Ruminations RU_BOTTO_DEGUST1_FI_001

Yappers and Yelpers

De Gustibus Disputandum: Taste and the Restaurant Review Pt. II

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The restaurant review concerns itself with matters of taste, and matters of taste are a contentious issue. If we have previously established (part I) at least a working definition of taste (no easy task) our inquiry should include the rhetorical effect of restaurant criticism on taste. Many are the implications of the broad communication on matters concerning taste in its wider definition. For not only does the restaurant review address taste, as in how does it taste, but it addresses and influences trends in taste, and fashion in food. This puts undeniable agency in the hands of the critic, the reviewer and with agency comes responsibility.

Many were “the inquiring minds and keen palates” that followed the 18th and 19th century men of taste “Grimod, Brillat-Savarin and Von Rumohr, and their ilk,” as Anne Willan pointed out, under whom “the new style of culinary writing prospered and became a flourishing independent genre.” In America this independent genre did not immediately adopt the full force of the admonishments of Alexandre Gerard in An Essay on Taste, which bears repeating: “One does not merit the name of a critic, merely by being able to make a collection of beauties and faults from performances in the fine arts.” (1759) When taking a promotional or “advertorial” position, a mere “collection of beauties” did often suffice. And so early on, while there was florid prose lavished on the topic, the restaurant critic was for the most part in service to commerce.

The Genre Evolves In America

There was restaurant criticism long before Craig Claiborne, or at least restaurant chronicling. In 1859 the New York Times sent an unnamed staffer out into the streets of the city to investigate eating places both high and low. “I wish you to dine everywhere,” his editor told him, “from the Astor House restaurant to the smallest description of the dining saloon in the city …” While it would not be comprehensive it would give what we call today a snapshot of the dining scene. He began in September, starting at the top with the reigning icons of fine dining — the Astor House and Delmonico’s. The jocose author begins by spending a more than respectable amount of time parsing the differences between eating and dining. As he visits the grand and the dodgy he transports the reader by describing details of the place, the clientele and service staff, and, of course, the food. Of the Astor’s “stalwart Russian” headwaiter, George he says: “… a freer or more enlightened man (speaking restaurantionally) I never met.” Of the superb bread he indulges deeply in metaphor, “ …if there is anything I hate, it is to take up a bit of bread at my dinner and see its granulated crumb dropping away from the crust, like an old garment sometimes drops away from the buttons.” The New Year’s Day article, How We Dine, was longer on picaresque descriptions than evaluations of the cuisines on offer. Just the same, by the end of the 19th century America was well on its way to a knowledgeable dining public having imported much of their savoir-vivre from France via the brothers Delmonico and others. But it was not to be. Many were the impedimenta tossed up by the roiling sea of the industrialization of America, by societal changes, with the final blow coming from Prohibition in 1920. The recovery was long and slow.


A 20th Century Man of Taste

Before Craig Claiborne, there were food critics like Duncan Hines for whom restaurant reviewing was accidental. What began in the 1930’s for the traveling salesman as an annual letter for friends about where to eat in American cities and hamlets evolved into Adventures in Good Eating, the eater’s guide for travelers. Hines was more concerned with directing his readers to a no-surprises experience and sanitary standards than providing them with a gustatory adventure. Of the Franklin Arms Tea Room in Bloomfield, New Jersey, in the 1947 edition he wrote:

Open all year, every day, except Mondays and Christmas, 11:30am to 7:30pm. This Colonial dining room is closely supervised by Mr. and Mrs. Demmert, who will make you glad you came. Their special dishes are steaks and chicken Dixie and they bake their own pies, cakes, and rolls. Lunch 75¢ and up, Dinner 80¢ and up.

Today the Duncan Hines name is immortalized on a Pinnacle Foods line of cake mixes.

At the Herald Tribune in the 1940’s, Lucius Beebe was the cosmopolitan man-about-Manhattan reporting on the best spots frequented by the best people (“Café Society”), but the food often seemed like an also-ran. Reporting on a new discovery, Caesar salad, he wrote:

At Romanoff’s, where we were taken to luncheon by Gourmet’s (magazine) own Stephen Longstreet, with an assortment of local characters which included Bob Hope, Gregory La Cava, Barbara Stanwyck, and Hedda Hopper at adjacent tables, we were introduced to Caesar’s Salad.

