Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Restaurant Reviews: A dead art?

Last December I declared 2023 the year I would return to food writing.  It was a bold statement (even now as I look at my last published date and see the 2020 taunting me), but I truly miss being a tiny, rather insignificant part of the food community.  I mentioned this to the esteemed writer behind Pop.Bop.Shop (Ms. Molly Galler) over brunch one Saturday morning, but immediately backtracked using the excuse that I had no idea what it would even look like anymore.  A Boston Food Diary was born from the need to make a meal last longer.  My impetus was quite simply to savor even long after the last bite had been devoured.  As a fresh faced 20 something I had bored my friends and family to tears with my thoughts and this was meant to be an outlet.  Over time it grew and evolved as I did in my real life, and more importantly as the idea of "blogging" overall changed.

2008 was a very different time than we are looking at today.  Sure we all felt very advanced with the internet- but in reality we were lightyears behind where we are today.  The original iPhone was released in 2007, equipped with a (poor) camera and there wasn't the ability to record video with it.  Bloggers, as we were, showed up at restaurants with large, clunky cameras in tow...and some with full lighting as well.  We were not a subtle bunch.  It was a key differentiator of "real" restaurant critics.  Those individuals showed up under the cloak of anonymity, using fake names, no recording devices.  They sat as regular people, just with highly defined palates.  

The term "blogger", if I'm honest, was a bit embarrassing.  We caused a scene more often than not, over indulged in absolutely everything (that may have just been me, come to think of it), and cast our opinions around like confetti.  We were often regarded as more knowledgeable than the average Yelp reviewer, though for the life of me, I cannot recall why.  I certainly didn't have "credentials".  I had an obsession with food, taste buds, an adventurous spirit and read way too many books about food, and cook books- but chefs were wise to regard me warily.   Don't get me wrong- those early days of blogging were some of the best times of my life. As time progressed little A Boston Food Diary morphed and evolved, and opened up to more opportunities for writing for other publications.  I quickly leaned into the term "food writer" over blogger.  

Writing, however, was the key term to me.  The creative outlet of words on paper (ahem -virtual paper) was extremely satisfying.  However with the advent of Instagram, and the idea of "influencers" becoming more and more prominent, I watched the written word fall from grace.  The world shifted from people wanting a back story, wanting the human element,  to preferring as few words as possible, more photo heavy and then came the videos.  Quickly the "industry" shifted combining the idea of the influencer with the blogger and those of us who relished the written word felt out of place in this new arena.  As many of those I had created a community with did, I stepped back.  

Yesterday, Soleil Ho, food critic for the SF Chronicle, announced that she would be moving to their opinion column.  Ho held the role of food critic for just 4 years, and in that time received a James Beard Award for her writing.  Let me pause for just a moment and fan girl.  A JAMES BEARD AWARD- the dream!  Ok...thats done...sorta.  Obviously this is not a major news story.  She was a food critic and now she's not- but what I do find interesting about this - how many of the commentators on this story are asking the question- is the idea of a food critic dead overall?  This is precisely the question I've struggled with for years now.

Now that technology has advanced to this degree where we all have constant access to cameras, video and the internet- opinions are incredibly easy to find.  No longer do we wait for our local expert to go to the new restaurant 2-3 times to formulate a full and complete opinion and read about it in their weekly column. No, now we do a quick Google search of a place, 25- 5,000 reviews pop up immediately, we scan the star ratings and move on.  Perhaps we instead turn to Instagram or Tik Tok and find a flashy video of a "Top 5" list set to music and we get swayed by that.  

I'll be very clear- there is nothing wrong, per se, with any of this- it's just another form of evolution.  The question that I have however is- is the written word, at least in regard to restaurant reviews dead?  Are we just too inundated with information for a review to stand out?  Do we prefer to see pretty videos with possibly less content over an information heavy commentary?  What is next in this evolution?  My hope is that we go back to "vintage" reviews because isn't that how fashion works?

Restaurant Reviews: A dead art?

Last December I declared 2023 the year I would return to food writing.  It was a bold statement (even now as I look at my last published dat...