What's in Your Wallet? The Dollars and Sense of Restaurant Critiquing

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET
  • Elissa Altman 2012 James Beard Award winner and founder of

Anyone who picked up the weekend section of the Wall Street Journal last Friday most likely read the revelatory piece by wine writers extraordinaire, John Brecher and Dorothy Gaiter: straying from their usual reportage on the latest (and always delicious) wine find, they instead wrote a review of wine pairing dinners at four of Manhattan's most well-regarded, sumptuously-appointed dining rooms -- Per Se, Le Bernardin, Daniel, and Jean Georges. I won't get into the details here, but one of the restaurants, known universally as the sine qua non of fish houses, received a shockingly bad report.

Nevertheless, family and friends were positively agog: talk about the virtual dream job that reviewers and critics have, they all said. Imagine, if you will, being able to visit some of the most extraordinary establishments in your given city, or, in the case of the critics who write for travel magazines, overseas. Imagine, if you will, being paid to eat and to write about what you've eaten, and --for the love of sweet human ego!--to pass judgment on it for all the world to read, and thus be an anointed expert. Fabulous, right?


Sure, there are the usual cases of screaming, indignant restaurant owners and incidences of food poisoning; there's the issue of carrying ridiculous amounts of cash on your person at all times, so that should you get recognized mid-meal, you'll be able to leave a tip equal to the estimated amount of the bill when that bill suddenly doesn't show up. (Here are the rules: we go anonymous or we don't go at all, and there are no free meals.) Then there's the issue of physical threats (I was once threatened by the brother of a West Hartford, Connecticut restaurateur who promised that he'd break my legs after I wrote something flattering--yes, flattering!--about his sister. Utterly confounding.). And then, there's the issue of sheer, un-egalitarian economics, and the havoc they wreak with the entire reviewing process, from top to bottom, and this is something that nobody ever, ever seems to talk about.

First, let's focus on the primary class of restaurant critics out there: running the gamut from the L.A. Times to the New York Times to the London Times, these on-staff critics, supported by the newspapers and magazines they write (or, in the case of Mimi Sheraton and Ruth Reichl, wrote) for, are provided with, comparatively speaking, a nearly bottomless budget from which to take hordes of tasters out on multiple reviewing sessions, and to visit the subjects of their reviews several times each, which is really only fair. This open wallet policy makes for a certain unbeatably qualitative bit of reportage; the reviewer and party are able to speak thoroughly and completely about the entire menu and qualitative experience, for better or for worse. Who benefits? Everyone: the restaurant, who has been reviewed with a sort of completeness that only a sturdy budget can provide; and the consumer, who gets the fullest picture of the experience before making the decision to spend his dough there.

But, then, there is the freelance class of restaurant critic, who must provide the same kind of reportage and thoroughness on a usually disproportionate budget that is meant to stretch across multiple visits with parties of two, three, or four at each visit. (As a former freelance critic, my own budget was sharply limited to a cap of $150 per restaurant--not per visit--even as I was expected to bring multiple diners with me to order as many as three courses each, and visit, if I could, more than once. On $150. Sure.) Who does this benefit? Absolutely nobody--not the critic, who is forced to be creative (everything BUT taking free meals goes here, from reviewing four times as a single diner, or two times as a double, or once as a double if the place is pricey, to going during off-hours when prices may be lower, to paying for bigger meals or re-tastes out of pocket, which is not uncommon); not the restaurant, who is operating under the assumption (as well they should) that there is far more in the coffers than the appallingly small budgets that the freelance critic has to work with; and certainly not the consumer, who is, unbeknownst to them, at the mercy of the newspaper or magazine's purse strings.

Add to this economic shell game the very fact of recession--that just as publishers are cutting corners, so too are restaurants, by sheer necessity: gone are the days when the San Marzano tomato really was the San Marzano tomato in the sauce that the menu still claims blankets that penne dish that used to be so much sweeter the last time you visited; gone are the days when "locally grown" actually meant "locally grown," as opposed to grown in this country versus, say, Argentina; gone are the days when the house-baked bread really was house baked; and gone are the days when a talented and well-paid professional (fill in the blank: bartender, sommelier, front of house manager, server) took great pride in their work, only to be replaced by more affordable--and often less-seasoned--staff. All of these issues conspire against all parties, and do further damage to the process of being able to provide a sound, thorough, complete review to consumers who want it, and restaurants who depend on it.

Ruth Reichl, god bless her, was the first to level the often rarified playing field of reviewers who limit themselves only to high end restaurants, when she famously awarded a New York City noodle joint multi-stars, thus stating that empirically, if food is good, it's good, whether it's a perfectly prepared Kobe filet, or a steaming bowl of cheap Pho. This still holds, but with every passing day that we sink more deeply into dire economic straits and the freelance reviewing purse strings are pulled still tighter and tighter, the more the burden falls on the shoulders of the low-budget critic, who is forced to maintain the status quo even while being asked to accomplish a job--like hitting that hot new place in town that their editor is suggesting they add to their list--without being given the necessary tools to accomplish it without reaching into their own pockets.

As for Dotty and John: I adore them not only for their brilliant minds, their taste in wine, and their pinpoint-accuracy--but for their money.