The Problem with Restaurant Criticism

Restaurant criticism leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  From newspapers to blogs, restaurant reviews possess no intrinsic value beyond pure entertainment. One individual’s perspective on a dining establishment—the atmosphere, the service, the food—however expert, remains meaningless. Since “restaurant criticism” revolves around an absolutely subjective metric, taste, and reports on subjective experience are impossible to evaluate, restaurant reviews exist merely for chuckles and sour-faced argument. The unjustly lauded celebrity hangout, the unfairly slammed neighborhood favorite: judgments meted out from the offices above or gut reactions down below. Although restaurant reviews provide amusement to accompany Sunday morning coffee or afternoon snack break, they offer no real information and no contestable argumentation. I’ve written my fair share of reviews. I consider myself a well-studied, well-informed diner. Yet, I would expect no one to take my word as divine prescription regarding the merits of any restaurant, dish, or chef. Similarly, I consider so-called “expert” restaurant reviews a completely fallible source of guidance, like internet advice columns or WebMD.

Restaurant reviews do include a few “facts” for prospective diners: the chef’s name and background, the restaurant’s location and history, and the food’s bent, whether fusion or the new fan favorite, “contemporary American” (as opposed to a more defined historical coordinate, such as late 19th century Massachusetts cuisine?). Similar to the bullet pointed information printed in dining directories and media packets, these “facts” help diners identify restaurants of interest. An ideal piece of restaurant criticism ought to begin with these basic tidbits, in order to establish a common foundation for further discussion.

The problem with restaurant criticism is that critics present opinion as fact. While observations like “the chicken tastes  oversalted” or “on one visit, service seemed unwieldy and slow” derive their power from perceived facts, they function solely as opinion. Extrapolating perception into universalism misleads diners who might find that chicken perfectly palatable or that waiter’s pace just right. Of course, all criticism involves the disguise of opinion as fact. When a book review claims that a character feels flat and predictable, he presents a personal observation as a truism. But the problem with restaurant criticism is not just that critics present opinion as fact, much as book, art, and music critics. A restaurant cannot and should not be evaluated as a stable medium. Every part of the restaurant product constantly changes over a single evening, and every consumer encounters an individualized product and responds to that product individually. Whereas a literary text remains relatively constant (excluding editorial changes, as in the debates regarding Shakespeare’s quarto and folio editions), presenting a stable object for examination, a restaurant metamorphoses extraordinarily quickly. While questions remain about the correct text of Hamlet, Hamlet possesses a certain stability that frequent menu changes, varying ingredient quality, oscillating chef performance, and random chance deny the average restaurant.

Therefore, restaurant critics, no matter how expert or experienced, never provide even reasonably accurate information about a restaurant’s subjective qualities. Dining at a restaurant multiple times, eating every meal in restaurants, and having traveled extensively improve a critic’s ability to make educated guesses, sketching more polished portraits of a restaurant. Nevertheless, no restaurant critic, to my knowledge at least, writes with a prophetic or omnipresent pen. Reviewing a performance of Hamlet poses similar difficulties, but less random variation and less subjective appraisal improve the critic’s precision. More often than not, theater reviews of canonical works like Hamlet consider the director’s and actors’ execution and interpretation of the script on a broader, thematic scale. Restaurant criticism rarely, if ever considers the chefs’ and owners’ execution and interpretation of a given cuisine: no stable text exists, and random variation remains a looming complication.

Unlike art, music, or literary criticism, restaurant criticism remains a nascent field without substantial theoretical development. Literary criticism exists concurrent with the earliest literatures, most commonly isolated as classical Greek period texts. The first modern restaurants appeared nearly two millennia after classical Greece, and no foundational restaurant criticism theory exists. In his The Physiology of Taste, Brillat-Savarin never explicitly analyzes appropriate modes of restaurant criticism; contemporaneous and later texts also fail to organize a systemic or even post-structural approach to restaurant criticism. No theoretical guidelines exist for describing and parsing a restaurant’s product and performance.

What does exist, however, is a wealth of theory surrounding the semiotics of food; eating rituals, food items, and food production contain enormous significance and meaning on cultural and aesthetic levels. I once read an entire academic journal devoted to the importance of jello as a cultural and economic signifier. Unfortunately, almost all of this theory is inaccessible to a nonacademic audience, and much feels wholly pretentious. This body of theory needs to be distilled into an understandable and approachable form, and then applied to produce a new field of study: restaurant theory. Restaurant theory should analyze the thematic intentions and symbols of a restaurant, and then evaluate the significance, meaning, and value of its food.

Return to the example of a book review that attacks a character as flat. Such an apparently arbitrary and opinionated criticism actually stems from E.M. Forster’s work Aspects of the Novel, in which Forster categorizes rounded and flat characters, and then indicates how to determine a character’s dimensionality. Someday, restaurant theorists might argue that a chef’s pervasive salt use, along with other seasoning decisions, fits into a pre-identified characterization or genre of restaurants. The food, not necessarily oversalted, constitutes a larger, culturally meaningful sign.

I doubt though that restaurant theory will emerge for some years. The American public backlashes constantly against academic approaches to popular culture. In fact, humanities research is oftentimes dismissed as unimportant and uselessly esoteric. Why study Aristotle when html appears so tantalizingly important? Consequently, attempts to shift the focus of restaurant criticism away from inane squabbling, momentary hipness, and ungrounded opinion will inevitably fail.

Regrettably, current restaurant criticism is as meaningless as the moniker “contemporary American cuisine.” As a forum for entertainment, restaurant criticism has succeeded. But as a tool to encourage meaningful eating, restaurant criticism is failing and unsustainable. And the problems with restaurant criticism will remain unsolved until anti-intellectualism and a discomfort with change disappear from the dining scene.


Filed under Miscellaneous, Theory and Criticism

4 responses to “The Problem with Restaurant Criticism

  1. love this post! As a new food blogger (I also have an old non-food related blog), I am writing a restaurant review tomorrow night, on a local italian place down the road. The review will be on my blog. Your post will give me literal food for thought while I ask questions and critique the food and establishment. Good stuff.

  2. Good post. As a chef, I think that one of the rules of a restaurant critique should be that the critic visit at least twice, once on a busy night, and once on a slower night. Every restaurant has at least one “bad service period” every week (even if only for 20 minutes of service) where they are short staffed, get slammed with too many tables all at once, or simple human error.

  3. I didn’t read this b/c it was too long. but I get pissed off when reviews are all flowery. A trick to good writing is to write everything, then cut it in half. eliminate all the bullshit and the unnecessarys. You don’t need to tell the reader EVERYTHING. If you don’t have a strong opinion on something, just leave it out and tell the facts. Take good pictures and let them speak for themselves. But most importantly, write for yourself. If you can keep yourself entertained, you are doing a great job.

  4. I have never trusted a review, whether movie or restaurant, in my life. It’s unfortunate that some people still do. I agree with most of your points although the development of a “restaurant theory” wouldn’t make my dining experience more meaningful. Great post.

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