The Midlife Crisis of the American Restaurant Review




IN 2018, the American restaurant review officially entered its midlife crisis. A literary baby boomer, the modern review was born in 1957 when Craig Claiborne became editor of the New York Times Food Page (changing its name from the “Women’s Section”), inaugurating weekly columns, a four-star rating system, and a code of professional guidelines. Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, the rebellious teenage genre staked out a public reputation on the fire-breathing prose of Gael Greene and Mimi Sheraton. Over the ’90s, the review eased into middle age as a pillar of respectable bourgeois journalism. But in the new millennium, the dawn of foodie subculture added an element of hero worship to the profession’s public image. For the informed eater, Jonathan Gold and Ruth Reichl were less journalists than Associate Justices on the Culinary Supreme Court. However, settling into its seventh decade, the silver-haired restaurant review has stumbled into a tumultuous cultural climate — and its old-fashioned views are starting to wear thin.

2018 was a year of tectonic shifts in restaurant writing. Both the critic and the criteria came under scrutiny. The #MeToo scandals sparked a national reexamination of the field’s food-first values. Media outlets across the country debated how to cover restaurants owned by Mario Batali, John Besh, Paul Qui, and other alleged abusers. Eater: “Maybe Don’t Review Restaurants Run by Bad People?” Philadelphia Inquirer: “It’s Not My Job to Pass Judgment on a Chef’s Character.” In the middle of this headline battle, across an eight-day span in July, revered Los Angeles Times critic Jonathan Gold died and San Francisco Chronicle critic Michael Bauer announced his retirement. These events triggered a full-on succession crisis in West Coast criticism.

Fast forward five months, and three young female critics of color had started new positions at major newspapers: Patricia Escárcega succeeded Gold at the Los Angeles Times, Soleil Ho joined the Chronicle, and Tejal Rao became the first-ever California Restaurant Critic at The New York Times — prompting a wave of “next generation” headlines before they’d even published a word. The sheer pace of change was staggering. On April 1, 2018, Michael Bauer wrote in the Chronicle, “As a human, I condemn harassment [but] when I wear my critic’s hat, I’m not evaluating what happens behind the kitchen door.” Three hundred and thirty-eight days later, Soleil Ho inaugurated her Chronicle tenure by announcing she would not cover compromised chefs in an editorial touting “ethical eating in the age of #MeToo.” In less than a year, the restaurant review had left the Country Club and embraced Cancel Culture.

This critical triumvirate is leading a literary reformation of the field. Building on the pioneering model of Jonathan Gold, they promise to tackle greater civic and social questions than the cooking on the plate. The old ideal of critic as neutral arbiter gives way to a modern vision of the critic as hip, multicultural storyteller. “I don’t see the critic’s task as one of simply deciding if a food or restaurant experience is pleasing,” writes Soleil Ho, “but rather using an aesthetic evaluation of restaurants to tell stories about the connections between people, cultures, and communities.”

Ho’s credo reflects a larger generational revolt against the review’s traditional mission. With the popularity of guides like Michelin and Zagat and the ubiquity of online review sites like Yelp, the profession no longer needs to fill the consumer need of telling people where to eat. In response, younger critics want to explore how we live, not just how we dine. “[W]e think of restaurant criticism as cultural criticism,” writes Eater’s editor-in-chief Amanda Kludt, “a review shouldn’t just tell a reader whether to order the omu rice or the penne a la vodka [but] what financial, artistic, or societal forces are pushing [each restaurant] to be a certain way.” Paolo Lucchesi, senior editor at the Chronicle, envisions the review page as “the story of the Bay Area told through restaurants.” Patricia Escárcega holds that “the food critic is an interpreter of culture,” while Tim Carman believes the field must “look at broader societal issues” in “the era of #MeToo, social justice, and crowdsourced restaurant reviews.”

Transforming the review into a mouthpiece for progressive politics is the opinion à la mode in food media. “Using food to talk about systems,” Ho argues, “is a way to get people to start thinking about these things that’s a little gentler than a straight political editorial.” “When we talk about restaurant criticism,” contends Korsha Wilson, host of the podcast A Hungry Society, “we need to look at the fact that dining is impacted” by the “same systems of oppression that work in every other part of the country.” In a striking choice of words, the Chronicle announced that they hired Ho as their new restaurant critic to “confront questions of ethics and social justice.”

Yet the particulars of the “woke” restaurant review remain hazy. After all, the social justice implications of dining out are dense and overdetermined. The average reviewer, in 700 words, cannot even begin to address how a restaurant’s food is grown and prepared, how its staff is treated and compensated, how the chef and cuisine found funding, and what kind of customer can afford to visit. I just want to deal with one of the genre’s challenges — namely, its form. For, the #MeToo scandals exposed not just the critic’s impoverished ethics but impoverished imagination — and it is the misunderstood connection between these two that I want to impress on you.

