Everyone Eats …

But that doesn’t make you a restaurant critic

When I arrived in New York City fresh out of graduate school in 1977, the city’s food scene couldn’t have been more different than it is today. Even calling it a scene would have been absurd: the farmers-market movement had barely begun, few liquor stores sold anything like an international selection of wines, and only a handful of restaurants had names widely recognizable to the general public—and those were mainly French. Indeed, during the late 1970s, fine dining at such places as Lutece and La Grenouille was generally acknowledged to be the exclusive province of businessmen with expense accounts and the idle rich. There would be no published Zagat guide for six more years, and the only chef whose name my friends and I recognized was Chef Boyardee.

Most of the verbiage devoted to food in local newspapers concerned easy-to-make recipes, human interest stories, food travel writing, kitchen advice to housewives, and the occasional piece that sought to get you interested in wine. Every Friday, there would be a restaurant review in The New York Times. The Times restaurant critic was Craig Claiborne, who did the job intermittently during a tenure of nearly three decades. He was also the food editor, the recipe developer, and the author—along with longtime collaborator Pierre Franey—of cookbooks that bore the Times imprint. Claiborne was born in Sunflower, Mississippi, where he grew up in a boardinghouse run by his mother. Upon moving to New York after two stints in the Navy and a cooking-school education in Switzerland, he began his career inauspiciously as a receptionist at Gourmet magazine. In 1957, he became the food editor at the Times, thought to be the first male to hold that position, in a section that was officially known as “Food Fashions Family Furnishings” but colloquially referred to as the Women’s Section. In that capacity, he’s generally credited with being the inventor of the modern restaurant review.

Prior to Claiborne’s tenure at the Times, reviews in newspapers and elsewhere had often been looked upon suspiciously by the dining public, seen more as a reflection of a publication’s advertising aspirations than a straightforward analysis of a restaurant’s virtues. Published regularly from 1935 through the mid-1950s, the Duncan Hines guides, known as Adventures in Good Eating, had been something of a national standard. They were at least partly the work of Hines, a traveling salesman of printing paper and ink, who undertook to tell other travelers where to eat, using prose that verged on puffery. Of the Oregon Caves Chateau in Oregon Caves, Oregon, the guide reads, in its 1944 edition, “Without the hospitality of the Sabins, this place would still be nice indeed. When you add their personalities, it makes it ‘tops.’ The Chateau is lovely, and unusual.” This is the totality of the review, and quite typical. One can only imagine how the hosts had fawned over the reviewer.

Hines’s guide incorporated recommendations from other travelers, so that you had no idea who wrote each individual entry. Other contemporary dining guides were also many-hands productions. Early in the 1970s, Forbes Magazine’s Restaurant Guide established itself as a major reference for New York diners. Though it was carefully superintended by Malcolm Forbes himself, the actual writing was the work of the magazine’s staff, and displayed no consistency of perspective. One of its stranger features is an almost dyspeptic distaste for dining. In the introduction, Forbes describes his experience of compiling the volume as “more ulcerous than enjoyable.”

Enter Claiborne, who, approaching the task with evident enthusiasm, established an ethical and procedural framework for restaurant reviewing: reviews would be done by a single individual. The reviewer would set his own name to the work. He’d visit a restaurant at least three times, and each visit would involve a table of at least three or four diners, with an eye to covering the menu as completely as possible, eating some dishes more than once to test for consistency. The publication would pay for the meals, and no free meals would be accepted. Most important, perhaps, was the stricture that the restaurant critic remain anonymous. Thus, the reservation would be made under a false name, and the critic and his party would do nothing to call attention to the fact that a review was in progress.

Accounts vary as to how anonymous Claiborne—who was apparently a rather flamboyant fellow—was able to be. But he reassures us on this point in the introduction to his Guide to Dining Out in New York (1968):

One of the questions that is most frequently asked of me in this wildly hedonistic occupation is whether or not I am recognized when I visit restaurants. The answer is—with rare exceptions—a firm no . . . . I have waited in line with the best of them, been abused by headwaiters and busboys, placed in the dim corners of restaurants, corners that the help ignores and calls Siberia, had my toes stepped on and jacket drenched with black bean soup (in lieu of apology the waiter said, ‘Watch out!’).

