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Consumer Trends

The restaurant critic’s job has changed … maybe forever

Traditional restaurant reviews were a casualty of the pandemic, but change was in the air pre-COVID. What happens next?
Illustration: Restaurant Business staff / Shutterstock

Adam Platt believes it may be a while before he writes a negative restaurant review.

As the restaurant critic of New York magazine, Platt spent most of the last year writing about cooking for his family, takeout and delivery meals, creative outdoor dining setups and other efforts by restaurants to keep afloat during the pandemic. “It became more of a reportorial job, not criticism,” he said during a virtual event hosted by Grub Street, New York’s food and restaurant blog.

As restaurants shuttered around the country last March and indoor dining remained off limits through most of 2020, the restaurant critic’s job became kind of obsolete. Six months into the pandemic, 100,000 restaurants around the country were closed either permanently or long-term, reported the National Restaurant Association. New York City was particularly hard hit, losing thousands of eateries, according to the NYC Hospitality Alliance. Those that remained open struggled to survive.

More than a year later, the outlook is more optimistic, with grants available through the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, the return of indoor dining and widespread vaccinations. But COVID changed the landscape, said Platt.

“I always saw New York City as a great reef teaming with different eco-systems, but the pandemic was like a great black tide creating new life forms,” said Platt. He wondered if people still care about a critic reviewing a restaurant, but he’s once again going out and writing about the New York City dining scene—albeit a bit differently.

Pre-pandemic, Platt would take three guests with him to visit a restaurant so everyone could try different dishes. Now he goes with one other person and sits outside, even though dining in is permitted. Most of the restaurants he visits are simpler, “less ambitious” places, such as sandwich shops, Tex-Mex spots or Vietnamese restaurants. “I was in hibernation, and now I want to eat simpler food,” Platt said. “It will take my palate a while to work back, and it may never happen.”

But he’s excited to see signs of life on the restaurant scene. At a recent meal at Forsythia, a rustic Italian restaurant that morphed from a popup to a brick-and-mortar location in October 2020, he noted, “it was the first time I felt ‘gourmet,’ and had the feeling that restaurants were back.”

Jeff Ruby, dining critic of Chicago magazine, filed his final review in March 2020, just before St. Patrick’s Day. It turned out to be his last.

Chicago closed down right after that weekend, and Ruby went into “wait-and-see” mode. “My voice wasn’t right for reviewing takeout meals, and I found that a little perverse,” he said. “My editor kept saying, ‘Maybe we’ll start next month,’ but after a while, I saw that COVID wasn’t going away and my job would never be the same,” Ruby recalled.

A little over one year later, he left Chicago magazine after 11 years in the critic’s seat. Ruby said the pandemic was just part of the reason.

“The sky was falling before COVID, but COVID accelerated it,” he said. “Whatever the landscape of restaurants becomes, we need people doing reviews who can bring a new perspective to the job. I don’t see how publications can go back to one critic reviewing every restaurant.”

It looks like the city of Chicago is heading in that direction. Ruby is not the only long-time critic who left the job this year. Phil Vettel, restaurant critic of the Chicago Tribune for 31 years, departed in January, and Steve Dolinsky left his 17-year post as ABC 7’s “Hungry Hound.”

“Chicago was always a powder keg about to explode as to what a critic’s job should be,” said Ashok Selvam, editor of Eater Chicago. Expense accounts have dwindled and “we’re seeing and hearing fewer voices from the mainstream media. Restaurant chefs have been wondering how to get customers’ attention.”

Restaurants are finding that it’s easier to rely on social media, said Selvam. Instagram influencers are plentiful and more than willing to snap photos of their food and post them quickly to their hordes of followers in exchange for free meals. Some tell stories along with the images, but others limit the writing to “wow,” “impressive” and “delicious” captions. The reviews are less nuanced, but the personality behind the photos is the draw.

Does that mean restaurant criticism as journalism is dying out?

Not so fast. For the near future, at least, Selvam sees reviews becoming more like news or feature stories. “Chicago magazine qualified a recent writeup by saying ‘this is a restaurant preview, not a review,’” he said. “Lots of customers don’t really know the difference between a news story and a review.”

Many reviewers have also put stars on hold, including Platt. The Michelin Guide, however is maintaining its star ratings, updating the guides to Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York this month after taking a pandemic hiatus in 2020. But how meaningful are these stars when many of the fine-dining restaurants Michelin evaluates have been closed for a year and some potential candidates haven’t reopened yet?

But as more restaurants reopen and new ones launch, consumers will want to hear about them from a trusted source. “Maybe reviews will be divvied up among reporters to get more voices telling the story,” said Selvam. Micro-reviews of restaurants, much like those found in Eater’s Heat Maps in Chicago and other cities, may take precedence, he predicts. But people are looking for a voice of authority.

Ruby believes that writers covering the restaurant scene will have to go deeper, reporting more on the inner story of a restaurant. And there’s no place for snarkiness, as restaurants continue to fight for their survival. “People used to love snarky reviews, but you can’t go there now,” he said.

Ruby would also like to see more stories about mass-appeal restaurants. He admits that he got burned out from eating so many multi-course meals several nights a week. He’s now pursuing a degree in social work and returning to writing fiction and other freelance projects.

After a year away from fine dining, Platt couldn’t finish his first tasting menu. “My palate got simpler, and by dish five, I was full,” he said.

Nevertheless, he loves the “great theater” of dining in high-end, chef-inspired restaurants and missed the camaraderie and ambience. 

Although we might see more writeups of casual, more accessible restaurants as we emerge from the pandemic, Selvam doesn’t want to see journalists walk away from fine dining.

“That customer who saves up for a special occasion will still want that fine-dining experience. A good critic demystifies the experience and provides accessibility for that person,” he said.

Consumers are eager to dine out—and they’ll want some guidance. A knowledgeable, slightly gentler restaurant critic as storyteller can steer them in the right direction while supporting an industry trying to get back on its feet.

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