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.
There were faint stirrings of discomfort over the new ethics—or lack thereof. The Web site FoodEthics, launched by veteran bloggers Brooke Burton and Leah Greenstein in May 2009, published a Food Blog Code of Ethics that hedged on many of Claiborne’s principles, but still sought to partly maintain them: “We will try to visit a restaurant more than once (more than twice, if possible) before passing a final judgment . . . . We will sample the full range of items on menu. We will be fair to new restaurants . . . . We will wait at least one month after the restaurant opens, allowing them to work out some kinks, before writing a full-fledged review.” The code also urges bloggers to reveal when free food has been accepted, but a scan of blogs that review New York restaurants suggests that this is virtually never done.
In 2007, underneath a photograph showing her grinning face above a lavish quantity of cleavage, Danyelle Freeman (a.k.a. Restaurant Girl) became the first review blogger in the city to vault into a full-time professional position, as the principal reviewer at the New York Daily News. In an article announcing her new position, the newspaper reiterated her ideas about reviewing and anonymity: “The choice not to write incognito is one that is likely to raise eyebrows and debates. Must a critic dine like a spy? If not, will they get preferential service or dishes? Freeman doesn’t think so.”
The contrast between old ethics and new was brought deliciously home soon after Freeman’s appointment, in an interview conducted by Gael Greene, who had started her own review blog called The Insatiable Critic. Greene and Restaurant Girl met at a midtown restaurant, where eventually Freeman got around to complaining about the cavilers who had objected to her lack of anonymity, and the following conversation ensued:
“They say I can’t be a critic because my photograph is out there. I don’t think you need to be anonymous.”
“I think you do,” said Greene.
“They can’t bring in a new chef,” Freeman argued.
“But they can insist the chef come in if he’s on his day off.”
About the time Frank Bruni departed the Times, Danyelle Freeman was fired by the Daily News, apparently as a result of cost-cutting considerations. She retreated into her blog, where the only acknowledgement of her newspaper years was a terse note in the Gossip section: “I had a wonderful two years at the Daily News. It’s unfortunate such a great newspaper will no longer be reviewing restaurants. But Restaurant Girl is alive and well right here.”