Sam Sifton, And What He Means to Me (Goodbye, Bruni-Betting)
So the big news in the food world, at least for the geekiest of us, is that the New York Times is replacing the ever-comedic and excellent Frank Bruni with the eloquent Sam Sifton, the paper’s current culture editor, a former editor of the Dining Section, and a frequent food essayist. (Here’s the oh so meta Dining Section blog post on the internal memo to staff on his hiring.) So, to summarize, the two takeaways here for those of us who obsess about this stuff are basically seen as:
1) This is the end of the era of the anonymous restaurant critic, which, while obviously already over as soon as people could scan photos and probably always somewhat circumspect, is now really, really over because the paper of record has decided to go with somebody whose mug is easily found online and was already known in the New York City food world.
2) This is the continuing death knell of the power of the restaurant critic, since there are no so many voices — some expert, some wack, but hey, all worth a read — commenting on any given restaurant, the power to “make or break” a space, as we all like to say, is no longer quite as possible.
OK number one is probably true on most levels. With current technology (meaning everything from restaurant gossip blogs to Google Image search to me, if I were a restaurant general manager, being able to shoot a photo with my fancy phone and send it to my PR agent for verification that so and so was over at table nine) it’s pretty damn easy to know when you have somebody worth paying attention to in the house if you care. And perhaps that does skew the results (feel free to debate away here).
And that fact gives more credence to the second point, which is that social networking, that reading a mish-mash of observations and experiences from normal people, some with trained palates, others with scant brain cells, actually helps you form a rounder picture of a restaurant. In fact, this was and is the whole concept behind the Zagat Survey guides, which bucked the mainstream (meaning the sole opinion from the Times critic back in the late 1970s) by letting regular diners — us — give our opinion in some kind of accessible forum.
But I wonder what most diners really think. Meaning the person somewhat interested in good food and great restaurants who reads their local review and looks up recipes and gets Gourmet magazine and Googles where to find the best hot dog in Raleigh, N.C. but doesn’t obsessively follow Twitter feeds about openings or whose place got shut down by the Department of Health. Meaning my parents, or most of my friends, and most of the people they know.
I worked at the New York Daily News as a features food reporter when they hired Restaurant Girl — a food blogger as famous for planting her face (and her cleavage) on her home page as her gumption for deciding to go ahead and review restaurants on her own terms. The New York food world was aghast, but our readers mostly didn’t even know who she was beforehand or that there was a controversy. So in the end, it was just as if they’d hired anyone else to do the job: Did they like her writing enough to read a review all the way through and halfway agree with her point of view if they’d been themselves?
My guess is that most people still care about what the reviewers say as much or as little as they did before, as long as they have this vague sense of trust that the writer isn’t taking foie gras home in a cooler and going on trips to Napa on the owner’s private jet. I also think that restaurant critics don’t have the power to make or break, not so much because there is more critical chatter about the restaurants, but because there is more chatter period. Used to be the only restaurants you could really know about were the ones your friends told you about or the five or six your local paper covered every week. Now, should you so choose, you could obsessively read about five or six new places every hour, at least in a city like New York. (And that’s a habit I’d have to give zero stars, by the way.)
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