Professional Restaurant Critics, Bloggers or Review Sites?
With thousands of restaurants in London alone, choosing where to eat can be a daunting task. When all else fails, you can always turn to food critics – but are they the people to listen to?
When it comes to engaging with culture, I don’t always seem to get it quite right. Many is the time a film has been panned by the critics, only for me to love it upon watching, and more than once have I gone to highly-acclaimed restaurant to leave disappointed. My belief is that only an extremely silly person would believe that there is such a thing as an absolute right or wrong opinion when it comes to consuming things – be it films or food. So what are the critics there for?
The Guardian food writer Jay Rayner believes it is less about the restaurant and more about the review itself – “Some people do use [food reviews] as a guide, but the vast majority read them for vicarious pleasure or displeasure”. I am one of those people. I love nothing more than curling up with the Sunday papers and reading about the fanciest or most fashionable restaurant that week. But food reviewers do much more than that, they give you a way to understand the food and teach you a language you can use to describe it. The critics can tell you why the food is good, what it is about each ingredient which adds something to the dish as a whole. Last week I mentioned that egg added richness to a pizza – a truth I always knew, but hadn’t previously been able to explain. Critics shape what we already think into more coherent, eloquent sentences.
Critics also have access to new restaurants long before us mere mortals do, and are exposed to food trends and sure-fire successes far earlier on. If you want to understand where food culture is heading, they are the people to follow. If you disagree with one food critic, that is one thing, but if ten highly-respected reviewers agree on a restaurant, it should give you a good idea of its worth. We asked Joanne Gould, the blogger behind Jo Eats London whether she thought food critics were a good gastronomic barometer, “Yes and no. If there is widespread panning or applause then yes, but you will always get people disagreeing. Plus, it is kind of more fun to go make up your own mind”.
This is where food bloggers come in. These are the halfway point between your Gran and Giles Coren – people who know about food and actively engage with it, but who do not write for a national magazine. They are – for the most part - yet to achieve the semi-celebrity achieved by the critic. Successful food bloggers often start out like anyone else– looking for good places and tasty things to eat – and they form a knowledgeable food community. Blogger Her Favourite Food says she finds most of her new restaurants through other food bloggers, “you build up a relationship with them through following them for a while, so in time you realise you agree with and trust”. Herein lies the rub however – although they may not have achieved the same levels of fame as the critics, bloggers still wield a considerable amount of influence in the restaurant world. If you are a successful blogger with a good following, restaurants may seek you out, offering you free meals in exchange for good publicity and compromising the review’s reliability.
And so we come to the trickiest reviews of all – Trip Advisor. A restaurant’s best friend or worst nightmare, Trip Advisor has taken a great deal of heat in recent years for not doing enough to prevent fraudulent reviews, spawning the twitter campaign #noreceiptnoreview. The platform is set up so that anyone can say anything they like about the business and reviews will only be taken down if it is very clear that guidelines have been violated (the reviewer is abusive in their post, or never actually went to the restaurant, for example).
So what use, if any, does Trip Advisor have for potential customers? It can be a perfect window into customer service. I don’t mean by reading that Mabel30954893 gave the service 1 star (Mabel30954893 could have had a bad day, perhaps she got caught in the rain or got a flat tyre and took it out on the waiter), but by reading how the management responds. If they respond rudely (or not at all), and you can see that they do so in other reviews, that is a fairly good measure of how much they value their customers.
So, what can we take from all of this? Essentially that Trip Advisor should give you an idea of customer service, food bloggers are helpful insofar as you find one you relate to and trust, and critics are there to entertain, to give you the tools to talk about and understand food, and – at times – to capture and translate the zeitgeist. As Rayner put it, “mine is a writing job not an eating job. Either you like what I write and find it authoritative or you don't. Simple as that.”