Strange as it sounds, I believe the restaurant critic’s moral quietism derives from literary shortcomings as much as ethical ones. To be blunt, the traditional review is a terrible vessel for inventive prose, contrarian opinions, and nuanced arguments about the mystery and meaning of food. It is a journalistic luxury liner, designed to exalt lavish spending and indulgent dining, which makes attempting to retool it into a vehicle of scrappy political protest a paradoxical endeavor — like trying to retrofit a stretch limousine into a fire engine. No matter who’s driving, there is some terrain a limo will never reach.

¤

So what’s wrong with the restaurant review? In short, it’s been telling the same story about food all its life.

The Classic Restaurant Review has a depressingly predictable template. Almost every column follows the same formula: a chronological procession of dishes from appetizer to entree to dessert (with detours on decor and drinks) culminating in an overall “verdict.” In this way, literary structure mimics meal structure. It is startling how many articles simply reproduce the order of the menu in the text. For instance, the Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema started four out of his final eight reviews in 2018 by mentioning an appetizer in the first sentence. In Lesley Chesterman’s 2018 list of best new Montreal restaurants, 10 out of 10 reviews began on hors d’oeuvres and ended on dessert. In column after column, reviewers shrink their thoughts and experiences to fit the prix-fixe plot. But by defaulting to this template, critics encage their own imagination — like an artist who only works on paint-by-number worksheets and never graduates to a blank canvas.

This menu-tour style of narrative springs directly from the review’s bourgeois roots. “The origins of modern restaurant criticism,” explains Korsha Wilson, trace back to “tell[ing] upper and middle class, implicitly white New Yorkers where to spend their money on their next night out.” Product placement is baked into the plot line as most of the genre’s literary conventions (from the lavish diction to the four-star-rating system to the fixation on wine lists) were chosen for their ability to drive consumer decisions not stimulate ideas. But after 50 years, the gourmet tale that Craig Claiborne dreamed up for Eisenhower’s America no longer does justice to the myriad meanings critics seek on their plates.

Healthy art forms naturally evolve to accommodate new attitudes and influences. Modernist painting emerged in Europe in response to the invention of photography. Pop songs fluctuated in length over the decades to match the distribution needs of radio, albums, iTunes, and Spotify. Horror movies updated their bogeymen from haunted houses to haunted iPhones for the Facebook era. And we’ve seen inklings of this sort of formal innovation in restaurant criticism. Occasionally, for high-profile pans, critics deviate from the standard plot and devise a unique format to hone their disapproval. For example, Pete Wells wrote his famous takedown of Guy Fieri as a series of rhetorical questions and framed his critique of the hyper-expensive Kappo Masa as a call-and-response price list (“Price for bland watery cauliflower florets: $28 […] Stars I am giving it: zero”). To tackle gentrification, Victoria Bouloubasis invited a local Mexican family to review the Lakewood kitchen driving up rents in their zip code.

There’s a lesson here: the responsible critic’s first step in confronting a difficult topic is finding a fresh format. Approaching gentrification with the same editorial tools you use to describe gazpacho is about as futile as trying to fix a power outage with a plunger. To address important cultural changes, food writers need literary formats as nimble and contemporary as the issues they seek to interrogate.

Writing by template has moral consequences — there’s no good place for a writer to mention rape allegations in the appetizer-to-dessert story line. Watching respected critics attempt to twist ordinary reviews to grapple with #MeToo accusations became a queasy spectacle over the past two years. “Ordinarily, I might check into a significant new restaurant a month-and-a-half to two months into its life,” writes Alison Cook, justifying why she reviewed a venture owned by a chef arrested for assaulting his girlfriend. “Yet I didn’t visit Aqui until December 8, nearly four months after it opened, most likely (I believe in retrospect) because I was trying to put off the inevitable moment of moral reckoning.” But the reckoning arrives a few lines later. “I don’t feel qualified to tell anyone else whether they should patronize Aqui. I can only explain why staying away ultimately didn’t feel right to me.” Cook finds herself in a curious predicament: her moral does not match her story. No matter how hard she strains, Cook will never bend the stiff dinner-brochure format into a narrative capable of dissecting an issue like domestic violence. The moral demands a different story.

¤

How can restaurant criticism discover such a story? What is needed, first and foremost, is a shift in mindset, an existential about-face from recommending places for dinner to investigating how society finds meaning through food. Some day, I hope to read gastronomic reviews as incisive, layered, and absorbing as critical discussions of books and music — and I am not alone. The cultural conditions are ripe for this type of reinvention. Food continues to rise as the most relevant cultural medium for many millennials. People are raising new questions about the implications of their eating, and a host of media platforms are experimenting with original ways to explore food from unusual angles. In their first year on the job, Ho, Escárcega, and Rao have overturned historical norms such as star ratings and critical anonymity, and pushed the profession toward pluralism and risk-taking. Cleared of its traditional trappings, food criticism has set the stage for a new act to begin. But to complete the restaurant reviewer’s jump from concierge to culture critic, a few core assumptions about the genre must be revised.