Clementine Paddleford wrote poetic food narratives, also for the Tribune, as well as the New York Sun and New York Telegram, and many fine cookery books. R.W. Apple, a foreign correspondent turned food writer, described her as “the Nellie Bly of culinary journalism, a go-anywhere, taste-anything, ask-everything kind of reporter …” Although little read today, her adventurous tales could enthrall. “At a time,” recalls Apple, “when few people in Philadelphia knew what enchiladas were and few in Chicago knew what cioppino was, Ms. Paddleford described them both in loving detail…”

The unbiased food review finally coalesced into an influential genre with the ascension of Craig Claiborne to a “Women’s Pages” column, formerly written by Jane Knickerson, in the New York Times. A son of Mississippi, with a degree in journalism from Missouri State; a Navy veteran, further educated at L’ecole Professionelle de la Société des Hoteliers in Lausanne Switzerland (today known as Ecole Hotelière de Lausanne), Claiborne had his sights set on the Times. His breakthrough moment was contributing a piece to Gourmet Magazine on tea — soon after, he was hired as the magazine’s receptionist. His responsibilities soon included “writing a column, editing recipes, and contributing articles that — painfully — lacked his byline,” according to Thomas MacNamee in his biography, The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance. When Jane Knickerson announced that she would resign from the New York Times in 1957, Claiborne seized his opportunity. His first article ran in September and “he was careful to maintain a solemn, Timesian mien, both at work and in his columns, for he aspired to the status of the Times’ critics of art, literature, music, and drama, and he was determined to bring to his work the rigor and gravity equal to theirs.” This quest for respectability is perfectly aligned with the attitudes and practices of his early 19th century forebearers. And in April of 1959 the Times did something unheard of — they ran a restaurant review on the front page. A new era had begun. Claiborne would remain the food editor and restaurant critic at the Times for 29 years.

The paradigm of restaurant criticism, along with the American attitude towards the culinary arts and dining, was changing, and Claiborne was leading the charge. As explained in his own New York Times:

“Mr. Claiborne observed everything when he was reviewing, but ultimately he judged restaurants by what came out of the kitchen. As this idea caught on, it became harder to confuse the country’s best restaurants with the ones that were merely favored by the aristocracy. A different hierarchy in dining, ordered by creativity and excellence in cuisine, was slowly taking shape under the guidance of a new aristocracy: an aristocracy of taste. Today, we call members of this aristocracy ‘foodies.’”

The use of a term such as aristocracy should poignantly reveal the evident sociological implications that participating in a life that includes the relevancy of a restaurant review is restricted to certain social classes.

Once this new form of arts criticism became established the field of influential, widely-read, popular and powerful food critics and writers expanded significantly. Soon every major city newspaper and city magazine (a new concept) employed a food writer/restaurant reviewer. Mimi Sheraton, Gail Green, Alan Richman, Charles Vilas, Jeffrey Steingarten, Jonathan Gold (the first food critic to win a Pulitzer), and John T. Edge, among others, became known for their evocative prose style, sassy humor, knowledge, insight, and of course, taste and opinions. What they wrote not only influenced dining choices, but also lifestyle choices, social aspirations, awareness of trends and issues, and, by extension, politics.

After Craig Claiborne stepped down at the Times, he was succeeded by writers who distinguished themselves in the genre: Raymond Sokolov, the formidable art critic John Canaday, Mimi Sheraton, Marion Burros, Bryan Miller, Ruth Reichl, William Grimes, Frank Bruni, Sam Sifton, and Pete Wells.

Craig Claiborne died in January of 2000. In 2012, Pete Wells (the Times’ dining editor and food critic since 2006) fully acknowledges the influence of the food writer/critic on the profession and on lifestyle:

“As the current caretaker of the house that Claiborne built, I lack objectivity on this subject. Still, I believe that without professional critics like him and others to point out what was new and delicious, chefs would not be smiling at us from magazine covers, subway ads and billboards. They would not be invited to the White House, except perhaps for job interviews. Claiborne and his successors told Americans that restaurants mattered. That was an eccentric opinion a half-century ago. It’s not anymore.”


Vox Populi

Taste disputed is the core of the restaurant review. It is a confrontation, a reflection that the reviewer undertakes combining what is known with what has been recently encountered. It is empirical, not a priori. It is a debate over observable facts invoking traditions, history and authority to uncover truth. Done right, the restaurant review is no less than an exercise in aesthetics.

The restaurant review is meant to educate and entertain. The restaurant reviewer will write about what people know, and often about what they do not know but should attempt. To get people to like what they don’t know is part of the mission of writing about gastronomy. The opinions expressed in a responsible review should seek to inform, to illustrate, to engage, and finally to compel the reader to action. This, of course, cannot come from an unschooled source.

Zagat, Yelp, and other crowd-sourced review sites, including the internet blogosphere in general, constitutes the vox populi — the fifth estate. The blogger, citizen journalist, critical commentator, the “people’s voice” can publish anything, anytime, and from anywhere. This circumstance has given full reign to what Andrew Keen warned about in The Cult of the Amateur. Nowhere does his dystopic vision have fuller realization than in the restaurant review. “Media information, knowledge, content, author, all were going to be democratized by Web 2.0. The Internet would democratize Big Media, Big Business, Big Government. It would even democratize Big Experts, transforming them into … ‘noble amateurs.’” In 2007 Keen may have seemed a whiner; in 2016 — prescient.

