EVERYONE'S A CRITIC

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Reviewing restaurants was once an art. Now people post their whims while they are chewing. Tom Harrow is wistful for the old days ...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

Everyone's a critic. These days if you claim to love food and wine and can use Twitter, Tumblr or WordPress, then you can have a voice. You may even be encouraged. Some call this a meritocracy. Others say it's handy for spontaneous searches of highly recommended local haunts.

Me? I can't believe the noise. I'm nostalgic for the days when criticism was an art. Most blogs about food and wine offer ceaseless narrative with little insight. A good critic, however, does not merely catalogue dishes but assesses them in a way that's illuminative. "I wish the critics of today would taste a little less and think a little more," said Elin McCoy, an author and critic at Bloomberg, at an international bloggers conference last year. I would then add: And write a little less. In some cases, it would be best if they didn't write at all.
 
The critic, once the arbiter of good taste, has become a mere citizen in the blogosphere. Now the disparate opinions of an engaged—if not quite engaging—online community (such as the appropriately shrill-sounding Yelp, or Yell in Britain, and Amazon's own enthusiastic customers) have displaced the authority of experts. There is some good here: we have all become more confident in defining our own tastes, and crowd-sourced restaurant recommendations can yield some overlooked gems in unexpected places. But who judges these many new judges?
 
Like jobs in real estate or recruitment, restaurant blogging requires no qualifications. If you can afford lunch, you can write about your experience. Admittedly, traditional restaurant columns were often manned by amateurs; the paper's boozers and bon viveurs. Entertainingly irreverent, expansive of both girth and opinion, these writers were often as quick to offer bon mots as to guzzle Batard Montrachet over a three-bottle lunch. But even if their industry qualifications were vague, their reviews would offer wider commentary, using restaurants as platforms to illustrate something larger and more thought-provoking about ourselves.

The dining (or drinking) experiences of Kingsley Amis, Keith Waterhouse and later Will Self could yield illuminating and even philosophical observations. Then there are the columnists with a bit more professional gravitas, whose knowledge as gourmands and oenophiles ensured their recommendations were essential. They include Tim Atkin and Terry Durack in Britain, Lettie Teague, Corie Brown and Ruth Reichl in America. Both types of critic may have worthy amateur online counterparts, but anyone who heralds the meritocracy of the blogosphere fails to appreciate the density of inarticulate and inexpert writing now out there. Amid so much scum, it is difficult for the cream to rise. 
 
The cheap immediacy of blogging does allow some rare writers to develop a deserved audience. I'm thinking of such sites as Dos Hermanos, Opinionated About Dining, The Lambshank Redemption and Cheese and Biscuits, for example. A blog can be a useful outlet for unfiltered subversiveness. More often, it is a toxic repository of rampant self-indulgence, bad writing and errors. And the blogosphere blurs quite a few boundaries—between criticism and promotion, storytelling and shilling. Quite a few publicists double as bloggers to raise the profile of their clients. Bloggers are also increasingly targeted in PR campaigns, and are more inclined to pen lengthy and grateful tributes to the source of a free meal. This is not criticism, but diary entries.
 
In an urge to be first, bloggers are more likely to forsake an understood rule of criticism: a restaurant should be in business for at least two weeks before a critic places a review. Professional reviewers may attend the soft launch, the opening night, the press lunch, etc, but the best won't write up a place until after several visits. Established, respected publications, online and in print, do not expect their reviewers to be too hasty in formulating opinions. Amateur critics, however, can rarely afford to be so generous. What's worse, their reviews of a mediocre or frustrating meal are often mediocre and frustrating in themselves, and often appear just as visibly in online search results. When Adrian Gill skewers a sacred cow like L'Ami Louis in Vanity Fair, the result is an electric, hilarious clash of the Titans. The sniping of waggish bloggers is often more like horseflies on mules. Some also appear to write less for the public’s benefit than for other bloggers—a bizarrely incestuous cabal. Thus Twitter's re-tweet function offers a new outlet for the solipsistic.

Everyone has the right to an opinion, few the sense or sensibility not to express it. Perhaps I am a curmudgeon, but all these frivolously documented sips and mouthfuls are becoming harder to swallow.

Meanwhile my favourite columnists writing today on restaurants and/or wine are (in no particular order):

Jay McInerney (Wall Street Journal)
Eric Asimov (New York Times)
Richard Vines (Bloomberg)
Brad A Johnson (Food and Wine)
Marina O'Loughlin (Metro)
A.A. Gill (Sunday Times/Vanity Fair)
Tim Atkin (Intelligent Life)
Jancis Robinson (Financial Times)
 
 

Tom Harrow is a wine columnist for POMP and Urban Junkies and founder of WineChap. He is also a regular writer for FT's How To Spend It and Vintage Seekers. His last piece for More Intelligent Life was about what to drink when a love affair is over.

Picture credit: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com (via Flickr)