Are restaurant critics obsolete?


The 2008 James Beard Awards for best restaurant, best chef, best cookbook, etc. were announced yesterday, and Minnesota got skunked. We had three chefs in the running for Best Chef Midwest – Isaac Becker of the 112 Eatery, Tim McKee of La Belle Vie and Solera, and Alex Roberts of Restaurant Alma and Brasa, which pretty much guaranteed that none of them would get the award. Wisconsin only had one candidate in the race, Adam Siegel of Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro in Milwaukee, so the cheesehead voting block had their way. Needless to say, Rubaiyat in Decorah, IA never had a chance.

It’s a pretty safe bet that most of the people who voted for Bartolotto’s have never been to the 112 Eatery, and vice versa, but the Awards are a tremendous publicity machine for the restaurants involved, and like they say, people who enjoy sausages or the law, or restaurant awards, should never see any of them being made.

I used to get these James Beard Award ballots every year, and dutifully fill them out, flipping through page after page of restaurants I had never been to, and many I had never even heard of. Is Canlis in Seattle more deserving of the Outstanding Service award than Vetris of Philadelphia? How many people are there on the planet who have actually dined at both of these restaurants more than once? Don’t get me started.

But it did remind me of a topic I have been thinking about, which is whether the internet is making professional restaurant critics obsolete. Here’s what I am thinking:

1) Professional restaurant critics are very expensive. Back when I was at the Star Tribune, my dining expenses often ran to over $1000 a month, as I recall, and I would guess my colleague Rick Nelson’s tab was similar. We were the envy of our colleagues. We were supposed to visit each restaurant we reviewed at least twice, with dining companions, and sample a total of eight dinners. Most restaurant critics work for newspapers, and as newspapers enter their death spiral and cut staff and budget and newshole, somebody in management must be looking at that budget line, and wondering. I predict that five years from now, there will be a lot fewer paid critics around.

2) Restaurant critics are an artifact of the gastronomic revolution that started around 40 years ago, when most Americans had never heard the word pasta. They needed experts, or thought they did, and so people like me, (who really weren’t experts, except in relative terms) got jobs as critics, which instantly elevated us to the status of experts. But nowadays, the public is much more knowledgeable about food, and much more skeptical about what they read in the newspaper.

3) We know more than you do, but collectively, you know more than we do. As predictors of whether the public will enjoy a particular restaurant, experienced professionals like Rick or Dara or myself are much more reliable than the average local food blogger. And we know a lot more than the typical amateur – we can give you background and detail and insights that will enhance your dining experience.

But now, thanks to the internet and the digital revolution, it is possible to aggregate the collective wisdom and dining experience of thousands of diners. And as New Yorker magazine writer James Surowiecki argues in The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations (which I haven’t actually read), when you put together a lot of individual opinions, the crowd often does get it right. A lot of the individual comments in the Zagat restaurant guides may be inane, or just plain wrong, or based on one atypical experience, but on balance, their thousands of reader/reviewers get it right.