“Democratization,” he wrote, “despite its lofty idealization, is undermining truth, souring civic discourse, belittling expertise, experience and talent. … decimating the ranks of our cultural gatekeepers, as professional critics, journalists, editors, musicians, moviemakers, and other purveyors of expert (emphasis mine) information are being replaced by amateur bloggers, hack reviewers, homespun moviemakers, and attic recording artists.”

The crowd-sourced restaurant review, however, was well on its way before it infected the internet. As with Duncan Hines, what began innocently as a compilation of opinions of friends and acquaintances of New York restaurants became the first Zagat Guide. Husband and wife lawyers Tim and Nina Zagat first published this compilation of “voice of the people” survey style restaurant reviews in book form by in 1982 and initially sold just 7,500 copies. Two years later — 40,000 copies. Obviously, people wanted to know what other people were saying.

The survey guide quickly spread to other cities and “Zagat-rated” became an important honor to burnish. Restaurant owners put decals in their front window and used “Zagat-rated” in their advertising. An online presence, Zagat.com, began in 1992, stating that the “Zagat Survey is based on the belief that the shared experiences of large numbers of users is inherently more accurate than the opinions of a few critics.” Manhattan Users Guide publisher Charlie Suisman, a former Zagat editor, complained in 2004, “I’ve grown increasingly disenchanted with the Zagat concept over the years. I’m all for majority rule, but not in matters of taste. I’d rather find critics I find sympathetic and use them as a touchstone over a statistical winner.”  In 2011 Google acquired the Zagat Guide for $151 million.

Born in San Francisco in 2004, Yelp, a social media network that employs a peer feedback system of reviews of restaurants, nightlife, businesses and services, is arguably the Internet leader in reviewing. There is a nominating mechanism in which some authority is applied to frequent, reliable contributors requiring a real name and photo. In a New York Times interview in 2008, Yelp’s chief executive Jeremey Stoppelman said, “People come to write reviews as a hobby and also to meet other people,” and this is still the case.

Writing reviews “as a hobby” didn’t sit well in some quarters. Josh Ozersky (founding editor of New York magazine’s food blog, Grub Street), writing in TIME, praised the “endangered restaurant critic”, and takes the measure of crowd sourced reviews. “User reviews on City Search and Yelp are beyond useless — they’re faceless and contradictory — and the same goes for blogs.” The contemporary food obsessed culture has it all, he opines, “but they [internet critics] lack the one thing the old guard has in spades: perspective.”

By 2012 gigabiting.com (“where food meets culture and technology”) was pushing back:

“It seems like everyone is on Yelp.
 And by everyone we mean the uninformed, the unqualified, and the perpetrators of unchecked spelling and grammar. Yelp struck a blow for democracy.
The user-submitted reviews — 60 million and counting — turned us all into food critics. In the aggregate it’s the collective wisdom of the mob.”

As an alternative they suggested TasteSavant.com, a crowd sourced, fully curated, and edited site that included professional restaurant reviewers, food bloggers, and chefs. The site has not survived; their companion blog last posted in March of 2015.

Dissatisfaction has not slowed Yelp’s growth. In the first quarter of last year Yelp reported 142 million visitors and over 95 million reviews according to Statista.com. They acquired SeatMe, a two year-old reservation service, for 12.7 million dollars in 2013 and in 2015 bought (for $134 million) and launched the app, Eat24, a food delivery service with 30,000 participating restaurants in 1,500 cities nationwide that features and encourages Yelp reviews.

In addition to Zagat and Yelp, there is OpenTable (to review or reserve), TripAdvisor (which claim 300 million reviews worldwide), Grubhub (delivery and reviews) and other outlets for the people’s voice. There are annual survey-based lists of the top 50 and top 100 restaurants in the world, and recently, La Liste of the 1,000 best “tables of exception” in the world compiled by the French Foreign Ministry. La Liste is based on an aggregation of aggregators. It uses an algorithm named Ciacco (Dante’s embodiment of gluttony in The Inferno) designed by Antoine Ribaut. The data is gathered from 200 food guides in 92 countries, including Michelin, Gault & Millau, Zagat, and crowd-sourced sites including TripAdvisor and OpenTable. Is this not Keen’s nightmare?
The evolution of the genre of the restaurant review in light of the emergence of food blogs and crowd-sourced reviews presents a paradox: if food is considered an art form, and food criticism a species of art criticism, it needs to be remembered that it is part of everyone’s everyday experiences, which, if we agree with John Dewey, are all potentially aesthetic. “An experience,” Dewey wrote in Art and Experience, “is a product … of continuous and cumulative interaction of an organic self with the world. There is no other foundation upon which esthetic theory and criticism can build.” If everyday experiences are legitimate occasions for the production of art, then everyone’s aesthetic judgments of those productions are eligible as art criticism.

