“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core.”
~Anton Ego in “Ratatouille”
It’s been an age-old activity: judging the merit, worth, excellence or quality of a human endeavor. It’s a puzzling activity. It’s not inherently productive to critique. Creating is much more venerable, as famously noted by the fictional critic in the film “Ratatouille.” But there is still a purpose to criticism – it highlights what’s notable and remarkable, or reveals what is deficient or unsatisfactory about an experience. In turn, criticism of restaurants should be based on a certain number of criteria or general guidelines that determine the criticism’s worth to the readership or users.
First, context – the context of a review is based on the readership and the venue with which it is communicated. There’s a difference between Chowhound and Los Angeles magazine; there’s an even bigger difference between Yelp and The New York Times. Blogs, magazines, and compilations such as Zagat all offer different perspectives and expectations from both readers and writers about the style and substance of reviews. Context is more essential than the actual content, because it drives the interpretation and understanding of the review.
Traditionally, this meant the physical apparatus of communication – a newspaper, magazine, book, or television program. These are often expertly or professionally prepared under the auspices of a reputable organization and brand name which communicated expertise and reliability. Today, these blogs, newsletters, digital photos, and videos portray reviews, often with an associated personality, style, or niche. The growing variety of these contexts makes it easier for consumers to judge the context of a review. People learn to expect a specific persona with blogs, or a specific style with certain writers.
Personally, I love Jonathan Gold’s descriptive, almost wacky prose though it easily fits the readership of LA Weekly. Brad A. Johnson’s reviews in Angeleno magazine are often elegant and high-falutin, consistent with the Westside/tourist readership of the publication. I know of many readers who loved Daily Gluttony’s honest, almost brash prose while I personally aspire to a more learned and developed style of writing. In these days, one style/approach isn’t better than the other (actually I think mine is deficient and old-fashioned), but soon our generation of Internet readership will see web-writing as “anything goes,” which is perfectly fine for our diverse population.
Whatever the case, it is best for the reviewer to write or create a review based on the context of readership and the expectations of the readership. Different types of people want different kinds of information. Some want the straight dope whereas others want near-poetry. Knowing this context drives a strong review because it will resonate with consumers. Reviews are not islands or pockets of information, but extensions of thought that are meant to be tools for readers.
Second, accuracy of information – a review should reflect a genuine experience of dining at the restaurant, or at least give indicative reflections of the dining experience if it is under unique circumstances. The advent of the digital camera has lent toward an easier ability to communicate through photographs whereas reviews depended heavily toward printed word. Television shows and Internet video clips employ high-quality video cameras to portray a restaurant experience.
Depending on the context, the specific aspects of accurate information may differ. Some people like to get into the nitty-gritty of each and every dish, how it was prepared and what the specific ingredients were. Others just talk about how the each course tasted. A few even focus mainly on the service and ambiance – the non-eating experience of the restaurant that can be just as important to the enjoyment of the meal. In any case, accuracy should be strived insomuch as it helps the reader understand the experience. One might say, “the chair was skinny and hard,” but it might be better to say, “the small, uncomfortable chair ruined the drawn-out dinner because it hurt my back.”
Ultimately, portrayal of the dishes through the form of lucid prose and/or photography helps readers the most. Sometimes opinions about the specific flavors of a dish could be helpful, but sometimes the poor (or excellent) quality of a dish is more about execution or ingredient composition than deficient concept. More than the mere mention of what was consumed, a judgment about why a dish succeeded or not will be more helpful for the reader than: “we had the clam dish and it was good.” I would much rather hear, “the white-wine sauce simmer slowly allowed the clams to open when ready and produced a mild flavor, but tender texture that paired well with the perfectly al-dente linguine.”
Put simply, don’t just say what, but say why a dish was good. If you don’t know why, then ask the chef. I once asked Chris Cosentino at Incanto restaurant in San Francisco how he was able to get the large octopus piece to be so tender and flavorful. He replied by saying that he braised it for hours in milk and its own juices. I would have never thought that one could braise octopus so successfully.
Third, value conclusion – a review should communicate the quality of the dining experience either succinctly through a point or star system, or through well-directed commentary in the form of prose, photographs, or even video (though this practice is still rare and should be so as this is particularly prohibitive and distractive of the meal compared to still photography). If a review follows these basic parameters, then it would accomplish its main task – utility and usefulness to its readers and consumers so that they in turn can experience the restaurant for themselves. The world standard of quality is the star system, which was introduced to newspaper restaurant criticism by Craig Claiborne but employed by the Michelin Guide for perhaps longer. But often these metrics are unable to capture all of the elements of a restaurant’s experience. Hence, the review must stand alone in portraying this experience, superseding the limitations of a star or numerical rating. These ratings don’t always capture the worth of a restaurant.
That someone would spend their time reading a review shows that he or she is willing to learn more about the experience than just going to the restaurant without a prior review. I know of many people who avoid reviews with their movies, afraid that a review would hamper their perception of the film. Restaurants generally cost more than a movie, so there’s more at stake. Also, restaurants are often the site of celebrations, anniversaries, and other momentous occasions, so a reliable review would help one make a decision about whether to hold the event at the particular restaurant.
A review has to be useful – it needs to help a reader understand the restaurant experience, and also allow the reader to perceive if it’s worth what’s being paid. I’ve heard that meals at the fantastically expensive Masa restaurant in New York, prepared by master sushi chef Masa Tamayaka, is actually a bargain compared to the pleasurable returns of the experience of eating there. Somehow I can believe this, because restaurants are one of the few acceptable things for which we as a people can willingly pay for direct pleasure. Sports games offer experience, but a win by the home team is never guaranteed. Television and movies are win or lose, depending on quality. Drugs and prostitution are illegal. Eating at restaurants is ultimately something that we must pay for, so there must be a conclusion of value made by the review for the benefit of the reader. A five-dollar burger could be an incredible rip-off while a $200 multi-course degustation could be a bargain. Likewise, a special restaurant might be worth a four hundred-mile detour whereas a sandwich shop down the block may not be worth visiting again. Value puts things in perspective.
Restaurant criticism is taking new bounds and forms with the advent of Internet reviews and the downfall of traditional media. Though personal recommendation and word of mouth trump any restaurant review, criticism still has its place in the ever-growing selection of choices for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The worth of these reviews will become apparent and distinguish themselves in the crowded marketplace of reviews, with the most reliable and most useful standing above others and providing the best advice for restaurant goers.