Is Restaurant Criticism Journalism?

After 9 hours of travel I landed into Asheville. I knew I was in a different place when I saw the dozen or so rocking chairs in the boarding area. The place can be hot and humid, something in which I have no problem in declaring my disdain for. But there’s no reason for me to judge a city or it’s food scene on the weather. I may be shallow, but I’m not that shallow.

I don’t wish to disparage the courtesy that the folks down here have graciously bestowed upon me. It’s simply that the timing of this trip is a bit unfortunate. Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking about the roles of restaurants, the role of criticism, the role of promotion, and where a food writer should fit into that entire mix. And I’m afraid it may color anything I write about the place.

First, let’s get a a basic premise out of the way – a food blog writers, especially those who focus on restaurants, have more in common with the magazine and newspaper writers than either are probably willing to admit. Sure, the medium is different, but the intent is likely the same. Namely – to let a reader know the perceived quality (or lack thereof) of a place where they’ve eaten. Though there may be a few restaurant bloggers who write in a vacuum, my guess is that most write for an audience, whether they have one or not.

So if the intent of restaurant critiques are the same, should the blog writer be held to the same standards as the newspaper or magazine writer? Well first you have to accept the premise that the standards for writing restaurant reviews for these mediums are even necessary. There are several accepted practices, including never reviewing a restaurant on opening night, visiting a place more than one time, and maintaining some level of anonymity. The theory here is to place restaurant reviewing into the same category as journalism.

But are restaurant reviews journalism? I’m not so sure.

Of course there are some things that a restaurant reviewer should take from the craft of journalism – be honest, check the facts, etc, etc. But there are two things that prohibit a restaurant reviewer from being a true journalist.

First is the fact that any judgment of a restaurant is going to be purely subjective, no matter how hard the reviewer is going to claim otherwise. An opinion is going to be drawn about a place with biases both good and bad. Can a person who has an aversion to all things beef adequately review a steak?

Of course they can. But a reader needs to know of that aversion in order to give the restaurant a fair shot. But as soon as that is done, all pretense of journalism flies out the window. As soon as I say “I can’t stand Korean food” in a review of a Korean restaurant, any reader of that review needs to take my opinion with a grain of salt.

The second strike against restaurant reviews as journalists are the newspapers themselves. Restaurants are part of the food industry, a fact that’s often ignored. What happens at the locally owned restaurant is just as important as what happens in the local McDonalds or even the supermarkets. But the editors at the newspapers don’t see it that way. If you think I’m exaggerating, let me ask the following hypothetical – If a local four star restaurant accidentally let loose a foodbourne illness (let’s say a case of salmonella poisoning), where would the story of the incident take place? Would it show up in Sunday or Wednesday’s food section in a piece written by a restaurant reviewer? Or would it show up in the local section, or even the front page written by a beat reporter? If a restaurant writer is a journalist, why would someone else get to write about a place when it had failed so badly? How can food critics consider themselves journalists when the institutions they work for barely considers them so (whether they realize it or not)?

What does this mean for the fine folks here in Asheville? I’m not quite sure, as I’ve not yet decided on how to approach writing about the restaurants on my itinerary. But I will write about them.

Meanwhile, I’m off to a Southern Breakfast.

Now pardon me as