Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Thoughts on food criticism in Albany--a response to a Jonathan Gold interview

I like Jonathan Gold.  Of course, right?  He's a Pulitzer Prize winner, one of the best food critics (or food writers in general) in America.  I've been familiar with his work for some time because I went to college in Los Angeles at a time when he was writing for the L.A. Weekly paper; even though I was far from a "foodie" back then, I do remember reading many of his pieces with interest and hitting up a couple of his finds, like some dive taco joint in Santa Monica that was, unsurprisingly, fantastic.

More than anything, I regret spending four years in that city and not following his leads on a weekly basis, particularly because I can't foresee myself living there again.

But I mention him here because I just came across an interview he did with Eater, and some of his comments got me thinking about the role of food criticism in a city like Albany and my (albeit small) role in that.  Compared to other cities I've lived in or near, Albany is a place in which tough criticism doesn't flourish.  There are reasons for that, though; Gold hit on some of them, and after I parse his comments, I want to elaborate a bit since I've been pondering this issue lately while mostly taking a little break from my own food writing.

Let's start here:
Gold: The key thing, keeping a critic is really expensive... A, the expense of hiring them; B, the expenses are a ton; C, this is something that happens in small publications more than bigger ones, but if you're in a publication that depends on restaurant advertising, then if your critic is good, then he or she is going to cause problems for you at some point. You're going to think your expenses are going to make you want to put a bullet in your head. 
Unless you're a completely food obsessed city, and you're like Savannah or Charleston, New Orleans, or San Francisco, San Francisco's not a small market. There's not that much interesting stuff to write about a lot of the time. You know, traveling around the country, you're going to a mid-sized place like Kansas City, which has 20 really good restaurants. Or Reno, which has not 20. There are full time critics, and it's so hard. You don't want to review the Olive Garden, you know...
I'm not going to use this as an opportunity to make fun of the Times Union for reviewing the Texas Roadhouse chain this past Sunday.  The place is wildly popular, and it's not like there are restaurant openings frequently throughout the region.  So a chain restaurant review is okay once in a while, in my opinion.

That said, it sort of goes against my philosophy of wanting to highlight independent, often under-the-radar, sometimes (if only there were more chances) ethnic restaurants.  But this just isn't realistic here.  It drives me crazy sometimes, being in an area of this size.

Jonathan Gold
The thing is, however, that just because some restaurant might fit my criteria above, it doesn't mean it's going to be good.  And just because something isn't good, I don't think--as I've demonstrated on (too many) occasions here on this blog--that means it shouldn't be discussed.  I know some people don't like it when I voice criticism for local establishments.  But I want the food scene here to be better, and I think that if I can, even on this minor scale, highlight both some of the good and some of the bad, it could help lead us to more satisfying dining experiences.

But to go back to something Gold said above, being negative can be bad for business.  Not the restaurant's business, but the publication's business.  And I can feel this more in the Capital Region than in any of the other cities I've lived in or near in the past decade.  I think there's a combination of an inferiority complex here--being in the shadow of cities like New York and Boston--and a desire to really prop up the even moderately good things we do have here.  Because hell, without those places, things would really be bleak.

Let's go back to Gold again before I go on:
There's some key ways of looking at this: One, restaurant critics have never been anonymous, right? Never. The people who think they're anonymous are just kidding themselves, because when a restaurant has that kind of financial involvement in knowing who one of their customers is, they're going to know. So officially, the moment I stopped being anonymous is the day I won the Pulitzer at which point, the Pulitzer guys ran a thing. Even one of the interns, not the interns, one of the social media people at the Weekly ran my picture in an excited blog post, and it's like, by the time I realized and had it taken down it was on every food blog there is. Of course, no other country has anonymous reviews, even for Paris. Although, the Michelin inspectors make a pretty good try. 
I hear what Gold is saying here.  We live in an era where it doesn't really matter what kind of disguises you wear as a critic; if you're in a major market, and particularly if you step into a fine-dining establishment, people are going to know you're a reviewer.

But I've been thinking about this issue lately, and in the Albany area, which feels like a small town where everybody knows everyone else, I think it's especially problematic when it comes to restaurant reviews and the lack of tough criticism.  Where are you supposed to turn--Yelp, which has many skeptics?

The food scene here is quite small.  The same people traverse the same terrain, meeting the same people, eating and drinking at the same places, and access to the locals who run these establishments is pretty easy.  And a lot of these people are genuinely nice and friendly; it can seem like one big family.

