Why dining critics (like me!) are still relevant and important in the age of Instagram and Yelp
Food writing has been my passion, my avocation, and my second job for 23 years now. But, to massively understate things, a lot has changed over the past decade.
Twenty years ago, most information was filtered through traditional media, vetted by gatekeepers whose purpose was to bring a semblance of responsibility to the information. In my world — the world of food and restaurants — you had to know your stuff before you could strut your stuff. In 1995, no outlet would publish you unless you knew your subject. Fast-forward to 2017, and Facebook, Yelp, and Instagram have turned everyone into food bloggers — not necessarily a bad thing in itself. But along the way, those platforms have cultivated a zombie-like readership zonked out on mindless listicles, gossip, and food porn. The marriage of everyman food critics and an ADHD audience could only lower the bar.
Another factor: phone cameras. Remember the saying, “Everyone deserves a voice, but not everyone deserves a microphone”? Well, once the ubiquity of the internet met the ubiquity of high-quality camera phones, everyone had a voice and a mic.
My theory is that once camera phones got better — around five years ago — everyone could see decent pictures of what a restaurant’s food looked like. When that happened, actually reading about restaurants became a chore for all but the most ardent foodies. Traditional restaurant reviews, thoughtful dining pieces, and blogs like (plug) my Eating Las Vegas (eatinglv.com) once had mass appeal — right up until those masses could simply look at pretty pictures to satisfy their low-information threshold about where to eat. Thus did clickbait such as “Top 5 Tacos in Town!” and “David Chang’s Favorite Pizzas!” supplant actually learning about food from writers who knew what they were talking about. If you want to learn something, you have to pay attention, just like in elementary school. And just as in elementary school, most students would rather be told the right answers than do their homework.
Where does this leave the future of food writing? The internet has been the ultimate double-edged sword. On one hand, consumers are more educated than ever. Almost instantly, you can research a restaurant, a wine, or what a proper bucatini Amatriciana is made of. You can find a crowdsourced opinion on a ramen parlor in Dallas or a taco hut in Ensenada. What you can’t find very easily anymore is the informed, thoughtful opinion of someone dedicated to finding the perfect pasta, or the best sushi.
“Who needs an expert,” you might say, “when I have the opinions of a hundred Yelpers at my fingertips?”
What a real critic brings is dedication — an obsession, really — to the subject matter that no amateur can approach. A professional food writer is an instructor, a critic, and a consumer advocate. It takes years of experience — of developing his palate and knowledge of food — before he can opine on the merits of something. A Yelper tells you what he liked. A professional reviewer tells you why something is good or bad — and if it is good, how and why to like it. This creates a bond between writer and reader, establishes a trust, a confidence that the review is the product of devoted research, multiple meals, and part of an ongoing quest for excellence. As Anton Ego said in Ratatouille: “What I provide is … perspective” — which is what you pay any expert for.
And that bond grows into a relationship with someone whose tastes and opinions you come to trust. You don’t have a relationship with anyone on TripAdvisor. Their tastes and opinions are unknown; their prejudices and predilections are a mystery. Think of a real restaurant critic like one of your favorite teachers — the ones who always made you look forward to class. These days, those teachers are in short supply because the outlets for their talents have been buried in an avalanche of social media — but if you want to appreciate food beyond a third-grade level, they are more than worth seeking out.