Inside baseball, or a look at the underbelly of food journalism and the Yelp phenomenon

Michael Nagrant / 09.24.08

This week David Tamarkin of Time Out explores the “online critic” phenomenon.” He interviewed me for the story, and though I’ve edited a bit, what’s below is how I responded to his questions. I figured it might make for another interesting take on how this specific food writer/editor feels about the internet phenomenon and the rush to review restaurants.

Above all, my guiding principle as a food writer and website editor is to try and get a story or review best or right before I get it first. I don’t mind breaking news, and I think it’s a good skill to have, as it means you are paying attention and are plugged in. That being said, my main mission is to explore the craft behind cooking and the culture of dining and provide deeper information about food topics. If I’m breaking news, great, but I’m just as happy providing a new perspective or deeper approach to a topic that’s already been explored.

I’m guessing that there’s a strong business case and an organizational push for the scoop in print organizations these days because it generates reader allegiance or increases circulation. But, I wonder if being a supreme restaurant review scooper is key to the success of a print or even a web publication? I can see how it would be, maybe, if you build your entire organization on that idea like say, but I would guess people read Time Out or The Reader as much or more because of the unique voice and the smart take on their subjects rather than the scoop. A culture of scooping in a weekly or monthly or even a daily for that matter seems like an artifact of an old system where print was the definitive information medium. Print will survive, but my guess is primarily the venues that provide smart solid deep writing, not first takes.

One of the reasons we call Hungry a “magazine”, is that I didn’t want people to think of it as a blog, which tends to connote short takes full of snark and fury. Rather, I wanted people to associate the principles behind traditional magazines, the pursuit of longer form interviews, stories, and essays, with Hungry, as that was our mission.

Regarding reviews, we sometimes write the first review, but we are just as likely to write some of the last reviews, often of places that have long been out of the new opening spotlight. When we write reviews before anyone else at Hungry, it’s not in the spirit of competition with other outlets, but usually out of excitement to try a place we’ve been waiting for a long time, because we really think something is newsworthy, or because it’s a slow week and a particular restaurant opening seems like one of the only interesting ideas available to explore or write about.

To give you a sense of how I really don’t care if I’m first or last, I was one of the last people to review the Gage six months after it opened, likewise the Drawing Room. You could argue that by reviewing Urban Belly and Yats so early, maybe I didn’t give them a fair shake, but I also reviewed L20 on opening night and I was blown away, likewise I used opening week to eat at Real Tenochtitlan and I loved it. I’m not sure there’s always a direct correlation between time open and the quality of a dining experience.

I do believe if a place is open and charging full price, it’s open to review. But, and this is a BIG but (I like big “buts” and I can not lie…heh, heh) the most important policy is to attempt to be fair and measured in everything we write. If we review a place after it’s been open six months or only one day, we should mention that in a review to provide context to the reader so they can make their own judgments. While my first allegiance is to provide a service to my readers, I take very seriously the other end of the transaction. That is to say, I recognize that owners, chefs, servers, and support staff are generally not out to screw us, and that they are putting themselves out on the line and taking great risks. If a restaurant makes a mistake or has a bad night, as writers, we have to work hard to understand if these are honest shortcomings or anomalies, because people’s livelihoods are on the line.

One way to do that is to visit a place multiple times. Because we are a website with little revenue, that means we often have to pay out of our pocket to do so. Still, we think it’s important to do so, especially if we think a place might have just had a bad night, and even more so if that bad night happened in an opening week. On the other hand, you can usually tell if a restaurant is not being honest or doesn’t care about their customer. A culture that only cares about making money and putting out bad food and putting the customer second usually permeates every level of a restaurant whether it’s opening day or six months later.

One thing that’s great about the growth of internet sites like Yelp and LTHForum is that they generally are open forums, and that means unlike traditional magazines and newspapers, where page space is limited, the folks who are criticized have an opportunity to respond in full. I believe my work or Hungry magazine’s articles should never be the last word, and would be happy to print any chef or restaurateur’s response.