It would seem inevitable then that professional food critics, who have created and practiced the genre, can be reasonably challenged by the cult of the amateur. Must, if Dewey’s vision of art is correct, the field be ceded to the unschooled citizen journalist and reviewer? Or does a “continuous and cumulative interaction” imply that taste (which is at the core of the discussion) is predicated on knowledge and discretion? And with that comes responsibility.


The restaurant critic, like any critic of the arts, has responsibilities to discharge. Responsibilities that reach beyond the superficial reporting of intimate observations and impressions. Bona-fide reviewers are part of the fourth estate and inherit the inherent legacy of journalistic obligations. The fifth estate, however, is neither aware of, nor bound by, any qualifications, or restrictions voluntary or otherwise. Can the democratization of a genre, a genre about a democratized, everyday experience, be taken too far?

By virtue of wide-ranging exposure, the qualified restaurant critic can be responsible for the popularization of a trend (organic, locovore, farm-to-table, modernist, nose-to-tail, sustainable, fair trade, etc.) — even the naming of a trend. By this process the restaurant reviewer provides a secondary platform for the artist to communicate a message that extends beyond a pageant of dishes and an inventory of accoutrements. In this sense the reviewer functions also as facilitator. Such exposure is more than just incidental, or complementary, but substantive and therefore has ethical implications.

It is also a well-known fact that a favorable review will impact the near term success of the establishment under review. As with a film, theater or other performance reviews, a restaurant review can make or break an enterprise. This is a significant, often overlooked, responsibility.

Perhaps more importantly, properly executed, the restaurant review can also frame the public response to an “issue” in gastronomy. The endless fresh and seasonal proclamations, establishing categories like heirloom (reviving “lost” seed strains and preparations); warnings about endangered species, about contaminants (reviews are often the first to alert readers to insecurity in the food chain); promoting city gardens, meatless and vegan lifestyle choices, and addressing popular concerns over fat, salt, and gluten, have all been popularized by reviewers. How, why, and what we eat in public influences how, why and what we eat in private, all of which is directly related to the development of habits, beliefs, and values. There are implied political implications that ensue from the development of these systems. In the best of circumstances some of these points are included in the reviewer’s purview. This is rarely the case in crowdsourced responses that are experiential and often visceral and solipsistic.

Are then the traditional food reviewers, the gatekeepers of “perspective” as Ozersky asserts, the authority and upholders of aesthetic and ethical standards of food criticism? And, if so, what are the minimal requirements that should be met?

Writing in the New York Times’ Sunday Review, public editor Arthur Brisbane reported that his colleague, cultural editor Jonathan Landman said that “a review should inform, excite and entertain.” For Landman, the arts critic should meet these requirements: “A reader should walk away with a feeling of having learned something; maybe some unfamiliar facts about a work and its creator; maybe some historical or philosophical background; perhaps something about the art form itself.”

In the New Yorker, Hannah Goldfield (The Crowds vs The Critics) recalled how she became obsessed with the role of the restaurant critic when, as a girl of ten, she saw Julia Roberts as the reviewer Julianne Potter in My Best Friends Wedding. “It hadn’t occurred to me—a child who loved to eat, especially in restaurants—that this was a profession (my emphasis).”

“Yelp reviewers, “she writes, “tend to offer unimaginative, useless notes like “The location is great, service is superb, and food is epic.” Why would anyone seek out advice on where to eat from people who can’t come up with anything better than that?” Goldfield concludes with a working definition of the obligations of a critic that recalls Landman: “I don’t always agree with the restaurant critics in the Times or elsewhere, but I trust them—in the way that I trust certain critics of film, television, art, or literature—not to predict what I or anyone else will like (how could they possibly know?) but to entertain me; to provide carefully researched historical and cultural context; to make me think.”

We began (in part I) by stating a position: Contemporary single-reviewer restaurant reviews are a species of art and literary criticism and as such have evolved as a legitimate rhetorical genre; crowd-sourced reviews, on the other hand, may not satisfy certain qualifications and criteria. And by asking a question: Where does the adjudication of taste begin? The jury informs, but the judge has the last word. If you think that the crowd informs the opinion-seeking individual even temporarily, you must be inclined to consensus. Crowd-sourced criticism is the unmitigated aggregate. If, however, you think that the crowd is informed by the consecrated critic, then you must have faith in the qualifications of the single reviewer.

Is there no end to the disputation of taste? Yes. It should end with a disputation limited to the knowledgeable, the qualified, those who have benefited from the “continuous and cumulative” and considered involvement with the subject upon which they choose to comment. It is no longer sufficient to say “I don’t know art; but I know what I like.”