Critic-Turned-Cook Has Seen The Future of Reviewing, And It's Not In Newspapers
Stick a fork in 'em—the newspaper food critic is done.
At least that's the way it seems to be heading after The Wall Street Journal put its professional eater out to pasture last week. In a Time magazine piece, Josh Ozersky laments the shrinking ranks of restaurant critics because those voices are seasoned by years of experience: "So there, in that whirlwind of trends and fad ingredients and hype and backlash, are a few immense ancient trees, with sturdy roots and massive trunks to hew to."
This down-and-out sizing comes as no shock to me, a former reviewer who broke out the black armband on Tuesday to mark the one-year anniversary of my last supper on the company dime. Yes, it stinks, but here's the reality check: It's very expensive to do reviews right. While doing the chew-chew-review stint for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, I went to each restaurant at least three times. Ca-ching!
Of course, there are still plenty of critics doing good work around the country, but we've sort of become the United States of Yelp: Everybody's a critic. My problem with anonymous reader reviews is, well, they're anonymous. You never know if somebody who's beefing about a place is a competitor or if the chef's mother is heaping the praise.
Still, I think there's a happy medium emerging. I've seen the future of citizen food criticism and it's a trio of tech start-up dudes who launched a site a few years ago called MSG150.
Geary Eppley, Adam Phillabaum and Emmett Doerr had a clever premise: to visit every restaurant in Seattle's International District—and they delivered their reports in a no-nonsense style. They're not trying to impress you with their superior food knowledge by name-dropping obscure ingredients. Their reviews cover basic info like how long it took to be seated, minutes waited before somebody took their order, a description of the chopsticks (hard plastic, cheap wood). And, naturally, they report whether the kitchen uses MSG.
After rating 87 places in the neighborhood, the guys recently started a new project in the artsy industrial area known as Georgetown, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. The new PBR150 uses beer caps instead of stars (or in the case of MSG150, pairs of chopsticks) to rate lunch joints. Their latest was a visit to a falafel truck.
Here's what I really appreciate about the 150 gang's approach: They pay their own way. No freebies. They're not exactly anonymous, but they rarely get recognized and get no special treatment to try and curry favor.
Surely, there are more citizen critics who review with that kind of integrity. Who are your favorite trustworthy citizen food critics?
About the author: Former Seattle Post-Intelligencer restaurant critic Leslie Kelly has been apprenticing in professional kitchens since the newspaper folded in March 2009 and chronicling her culinary journey from pen to pan for Serious Eats. She also blogs at LeslieKellyWhiningandDining.blogspot.com and is working on a story-telling project for Northstar Winery following one wine from the vine to the table.