Welcome to Platt Chat, a new column where New York critic Adam Platt will talk with Grub editor Alan Sytsma to discuss the dining world’s most pressing issues. This week: Eater launches its reviews.
Alan Sytsma: To continue on with the theme of critic-talk, there are some new critics in town. Well, they’ve been in town, but now Ryan Sutton and Robert Sietsema have officially begun handing out stars for Eater.
Adam Platt: I think it’s a watershed moment in the development of food-writing for the web. Of course, these days everyone’s writing for the web, but until recently, there’s been a vague division between critics who write in print and “critics” who write only online. Food-oriented websites — and I’d include Grub Street in this — have traditionally written breathlessly about the magical world of food and restaurants, more often in a positive way than not. The web is about passion, after all, and it’s about hype, and in the realm of online food-writing — and of course you see this in print food journalism, too — there’s no shortage of rapturous hype. For an old curmudgeon like me, the endless appetite for gaseous enthusiasm can get a little tiresome.
Well, as someone who writes quite a bit on the web, I’d say we balance enthusiastic stories with negative coverage. Do you mean in the traditional sense of a web-specific critic writing a formal, negative review?
Websites like Grub and Eater and Ed Levine’s very good site Serious Eats are for enthusiasts, so there’s necessarily a lot of cheerleading going on. They’re also news organizations, to some extent, and they depend on the restaurants and chefs they cover for access. But if a critic is doing his or her job, chefs and restaurateurs will get mad at you at some stage. They’ll write nasty letters, they’ll deny you access. In the past, I don’t sense that websites, which are enmeshed in the world they cover and run on the tightest of budgets, were always willing to cross that line. You used to get the impression that too many food sites were like seals clapping frantically on a rock. Every once in a while the chefs and restaurant people, whom they depend on for access, and sometimes even a good dinner, would throw them a fish. I mean it’s okay to dump on some out-of-town rube like Guy Fieri, but — correct me if I’m wrong — the times someone like Keith McNally gets hammered by the local sites you could count on maybe one hand. Now, by hiring these highly credentialed critics who will be visiting restaurants repeated times, and paying for their own meals, Eater is saying, The web has grown up. Those days are over.
Last week you said “stars are becoming less and less relevant to the conversation,” but now here comes Eater with its own very familiar four-star system. What do you think about how closely they’re sticking to a traditional restaurant-review template?
Clearly they’re taking it all very seriously, and the system they’ve come up with — four stars, anonymous visits, no free food, no mingling with chefs — is straight out of the New York Times playbook. In fact, it’s pretty clear that what they want to do is to challenge the Times directly. They want to be the restaurant website of record, not just here in New York, but for the entire country. For that, I applaud them. But as far as their choice for the stars, and the critics’ anonymity, I was a little surprised by how doctrinaire the system is. I mean, this is the web. This is the brave new world. Let’s reinvent the wheel here. Let’s do something that no one’s ever seen before.
The big change they’ve discussed publicly is, in the future, using their new tech platform for “living” reviews, that is, keeping the same reviews updated with new information as it’s warranted. Obviously it’s far too early to see how it plays out, but my sense is that people often enjoy full reviews as interesting pieces of writing. If you only want to know whether a restaurant is good or bad, there are easier (less literate) ways to find that information. As a critic, though, do you find yourself wishing you could go back and update or tinker with your own reviews?
Yes, I do. And, again, I think it’s a great idea, and I look forward to seeing what they do with it. I’ve said many times that restaurant reviewing is a highly subjective business, not only because critics necessarily have different points of view, but also because the experience of dining in a restaurant changes not just day-to-day, but minute-to-minute. That’s why the whole idea of an immutable “objective” star system is a little silly to begin with. So I wish them luck. Star systems have a way of ensnaring their creators, however. Ryan Sutton has already declared that little Roberta’s, this former tumbledown pizza collective out in Bushwick, is a three-star restaurant, which puts it on par, if you believe the Times, or Adam Platt, for that matter, with Manhattan giants like Craft and Gotham Bar and Grill. We’ll see how that plays out going forward, but I can already hear the sounds of old-line Manhattan chefs and restaurateurs gnashing their teeth.