Restaurant journalism seems to be an anachronism these days. The idea that a famous newspaper critic can visit a restaurant a few times, sometimes in disguise, to be incognito to the proprietors is a canard.
Unfortunately, the art of a great review like the fictional rave of the critic Anton Ego, from the Disney Film Ratatouille,which some consider to be the best restaurant review ever written, is no longer appreciated by the foodie masses. In today’s world a great restaurant review has got to be less than 100 words of which the adjective amazing is used 25 times and accompanied by numerous food porn shots taken on the diner’s smart phone.
It is clear that Yelp, Zagat, Google and other populist restaurant review and ranking applications, have taken some of the clout away from restaurant critics. Their influence may be less than it used to be. Pete Wells of the New York Times, for example, with his vast audience, maintains the power to make or break an upstart restaurant, but, his influence on existing establishments wanes. The readership of the gray lady (a nickname for the New York Times) is limited to grayer haired readers. Consequently a whole generation of 20 to 30 somethings have never sought and may never read Wells’ reviews. This generation is hooked on the popular mass reviews of today’s smart phone and Internet world which overall tend to get a restaurant right. Critics like Wells can sometimes get it wrong. Here are a few examples:
Ken Shin, a superb food reviewer/blogger and dining enthusiast, really “gets” this restaurant that Wells seems to have missed.
Pete Wells’ notorious takedown of Guy Fieri’s Times Square set off a media firestorm and Fieri hit all the talk shows in response. The business savvy Mr. Fieri was able to capitalize on the elitism of the New York Times reviewer and recovered nicely with his anti-elite clientele from the Wells’ attack. Fieri’s place is one of the highest grossing restaurants in the country pulling in more than $16 million a year.
Negative reviews by major food critics no longer have the power to keep patrons away in the long term as well. Not so stellar reviews by Pete Wells, of Per Se, Momofuko Nishi, and Daniel, demoted from 4 to 3 stars, did not impact their business and they continue to thrive. Surely the celebrity chef owners took the criticisms to heart and improved their games.
On the West Coast Jonathan Gold of the LA Times is a foodie cult icon with his very own documentary !
Gold continues to bring in business and confer prestige on the establishments that are favorably reviewed,but, for the most part restaurants are no longer “made” by his review.
If they are “discovered” by the Pulitzer prize-winning Gold, who finds and curates eating spots from LA’s ethnic melting pot then the minions of his followers will not be far behind. Of course he reviews all the hot upscale places as well, yet, he doesn’t often seek to discover them.
Alternately if you are a start-up restaurant and if you are lucky enough to get a review by one of the major newspaper critics like Gold or Wells then the review can be a make or break situation. For the restaurateur this is like winning the lottery or receiving the proverbial angel of death.