In that spirit, I want to depart from the tradition of ending a negative column on a snappy, drop-the-mic insult, and instead to conclude by sketching out five modest proposals to help guide the 63-year-old restaurant review into 21st-century relevance.

1. Redefine the question

The field’s core question should be revised from “Would I recommend this spot to an upper-middle-class diner?” to “Why does this dining experience matter?” In each piece, a conscientious critic should ask, “What does this meal say about our city, our culture, and our people?” It’s a leap from addressing the consumer to addressing the citizen.

2. Reimagine the setting

The review must escape the dining room. Search for unexpected settings such as schools, jails, homeless shelters, wedding banquets, military bases, monasteries, corporate cafeterias, or convents (Catholic or Buddhist) — any location whose meals resonate with societal significance. For instance, a critic who wants to spotlight urban poverty could “review a neighborhood” by evaluating the dining options in a three-block radius for an affluent part of Noe Valley versus a food desert in West Oakland. By expanding the field of acceptable topics, the review can evolve from judging what’s on the plate to investigating the forces that shape what’s not on the menu.

3. Experiment with format

The average restaurant review displays about as much formal creativity as a DMV application. This is a shame. Critics should try different formats as often as they try different cuisines. Imaginative formats lead to lively, energetic writing. There are so many possible models to try: a shopping list, a soliloquy, a parable, a job posting, a day-in-the-life, an obituary, and much more. Even minor innovations like using rhetorical questions or writing in the second person can unleash wellsprings of entertaining prose and insight. Consider Ruth Reichl’s iconic dual review of Le Cirque that skewered the preferential treatment of high-end customers by dividing the column between “Dinner as a Most Favored Patron” and “Dinner as the Unknown Diner.” Like switching from a magnifying glass to a microscope, choosing a fresh format brings a universe of new topics into the review’s domain. [1]

4. Dialogue over monologue

Classic restaurant criticism can feel like an editorial dictatorship: a few anointed reviewers rain down verdicts on which kitchens should thrive and which should shutter. I have a remedy: why not present reviews as dramatic dialogues between multiple people rather than one person’s autocratic opinion? Dining out, after all, is an inherently communal activity. It might be more interesting — and more realistic — to frame the review as a Socratic dialogue between the critic and a specially chosen guest (ideally someone outside a restaurant’s normal clientele). Eating with a truck driver at Saison will tell you things about tasting menus that Bon Appétit never could. Adding a second voice with a worldview and tone drastically different from those of the urbanite critic unlocks countless possibilities. Most harmonies and discords only surface with multiple voices.  

5. Shake up the speaker

Big-city gourmets are not the only people qualified to be food writers. It’s time to break up the white-male monopoly on the genre by inviting overlooked perspectives to join the Review Page. This type of diversity includes gender and race but also encompasses region, discipline, ideals, and voice. Commission a Creole poet to eulogize their favorite gumbo. Send a naturalist to inspect a “sustainably” sourced salad. Ask a suburban Republican to review that All-American steakhouse. Pairing authors with dishes they’re uniquely qualified to discuss or dismantle — whether through personal or professional expertise — is an equation for passionate and eclectic criticism.

Some of these ideas may sound obvious, others inane. Food shelters aren’t restaurants! We’ve been calling for more diverse critics for years. But the connecting thread is an effort to redirect the review’s modus operandi from evaluating cookery to pursuing broader insight. Young critics must translate their grand ambitions for the genre’s future into editorial changes on the page. Although the last decade has seen a food renaissance, restaurant reviews remain trapped in the paralyzing norms of an older dining era. It is not enough to abolish outdated conventions — we must establish new traditions for a new century.

So let us rewrite the job description for the 21st-century food critic. Activist, futurist, Texan, Brooklynite, Vegan, Hindu, libertarian, or librarian — embrace whatever vocation or identity adds vitality to your writing. Define your own priorities. Cast out any convention that constrains your voice. Treat each review as an opportunity not to pass a verdict but to awaken empathy, arouse curiosity, and challenge received wisdom. Let the full palette of mortal emotions — from fury to euphoria — color your prose. The critic of tomorrow will teach us to savor our humanity as much as our meals.

¤

Theodore Gioia is a critic living in San Francisco. His work has appeared in The BelieverLos Angeles Review of Books, and Virginia Quarterly Review. He is currently writing a book on California’s changing food culture.

¤

[1] Soleil Ho has already pioneered this type of formal experimentation in her reviews. Ho included a conversation with Vietnamese-American novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen in a recent column to discuss the lingering allure of “far-east restaurants” and also wrote a review of the Moongate Lounge styled as a three-act play.

¤

Featured image: “SundayBusinessFoodDrink” by Gallura is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

 

RELATED


PRESS ENTER TO SEARCH, OR ESC TO EXIT
Feed Your HeadSubscribe to LARB's FREE Newsletter
Newsletter