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These days, everyone’s a critic. From opinionated bloggers and social media commentators of varying quality and reliability (and inevitably without the beneficial filter of an editor) to highly-paid experts from prestigious magazines, diners confront an avalanche of opinion when choosing restaurants, and those restaurants must satisfy not just a handful of notable celebrity critics, but a smart phone-wielding, Instagramming, Yelping covert army. This is good for democracy: the decisions over whether a restaurant is good or bad, great or terrible, is no longer with the elite few, and the restaurants cannot rest on their laurels after the New York Times has printed their opinion, but have to be consistently good, because any one of their guests could, and probably will, publish their view.
On the other hand, there is so much text, so many opinions to wade through, that it can get downright confusing. We tend to think it is normal for a quick google of a restaurant to reveal hundreds, if not thousands, of reviews of varying length, quality and professionalism. For example, one of the best New York's restaurant, Le Cirque in New York, has 723 reviews on one crowd-sourced website, Yelp, alone.
It was not always this way. The origins of restaurant reviews date back a very long time, and it is only in the last few years, when everyone carries a miniature phone-shaped computer in their pocket and crowd-sourcing is considered as legitimate a rating method as expert investigation, that a revolution has taken place.
The origins of restaurant reviews
The role of professional restaurant reviewer comes a good deal later, with the rise of newspapers. The wonderfully (and complexly) named Alexandre Balthazar Laurente Grimod de La Reyniere published an annual Gourmands’ Almanac in France in the first decade of the 19th century, which is considered the first restaurant guidebook. Hugely popular, it encouraged fellow gourmands to seek out the best eats around, taking advantage of new travel methods (rail and later automobile) to seek culinary adventures. But this is as much a guidebook, foodie travel writing, as it is restaurant reviewing in the modern sense.
In his footsteps followed the Michelin tire company, which published its first hotel and restaurant guide in 1900 (awarding its first coveted “stars” in the 1926 edition). Ironically, Michelin delved into restaurant reviews in order to encourage purchasers of its tires to drive more, thereby raising awareness of the brand but also wearing down the tires so they would have to buy more.
Duncan Hines followed suit in the US in 1935 with Adventures in Good Eating (he became so well-known that he lent his name to a mass-market food company). In the UK, Raymond Postgate published the first foodie travel book (The Good Food Guide in 1951).
Restaurant Reviews on the Newspapers
The second half of the 19th century was the golden era for newspapers: widely-read, a daily, inexpensive source for news, after centuries of gossip, word of mouth, and waiting for the town crier to bring news from elsewhere to one’s town. The first restaurant review in The New York Times ran on 1 January 1859, entitled How We Dine. Its author preferred to remain anonymous, and went by “a strong-minded reporter of the Times.” The piece opens in a very modern way, with the author describing his editor’s assignment: “Dine somewhere else today and somewhere else tomorrow. I wish you to dine everywhere. From the Astor House Restaurant to the smallest description of dining salon in the city, in order that you may furnish an account of all these places. The cashier will pay your expenses.” Sounds like a professional restaurant reviewer to me.
The fact that the article does not yet have a name of what it is (a restaurant review) suggests that this is, indeed, the first mass-media review. The code of anonymity is still maintained by the most serious reviewers. If you use your own name, or chefs know your face, they might orchestrate a better experience for you than for their “normal” guests, and so the best critics, from the Michelin guides to Marina O’Laughlin from The Guardian (whose only published photo featured a white plate covering her face), do not permit their photographs to be disseminated, or their identities known. Ruth Reichl made famous her method of wearing disguises to eat when reviewing. But these days, since every diner is a potential published reviewer, the “critic” wears the mask of the everyman.
Zagat, Yelp and co: the Crowd-sourced reviews
Crowd-sourced reviews arrived in the form of the Zagat guides, just prior to the Internet making anyone and everyone a reviewer. In 1979, Tim and Nina Zagat compiled ratings of restaurants by diners (at first, just their friends), correlating numerical ratings and gathering selected quotes. These were published in annual guides that expanded from New York to cover the major gastronomic world cities. The Internet, particularly the instantaneity of smart phones, means that we can receive to-the-minute, bite-by-bite reviews from anyone, anywhere in the world, anytime we like. The world has grown smaller as foodie culture has expanded. There are still influential reviewers, in the mold of Craig Claiborne, Alan Richman, Jay Rayner, Giles Coren, Sam Sifton, Jonathan Gold and so on.
Readers most enjoy the scathing, blistering reviews—places the critic absolutely hated. Recent years have added television foodies to the power list: if Anthony Bourdain eats at a random noodle bar in Kuala Lumpur, it will suddenly become a destination. But the majority rely on the word of the majority. Websites like Yelp allow anyone to sign in and post reviews of anything. These reviews range in quality and bile, and it’s up to you, the consumer, to decide whether you agree with any of the 726 informal reviewers of Le Cirque. The tendency is for consumers to choose based on the average total, but would a professional reviewer really give Le Cirque, considered one of New York’s best restaurants, an average of 3.5 out of 5 stars? Public polling reviews must be taken with a grain of salt. In the end, if there is a reviewer you learn to trust, because you feel that their approach to dining, their taste, and their balanced opinion is likely to line up with yours, that is still the best bet.