Claiborne also provided a further reason for anonymity: “I do not like being fawned over, with or without the circumstances of my job.” He recognized that the result of a critic’s being recognized was the appearance at the table of unordered dishes, comped bottles of expensive wine, and a fuss being made by the staff, all of it anathema to both the enjoyment of a meal and an unbiased analysis of the food’s merits. He realized that the acceptance of free food creates a classic journalistic conflict of interest. If reviews were to be trusted by the dining public, the reviewer must adhere to rules that conferred credibility on his conclusions.

As with most of his colleagues during that era, Claiborne tended to write his reviews in short declarative sentences, explaining dishes as if he were a very articulate high school teacher, and we his enthralled students. In an early review of the Japanese restaurant Kabuki, published in 1961 and running just seven hundred words, he explains, “Chopsticks are available and recommended. It is a curious fact that the physical manner of eating has a positive effect on flavor.”

Although we remember him as a gourmet and bon vivant (near the end of his career, he was reviled for a $4,000 charity dinner for two he ate in Paris, after winning it at an auction), he harbored no prejudice against inexpensive restaurants. Certainly there were many fewer places to be reviewed at that time, and people dined out far less regularly than they do today, but I prefer to believe that he covered lower-end places out of a democratic spirit. Indeed, in one book he awards a simultaneous single star to both Lutece and Chock Full O’ Nuts. Clearly, his star system—another Claiborne innovation that has endured—acknowledged the comparative worth of a very cheap dinner over a very expensive one.

In 1968, Gael Greene made a splash as the newly appointed restaurant critic for newcomer New York magazine. Her previous experience was writing for such fashion magazines as Cosmopolitan and Ladies’ Home Journal, and she introduced a flamboyance of prose to restaurant reviewing. Nevertheless, the strictures she inherited from Claiborne were maintained. In her collection of reviews called Bite (1972 edition), she notes: “I have been fed ambrosia flaming and slops in bordelaise. I am almost never recognized on these investigatory rounds. Though I would adore being fawned over and am a fool for pampering . . . anonymity is crucial to a restaurant observer. How else can I judge what joys or abuses await the average unknown everyday guest?”

Indeed, in her memoir Insatiable, published twenty-four years later, Greene maintains that she insisted to New York founder Clay Felker, “We have to do it like Craig Claiborne does at the Times. Anonymously. I’ll have to eat a minimum of three times before judging a restaurant—with friends—like he does. And pay the check.”

While Greene inherited Claiborne’s reviewing rubrics, her style of writing was strikingly different. She brought hyperbolic language to a medium that had once been merely informational. Describing André Surmain, the owner* Lutece, she observed, “. . . he is your host, a zany country squire with his fat lapels, the bluff blend of pinstripe, tattersall, stripe and Art Deco abstract. It is a highly aristocratic vulgarity, especially those crepe-soled rust suede Hush Puppies. It suits.”

After Gael Greene, the restaurant review would never be the same. When Mimi Sheraton succeeded Claiborne as the Times critic in 1975, it was clear that the paper was at least partly trying to clone Greene. Handy in the kitchen, she’d earlier published The Seducer’s Cookbook, which had a sexual zing never before seen in a book of recipes. Sheraton’s reviews for the Times were jam-packed with colorful dish descriptions and she adopted a confidential tone of voice that put us right at the table with her. In this emphasis she presaged what has come to be known as “food porn”—writing that is intended to stimulate the salivary glands through its primary focus on the appearance and flavor of food.

The length of the Times review had swelled from Claiborne’s time to approximately one thousand words, much of that devoted to glowing adjectives, as in this review of Le Cherche Midi, which appeared in Sheraton’s 1982 collection, Guide to New York Restaurants:

Among the most successful efforts are appetizers such as the mild and gently smoked trout, the cold leeks or asparagus mellowed by a vinaigrette dressing made with an excellent olive oil, and the salad of the ruby-red lettuce, trevisse, given crunch with walnuts and scented with walnut oil.

Clearly, the larders of restaurants were bursting with new and unfamiliar ingredients, and Mimi was there to praise them—not like a didactic schoolteacher but as one “foodie” to another (though that term would not come into common usage for several more years).

