Are Restaurant Critics Obsolete?

The 2008 James Beard Awards for best
restaurant, best chef, best cookbook, etc. were announced yesterday, and
Minnesota got skunked. We had three chefs in the running for Best Chef Midwest
– Isaac Becker of the 112 Eatery, Tim McKee of La Belle Vie and Solera, and Alex Roberts
of Restaurant Alma and Brasa, which pretty much guaranteed that none of them would get
the award. Wisconsin only had one candidate in the race, Adam Siegel of
Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro in Milwaukee, so the cheesehead voting block had
their way. Needless to say, Rubaiyat in Decorah, IA never had a chance.

(Speaking of Solera, please join me at the Rake’s monthly World Flavors dinner party, tonight (Monday, June 9) from 6-8 p.m. on the second floor patio at Solera, 900 Hennepin Ave. in downtown Minneapolis. Cost is $40 per person, including an interesting assortment of tapas and three accompanying wines. To see the menu and buy tickets, click here.)

It’s a pretty safe bet that most of the people who voted for
Bartolotto’s have never been to the 112 Eatery, and vice versa, but the Awards
are a tremendous publicity machine for the restaurants involved, and like they
say, people who enjoy sausages or the law, or restaurant awards, should never
see any of them being made.

I used to get these James Beard Award ballots every year,
and dutifully fill them out, flipping through page after page of restaurants I
had never been to, and many I had never even heard of. Is
Canlis in Seattle more deserving of the Outstanding Service award than Vetris
of Philadelphia? How many people are there on the planet who have actually
dined at both of these restaurants more than once? Don’t get me started.

But it did remind me of a topic I have been thinking about,
which is whether the internet is making professional restaurant critics obsolete.
Here’s what I am thinking:

Professional restaurant critics are very expensive. Back when
I was at the Star Tribune, my dining expenses often ran to over $1000 a month,
as I recall, and I would guess my colleague Rick Nelson’s tab was similar. We
were the envy of our colleagues. We were supposed to visit each restaurant we
reviewed at least twice, with dining companions, and sample a total of eight
dinners. Most restaurant critics work for newspapers, and as newspapers enter
their death spiral and cut staff and budget and newshole, somebody in
management must be looking at that budget line, and wondering. I predict that
five years from now, there will be a lot fewer paid critics around.

Restaurant critics are an artifact of the gastronomic
revolution that started around 40 years ago, when most Americans had never
heard the word pasta. They needed experts, or thought they did, and so people
like me, (who really weren’t experts, except in relative terms) got jobs as
critics, which instantly elevated us to the status of experts. But nowadays,
the public is much more knowledgeable about food, and much more skeptical about
what they read in the newspaper.

We know more than you do, but collectively, you know more than
we do. As predictors of whether the public will enjoy a particular restaurant,
experienced professionals like Rick or Dara or myself are much more reliable
than the average local food blogger. And we know a lot more than the typical
amateur – we can give you background and detail and insights that will enhance
your dining experience.

But now, thanks to the internet
and the digital revolution, it is possible to aggregate the collective wisdom
and dining experience of thousands of diners. And as New Yorker magazine writer
James Surowiecki argues in The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter
Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies
and Nations
(which I haven’t actually read), when you put together a
lot of individual opinions, the crowd often does get it right. A lot of the
individual comments in the Zagat restaurant guides may be inane, or just plain
wrong, or based on one atypical experience, but on balance, their thousands of
reader/reviewers get it right. (By the way, you can help contribute to the
collective wisdom of the Twin Cities dining community by signing up as a Rake
Restaurant Rater

(Confidential to Anonymous: thanks for the spelling correction.)