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.
More than ever, diners could use a reliable critical guide. But where once there were a few dependable voices who reviewed restaurants based on a common set of professional standards and strategies, there is now a digital free-for-all. As with many things on the Web, this profusion of voices is often touted as a wondrous blow for democracy, a long-overdue rising up of the masses against the elitist overlords of the culinary realm. Thus the runaway popularity of sites like Chowhound and Yelp, which publishes city-specific reviews by anyone who cares to weigh in on everything from restaurants to churches, and whose motto is “Real People. Real Reviews.” I’m all for everyone having his or her say, but when it comes to cultural criticism there is a strong case to be made for professionalism and expertise. As the eminent film critic Richard Schickel wrote in 2007, in response to a New York Times article on the decline of professional book-reviewing and the rise of review-bloggers: “Criticism—and its humble cousin, reviewing—is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions . . . . It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.”
Craig Claiborne, and those who followed him, lifted the restaurant review out of the realm of marketing and made it a public service—a job defined by professional standards and expertise. Today, despite whatever benefits come with the every-man-a-critic ethos, we are in danger of losing that public service.
*This article has been corrected. It originally stated that Andre Surmain was both chef and owner of Lutece. We regret the error.