Sheraton’s book provides an index of restaurant types by ethnicity, and it’s obvious that by the early 1980s the restaurant landscape had become far more varied and international than it was when her predecessor listed a meager five categories. There were now forty-five types in New York City, including Brazilian, Russian, Indonesian, and Vietnamese. (To show how this trend has continued, by 2004 I was able to identify 145 cuisines in the fourth edition of my guidebook, Best Ethnic Eating in New York City.) By Sheraton’s time, it was no longer enough to simply describe a dish. Now the reader expected the reviewer, reference books at the ready, to explain its context, as well as make it sound delicious.

So Craig Claiborne built the foundation of professionalism. Gael Greene and Mimi Sheraton gussied it up and infused it with sensuality. And when Ruth Reichl, a Greenwich Village native, came to the Times in 1993 after a nine-year stint as food editor at the Los Angeles Times, three of them spent as restaurant critic, she turned the restaurant review into a bona fide literary form. Reichl brought a dramatist’s sensibilities to the restaurant critique, reproducing snatches of dialogue and describing fellow diners as if she were a travel writer in a foreign capital. Reichl covered a broader range of restaurants than Bryan Miller, her immediate predecessor at the Times, conferring on Chinese restaurants, in particular, a status they’d never enjoyed before, and causing Miller to complain in a memo to his former boss at the paper, which was gleefully intercepted by the New York Post: “How do you think she comes off giving SoHo noodle shops 2 and 3 stars? . . . SHE HAS DESTROYED THE SYSTEM that Craig, Mimi, and I upheld.”

Even as Reichl was shaking up the demimonde of restaurant criticism, she upheld Claiborne’s tenets. Famously, in an early assessment of Le Cirque, she wrote a duplex review. The first part was an account of how she had been shabbily treated as an unrecognized diner, the second detailed the drastic improvements in service and food once she was identified:

Over the course of five months I ate five meals at the restaurant; it was not until the fourth that the owner, Sirio Maccioni, figured out who I was. When I was discovered, the change was startling. Everything improved: the seating, the service, the size of the portions. We had already reached dessert, but our little plate of petit fours was whisked away to be replaced by a larger, more ostentatious one.

Reichl struggled with anonymity during her time at the Times. Competition among restaurants was becoming fiercer, and a Times review could be a make-or-break matter. At an early point, someone got a photo of her, and it was reportedly plastered in the kitchen of every restaurant in town. Sometimes she wore wigs and other disguises, but increasingly she was forced to dine as a recognized celebrity.

Around the time Reichl started at the Times, I was hired as part-time restaurant critic at The Village Voice, alternating columns with my predecessor Jeff Weinstein. My qualifications were limited to having written Down the Hatch since 1989, a foodzine created in emulation of rock newsletters known as “fanzines.” Down the Hatch came out quarterly, and sought to review what I calculated to be the 99 percent of city restaurants ignored by critics. These were often small ethnic places in the so-called outer boroughs. In doing so, my obvious precursors were Calvin Trillin and Jane and Michael Stern, who’d made a point of celebrating vernacular food. While my Down the Hatch critiques tended to be slapdash affairs, more on-the-spot reportage than formal reviews, when I began working at the Voice I adhered to Claiborne’s standards, and the publication supported me with an almost unlimited eating budget.

I’d also been influenced by the consumerist movement of the previous decade, and felt that my mission was to represent the interests of the typical restaurant diner, who ate in plebian places most of the time and went to expensive restaurants mainly for special occasions.

The Voice started posting my reviews online late in 1998, but little did I suspect the profound effect the Internet was to have on restaurant reviewing. Around 2003 food blogs began to appear, and quickly became a predominant feature of the food-writing landscape. The prose is often spontaneous and unedited, and its quality can run from barely readable to brilliant and innovative. The Web site Food Blog Blog counts nearly two thousand of these blogs today, but I suspect there are many times that number. Though commercial versions featuring a paid staff have been launched (New York magazine’s Grub Street, for example) the majority of bloggers remain unpaid and unedited.