The interior of Rain in Albany

When we go back to the idea of fair, sometimes tough, criticism, though, I think this leads to problems.  Even in my very small little corner of internet food writing, I've received invites to attend a number of special events put on by restaurants and food businesses in the area.  I've mostly been unable to attend because of my teaching schedule, which in some ways has made me a little sad--who doesn't want to be wined and dined and treated, you know, special?

I certainly don't begrudge anyone for attending these events; I might well have, too, if doing so hadn't meant canceling a class.  But I think this has also led to some accountability issues in the local food criticism scene.  It is a LOT harder to write even-handedly about an establishment if you've met the owners, if they've been totally gracious and sweet to you, and you know they're trying really hard to do a good job.  The problem is, trying hard doesn't always equate to doing things well, so a lot of places out here I think get a bit of a free pass because they've played a smart (and quite possibly sincere) game of making connections with the local food writers, be it the bloggers or the folks publishing in print.

An example: It didn't take me long to realize that I couldn't really take the restaurant reviews in Metroland very seriously; review after review seemed to mention old friends of the writer's who ran the restaurant, or, even if they weren't old buddies, just what wonderful people the proprietors are.  This doesn't mean that the food isn't necessarily good at these restaurants; it's just that the reviews are always glowing, but not often enough about the food.  To quote Gold again, from a different interview:
As a writer of criticism, the consumer thing is the least interesting thing, but as a critic, the single worst thing you can do is send a reader to waste time and money on something—even if it’s something you personally love. You have to indicate the reasons why you love it.
Granted, my own (and others') Eat This articles for All Over Albany were inherently positive, too, though at least those weren't written under the guise of being reviews, per se.  Still, there seem to be woefully few outlets for legitimate criticism out here.  I think this does go back somewhat to Gold's point about advertising dollars and the challenges in a market like this, but that doesn't mean it can't work; I remember fondly reading the Pittsburgh City Paper dining reviews during my three years in that city and really learning a lot about food from the writers there (who, I'm happy to see, are still going strong several years later).  And, of course, you can look to Gold's own work for L.A. Weekly.

I don't want this to sound like I think that what I'm doing is better than what others are doing.  But I've been attacked by some who don't understand that an honest review isn't always positive.  I set out on my Eat This adventures with a lot of hope, expecting to highlight a lot of great, under-the-radar eateries.  But for each restaurant I wrote about, there were typically at least three or four other places that I visited and had to cross of my list because they didn't live up to expectations.  Most were mediocre to below average; a couple I felt a need to highlight on this blog because their problems stood out so egregiously.

So I want to put this out there as questions for anyone reading this: Do we need more fair and even-handed criticism in the Capital Region dining scene?  Should those reviewing restaurants not be bedfellows of some sort with the proprietors?


  1. It would be nice to see more fair criticism. What's sad is that it's often taken as an attack rather than something constructive. I went out to a popular new restaurant last weekend and I want so much for it to succeed. But we had *a lot* of misses on our plates and paid a pretty penny for it. I want to see a place like this make it - and constructive criticism is the only way for it to get better (even though the place is filled with a seasoned staff). But when people read that sort of thing in print they may see it as a turn off and decide not to give their business to that establishment so I hesitate sharing my experience.

    In hindsight I should have shared my concerns when I had the opportunity directly with the proprietor but I would have needed a therapist with me because it feels like confrontation which I don't like. I realize I have issues. Ha!

    And as to your other question - oh my gosh yes - paid reviewers should not have any sort of relationship with the proprietors which is nearly impossible in this area. However, if they do have a relationship it should be disclosed. It's amazing what different service a friend of the proprietor can receive next to an anonymous guest. I have no problem with a friend of an owner/wait-ress-er/bartender receiving special treatment - however, other guests shouldn't be sitting at the next table having a miserable experience (I have been on both ends of this situation and the latter sucks). To me, when I know there's a relationship at all between reviewer and owner I know I can only trust the review to a degree.

    I think that you are spot on in your assessment that Albany's size definitely is a factor in our inability to have fair critiquing of our restaurant scene. I appreciate people like you and our fussiest of critics who have been fair and open about pleasure and displeasure experienced in local establishments.

