I began to worry a long time ago--1985, more precisely.
Not only was it the year an anti-christ appeared in the form of Don Denkinger (google 'worst call in World Series history' if you don't recognize his name), but it was also the first time I heard college students refer to both autobiographies and works of historical research as "novels."
Just as 'out' became 'safe,' the post-Denkinger world has turned upside down. Fact is now a matter of opinion, a black American is the new Hitler, people tune to Fox and the Daily Show for news--although the latter is rather more reliable than most outlets--and any blurb posted by any pen name about a restaurant is called a "review."
Some advocates of social networking sites (if that's the right phrase) praise such entities for providing "real reviews for real people." While you do occasionally find thoughtful, detailed pieces on the sites, most fall into the 'suspect' category--which may be what real people want, I don't know. Granted, anyone can review a restaurant. There's no need for professional status. But for any write-up to earn the title of "review" certain standards must be met.
Yeah, there's broad knowledge of food preparation and history. There's also anonymity, multiple visits and such. The most important component of a review, however, is the critic's willingness and ability to put aside personal likes and dislikes.
This is critical. Some of the restaurants I rip in print I personally like. Conversely, I think Craft is brilliant, though I wouldn't go back. Not really my sort of cooking. I criticize based on another set of standards: what does the kitchen set out to accomplish and how close do they come to meeting their goals, how well does the kitchen season and prepare (an assessment of technique), the server's ability to "read" a table's mood--that sort of thing. I may not like sea urchin (in fact I don't), but I do know when it is fresh and well-presented. I may prefer a thin crust pizza, but I can judge Chicago-style accurately.
In other words, a review must be thorough and as objective as possible (complete objectivity is probably impossible). You're own personal likes and dislikes cannot come into play. Professionals then must use their real names and stand by the work, but that's another issue. As I said, anyone can review a restaurant--if they follow the standards.
All this came to mind when I read a comment to our "first look" piece about the grand opening party at DISH where the reader complained about scant reference to food in the "review." Naturally, I blame Denkinger for this.
You've probably noticed, but we don't do reviews on City of Ate--except when we link to the print column. Dude Food ultimately assesses the masculinity of a place, how it will appeal to guys who just want to chow down. Short Orders is too brief to qualify. Pho From Home uses the vagaries of "authenticity" as a starting point. Perhaps the closest we come is Hophead, yet even that is an opinion piece.
Every once in awhile, however, someone will refer to this or that as a "review." Thus we've had to attach disclaimers to some of our columns.
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Once, when I accidentally dropped it from Pairing Off--our weekly attempt to pair wine with ordinary foods through the assistance of local wine pros--people who should know better decided I had instead written a scathing assessment of candy corn.
Simply put, First Look is not a review. Most of what you read on Yelp is not review material (although it may be useful).
At least that's how I see it.
The world, however, flipped upside down some years ago, when people began confusing history and novels, out and safe. Maybe even before then.