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).”
To accommodate the mania for quick reviews, restaurants started hosting press dinners prior to opening, called “preview meals.” Organized by publicists, and including introductions of chefs and staffs along with free food, these events were typically attended by a broad range of food writers. Eventually, professional reviewers came to attend these meals. These previews also represented a sort of subsidy by the restaurants for the publications, since the meals wouldn’t be expensed. Hosting preview dinners allowed restaurants to control the circumstances in which reviews were written.
The preview dinner became the stock-in-trade of food bloggers. Many had ambitions to make the jump to the professional ranks, and the preview dinner made a more complete review possible. Restaurants sometimes tried to forestall early reviews by declaring “soft openings” or “in previews” periods, much like Broadway plays. Restaurants also began to host “friends and family” weeks prior to opening as a way of perfecting the menu before the bloggers arrived. These gatherings, too, soon became thronged with food bloggers.
Eater, a Web site spun off by the real-estate blog Curbed, has become a clearinghouse for professional and amateur reviews, along with restaurant gossip and periodic reports on the progress of coming restaurants. The site legitimatized instantaneous reviews published by bloggers under auspices that were opaque to the reader, giving them equal billing with professional reviews. Whether a meal was eaten for free by a reviewer who’d announced his presence beforehand, or according to principles of professionalism and anonymity, is of no concern to Eater. The site captures the culinary zeitgeist of our era, with its mixture of lively gossip and real-estate reporting.