Food blogs cover all aspects of the city’s food scene. Some concentrate on recipes, some on chef interviews, some on greenmarkets and community-based food issues. But many are concerned, partly or fully, with reviewing restaurants. From their inception, these restaurant-reviewing blogs saw no point in adhering to the rules established by Claiborne, nor did they, in most cases, announce what the substitute rules were. Most rejected anonymity, accepting or even soliciting free food in the restaurants under review.

Writing a blog called Restaurant Girl, Harvard graduate Danyelle Freeman was typical of the new crop of restaurant-reviewing bloggers. She distinguished herself from the others by including an ethical statement in her blog, under the heading “Review Policy.” To Freeman, anonymity for restaurant reviewers was a disingenuous burden:

Why not conceal my identity: That would go against everything Restaurant Girl has stood for since the inception of my blog. I have no reason to hide behind a false identity, hats, sunglasses and any other disguise. Afterall [sic], I aspire to be as personable as humanly possible to my reader as well as to chefs & restaurateurs alike.

Freeman emphatically rejected the idea that a critic should wait for a restaurant to stabilize before publishing a review, though she seems somewhat defensive on that point:

If you are open for business and charging your clientele full price, you are open to review . . . . With the advent of blogs and instantaneous gratification & news, there has been much controversy over the fairness of such practices. I’m quite sure the debate will continue to be a dominent [sic] issue of debate. Therefore, I feel compelled to reiterate my policy of review once again: if you are open for business and charging your clientele full price, you are open to judgement.

This penchant for early reviews affected print publications, too, so that a critique written months after a place opened, no matter how much fairer and more complete, now seemed anachronistic. Gradually, the lag time between when a restaurant opened and when a review appeared shortened, and today publications like New York and Time Out New York often publish reviews within a matter of weeks. Shorter reviews could appear on their Web sites in days or even hours. Frank Bruni, the reviewer at the Times beginning in 2004, was one of the few to resist this trend. He could afford to, since his review, no matter how tardy, continued to be the most influential. In the Times’s Diner’s Journal blog, however, restaurants were critiqued after a shorter lag time.

Bruni clearly understood that early reviewing had profoundly changed the restaurant industry, forcing places to put a lot of effort into food and service at the outset, then allowing them to slack off once the dust has settled. In a re-review of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Spice Market, a restaurant that the Times had awarded three stars several years earlier, he noted, “Today it suggests the steepness of many a restaurant’s decline once it has made its first, glowing impression . . . .”

When Bruni left the Times job in August 2009, he was replaced by Sam Sifton, who had worked at the paper since 2001 and been its cultural news editor since 2005. In the 1990s, Sifton had been the restaurant critic at New York Press. Reporting on Sifton’s new appointment, the New York Observer sounded the death knell for critic anonymity: “He’ll have to negotiate a foodie-obsessed atmosphere, and a new media environment that will end The Times’ quaint idea of anonymity for its restaurant critic (it’s not so hard to find an image of Mr. Sifton).”

To accommodate the mania for quick reviews, restaurants started hosting press dinners prior to opening, called “preview meals.” Organized by publicists, and including introductions of chefs and staffs along with free food, these events were typically attended by a broad range of food writers. Eventually, professional reviewers came to attend these meals. These previews also represented a sort of subsidy by the restaurants for the publications, since the meals wouldn’t be expensed. Hosting preview dinners allowed restaurants to control the circumstances in which reviews were written.

The preview dinner became the stock-in-trade of food bloggers. Many had ambitions to make the jump to the professional ranks, and the preview dinner made a more complete review possible. Restaurants sometimes tried to forestall early reviews by declaring “soft openings” or “in previews” periods, much like Broadway plays. Restaurants also began to host “friends and family” weeks prior to opening as a way of perfecting the menu before the bloggers arrived. These gatherings, too, soon became thronged with food bloggers.

Eater, a Web site spun off by the real-estate blog Curbed, has become a clearinghouse for professional and amateur reviews, along with restaurant gossip and periodic reports on the progress of coming restaurants. The site legitimatized instantaneous reviews published by bloggers under auspices that were opaque to the reader, giving them equal billing with professional reviews. Whether a meal was eaten for free by a reviewer who’d announced his presence beforehand, or according to principles of professionalism and anonymity, is of no concern to Eater. The site captures the culinary zeitgeist of our era, with its mixture of lively gossip and real-estate reporting.

