Anonymity: A crtitic’s dilemma

The latest lunchtime poll on CNN’s Eatocracy food blog is beginning to reveal the scathing image the online world has of food bloggers.

Recent outings of several well-known food bloggers prompted the blog to look at how food critics are perceived. Los Angeles-area food critic S. Irene Virbila was refused service at a restaurant last month by owners who didn’t care for her reviews. Last April, a blog followed and secretly photographed New York Times food critic Sam Sifton eating Kentucky Fried Chicken in an attempt to out him. The restaurant that refused Virbila and the blog that outed Sifton both said the same thing of their quarry: It’s personal.

Eatocracy Managing Editor Kat Kinsman noted commenters have been particularly harsh on the site about restaurant reviewers. Voters in the latest poll have disparaged professional critics as snobbish elitists who are out to “get rich and famous doing essentially nothing.” Indeed, the advent of sites like Yelp! and Urbanspoon have crowdsourced reviews to the masses, just as the Internet Movie Database has spelled the doom of many a film critic.

Last week, former food critic Jonathan Gold published a column on food blogging in LA Weekly after the latest incident, in which he told a little of the inherent difficulty in reviewing — reviewers worth their salt try as hard as possible to remain anonymous in order to give their readership a genuine feel of what to expect. Other critics, such as Singapore’s Brad Lau, who publish reviews while allowing the restaurants to know who they are, have attracted controversy (which I discussed in August) over their conduct. From the critic’s perspective, the job isn’t necessarily easy.

Unfortunately, too many of these really are a problem long-term.

And that brings us back to Eatoracy’s poll. The latest poll doesn’t yet have enough votes to show a clear view of how people perceive these food critics, but a previous poll made it pretty clear people are unwilling to trust reviews — or that the opinions of family and friends ultimately carry more weight.

I am reminded of Another Food Critic, which will today publish its 48th review. I’ve reviewed places around five principal areas in three states. I’ve never tried or been forcibly revealed as a critic, and my site has never made a cent. Let’s be honest, though, at this point I’m just another voice in the crowd.

Though I’m not a professional critic, I maintain my reviews for a variety of personal and professional reasons. I love what I do, and I like to hope that my criticisms, positive or negative, help restaurants discover their shortcomings or at least give a little more publicity. Food critics, paid or unpaid, are a very necessary critique on restaurants which otherwise have great freedom in how they operate — satisfied or unsatisfied, a customer typically pays either way unless something is drastically wrong. While people often base their decisions on family and friends, not everyone has been to every eating place in an area, and not everyone necessarily conducts a comprehensive enough review to quantitatively evaluate problems a restaurant chronically displays. One experience or menu item may not speak for everything a restaurant has to offer.

I don’t think the critics themselves should be above criticism. Far from it. At the same time though, the job isn’t easy and it clearly is valuable. Please don’t be too hard on the local food writer! He or she just might save you a frustrating experience at a new eatery some day.

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