Last month longtime Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema wrote a story entitled “Chicago’s revered dining scene recently lost a key ingredient: Experienced, trustworthy critics,” in which he cited the retirement of the Chicago Tribune’s restaurant reviewer Phil Vettel, after 31 years on the job, as a major blow to the city’s restaurant industry, also noting that Jeff Ruby, Chicago magazine’s critic, hadn’t filed a review since March 2020.
Not all restaurant critics are beloved by local restaurateurs, unless they get a rave review, but the importance of coverage and the attendant publicity have always been healthy for the owners and chefs who, without any media attention, might never be known to exist, especially in a big city like Chicago, which has 7,300 restaurants (compared with New York’s 22,000 and Los Angeles County’s 26,000). A good review can alert millions of people to a restaurant’s existence, both in and outside a city, which draws tourists and business people who spend freely at the high and low end. A rave review will pack, even overpower, a restaurant with customers, with requests for tables shutting down websites from overload. And such reviews stick around forever on websites and in ads, often citing a three-star review from five years ago or a Michelin star awarded three years ago.
When you consider that the tourist or business executive going to a major city for a variety of reasons needs a surefire venue where the food, décor and service will be worth the visit, media reviews count heavily, as do guidebooks, “Best Restaurant” round-ups in local magazines and exposure on cable TV channels. A bad review, on the other hand, can definitely hurt, even put a struggling business out of business. What restaurateurs and chefs don’t understand, however, is that by far most restaurant critics do not go out of their way to damn a place; indeed, many outlets tell their critics (myself included) that if a place turns out to be sub-par, don’t waste more time and money on a review.
In the past, a few critics seemed hellbent on discovering every flaw in a restaurant and looked for reasons to slam it. The New York Times critic of the 1970s, Mimi Sheraton, was notorious for visiting a restaurant six, ten, twelve times looking for flaws, and her own editor asked her why she needed to cut so deeply. Former restaurant critic Alan Richman of GQ was roundly criticized for giving a less-than-glowing review to New Orleans restaurants after the city was devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
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These days that would be a rarity, mainly because almost no one is writing restaurant reviews until the pandemic lifts and restaurants re-open to full capacity. In New York, where a 50% capacity rule is currently in effect, most restaurants that have re-opened have slashed menu listings and amenities, cutting out expensive ingredients that may not sell as they once did and not re-stocking wine lists, which means these restaurants, in dire need of some publicity, are, for the most part not operating at the same level of quality they did a year ago. Recently I dined at one of my favorite New York steakhouses, whose posh dining room was empty while a cozy but otherwise mundane room once used for a bar was the only option. The menu was half its former size, the bar stocked with cheap well liquor, the quality of some meats was reduced and service lagged, yet the prices were the same or higher (with their food costs rising a minimum of 15% in the last year) than they used to be. I was not going to be the reviewer to say all this in print at the risk of the restaurateur losing a single prospective customer.
Even before the pandemic, newspapers and magazines, whose ad revenues had been declining for years, had reduced the budgets of their restaurant critics or gotten rid of the positions entirely. In Westchester County, NY, where I once reviewed for The New York Times, then the Gannett Newspapers, both those media eliminated the critics’ jobs, leaving only a local magazine highly dependent on restaurant ads to do listicles.
Not that reviewers’ budgets were ever very high at most newspapers or magazines unable to bankroll the six-figure expense accounts of the critics for the Times, the Washington Post and L.A. Times. Esquire magazine, for which I wrote about restaurants monthly for 35 years and had a sufficient budget, now comes out only eight times a year and has no restaurant columnist. Vogue eliminated its restaurant reviewer. During the pandemic those papers and magazines that used to have full-time critics have sidelined them for occasional coverage, while influential magazines like The New Yorker now report only on take-out and delivery eateries. Neither does Eater.com have its city critics out and about reviewing full-service restaurants.
To be sure, people are still filing their own personal reviews on Tripadvisor, Yelp and some travel sites, but those are not written by professionals and there is no requirement of any kind for the person who files a review as to how long ago the visit took place or if a single waiter flubbed the service. I can’t imagine why readers seeking sound recommendations would trust the vox populi for a meal that’s going to cost them $150 a person. The constant mantra “Tastes just like grandma’s meatballs” is not exactly insightful criticism, as expressed ad nauseam on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives.
Consider if Broadway theaters were open or the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra was playing or the Houston Ballet debuting a new program, but there were no critics to write about them. How many people would attend without knowing if the performances are any good?
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, restaurant critics are part of the swirl of what makes a restaurant industry work. Just as Jack Nicholson as Marine Colonel Jessup in the movie A Few Good Men lectured defense lawyer Tom Cruise, “You want me on that wall! You need me on that wall!” So, too, restaurants want and need good critics whose reviews they can frame and put on their walls. And if the reviews are not all that good, remember the old saying of P.T. Barnum that “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”
I, for one, am dying to dine out again in the hope of finding a wonderful meal and have a wonderful evening and to report to my readers that they, too, should go immediately. That’s not yet the reality right now, but when it is, I know my colleagues will be out every night letting you know the score.