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What is the Role of a Restaurant Critic?

What is the Role of a Restaurant Critic?
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  • What is the Role of a Restaurant Critic?

    Post #1 - August 9th, 2017, 1:56 pm
    Post #1 - August 9th, 2017, 1:56 pm Post #1 - August 9th, 2017, 1:56 pm
    I recently heard Louisa Chu's and Monica Eng's interview with Phil Vettel of the Tribune.

    What struck me the most was his philosophy of minimizing negative comments (or not including any at all) about a restaurant, especially if the establishment is a family business or other independent restauranteur. He said that if a small, neighborhood restaurant isn't good, it will fail of its own accord and he doesn't want a blatantly bad review contributing to its downfall. In fairness, he said any restaurant opened by, say, Rich Mellman, is "fair game" (his words).

    Personally, I disagree with this philosophy. Chicago is one of the top restaurant cities in the country, if not the world. Regardless of size, restaurants here do not need to be "protected". If a restaurant has failings, it is not the role of the critic to point these out in order to aid consumers/diners and not soft pedal any flaws just because it's a mom-and-pop operation?

    This also segueways into another problem with Vettel's criticism: Just about every restaurant receives a two- or three-star rating. Asking rhetorically, what is the value of star ratings if every restaurant gets about the same number of stars? Is it still a useful metric?

    Other restaurant critics in Chicago and elsewhere have no problem writing negative reviews. I note Jeff Ruby's famously scathing takedown of C Chicago two years ago ( http://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magaz ... ions-steak) and New York Times critic Pete Wells' zero-star review early this year (https://www.eater.com/2017/1/3/14159226 ... -patterson).

    By contrast, Vettel's Tribune colleague drama critic Chris Jones often writes negative reviews regardless of whether the production was put on by the Goodman/Steppenwolf/Chicago Shakes or some storefront company...I know because I was on the board of a small theatre company that was on the receiving end of some of Jones' negative reviews.

    Finally, Vettel often includes interviews with the chef or proprietor in his reviews. While I assume that these conversations are done entirely separate from his reviews (and probably by different reporters), do they belong in a piece of criticism? Extending my Chris Jones analogy, I've never read a review of a Goodman Theater production that includes an interview with Robert Falls.
  • Post #2 - August 10th, 2017, 9:22 am
    Post #2 - August 10th, 2017, 9:22 am Post #2 - August 10th, 2017, 9:22 am
    I too listened to the podcast. It was a little slow in its pace and dialogue (primarily due to the informal, non-technical tenor of the conversation among friends), but I didn't find it to be a total waste.

    As for Vettel's comment about not writing negative reviews of (typically smaller) places off-the-beaten-path, instead, as ld states, letting the market simply correct itself, he did offer a fairly reasonable defense. He attempts to square the clear double-standard by saying that at its core, the restaurant critic should understand his or her platform as one of utility. He explains how scarce the occasion of dining out is for many people (somewhat of a bullshit heartstring appeal in the age of McDonald's via UberEats), and given that he is only reviewing 1 place per week, it should aim to have the greatest practical value on the overall pool of restaurant consumers, ie. saving 100 shitty meals at Melman's has greater value than saving 50 shitty meals in No Man's Land.

    He made up for whatever slight condescension ("my job is too important to simply tell it like it is") he put forth, by speaking of his poor upbringing in Brooklyn (might've been a different burrough), and telling the story of his first encounter with fine dining while in college.

    There was a nice deconstruction of the pros and cons of critics keeping their faces hidden, and how no matter what approach one takes, it is never perfect.
  • Post #3 - August 10th, 2017, 4:27 pm
    Post #3 - August 10th, 2017, 4:27 pm Post #3 - August 10th, 2017, 4:27 pm
    ld111134 wrote:This also segueways into another problem with Vettel's criticism: Just about every restaurant receives a two- or three-star rating. Asking rhetorically, what is the value of star ratings if every restaurant gets about the same number of stars? Is it still a useful metric?

    That depends, I think, on whether you assume restaurant quality is uniformly or normally distributed.
    "I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today."
  • Post #4 - September 20th, 2017, 11:34 pm
    Post #4 - September 20th, 2017, 11:34 pm Post #4 - September 20th, 2017, 11:34 pm
    bweiny wrote:As for Vettel's comment about not writing negative reviews of (typically smaller) places off-the-beaten-path, instead, as ld states, letting the market simply correct itself, he did offer a fairly reasonable defense. He attempts to square the clear double-standard by saying that at its core, the restaurant critic should understand his or her platform as one of utility. He explains how scarce the occasion of dining out is for many people (somewhat of a bullshit heartstring appeal in the age of McDonald's via UberEats), and given that he is only reviewing 1 place per week, it should aim to have the greatest practical value on the overall pool of restaurant consumers, ie. saving 100 shitty meals at Melman's has greater value than saving 50 shitty meals in No Man's Land.


