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America’s Leading Restaurant Critics on "Cit-Crit"

June 17, 2010 by  
Filed under Food News

Like it or not, Yelp and other forms of ‘Citizen Criticism’ are having profound effects on the restaurant world. Some claim it’s the end of civilization, while others applaud its egalitarian approach. Writer Alan Richman weighed in on the issue a few months back saying, “I think it’s of course disastrous. It’s like asking your neighbor whether or not you need penicillin for a cold.” So, what do some of America’s leading dining critics think? We got in touch with 18 of the nation’s best to find out. Let’s just say it’s a love-hate relationship. On to the critics…

See also: Will Yelp and “Cit-Crit” Replace Restaurant Critics? 

Los Angeles
Jonathan Gold
LA Weekly
I kind of like
Yelp. It’s not a replacement for actual criticism, and I wouldn’t
recommend making decisions based on its reviews, but for the first time
in history, it is possible to discover what Taiwanese teenagers in
Hacienda Heights think of a restaurant in Hacienda Heights aimed at
Taiwanese teenagers.
How could that not be useful to the dialogue?

New York
Sam Sifton
The New York Times
I have no beef with the residents of Yelpistan. I thank them for
their photography, and take their opinions with Maldon sea salt.

San Francisco
Michael Bauer
San Francisco Chronicle
There’s room for everyone. All these voices create buzz and
increase interest in restaurants.
While there’s a lot of white noise
out there, the most cogent voices will emerge.

Other critics sound off after the jump…

Bill Addison
Atlanta magazine
Among the
many worthy arguments concerning ethics, freebies, and anonymity, I
ultimately sort through citizen criticism with the same eye I use to
sort through traditional media criticism: I look for those who write
strong prose and who bring a sense of trustworthiness to their
Employed critics and independent bloggers alike eventually
distinguish or discredit themselves with their audience, and I trust
that readers can–and do–form their own conclusions.

Mike Sutter
Austin American-Statesman
you employ the Russian-judge technique from the Cold War of throwing
out the highest ratings (the owner) and lowest ratings (somebody the
owner fired), it’s possible to shake out kernels of truth from Yelp,
along with flashes of poetic insight.
Like this line, about the lunch
counter at Nau’s Enfield Drug in Austin: “I see women come in alone in
an Armani suit and order a Coke float, and you know they are nursing a
wound that will be healed by this childhood comfort.” Not bad for free.

Phil Vettel
Chicago Tribune
and similar online forums have created virtual marketplaces of ideas
for food commentary, and like all open markets, there are advantages
and disadvantages. The advantage is the ready access to comments that
are unbiased and thoughtful; the disadvantage is the preponderance of
insight-free rambling and the bottom-feeders who exploit their
anonymity to advance personal agendas.
The challenge is determining
which is which. But central to the notion of an open forum is the
expectation that the moderator isn’t rigging the system. There have
been accusations that certain businesses can buy their way to more
favorable rankings, and should that prove to be true, public caning
would be too good for those responsible.  

Leslie Brenner
The Dallas Morning News
know people enjoy reading what their peers think of restaurants, but
for me, it doesn’t usually have much value. There’s nothing preventing
loyal employees of a restaurant from posting raves, nor does anything
prevent a disgruntled former employee from posting a rant about a
place. It’s impossible to know when such conflicts of interest are
coloring a “review.” Beyond that, I don’t find Joe Citizen’s critical
assessment of a restaurant terribly useful. There are certainly
knowledge people with good palates out there posting their opinions in
cyberspace, usually on the serious food sites. But the only way for
them to have much use to a food-lover is to be able to get to know the
commenter over time. Do you tend to agree with that particular
commenter’s taste? If so, that might be someone to take seriously.
Otherwise, it’s just a lot of noise. I suppose it might be possible to
find a commenter whose opinions you tend to agree with on a site like
Yelp if you had the time to cull through trillions of reviews, but most
of us don’t. To me, the value of a critic’s opinion in any genre is
based on that person’s track record, training, experience, background
and — and this is very important — integrity. The value of
professional critics working in respected news organizations or
magazines lies in the ethical standards and integrity that those
publications uphold. Of course some publications are more ethically
trustworthy than others. But for me, as long as professional restaurant
critics with high ethical standards continue to exist and publish,
that’s whom I’ll look to.
If I’m visiting a city where I don’t know the
scene, I seek out not what Yelpers or Zagat reviewers say, but what the
lead critic of the local paper or city magazine writes.

Tucker Shaw
Denver Post
general, I’m in favor of anything that gets more people out to more
Busy restaurants are good for my city. If citizen
criticism helps fill seats, count me as a fan.
That said I’m
naturally skeptical of any commentary that isn’t backed up by
convincing, literate reasoning and a certain amount of accountability.
Anonymous postings about a crappy milkshakes or off-the-cuff tweets
about ‘amazing’ Snicker-tinis are just noise, and irritating noise at
that. Only a very few self-starting critics are able to spend the time,
money, and effort it takes to really explore restaurants more deeply
and craft thoughtful assessments. Those that do are gold.