Also regarding LTHforum, Yelp, Chowhound etc. I welcome the growth of this type of citizen journalism. I don’t see their entry in to the arena as a zero sum game. There’s room for all of us here. The burgeoning multitude of voices creates more buzz and more interest in what great chefs and restaurants are doing. That kind of excitement translates into more restaurants opening and more of them doing innovative things, because it creates a bigger market. More people are dining out and exploring food as a result of the rise in food coverage.

While I’m not sure the growth of the internet venues has specifically impacted the establishment’s reviewing practices (though Tamarkin’s quotes from Vettel make that case, so I guess maybe it does), the websites and alternative venues of opinion have definitely made the big guys think differently in other ways. Look at The Stew at the Tribune. I’m not sure that kind of slightly irreverent and interesting take on food news that we get from folks like Monica Eng and Chris Borrelli would have ever bubbled up without the outside example of the internet sites.

On the other hand, I’m not sure that holds for Hungry magazine. What I’ve learned from the great chefs is that you can only measure against yourself and what you believe is right. While we’re not in any way the Tiger Woods of food websites, I don’t believe Tiger is sitting at home right now watching the success of Padraig Harrington, and saying, man I really need to change my swing to be like his. Likewise, we are not looking at Eater and saying, damn, I wish we were taking more pictures through plywood and sneaking in through the butcher papered over windows so we could sell more ads. Look at (another website I contribute to), they’ve chosen to focus less on gossip and up to the minute opening updates and reviews and more on the culture of eating and making good food and they’re tremendously successful in terms of generating traffic and ad revenue. There are multiple ways to do something without feeling pressured to react.

I also believe no one should have a monopoly on being an expert or having an opinion, especially since history shows that many so called “experts” shirked their responsibility to be good writers and journalists because of their monopolies. I think the growth of internet sites has finally offered an alternative that will make the experts work harder and smarter. In our own pursuit at Hungry magazine, or in my own as a freelance journalist, we try to avoid course by course blow by blows punctuated by bad hyperbole or ten dollar adjectives, the typical boring navel-gazing that goes on in many establishment (i.e. major daily and monthly magazine) reviews, especially since with the frequent changing of menus, your mileage may vary. What’s most important about writing a review for us is providing cultural context for a restaurant in the world of Chicago dining, telling a good story, and providing a good bit of service in guiding readers as to whether they should spend their hard earned dollars at a place, and doing it fairly. You don’t have to be the first reviewer to do that.

For example I don’t think Pat Bruno is a very good reviewer. I don’t look forward to reading his reviews. Even if he reviewed a place on day one, I’ve learned that I generally could care less. But, let’s say Monica Eng or Mike Sula or Gary Wiviott (of LTHforum) or Mike Gebert reviewed the same restaurant a month later or six months later…generally speaking, because of the cultural context they provide or the story they tell, I find their reviews more compelling and worth digesting and worth waiting for. The fact that they didn’t come out in the first week doesn’t mean a thing.

Of course, having open forums and websites that aren’t governed by the ethics or laws of journalism, means that some people will violate covenants of fairness and professionalism. Some people will have personal vendettas against a particular restaurant or will be flippant in their coverage or review a place on opening day and write it off without providing any context for why they are doing so. Some people will take free meals and not dine anonymously, and some will shill. On the whole, I believe those are exceptions. When those violations occur, the marketplace has sorted them out. Many have written about Yelp’s questionable practices.

The thing is these practices have been going on in the “traditional” journalistic world for years too. It’s not just limited to websites. In the end, I believe readers are very smart, and they can see through this. Eventually a reader knows who they can trust and who’s working hard to give them a good story. So whether you’re writing on LTHForum, Hungry magazine, Chicago Tribune or New York Times, the only things that matter are the ethics and work of the individual writer.