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.”
In the half century since Craig Claiborne developed his reviewing system, the nation’s attitude toward food has changed profoundly. Eating in restaurants has gone from being an infrequent occurrence for most people to being a primary form of entertainment. The marketplace is filled with new food, more food, and more-expensive food, and eating has become a preoccupation for the millions who consider themselves foodies. Many patrons no longer want to become regulars at one or two restaurants—they’d rather sample the vast smorgasbord the city offers, and many consider being the first to reach a new place a preferment. This behavior is creating a boom-and-bust cycle for restaurants, in which novelty and buzz is valued above excellence.