Has the Restaurant Critic’s Power Dwindled?

By

As you read in Mediavore, the Observer published a fortuitously timed piece about the state of the traditional restaurant critic this morning. The long and short of it: “In this world of ubiquitous foodies, where everyone’s a fan or a critic, it seems that the post of Times restaurant reviewer has lost some of its power in the eating game.” You’d think this would be music to the ears of bloggers (who are largely responsible for the loss of power), but one of them, Josh Ozersky, chimes in to admit the following.

While it’s true that the field of food criticism has become balkanized, and that there are many, many more voices than there ever were before, that only gives the remaining “legitimate” critics greater authority. In essence, that means Frank Bruni and Adam Platt, both of whom wield their pens with all the frigid tranquility that their omnipotent brands would hope for, still have their mojo.

And later, “Restaurants, especially the big ones which require ratification from the Times and New York, are dicier, more fragile enterprises than ever before. No matter how many raves a place receives from the likes of me or Easy Ed, a pan in the Times will kill it.” And: “No, what has happened is that the online food writers have created a huge surge of interest and excitement, all of which (at least for the moment) the Times and New York reap.”

Of course we agree, though pans in the Times certainly haven’t killed restaurants like Freemans. If print critics lost their power, that didn’t stop Chodorow from spending a ridiculous sum of money on taking out an ad against Bruni. And why do restaurants still hire publicists in the hopes of getting not only blog coverage, but also reviews in the major outlets? The owners of a small restaurant that will go nameless, which has received a great deal of attention from Grub Street, still ask us, almost a year after opening, when Platt will be coming in, as if only the Gobbler can write its history.

At the same time, it’s true that blogs routinely exaggerate the importance of the Times critic. After all, playfully drawing out the drama of the minutest things, turning the mere mortals of the restaurant world into epic heroes and villains, is part and parcel of blogging. Eater has already created a Sam Sifton dossier. Even before his first review, they’re clearly excited to replace their Bruni obsession with Sifton mania, like a talk-radio pundit scrambling for the latest, equally overblown talking points about the new president. So in this sense, the blogosphere has done nothing but bolster the importance of the traditional critic. (Not to mention roundups, such as our own the Other Critics, which bring lesser-known critics like Ryan Sutton to a much wider audience than they would have if they were writing merely for Bloomberg’s audience.)

That said, it will be interesting to see whether, given all his experience, Sifton will be as much of an object of obsession as Bruni was when he first started. After all, Bruni was an unknown entity, and certain bloggers (most memorably, Julia Langbein with her brilliant Bruni Digest) reacted strongly to his signs of weakness. That’s what helped create the legend of Bruni, in addition to the fact that he had the intriguing, Darth Vader–esque veil of anonymity. This time around, the changing of the guard probably won’t be so noticeable (Gael Greene’s tweet aside, there was certainly considerably less Twitter activity regarding Sam Sifton’s appointment than there was about Bruni’s stepping down), and maybe people will indeed begin to accept that the Times critic’s voice is just one, albeit a strong one among many. Or maybe they won't.