There were faint stirrings of discomfort over the new ethics—or lack thereof. The Web site FoodEthics, launched by veteran bloggers Brooke Burton and Leah Greenstein in May 2009, published a Food Blog Code of Ethics that hedged on many of Claiborne’s principles, but still sought to partly maintain them: “We will try to visit a restaurant more than once (more than twice, if possible) before passing a final judgment . . . . We will sample the full range of items on menu. We will be fair to new restaurants . . . . We will wait at least one month after the restaurant opens, allowing them to work out some kinks, before writing a full-fledged review.” The code also urges bloggers to reveal when free food has been accepted, but a scan of blogs that review New York restaurants suggests that this is virtually never done.

In 2007, underneath a photograph showing her grinning face above a lavish quantity of cleavage, Danyelle Freeman (a.k.a. Restaurant Girl) became the first review blogger in the city to vault into a full-time professional position, as the principal reviewer at the New York Daily News. In an article announcing her new position, the newspaper reiterated her ideas about reviewing and anonymity: “The choice not to write incognito is one that is likely to raise eyebrows and debates. Must a critic dine like a spy? If not, will they get preferential service or dishes? Freeman doesn’t think so.”

The contrast between old ethics and new was brought deliciously home soon after Freeman’s appointment, in an interview conducted by Gael Greene, who had started her own review blog called The Insatiable Critic. Greene and Restaurant Girl met at a midtown restaurant, where eventually Freeman got around to complaining about the cavilers who had objected to her lack of anonymity, and the following conversation ensued:

“They say I can’t be a critic because my photograph is out there. I don’t think you need to be anonymous.”

“I think you do,” said Greene.

“They can’t bring in a new chef,” Freeman argued.

“But they can insist the chef come in if he’s on his day off.”

About the time Frank Bruni departed the Times, Danyelle Freeman was fired by the Daily News, apparently as a result of cost-cutting considerations. She retreated into her blog, where the only acknowledgement of her newspaper years was a terse note in the Gossip section: “I had a wonderful two years at the Daily News. It’s unfortunate such a great newspaper will no longer be reviewing restaurants. But Restaurant Girl is alive and well right here.”

In the half century since Craig Claiborne developed his reviewing system, the nation’s attitude toward food has changed profoundly. Eating in restaurants has gone from being an infrequent occurrence for most people to being a primary form of entertainment. The marketplace is filled with new food, more food, and more-expensive food, and eating has become a preoccupation for the millions who consider themselves foodies. Many patrons no longer want to become regulars at one or two restaurants—they’d rather sample the vast smorgasbord the city offers, and many consider being the first to reach a new place a preferment. This behavior is creating a boom-and-bust cycle for restaurants, in which novelty and buzz is valued above excellence.

More than ever, diners could use a reliable critical guide. But where once there were a few dependable voices who reviewed restaurants based on a common set of professional standards and strategies, there is now a digital free-for-all. As with many things on the Web, this profusion of voices is often touted as a wondrous blow for democracy, a long-overdue rising up of the masses against the elitist overlords of the culinary realm. Thus the runaway popularity of sites like Chowhound and Yelp, which publishes city-specific reviews by anyone who cares to weigh in on everything from restaurants to churches, and whose motto is “Real People. Real Reviews.” I’m all for everyone having his or her say, but when it comes to cultural criticism there is a strong case to be made for professionalism and expertise. As the eminent film critic Richard Schickel wrote in 2007, in response to a New York Times article on the decline of professional book-reviewing and the rise of review-bloggers: “Criticism—and its humble cousin, reviewing—is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions . . . . It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.”

Craig Claiborne, and those who followed him, lifted the restaurant review out of the realm of marketing and made it a public service—a job defined by professional standards and expertise. Today, despite whatever benefits come with the every-man-a-critic ethos, we are in danger of losing that public service.

*This article has been corrected. It originally stated that Andre Surmain was both chef and owner of Lutece. We regret the error.

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Robert Sietsema is the restaurant critic at The Village Voice.