    To me, this is a complete abrogation of his duty as a critic. His job is to criticize fairly but not pull any punches. His job isn't to protect mom-and-pop restaurants from criticism. If you open a restaurant, you are giving your de facto consent to be criticized by both the professional media as well as amateurs on this platform as well as Yelp, etc. Also, he's being very disingenuous - I have only read the weakest of critiques in any review that he has written.

    It's as if he appoints himself as the guardian of Chicago's restaurant scene, as if it's some gawky adolescent rather than the rich, vast and diverse community that it truly is. Plus, he seems to think that his audience is the people who rarely eat out - well, he apparently didn't get the memo that most people who read reviews regularly are foodies and/or restaurant fans, just like Chris Jones writes for theatre aficionados and Blair Kamin writes for architectural enthusiasts.

    While reviewers in Time Out, the Reader, Chicagoist and other platforms are not afraid of being brutally honest at times, the reviewer with the largest potential audience isn't providing real criticism (I could go on about his apparent lack of passion for his topic, unlike say Pete Wells in The NY Times or reviewers in other Chicago publications).
  • Post #5 - September 21st, 2017, 6:23 am
    Post #5 - September 21st, 2017, 6:23 am Post #5 - September 21st, 2017, 6:23 am
    To promote Next every month.
    i used to milk cows
  • Post #6 - September 21st, 2017, 7:45 am
    Post #6 - September 21st, 2017, 7:45 am Post #6 - September 21st, 2017, 7:45 am
    ld111134 wrote:To me, this is a complete abrogation of his duty as a critic. His job is to criticize fairly but not pull any punches. His job isn't to protect mom-and-pop restaurants from criticism. If you open a restaurant, you are giving your de facto consent to be criticized by both the professional media as well as amateurs on this platform as well as Yelp, etc.

    To be clear, I agree with you entirely on principle. I was mainly explaining that he put forth a defense to the manifest self-righteousness of stating that he doesn't have the exact duty you describe - to tell it like it is.

    I think I'm just more cynical about the entire process in that just as Vettel/critic has a duty to judge all places fairly and honestly, his employer has a duty to its shareholders to act in their best interest. When those two duties conflict, invariably the latter overrides the former. If the truth hurts the bottom line, a company will usually do everything possible to hedge or nuance their conclusion.

    At its core, restaurant critiquing, both by "professionals" and amateurs, is a fundamentally flawed process for data gathering that cannot remove biases the way a double-blinded study could. Given that though, your criticism of Vettel is only more valid because without his or her credibility, what does the critic really have left? I agree that once you go into business and start accepting people's money you have opened yourself up to feedback on both sides. Live by the sword, die by it. To avoid honest criticism of Mom/Pop-A is unfair to both the consumer and Mom/Pop-B across the street who also relies on candid reporting.
  • Post #7 - September 21st, 2017, 8:45 am
    Post #7 - September 21st, 2017, 8:45 am Post #7 - September 21st, 2017, 8:45 am
    bweiny wrote:
    ld111134 wrote:To me, this is a complete abrogation of his duty as a critic. His job is to criticize fairly but not pull any punches. His job isn't to protect mom-and-pop restaurants from criticism. If you open a restaurant, you are giving your de facto consent to be criticized by both the professional media as well as amateurs on this platform as well as Yelp, etc.

    To be clear, I agree with you entirely on principle. I was mainly explaining that he put forth a defense to the manifest self-righteousness of stating that he doesn't have the exact duty you describe - to tell it like it is.

    I think I'm just more cynical about the entire process in that just as Vettel/critic has a duty to judge all places fairly and honestly, his employer has a duty to its shareholders to act in their best interest. When those two duties conflict, invariably the latter overrides the former. If the truth hurts the bottom line, a company will usually do everything possible to hedge or nuance their conclusion.

    At its core, restaurant critiquing, both by "professionals" and amateurs, is a fundamentally flawed process for data gathering that cannot remove biases the way a double-blinded study could. Given that though, your criticism of Vettel is only more valid because without his or her credibility, what does the critic really have left? I agree that once you go into business and start accepting people's money you have opened yourself up to feedback on both sides. Live by the sword, die by it. To avoid honest criticism of Mom/Pop-A is unfair to both the consumer and Mom/Pop-B across the street who also relies on candid reporting.


    I concur with you completely.