Las Vegas
John Curtas
Eating Las Vegas

Chowhound and their ilk, suffer all the flaws attendant to any free
speech democracy: Everyone has a voice, but this is not necessarily a
good thing.
On the whole though, they raise awareness and promote
better eating values. Giant grains of sodium chloride should be taken,
however, when reading them for their restaurant “reviews.”

Lee Klein
Miami New Times
think it was Groucho Marx who said that if 10 out of 10 people tell you
you’re dead, you had better lie down. If 10 out of 10 Yelpers/bloggers
agree that a restaurant is good or bad, you can pretty much take it to
the bank.
But absent that sort of unanimity, you’re just taking the
word of random amateurs–maybe even crazy people!–which rarely works
out well in any context.

Rick Nelson
Star Tribune

I think they’re great; the more people opining about restaurants,
the better. One cautionary note, at least for me: Who are these
commenters, and what is their agenda?

New Orleans
Brett Anderson
The Times Picayune

I don’t read much restaurant criticism, citizen or otherwise, in
my market because I don’t want popular opinion to influence my own. I
travel a lot and sometimes find Yelp useful when I do. But I still take
most of my guidance from professional critics–I suppose not
surprisingly, considering that I am one.

Craig LaBan
The Philadelphia Inquirer
I’ve begun to think of Yelp and its ilk much in the same way I used
to regard Zagat–as a glorified phone book of ‘survey says’ sound bites
– but with a more cautionary twist. Yes, there are some good opinions
to be found online – but don’t let all those happy face emoticons fool
you. There’s enough posing, pimping and dubious grousing going on in
these anonymous blurbs to make anyone crave a credible source with a
name. At least I hope so. Either way, their growing influence has only
continued to push us old-school print critics to work harder to remain

Nikki Buchanan
The Arizona Republic
Yelpers are great at finding neighborhood gems and they take pride
in being the first to report them, so I use Yelp as a resource. Joe
Schmo’s opinion doesn’t mean much to me, but lumped together with
everyone else’s, it gives me a pretty good beat on a place.

Portland, Oregon
Karen Brooks
Portland, Monthly
Can’t say I understand why people are fascinated to read
bite-by-bite diary entries from overly chipper and
chip-on-their-shoulder eaters. I’ve never trusted anonymous postings,
with their whiff of agenda: the love bombs from friends, the hate bombs
from competitors. Even the sincere don’t bring much to the table.
Unlike the professional reviewers or obsessive food bloggers, Yelp
doesn’t surprise, inspire, enlighten, educate — or even make me

San Diego
Naomi Wise
San Diego Reader
I find blogs extremely useful in uncovering new or obscure
restaurants, but not all opinions are equally trustworthy.
I trust
Chowhound, SDFoodBlog, and Mmm-yoso!!!, but am skeptical about Yelp,
with its plethora of five-star reviews (often for deeply mediocre
restaurants). Yelp reputedly has a reward system for regular posters,
which of course would present a mighty temptation to post about
restaurants where the poster hasn’t actually eaten. And all that
sloppy, squealy Val-speak” (OMG!) makes me wonder if they also prefer

Jason Sheehan
Seattle Weekly
First off, I don’t consider sites like Yelp to be criticism in any
real sense. These are sound bites, gut opinions–the foodie equivalent
of deciding whether or not you want to go to see a movie by hanging out
in front of the theatre and listening to the people walking out after
the noon matinee.
Worse, it’s often like hanging out after some super
hero movie or the showing of a new Star Wars flick and listening only
to the crowds of fat, huffing 14-year-olds who brought their own light
sabers with them–heavily invested flakes who feel like they are owed
something other than a couple hours of entertainment or dinner.
Criticism, traditionally, is supposed to be considered and thought out,
researched, balanced, unbiased. At its best, it should be like
listening to a trusted friend (or at least a respected enemy) telling
you not just what he thought about this dinner he had over the weekend,
but why it was good or bad or moving or made him want to punch the
maitre’d. Food blogs are good. In some cases, this is the kind of
quote/unquote citizen journalism that I can respect because it is a
single voice–a single person–putting themselves out there, day after
day and week after week, talking food simply out of love. Yelp, on the
other hand, is like walking willingly into the worst kind of echo
chamber, a 24-hour-a-day fan boy circle jerk where only the loudest,
worst or most shrill screamers get any attention at all.

Washington, D.C.
Tom Sietsema
Washington Post
I’m all for opening up the field to citizen reviewers; worthy
competition strengthens criticism. I have a number of problems with
Yelp, however. First, who are these anonymous posters? And what are
their credentials? (Even if you disagree with an established paid
critic, you generally know his or her background and mode of
There’s also a rush by Yelpers to be first in the door.
Recently, while I was researching a new restaurant, I came across a
Yelp review posted by someone who had eaten at the place BEFORE IT
OFFICIALLY OPENED, at a friends-and-family event. How reliable can that
critique be?

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