    1. Lots of great points--thanks for building this discussion here in the comments!

      You know, I think your comments about your recently disappointing dining experience are really useful and so similar to my own feelings (when let down). I really do want all these new--especially independent--places to do well. I don't think we have a great restaurant scene here, so a little nudge here or there to places that could do better could be useful.

      And as someone who is like you, who definitely doesn't feel comfortable with anything close to confrontation in person, I like the chance to kind of elaborate on things here that will not only push the restaurants to do better (in the off chance they ever come across this little blog), but also push diners here to be more thoughtful and discerning. We do often deserve better restaurant experiences in this area, so why not demand that a bit more forcefully?

  2. For the brief amount of time I got to be a reviewer, I was always honest -- even if the review was bad. I'm a generally nice person, though, and I know there were/are real people behind these places, so I would always try to find something nice to say, even if the overall review was resoundingly negative. However, I never (with only one exception) met any of those people: I wasn't (and still am not) the kind of person who hobnobs with the chefs.

    As for how to pick places to review, I generally tried to focus on locally owned places that maybe all of the readers hadn't heard about or tried yet. But I wouldn't be above doing a chain on rare occasions, if it's a chain that just moved into the area and everybody's buzzing about it. A critique of a place like that can be just as useful to the reader, letting them know whether or not to invest their dining dollars there.

    I know that there was always a sense of "if you say bad things about a place, they won't advertise with us," but I never felt that that held me back. Of course, they did find a reason to stop having me do reviews after a few months, even though they said I was doing a great job... whether there's any correlation there or not, I'll never know.

    1. Great, interesting perspective here--it sounds like you had a good idea of how to operate successfully in the role, though it is unfortunate that it didn't last for more than a few months. There seem to be a lot of behind-the-scenes challenges for the professional critic that most readers have no idea about, so I think it's particularly useful to get this kind of perspective, especially from somebody who did approach things in a thoughtful manner as you did.

  3. Great writing, and a great topic! Though I can't help but think you weren't talking about me a little bit in much of what you said.

    Personally, my philosophy is that my obligation is to my reader. I act/write in a manner that would not deter them from an informed eating decision. When I write about a restaurant, or about a singular product, I do so in a way that I feel offers a truthful look at what is really being experienced, good and bad.

    I have close personal connections with many chefs, farmers, and restaurateurs in the area. It's not uncommon for me to engage socially with any of these individuals. I also write about the work they are putting forth, both in a critique or review, or as more of a features piece for any publication I work with. Do I get, shall we say, special incentives for writing or mentioning that I eat there, by perhaps giving it my unofficial stamp of approval? You bet I do.

    I don't think it's wrong to accept these "gifts" or invitations to events. There is no obligation to write something positive in return - if at all. If that were the case, that I be expected to write about it, I usually stop going there. Just like with any other friendship, I'd like it to be true and not a "what's in it for me" situation. No one wants to feel used, regardless of industry, occupation, or general interest, do they? I recently was asked by a local restaurateur to come into one of his eateries and dine at my leisure, with no obligation to write about it, simply because he truly enjoyed a recent article that had my by-line.

    If I did write something bad, and the restaurant in question didn't like it, I'm sure they wouldn't invite me back. That's actually happened, with one specific restaurateur going so far as to threaten my family. All because I made a factual comment on how many executive chefs that restaurant had employed in less than a year (five).

    In two specific cases of the above, I've found that in the occasion of a bad meal or service, approaching the decision-makers and having a frank conversation about it was more productive in creating a better dining scene than a bad review. Twice have I made a specific suggestion about a dish, and twice has it been taken to heart and improved markedly. I'm not saying this is always the case - there will always be people in any industry who just can't take criticism, no matter how constructive. There is a fineness to it many people who claim to be "critics" don't have.

    Then there are times when I just come right out with a post or article on what I thought was bad. It simply comes down to a matter of personal discretion. I ask myself if a direct conversation will be better than a public shaming. Usually the answer is yes. I've been debating this for a while with one particular restaurant group that used to put out terrific food and now it's barely edible.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful responses, Deanna, and as you can tell, I'm not one much for brevity, either!

      I would say that your varied roles as a food writer did get me thinking about the issue more in some ways, though that was more on a conceptual level; from what I've seen, you really do a thoughtful job of navigating that world, which seems from my end like a really challenging task.