    Vettel's reviews consist of (a) what the he ate with a few prosaic compliments thrown in, (b) interviews with the proprietor/general manager/chef, (c) no real critical assessments of the food and the overall dining experience, and (d) two- or three-star ratings. To me, this isn't food criticism, it's food reporting. It verges on shilling for the restaurants reviewed (I know, that's harsh).

    Many people - including myself - read reviews (of movies, plays, art, architecture, book or restaurant) for their own sake because they want to learn the critic's perspective and his or her reactions to the object being reviewed, which is why they hand out Pulitzer Prizes for criticism. It goes beyond simply consumer reporting.

    The Tribune is arguably the largest media voice in one of the greatest food cities in the country, if not the entire world. The person charged with reviewing restaurants in this city should actually critique rather than blandly reporting.

    This why I rather read reviews by Kevin Pang, Louisa Chu, Mike Sula, Jeff Ruby et al. They bring a kind of foodie enthusiasm and geekiness that seems entirely lacking in Vettel's work.
  • Post #8 - September 21st, 2017, 12:50 pm
    Post #8 - September 21st, 2017, 12:50 pm Post #8 - September 21st, 2017, 12:50 pm
    bwieny, [I can't easily quote text on the device I'm on now but] I don't understand one of the points you made. How does a negative review of a restaurant threaten to hurt the Tribune's bottom line?

    I agree with you completely on a good point you made: failure to criticize Mom/Pop A does no favors for either the consumer or Mom/Pop B across the street.
    "I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today."
  • Post #9 - September 21st, 2017, 1:18 pm
    Post #9 - September 21st, 2017, 1:18 pm Post #9 - September 21st, 2017, 1:18 pm
    Katie wrote:bweiny*, [I can't easily quote text on the device I'm on now but] I don't understand one of the points you made. How does a negative review of a restaurant threaten to hurt the Tribune's bottom line?

    It's not a provable, direct cause-effect, but my general feeling is that hard-nosed biting criticism (regardless of its truthfulness) is more likely to create enemies than generic praise. If the restaurant industry thinks that the particular section of the paper is doing them more harm than good, why purchase ads in the publication (specifically that section, which is also where they would most want their ads to be seen). Again truthfulness aside, if I were Mom/Pop-A that just got torn to shreds, I'd have no choice to act like the most undeserving victim of all time, being bullied by a mainstream goliath media conglomerate. I'm sure social media would jump to their aid (nevermind their food tastes like the crap the critic described it as), further irritating Trib ad sales or circulation.
    Last edited by bweiny on September 21st, 2017, 1:21 pm, edited 1 time in total.
  • Post #10 - September 21st, 2017, 1:19 pm
    Post #10 - September 21st, 2017, 1:19 pm Post #10 - September 21st, 2017, 1:19 pm
    Katie wrote:bwieny, [I can't easily quote text on the device I'm on now but] I don't understand one of the points you made. How does a negative review of a restaurant threaten to hurt the Tribune's bottom line?

    Newspapers rely on ad revenue (or at least used to, when ad revenue was a thing, and also when newspapers were a thing). A bad review could lead to a company pulling its ads -- a particularly notorious example of this is when every so often a movie studio will punish a newspaper for a bad review; it's part of the reason so many movie "critics" are basically cheerleaders and blurb generators.
  • Post #11 - September 21st, 2017, 9:15 pm
    Post #11 - September 21st, 2017, 9:15 pm Post #11 - September 21st, 2017, 9:15 pm
    Yeahbut, in reply to you both, Mom/Pop A are not buying Tribune ad space, are they? For that matter, doesn't look like Rich Melman is either, IIRC.
    "I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today."
  • Post #12 - September 21st, 2017, 10:52 pm
    Post #12 - September 21st, 2017, 10:52 pm Post #12 - September 21st, 2017, 10:52 pm
    I wasn't sure if we were still discussing mom-and-pop places; obviously, they're much less likely to advertise than a large restaurant group. And to be honest, I can't cite a specific instance of this kind* of restaurant retaliation at all -- I was just speaking abstractly, based on other kinds of criticism. I do know, for example, that film critics are sometimes pressured by management/editors to avoid giving bad reviews.

    All that said, I agree with the main point that a critic's main responsibility is to the consumer, not the producer. Shielding a subpar restaurant from criticism because it happens to be a small business is dishonest and does no one any favors. A good example of someone who's found a way to navigate this dilemma is Jonathan Gold. Unless you read carefully, you'll think he has nothing bad to say about any restaurant, especially a small, ethnic one. But if you pay attention, you'll see that he's telling you what works and what doesn't, even while never going for a Pete Wellsian takedown.


