Two cheers for the return of the restaurant reviewer

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Not all restaurant critics live here
  • jphilipg/Wikimedia Commons
  • Not all restaurant critics live here

It takes a special kind of myopia to worry that restaurant reviewing is dying when more Americans are doing it than ever. (Online restaurant critic, the last job Americans will do.) But the old model—wherein the critic was an anonymous figure with the power to slam what needed to be slammed and the publication was big enough to (usually) withstand a restaurant's fury without worrying about being cut off from access for future stories—has become rarer, although it survives in a few places (like this publication). One-person food journalism operations—by which I mean blogs, but also once-major players whose food sections have been downsized to the point they're no bigger than a personal blog—have to thread an impossible needle. They have to review restaurants as honestly as they can, on their own funds or as PR guests, while always looking over their shoulders to see which bridges to future access are about to burst into flames. (Or by simply saying "to hell with it" and getting right into bed with the industry.)

So in that environment it's a big deal that Eater, the New York-based food news and chef gossip site, announced yesterday that it was going into the reviewing business in a serious way. Ryan Sutton, the Bloomberg critic who just garnered attention in Chicago with his reviews of Next Steak, Grace, and Elizabeth, becomes their chief reviewer for New York; Bill Addison, a former Atlanta Magazine and Dallas Morning News critic, becomes a roving restaurant editor covering the scene nationwide; and Robert Sietsema, who's been an Eater contributor since he got cut from the Village Voice last year, will be an occasional New York reviewer in addition to various other kinds of coverage he provides.

This is worth a qualified two cheers, certainly, but it's hard to escape the fact that the words "New York" appear twice in that paragraph and the rest of the country gets lumped together. Eater has a national edition and 27 regional editions, which range from obvious restaurant cities (D.C., San Francisco, us) to ones that may have excellent local scenes but where you wonder how much news they can really generate on a daily basis (Maine, Louisville). Eater is clearly determined to be a big player in New York, and there's been some outstanding, think-piecey coverage by people like Sietsema, Amanda Kludt, and Gabe Ulla that has made it much more than the Chef Gawker it was a few years ago.

But even in Chicago, which by anyone's count would be number two or number three among American food cities, the much-less-lavishly-staffed local edition is a very different thing. It's mainly a bulletin board for announcements from public relations firms about restaurant openings and chefs' movements that only intermittently shows deeper engagement with the scene through in-depth interviews and other features. I'm sure Addison will pass through here and probably write very good things, as Sutton just did for Bloomberg, but that's not anywhere near the same as having the kind of dogged, based-here attachment to the scene as they clearly intend to have in New York. So two cheers for the new business direction, but a third waits for a similar commitment to the remote Frontera where the Alineas and Blackbirds roam.

• On Wednesday I wrote about the tragedy that befell longtime chef Dean Zanella when his wife died suddenly, a week after giving birth to twin girls, and that a fund-raiser event was being planned at Mindy Segal's Hot Chocolate by industry friends. The event will be start at 6 PM on March 31; admission is $200 (cash or check only), and a genuinely heartwarming number of local chefs and restaurants are donating food, drink, and their time, including Bill Kim, Heather Terhune, John Manion, Tony Priolo, Elisa Narow, Rob Levitt, Takashi Yagihashi, Giuseppe Tentori, John Hogan, and Roger Herring. There will be an afterparty at Big Star from 9:30 PM to midnight, with a portion of regular proceeds going to the fund. For reservations call Hot Chocolate at 773-489-1747.

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