      And I think your situation (and, in a similar way, Steve Barnes's) really highlights the biggest challenges in the current world of food criticism and reporting/informing; there's inevitable crossover for folks like you. Not only is there the walking of the line (which many readers don't even think about) between reviewing and reporting and informing, but there's also the different world of online and print journalism. There's so much more out there now, be it on blogs or social media, that both allows for and reveals the connections between writers/critics and people in the food industry.

      This is one of those discussions that could go on forever--there are no clear answers, no "right" or "wrong"--but I really am enjoying seeing the many different perspectives on the issue. I just came across this piece, which links to some thoughts from the editor/founder of Chow, on her own internal conflicts:

  4. (I guess brevity isn't my strong point. My above comment was cut off due to length)

    To my earlier point about the obligation being to the reader, I've got to defend Bryan Fitzgerald a bit. His readers eat at chain restaurants! Why not write about a new one creeping in? I think it's generally true that those of us who write about food want to promote the "little guy," the independent joint. In all actuality, that's not how everyone eats. If you are an independent writer (like you are, Jeff), you can do that. But much like Gold alludes to, and much like Fitzgerald has to, not every critic has the luxury to do that.

    Fitzgerald catches a lot of flack and I'm not entirely sure why. He's probably one of the more astute eaters I've ever encountered, and the dude is way smarter than he lets on.

    Another thing to consider is that these restaurants that we write about are putting their heart and soul out there publicly for us to make comment on. I find it cowardly for anonymous bloggers or Yelpers to make harsh judgments on one's work when we won't even put our own names forth. I barely take those people seriously - it's easy to take on an air of superiority behind the security of a screen.

    1. I think you're right about Bryan doing a nice job overall with the TU; other than "lettuce-gate," I feel like he's come across as knowledgable and informed. And the main issues I have with the TU reviews aren't about him; it's just that these reviews seem to always be positive except when about chain restaurants. So do we trust these reviews?

      And I wish, in a market of this size, that we did have a full-time critic who was given the budget to pay multiple visits to a restaurant before writing a review. Maybe that's not realistic with financial concerns, but I think there are ways in which the print establishment could help change the culture of apathy here in terms of restaurant quality.

  5. The reviews that kill me are the ones that details critical flaws in the food, service or decor, yet don't seem to be reflected in the overall rating of the establishment.

    And of course there are the ones that get basic facts wrong.

    It sounds like you are at a point in your Capital Region experience that I was a few years back. But then I came to realize that more critical critics wouldn't improve the level of cuisine in the region. It would seem that the plurality (if not the majority) of local restaurant goers are there for the experience of eating out and NOT for the food. The food is kind of secondary. And the experience that these people are seeking is a very different one from what I want in a good restaurant.

    Fortunately, the state of food is improving. And it's been perpetually improving for years. Try to imagine a Capital Region without Ala Shanghai, Trader Joe's, Parivar (chaat cafe), The Cheese Traveler and The CIty Beer Hall.

    That's the Capital Region I moved to back in 2007. There was no La Mexicana either, so if you wanted a taco, you had to drive down to Poughkeepsie.

    Honestly, it was brutal.

    I think what is more important for improving the culinary scene is still more eater education. It's more people banging on the drums for the good places, and getting those who are less interested in food turned on to the good stuff.

    As well known as Ala Shanghai is in some circles, I'm willing to bet that most people who live in the Capital Region have never even heard of it (much less tried their fantastic soup dumplings).

    After all, I've spoken to life long residents of the region who have never even tried the signature specialties of the area.

    You want to have an awesome and impactful Mast Monkey blog post series? Work your way through every menu item at Ala Shanghai. Take pictures. Share the good with the bad. Help guide the culinary adventures of others.

    Because once people are exposed to good food, and come to realize that it doesn't need to be expensive, they will have a lot less patience for the mediocrity that surrounds them.

    1. I agree. Education is something to focus on. The critic should be able to present their argument in a way that easily informs the reader.

    2. Are you sure you want me to write even more about Ala Shanghai? The hardest part about that would be foregoing my go-to favorites to try all those new things.

      I could just go over to your blog and respond there, but I do want to say here that I heartily agree with your comment on how for so many restaurant-goers out here, the food is secondary to the experience. Of course, I like to think that the more people become aware of what good food is (and can be)--whether that's through shopping at small places like The Cheese Traveler or bigger places like Whole Foods--the more they'll demand this out of their experiences at restaurants.

