Sunday, November 22, 2009

The New Yorker's Food Issue

Last week, my favorite of The New Yorker's annual issues — the food issue — arrived in my mailbox. It has pieces by Adam Gopnik on reading cookbooks (a series of companion pieces online evaluates some of them, including one by Ferran Adria), Calvin Trillin on poutine (with a podcast online), Mimi Sheraton on something called spit cake and one by John Colapinto on the life of an inspector for the Michelin guides. Michelin insists on maintaining a high level of secrecy for its inspectors because they believe that only professional, trained reviewers evaluating restaurants anonymously can be trusted.

With cameras everywhere and blogs flooding the Internet, it's harder for restaurant reviewers to hide their identities and go unnoticed. It has led to a debate on just how important anonymity even is for reviewers anymore (Colapinto also has a blog post on a discussion about anonymity with various people in the food world).

There is something to be said for reading reviews written by professionals — newspaper reviewers who live by certain standards, or people with some food-related background and the knowledge to rate a restaurant smartly. But I don't believe that only reviews from those categories of people are trustworthy. The common person who eats out often develops an appreciation for what tastes good and, out of pure curiosity and personal interest, can learn the intricacies of cooking and what makes something good or bad. This means that personal preferences may play more of a role in those reviews, but after following any writer for some time, readers can gain a sense of that and determine how much they have in common with the writers as eaters.

Some have criticized the crowd-sourced sites, such as Yelp, because there have been instances of restaurants shilling for themselves or rewarding people for posting positive reviews on the site. My father is a devoted follower of the Zagat guides, which surveys diners and produces collective reviews and ratings it believes will balance out to be accurate. Having participated in Zagat surveys, I don't particularly trust this method. During the survey period, Zagat asks diners to rate restaurants they have eaten at in the past year. I know my memory is often faulty — especially with providing average prices I spent — and choosing a rating sometimes feels arbitrary. And so, in this regard, reading the reviews of a newspaper or a blogger, which have likely been recorded closer to the time of the meal, seems to make more sense.

I read reviews for utility — to gather an idea of whether I might like a restaurant — but I also read them as entertainment. But when I am approaching the reviews of a restaurant as a potential diner, and someone who takes her meals seriously, I never rely on any one review.  Determining whether I will eat at a given restaurant calls for research from multiple sources. For me, Yelp provides a good, quick initial impression of how a restaurant has been viewed. I may compare it to what people have posted on Chowhound or even the reviews on Menupages. Having done this for years, it's easy to spot the negative reviews not to be trusted — those who come off as high maintenance or as picky eaters. Then I have my list of food sites and food bloggers that I read often and have found to be consistent with my experiences and opinions. And after it all, I'll come back here and post some of my own evaluations, hoping they'll be useful to my readers and becoming another link in the chain of reviews.

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