One of the reasons I haven’t written in this blog for months is that I am a hater for food bloggers, and this blog made me one of them. What made–or rather makes–me a hater is nothing more than an old-fashioned desire for hierarchy. Respect. In the blogosphere, any ol’ one can spout his or her opinion on any ol’ thing. There are no filters.
The one time I looked online for restaurant reviews was about five years ago, when I was working with Kenny Shopsin on his book, EAT ME. Kenny asked me if I ever used the Internet, or if i thought it was any good (Yelp, Chowhound, etc.), as a restaurant guide. I told him that I didn’t, but it did inspire me to take a look down what I found to be the sad avenues of these sites. I decided to conduct a test of their efficacy and chose to see what they had to say about a restaurant I know well, Barbuto, owned by a well regarded chef, Jonathan Waxman, who has been around several different blocks and is near-worshipped by his peers. (In the years before he opened Barbuto, I dined with him several times and chefs fell to their knees when he sat down to eat–and he hadn’t had a restaruant for years.) Barbuto is a simple, neighborhood place where all of the entrees are cooked on a wood-fired grill, all the veggies come from small farms–by a chef who had been doing that for 30 years and didn’t need to announce it all over his menu. The food at Barbuto shows the kind of restraint that comes with maturity. As opposed to the reviews of Barbuto, by immature and uninformed sources.
In this smart but poorly constructed story in the Columbia Journalism Review, in what amounts to basically a chronology of restaurant reviewing, the author finally gets to the same point in the second to last paragraph, which I have pasted here.
More than ever, diners could use a reliable critical guide. But where once there were a few dependable voices who reviewed restaurants based on a common set of professional standards and strategies, there is now a digital free-for-all. As with many things on the Web, this profusion of voices is often touted as a wondrous blow for democracy, a long-overdue rising up of the masses against the elitist overlords of the culinary realm. Thus the runaway popularity of sites like Chowhound and Yelp, which publishes city-specific reviews by anyone who cares to weigh in on everything from restaurants to churches, and whose motto is “Real People. Real Reviews.” I’m all for everyone having his or her say, but when it comes to cultural criticism there is a strong case to be made for professionalism and expertise. As the eminent film critic Richard Schickel wrote in 2007, in response to a New York Times article on the decline of professional book-reviewing and the rise of review-bloggers: “Criticism—and its humble cousin, reviewing—is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions . . . . It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.”
I can’t bear to go back down those sordid roads to find the exact quotes of what people said about Barbuto (which was just an example; I’m not their p.r. agent, although I should be), but the comments I found were things like: It’s not all that. Over-rated. Below average. Meanwhile, place is perfect. And packed. What do they know.