Erstwhile Village Voice restaurant critic Robert Sietsema has an essay in Eater this week bemoaning the state of contemporary restaurant criticism. Predictions that Yelp would spell the end of professional restaurant criticism were mistaken, Sietsema notes—but shrinking budgets have affected critics much more negatively, he says, than social media.
Newspapers and magazines have in many cases drastically trimmed their reviewing budgets. While the standard established by Craig Claiborne in the 60s, and widely adhered to in succeeding decades, involved visiting a restaurant three times with a crowd and eating one's way through the menu, trying some dishes twice for consistency, many modern reviewers visit only once, usually with one other person, and write their review based on that single visit.
Questions of fairness to the restaurant aside, this invariably results in reviews being less reliable.
He also gives some concrete examples, which are refreshing in their candor: At the Voice, he used to have a budget of about $500 per week; this was slashed to $345 when the weekly was sold in 2005. New York Times critics in the late ’90s and early ’00s are rumored to have had a budget of $1,600 a week. Now, Sietsema reports, one critic he knows gets only $200 per review, and has to pay for his meals out of that fee—which means there’s no way he’s visiting each restaurant more than once.
It’s great to hear a restaurant critic opine so frankly about his trade, and Sietsema’s argument makes perfect sense—if you accept his terms. The only problem is that his terms—which is to say, the terms of traditional restaurant criticism—are inherently flawed. The fact that restaurant critics have expense accounts undoubtedly affects their experience at restaurants. That’s because buying something on your boss’s dime is a very different psychological experience from paying for something out of your own pocket, whether you’re using a company credit card or filing an expense report later. If it’s a restaurant critic’s duty to convey what it’s like for a normal schmo to dine at a restaurant, then the existence of a reviewing budget contradicts that duty.
The psychological phenomenon of spending your employer's money is taken for granted for everyone who’s not a restaurant critic. Think of the archetype of the high-flying salesman putting exorbitant amounts on his company card in the service of wooing clients. I can attest to it personally: I’m not a restaurant critic, but I get reimbursed by Slate for the ingredients I need to develop recipes. When I buy groceries I know I’ll get reimbursed for later, I’m not as picky about checking price stickers as I’d be if I were shopping for myself, and I’m not as disappointed if a recipe doesn’t turn out well, because I can just buy more groceries and test it again. People are more careless and less emotionally invested when they’re spending someone else’s money than when they’re spending their own. Getting bad service or bad food when someone else picks up the check doesn’t sting nearly as much as losing a chunk of your most recent paycheck to an unpleasant dining experience.
I’m not suggesting that this system makes Sietsema or any other professional critic untrustworthy. I have no doubt that stalwarts like Pete Wells and Adam Platt strive for thorough professionalism and attempt to be constantly aware of their own biases in the course of doing their jobs. But the fact remains that they do not experience restaurant-going in the way normal people do, because they’re not spending their own money.
There’s not an easy solution to this problem. It’s unfortunate that, as Sietsema puts it, “professional restaurant criticism is becoming a leisure-time activity conducted by those who can afford to work for almost nothing.” And one alternative, allowing restaurants to comp critics’ meals, is an ethical nightmare.
So let’s assume for the sake of argument that Pete Wells currently makes $100,000 in salary and has an $80,000 reviewing budget. What if the New York Times started paying Wells $180,000 instead—and expected him to pay for meals out of his salary? Perhaps his reviews would not be so different from how they are now. But his experience of going to a restaurant, evaluating the prices on the menu, and paying for the bill at the end of the meal would be much more similar to the experience of an average diner. And that just might lead to reviews that more fully convey what it’s like for the rest of us when we dine out.