I’d also been influenced by the consumerist movement of the previous decade, and felt that my mission was to represent the interests of the typical restaurant diner, who ate in plebian places most of the time and went to expensive restaurants mainly for special occasions.
The Voice started posting my reviews online late in 1998, but little did I suspect the profound effect the Internet was to have on restaurant reviewing. Around 2003 food blogs began to appear, and quickly became a predominant feature of the food-writing landscape. The prose is often spontaneous and unedited, and its quality can run from barely readable to brilliant and innovative. The Web site Food Blog Blog counts nearly two thousand of these blogs today, but I suspect there are many times that number. Though commercial versions featuring a paid staff have been launched (New York magazine’s Grub Street, for example) the majority of bloggers remain unpaid and unedited.
Food blogs cover all aspects of the city’s food scene. Some concentrate on recipes, some on chef interviews, some on greenmarkets and community-based food issues. But many are concerned, partly or fully, with reviewing restaurants. From their inception, these restaurant-reviewing blogs saw no point in adhering to the rules established by Claiborne, nor did they, in most cases, announce what the substitute rules were. Most rejected anonymity, accepting or even soliciting free food in the restaurants under review.
Writing a blog called Restaurant Girl, Harvard graduate Danyelle Freeman was typical of the new crop of restaurant-reviewing bloggers. She distinguished herself from the others by including an ethical statement in her blog, under the heading “Review Policy.” To Freeman, anonymity for restaurant reviewers was a disingenuous burden:
Why not conceal my identity: That would go against everything Restaurant Girl has stood for since the inception of my blog. I have no reason to hide behind a false identity, hats, sunglasses and any other disguise. Afterall [sic], I aspire to be as personable as humanly possible to my reader as well as to chefs & restaurateurs alike.
Freeman emphatically rejected the idea that a critic should wait for a restaurant to stabilize before publishing a review, though she seems somewhat defensive on that point:
If you are open for business and charging your clientele full price, you are open to review . . . . With the advent of blogs and instantaneous gratification & news, there has been much controversy over the fairness of such practices. I’m quite sure the debate will continue to be a dominent [sic] issue of debate. Therefore, I feel compelled to reiterate my policy of review once again: if you are open for business and charging your clientele full price, you are open to judgement.
This penchant for early reviews affected print publications, too, so that a critique written months after a place opened, no matter how much fairer and more complete, now seemed anachronistic. Gradually, the lag time between when a restaurant opened and when a review appeared shortened, and today publications like New York and Time Out New York often publish reviews within a matter of weeks. Shorter reviews could appear on their Web sites in days or even hours. Frank Bruni, the reviewer at the Times beginning in 2004, was one of the few to resist this trend. He could afford to, since his review, no matter how tardy, continued to be the most influential. In the Times’s Diner’s Journal blog, however, restaurants were critiqued after a shorter lag time.
Bruni clearly understood that early reviewing had profoundly changed the restaurant industry, forcing places to put a lot of effort into food and service at the outset, then allowing them to slack off once the dust has settled. In a re-review of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Spice Market, a restaurant that the Times had awarded three stars several years earlier, he noted, “Today it suggests the steepness of many a restaurant’s decline once it has made its first, glowing impression . . . .”
When Bruni left the Times job in August 2009, he was replaced by Sam Sifton, who had worked at the paper since 2001 and been its cultural news editor since 2005. In the 1990s, Sifton had been the restaurant critic at New York Press. Reporting on Sifton’s new appointment, the New York Observer sounded the death knell for critic anonymity: “He’ll have to negotiate a foodie-obsessed atmosphere, and a new media environment that will end The Times’ quaint idea of anonymity for its restaurant critic (it’s not so hard to find an image of Mr. Sifton).”