When Chicago Tribune restaurant reviewer Phil Vettel accepted a buyout last month, it left the nation’s third-most populous city without a full-time food critic. A few weeks later, Detroit Free Press dining critic Mark Kurlyandchik also took a voluntary layoff, leaving that city without one of its food writing mainstays.
These departures are just the latest high-profile examples of a trend in food media that’s been accelerating over the past few years. As local newspapers across the country have cut costs in the wake of severe advertising shortfalls and declining subscription rates, their food sections, which can be expensive to produce, have been decimated. Many newspapers no longer have a dedicated restaurant critic, and some alt-weeklies that were mainstays of local criticism, like the Boston Phoenix, the Village Voice, and Seattle Weekly, are out of business or no longer publish articles about food. And while there are plenty of food influencer Instagram accounts, paid bloggers, and Yelp reviewers, few are serious independent journalists who have the big picture on the city’s restaurant scene that helps provide context for their opinions.
But even as the media landscape shifts, professional food journalists still provide an important service to their readers and enhance the cultural life of a community, even if their role is in flux. A recent article in Eater Chicago, commenting on Vettel’s departure, described a food critic as an “arbiter of taste” whose role is to “champion places that return value for your hard-earned money and keep you away from the spots that would fleece you.” But during a panel discussion this morning hosted by Eater Chicago, two prominent critics disputed that view, saying that food writing has expanded to wrestle with issues in American culture through the lens of dining, not just recommend or pan restaurants.
Tejal Rao, a restaurant critic for the New York Times, mentioned “Black Lives Matter” as a cultural movement that has informed multiple pieces she’s written over the past year. “There’s this idea of restaurant criticism about being at a table tasting something and giving a bunch of adjectives. It has to be more than that or it’s really boring,” Rao said.
Devra First, restaurant critic for the Boston Globe, added that restaurants, many of which have closed or shifted to takeout operations, have been a huge story during the pandemic. She believes that part of her role is to “support and uplift” the industry, not just decide which restaurants are worthwhile. “In the moment that we’re in now any restaurant that is managing to muddle through is a four-star restaurant,” First said.
Rao’s colleague Pete Wells agrees. In an article in the New York Times last week, Wells said that with takeout and outdoor dining during the pandemic, his job has changed but the essence of his food writing remains the same: telling people about where to find great food. When he discovered a restaurant that was bringing New Yorkers joy while keeping them healthy, “I didn’t want to just report on it. I wanted to bang a drum so people would pay attention,” Wells said.
Journalists who write about food can take their reporting in many different directions. Freelance writer Korsha Wilson, who was also on the Eater Chicago panel today, pitches stories to publications about voices who aren’t already at the table. She says her mission is to “highlight the amazing work that black and brown chefs are doing in this country.”
Rao said she’s written several stories about food policy, as well as “weird” essays like the one about all the smells she encountered during a day. Other writers highlight important trends that are affecting local businesses. In one example this week, the Los Angeles Times reported on a “dine and dash” scam in which some customers are ordering takeout using fraudulent credit card numbers, or disputing charges made through delivery apps (who often side with the customer rather than the restaurant). One such scam helped put a Korean restaurant called Spoon by H out of business.
Closer to home, local food writing, in publications like the Seattle Times, Seattle Met, and Eater Seattle, helps inform readers about changes in the local dining scene. Sometimes these writers also offer their opinions about recommended spots. Just this week, I’ve learned about a restaurant that one critic thinks is the best pizza in Washington State, about a historic Japanese restaurant in the International District that’s evolved its izakaya menu to include Nashville-styled fried chicken and a teriyaki-inspired cheeseburger, and about a Syrian food cart on Vashon Island.
While there aren’t as many restaurant reviews as there used to be, and even the ones that exist don’t usually come with star ratings, local and national audiences depend on these independent voices to help them understand how the food world is changing. When social media is dominated by advertising and influencers, it’s critical for readers of all backgrounds to have trusted sources who can give them valuable information and put them at the heart of their efforts. And these food writers – even if they’re no longer just arbiters of taste – can still make recommendations on where you should spend your dining dollars.
What I Ate: Roasted beet salad from Joli