Over the years, ever since the 1960s Julia Child revolution in food, few things in journalism have stayed more fixed than restaurant reviews. The basic message is a kind of luxury porn. The basic literary formula is to go from appetizer to dessert. But now that’s changing. Restaurant reviews are woke.
The San Francisco Chronicle announced its new critic as someone who will “confront questions of ethics and social justice.” Some reviewers won’t touch restaurants where the chef has been accused of abuse. One reviewer signed up poor people in a gentrified neighborhood to review the expensive new local restaurant.
This interesting essay on the subject goes so far was to propose a whole new literary form for restaurant reviews. Ahem:
“What is needed, first and foremost, is a shift in mindset, an existential about-face from recommending places for dinner to investigating how society finds meaning through food. Some day, I hope to read gastronomic reviews as incisive, layered, and absorbing as critical discussions of books and music — and I am not alone. The cultural conditions are ripe for this type of reinvention. Food continues to rise as the most relevant cultural medium for many millennials. People are raising new questions about the implications of their eating, and a host of media platforms are experimenting with original ways to explore food from unusual angles. In their first year on the job, Ho, Escárcega, and Rao [three newly hired critics] have overturned historical norms such as star ratings and critical anonymity, and pushed the profession toward pluralism and risk-taking. Cleared of its traditional trappings, food criticism has set the stage for a new act to begin.”
I pretty much stopped reading over-ripe local restaurant reviews, and agree that the tone and format are very hackneyed by now. And maybe there’s a aftertaste of guilt thrown in, since I myself once practiced this high-bourgeois art form.
My career in sin began in the early 1970s, just as the restaurants were starting to get good in Seattle (already fine in Vancouver) with a monthly subscription newsletter we called A Gourmet’s Notebook. Each restaurant was visited thrice, with different eaters, and the reviews were long, picky, and polysyllabic. The next flagstone on my path to perdition was to gather many of these reviews and many new ones in a book I edited and largely wrote, The Best Places (Madrona Publishers, 1975). It covered the landscape of Oregon, Washington, and B.C., with lots of attention to funky places only natives knew and well apart from the tourist ghettos. The guidebook was a big hit, since we had the field to ourselves, and new editions came out each two years.
The next circle of hell was entered in the early 1980s, when Seattle Weekly, which I was editing at the time, bought the Best Places franchise from Dan Levant of Madrona Publishers. (I pause to mention a fundamental economic fact: restaurant reviews help sell restaurant ads. Or they did once, when advertisers bought print ads.)
Best Places for cities, for California, even Cheap Eats poured from the press, which was able to launch a broader regional book publishing company, Sasquatch Books, still flourishing today as one of the top presses in the Northwest, and recently purchased by Penguin Random House. Hat tips to Chad Haight, the first publisher, Gary Luke the longtime editor and publisher, and also to owners Susan and Furman Moseley of Seattle.
And did I mention that Sasquatch Books about four years ago stealthily terminated the Best Places series? Not, presumably for ethical reasons but because of competition from the greater currency and cheapness of sites like Yelp, which doesn’t pay reviewers or buy meals, but simply (if unreliably) averages reports from diners.
I must say I loved working on The Best Places, an uncorrupt and sophisticated merry band of reviewers who were remarkably able to sleuth out good food in who-knew places like Wenatchee, Astoria, and Sooke. In those naive days, I never had an ethical qualm. Now, of course eating good meals is supposed to produce instant ethical indigestion. I’m glad to be in recovery!
Nice to have David’s take on the changing art of the restaurant review. I used to religiously — maybe even prayerfully — read his reviews and still own a vintage copy of Best Places, even though few reviewed there are more than memories. Must give David credit for having improved our culinary choices in a gourmet challenged world. We who followed — myself included as one of the P-I’s four critics — profitted from his high standards.
Thanks David for taking on subjects of real importance. Politics will change, but real food stays the same. Who can we follow now? C Staley
I don’t know that I “follow” anyone, but I do try to read the reviews in the Seattle Times, and add places to my list of “should try there.” The difficulty right now seems to be the tempo of places opening and closing — often a new place will be gone by the time I’m able to get there.
A project I wish someone would take on would be a history/cookbook of local restaurants. We’ve pretty much all heard the story about dutch babies at Manca’s, and know how to make one if we’re interested, but I’m still trying to work out the garlic custard that they served at Adriatica, or the deviled crab sandwich from Franco’s Hidden Harbor. The public library has a wonderful collection of menus, but not as much information on how to make some of those specialties.
Another thought about the changes in restaurant crit, and food writing in general. We’re far more aware now about how the choices we make as consumers affect the larger world — why shouldn’t we consider this when we talk about restaurants?
Like Giddeon’s Bible Best Places was the accepted word. Now there are considerations that almost make it too arduous to dine out.
The new raise in minimum wage and some restaurant owner’s response to that has joined the list of deciding where to eat factors for working folks.
A dear visitor travelling to visit from Idaho appreciates a good dining experience. I decide to treat him to a new place in Bellevue. After being seated the waiter explained that their business model required tipping staff and an additional tip for the waiter and he set his expectation.
My faux pas was to not have explained ahead of time that I was treating him to dinner. So when the waiter laid out the billing rules of the road my friend bristled. Long storey short, the attitude of the waiter as well as the info was a buzz kill to my friend who once I’d explained that this was my treat the pre-water/pre-bar order irritated him enough to totally miss the excellence of the food.
Best Places would have forewarned us. 🙁