any industry background. I think J. Gold is the king, and he came up as a music critic.


              2. Your post has me thinking about what such a curriculum/class might look like. The one difference between film/books/art and food is that food, as an object, is ephemeral (even moreso than something like fashion) and consumed usually only locally, so it changes what might be taught and what the reach might be, as well as how we situate the object in its context. Part of what I like about your reviews and those of some others is that the person doing the reviewing has a lot going for them, both in terms of their experience with and knowledge about food, but also beyond food - they have some type of wide and extensive experience, are thoughtful, often well-read, etc. So that when they discuss food, they can contextualize it (whether culinarily [sp?], locally, sociologically, historically, etc.). I don't have any real point here, but you have me thinking. And of course, in some senses, this could loop us back to that discussion I've seen tossed around Chowhound about whether chefs are artists or technicians.

                3 Replies
                  1. re: enhF94

                    for me, the best food critics are the best writers: I love Roy de Groot, MK Fischer, Ruth Reichl, Chris Schlesinger, Molly O'Neill because reading them is a fine experience. They clearly love the food, and the experience of sharing and they respect the process. They aren't mean-spirited, though they can be funny and critical, but they never make you feel there is some joy in trashing someone else's efforts. It isn't necessary for me to agree with every review or like each of the same things or even each recipe they share. They charm me and they educate me. My palate remains my own.

                    1. re: teezeetoo

                      Love your recommendations - would add John Thorne and Elizabeth David. Oh and Ed Behr.

                1. I prefer to see someone with a degree in journalism that uses AP style and does not take swag. If you are letting the restaurant pay for your meal I am not interested in what you have to say.

                  1. I found the article on reviewer Pete Wells using a decoy while reviewing a restaurant (and it eventually losing a star) interesting. He had an unknown colleague go in within 15 minutes of himself and order the exact same food. When done, they had quite a different experience.