Is Food Criticism Under Review?

08 April, 2022
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“Money is more relevant now. I’m a service reporter. I have a dual purpose - writing about our world and telling people how to spend their money. The prices of everything have gone up for those who sell and those who buy. There’s a role for us [as critics] to sift through the noise. If it’s all cheering all the time, there’s no guidance. Restaurants are opening where there’s a $198 tasting menu. I have to tell [readers] if it’s worth it.” 

We have seen a quick evolution of the restaurant review, from informing the diner and entertaining readers, to more sensitive accounts recognising a restaurant’s place in the community beyond food and service. Will food criticism relapse or further evolve? 

The New York Times’ coveted stars are still absent. Check, Please! Philly, a restaurant review show, went off the air. Whether you're entrenched in food media or not, it's hard not to notice. Though iconographic rating systems have, in recent years, started to fall out of favour with American newspapers, some rating systems seemed unwaveringly steadfast. The pandemic changed this. 

Regarding absent stars, the NY Times’ critic Pete Wells stated in February 2021: “The decision not to put stars on the reviews, as The Times has since the 1960s, was easy. Formerly, I tried to make the stars reflect how close any given restaurant came to being an ideal version of itself. But in the pandemic, there were no ideal restaurants, only places that were making it up as they went along.”

These decisions are not without precedent. During World War II, the publication of the Michelin Guide ceased, and between 1940 and 1946 the granting of three stars was regarded as inappropriate. The war had devastated France and the effects of wartime shortages lingered for years. No restaurants were granted three stars until 1950. The Michelin Guide has continued to award stars in the last two years and each star is an achievement, in a widely understood rating system, and right now, they are achievements in the face of adversity.

“I hate stars. I hate bells,” Joseph Hernandez, the deputy food editor of the Inquirer declares. “They mean different things to the critic and to the reader. And there's a disconnect. People think that one star means that that place is trash, but internally one star means it's good, it can improve. These oversimplify the critic’s reaction to something.”

Will the Inquirer’s bells return? Should they? LaBan acknowledges the difficulty a critic faces when inheriting a rating system, but explains how his works: “I’ve been able to create a system to be equitable, that allows a wide variety of restaurants to score well. [They’re] useful to make sense of the wider context of the dining scene. The more useful you can be as a critic, the better. Restaurateurs tell me, ‘We want to know how we stand with things!’ It’s an open discussion right now. I see both sides of it.”

Bells and stars continue to be debated and abandoned amongst food writers, editors, and critics, but they are alive and well in public forums. While critics have exercised restraint, reserving scathing reviews or avoiding reviewing bad dining experiences, Hernandez notices significant digressions. “There are a lot of people who [see the suffering of restaurants and offer] grace. But there's always a squeaky wheel. The negative experience tends to be the louder experience. The public will still leave negative comments, reviews, more likely than they would a positive one.”

Kae Lani Palmisano, host of the Emmy award-winning Check, Please! Philly, inhabits the ground between the critic and the public. The show “invites three [non-food critic] guests to recommend their favourite restaurants, then they try each other’s picks, and come together for a round table discussion about their experiences”.

When Palmisano took on the role, she says: “I didn’t want to be a passive participant in the conversation. I didn’t want to just ask guests about the food, the drinks, and the atmosphere. I wanted to serve as an expert who could add more context about the people, histories, and cultures behind the restaurants we were discussing at the table.”

The importance of context has only increased.

“There were a lot of considerations when deciding when to bring back Check, Please! Philly [which was on hold for two years]. During times of decreased restaurant capacity, worker shortages, supply chain issues, and all the other challenges restaurants faced during the pandemic, we didn’t want them to have to accommodate us when they were already dealing with so much.”

“The tone of Check, Please! has always been ‘here’s why I love this place, and why you should love it too,’ so I think that energy will continue to reverberate through the new season,” Palmisano says.

The same energy seems to have infused LaBan’s food reporting and criticism.

Jill Weber, a restaurateur who opened two restaurants during the pandemic (written about by LaBan and not bestowed bells) notes: “LaBan’s longer, unrated narratives do a great job of showcasing the things that a restaurant does well, while also providing some context for the things that aren’t. As an owner, I’m appreciative of the greater leeway. As a customer I appreciate a contextual understanding of the menu and service.”

Without bells or stars, there’s hope, as Weber holds, for more careful readings of restaurant reviews.

We exist in a moment when chefs and restaurateurs are holding themselves, and being held, to a higher standard. LaBan also points out that our perception of restaurant amenities has changed. Do we feel safe? Is there an option for outdoor seating? We now walk into restaurants with a heightened awareness of cleanliness and airflow. 

We also walk into restaurants with a heightened awareness of workplace culture. Hernandez indicates how his own work in food writing has evolved. “I'm less interested in menu development and more interested in labour choices.”

The pandemic has thus expanded the critic’s job. Mahira Rivers, who ceased being a critic in March 2020, when the NY Times put the column Hungry City on hiatus, says:

“One thing I think about a lot is the idea of ‘good’ when it comes to judging a restaurant or putting it on a list. Where does ‘good’ end? It’s not just about the food anymore (or, at least, I don’t think it should be). So do critics have to look at the people in charge or the business model or the treatment to workers to accurately say whether a restaurant is good or not?”

This is a question that the entire restaurant industry has been grappling with.

Restaurants are ecosystems within which sourcing, representation and culture all play starring roles. So rather than questioning how long will this kindness towards restaurants last, we also need to ask, ‘what else does the critic have now have to consider in reviewing a restaurant?’ To what is the extent of grace?

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