    *I mean financial here. We've all heard of critics being banned from certain restaurants.
  • Post #13 - Yesterday, 1:42 am
    Post #13 - Yesterday, 1:42 am Post #13 - Yesterday, 1:42 am
    bweiny wrote:
    Katie wrote:bweiny*, [I can't easily quote text on the device I'm on now but] I don't understand one of the points you made. How does a negative review of a restaurant threaten to hurt the Tribune's bottom line?

    It's not a provable, direct cause-effect, but my general feeling is that hard-nosed biting criticism (regardless of its truthfulness) is more likely to create enemies than generic praise. If the restaurant industry thinks that the particular section of the paper is doing them more harm than good, why purchase ads in the publication (specifically that section, which is also where they would most want their ads to be seen). Again truthfulness aside, if I were Mom/Pop-A that just got torn to shreds, I'd have no choice to act like the most undeserving victim of all time, being bullied by a mainstream goliath media conglomerate. I'm sure social media would jump to their aid (nevermind their food tastes like the crap the critic described it as), further irritating Trib ad sales or circulation.


    But how do you explain Michael Phillips, Greg Kot, Chris Jones and Blair Kamin, who regularly make pointed criticism of movies (both big budget "tentpole" action flicks and independent films), pop music (his antipathies are well-known), theatre (including storefront not-for-profit productions as well as Broadway in Chicago) or architecture (most notably, Trump Tower and the new Soldier Field) respectively? They aren't pulling any punches.
  • Post #14 - Yesterday, 10:20 am
    Post #14 - Yesterday, 10:20 am Post #14 - Yesterday, 10:20 am
    ld111134 wrote:But how do you explain Michael Phillips, Greg Kot, Chris Jones and Blair Kamin, who regularly make pointed criticism of movies (both big budget "tentpole" action flicks and independent films), pop music (his antipathies are well-known), theatre (including storefront not-for-profit productions as well as Broadway in Chicago) or architecture (most notably, Trump Tower and the new Soldier Field) respectively? They aren't pulling any punches.

    Again, it is nearly impossible to prove direct causation in the negative effect consistent/frequent unabashedly critical reviews have on a publication, but the difference between your example and the hypothetical-Vettel, is that the music and movie subjects being reviewed are consumed on a national or global scale. The criticism of a single reviewer doesn't have nearly the proportionate impact that Vettel's equally negative review would have on a restaurant with a local customer base. I would say that the widely distributed restaurant critic has considerably greater impact over the subject of their reviews than the critics you cite.
  • Post #15 - Yesterday, 10:37 am
    Post #15 - Yesterday, 10:37 am Post #15 - Yesterday, 10:37 am
    bweiny wrote:
    ld111134 wrote:But how do you explain Michael Phillips, Greg Kot, Chris Jones and Blair Kamin, who regularly make pointed criticism of movies (both big budget "tentpole" action flicks and independent films), pop music (his antipathies are well-known), theatre (including storefront not-for-profit productions as well as Broadway in Chicago) or architecture (most notably, Trump Tower and the new Soldier Field) respectively? They aren't pulling any punches.

    Again, it is nearly impossible to prove direct causation in the negative effect consistent/frequent unabashedly critical reviews have on a publication, but the difference between your example and the hypothetical-Vettel, is that the music and movie subjects being reviewed are consumed on a national or global scale. The criticism of a single reviewer doesn't have nearly the proportionate impact that Vettel's equally negative review would have on a restaurant with a local customer base. I would say that the widely distributed restaurant critic has considerably greater impact over the subject of their reviews than the critics you cite.


    Understood, but that doesn't apply to Jones. Arguably, a bad review of a play put on by a small storefront theatre company has a much more direct impact that a bad restaurant review - I know, because I was on the board of two companies that were on the receiving end of Jones' negative reviews.
  • Post #16 - Yesterday, 11:35 am
    Post #16 - Yesterday, 11:35 am Post #16 - Yesterday, 11:35 am
    ld111134 wrote:Arguably, a bad review of a play put on by a small storefront theatre company has a much more direct impact that a bad restaurant review - I know, because I was on the board of two companies that were on the receiving end of Jones' negative reviews.

    Yes, I would agree that the small independent theatre production is unlike the others in your question (I'm not familiar with the reviewers you mentioned by name, other than Greg Kot). And given that the pool of consumers for the play is smaller than that of a restaurant, and the comparatively smaller opportunity for consumption, a sharply negative review would be worse than the same for a restaurant.
  • Post #17 - Yesterday, 4:00 pm
    Post #17 - Yesterday, 4:00 pm Post #17 - Yesterday, 4:00 pm
    aka Chicago softball. Count me a fan. Not.
    "In pursuit of joys untasted"
    from Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata

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