      One can only hope. I'm not particularly optimistic, but I suppose the fact that we keep writing about things like this shows that we do hold onto that hope.

    3. A response here is more than adequate. I'll talk to you more about the Ala Shanghai project when I return, but know that I don't expect you to take it on alone.

      When I spoke to Vic as he was building the wine bar of his dreams, I thought he was mad. Troy didn't strike me as a wine drinking town. But I think his gutsy move proved that there is a lot of pent up demand for good food, served in a nice environment, at modest prices, without a lot of pretense.

      As more places like this are successful, it gives confidence to folks who might be on the fence about opening up similar kinds of establishments. And I think public conversations like this also go a long way to those same ends.

      There are lots of factors at play, and plenty of ways to move the needle. I'm more than happy to brandish my stick when needed. But it's the carrots that will get us forward.

  6. A dissenting voice: I don't think the quality of food in the Capital District has much to do with the reviewers. Rather, it is the timidity of the chefs and proprietors who don't think we are ready for adventurous food and so hedge their bets.

    I spent a day this week with a bunch of food bloggers in NYC. A number of them had been through Saratoga and universally they panned the food--not for its quality but for the predictable choices on the menu with nothing you wouldn't find at any Hilton or Hyatt house restaurant anywhere in America. Two renowned and innovative chefs have opened/are about to open new places in town and when I look at their menus they seem to represent about 1/10 of the creativity these guys have in them.

    A good reviewer can educate their readers but I think most of the local people who are writing intelligent reviews (mostly on blogs) are preaching to the choir. I actually think Bryan Fitzgerald is just about the reviewer the TU should have, representing the meat and potatoes customer but not afraid to try something new. Yes, he reviewed Texas Roadhouse, but he gave it a terrible (and very funny) review.

    Talk to the restaurants (chefs or owners) directly. Tell them you know good food, want them to take chances, and are willing to pay for it. That's what we need to do if things are going to get better. Build this thing from the grass roots, not by thinking you can effect change from a bully pulpit when restauranteurs don't think you represent their customers and don't see you putting your money where your mouth is.

  7. Putting on another hat, occasionally comped food blogger, I think anyone who has a relationship with the establishment they are writing about has to disclose it. One, because it's the ethical thing to do. But two, because their experience may not be the same as that of the person who comes in off the street.

    I don't write about local establishments all that often on my own blog. When I do, I try to find something positive to say. (And there's nearly always something, if you look hard enough.) If I feel it's worth writing a negative review, either to alert the restaurant of a problem or to warn off other diners, that's what Yelp is for. (But it's NOT for personal diatribes... people who are quick to talk about the rude waitress and give one star may not realize they're affecting the livelihoods of a number of people.)

    I guess I net out about where you did, Monkey, with your AOA reviews. I’d rather find something positive to talk about rather than expending energy on negatives. Seeing how cautious and gunshy our restauranteurs are to begin with, a negative review is more likely to make them go to the mattresses than accept thoughtful criticism. Better to talk to them directly, mano a mano, as I suggested above.

  8. As an independent, very small-potatoes food blogger in the Capital Region, I agree that we could use a lot more critical writing about the local food scene. But by critical, I don't mean negative. I love learning about food and I hope my readers do too. I hope by writing about the food I'm tasting and the farms and food purveyors I'm visiting that I'm giving my readers useful information while being somewhat entertaining. By writing about good food I'm learning about it too. So by "critical" I mean that more writing could be done that is critique, and also analytical, historical, cultural and enlightening.

    Having pretty much given up on chain restaurants and corporate food lots of years ago I'm also interested in presenting alternatives to my readers in hopes that they'll go off the beaten track for some interesting and unpredictable experiences. It's a little bit odd to me that you describe the region's food scene as small, but I come from truly small, so the Capital Region is a place that I've lived for 30 years and I still am running into food-related businesses that are worth reviewing. But I'm also not hindered from writing a negative review. I go to a lot of places I don't review, but even if it means I'll never get invited to any food events, I don't mind saying if I think the food is bad or the service sucks. I'm doing very well without getting invitations to the inner circle, thanks. As to whether or not more connected writers can write unbiased reviews, I don't care all that much to judge. I appreciate full discretion, but food writing, when you get down to it, is entertainment for the affluent. To try to get all moralistic about it, in my mind, isn't really necessary. That's not to say that I think you're wasting our time by asking the above questions and bringing up issues.

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