Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Power of The Pen

The world of food critique is a very small world indeed. Food blogs are slowly rising and may be competing with traditional media in some areas. Ed over at Tomato has discussed this topic quite a few time, here's one post. However, traditional media, and those wielding the pen behind them are still a major force to be reckoned with in the world of food critique.

Unlike movie reviewing, where a professional movie reviewer will still wield some power, food reviewing is another tale of power altogether. With a movie review, there are many more sources to choose from to begin with. There are a few reasons why movie reviewers opinions aren't as powerful.

1) There are only a certain number of movies released at one time. Your friends or family will most likely have seen it and can give you their opinion as well.
2) Movies are relatively cheap so you can go and even if it is bad, it's only a few dollars.
3) You can watch a trailer of a movie and get an idea of what it is roughly about. The trailer can sometimes give a false impression, but at least it's a guide.

Hence, a movie reviewers opinion is diluted. I know I still read their reviewers beforehand, but even if they write it is bad, I will still go watch sometimes.

A food reviewers power is totally undiluted. It will be rare that you can turn to a friend and say "Have you eaten at ....." and get a positive response. Therefore, it's hard to gauge whether a restaurant is good or not. With so many restaurants, the options are very hard to choose from when you have no idea about them at all.

A meal at a restaurant is usually a bit of an occasion, so you really want something good. A bad meal can ruin the whole occasion. It's usually not that cheap to eat at a fancy place, hence making the decision even more vital.

Previously, the only place to get an indication of what a restaurant is like is from reading restaurant reviews. What a reviewer says can literally make or break a restaurant. I know that before food blogs were more common, I really did take the advice of the reviwer and only go to places they liked. I realise that they are only one man/woman's opinion, but their opinion is one more than I have.

Hence, restaurant reviewers are held in the highest regards. They are the Anto Ego's (from Ratatouille) who command a restaurants undivided attention as one meal can change a restaurant's fortunes. Reviewers probably get preferential treatment more often than not, which must affect their judgement. Their task which they are getting paid to do, is to write something that will grab the readers attention. This either means a very glowing review, or a scathing one. Something in the middle of the road won't really retain people's interest. This is at odds with the usual dining experience, which is usually just average. The extremes of excellence and mediocrity are the minority rather than the majority. Therefore, I don't know how accurate their reviews will be, but still, it is an opinion that you can access.

Food reviewers are an enigma in that they are rarely seen by the general public. They are a powerful beast that you know of but don't really know. They are like the little man behind the Wizard in the Wizard of Oz. From the outside, they are all powerful, but really they are just normal people. They have their own opinions, as do all of us. This point was brought home when I read Adam of The Amateur Gourmet's post about meeting the New York Times food reviewer, Frank Bruni. Adam, with his blog, is starting to wield a lot of power in the food arena. However, he was still awestruck to meet Frank. Slowly though, he realised that Frank is just another person who likes to eat and gets to express his opinions to a larger audience. That's actually comforting to know, that food reviewers do enjoy their jobs and are doing it because they love it. If they are doing it purely for the money, then their review will be a lot less reliable for me personally. I have found that I turn to a lot of blogs nowadays for an "average" person's point of view. The "average" food blogger is a lot more knowledgeable about food but still, all write from the heart as we have nothing much to gain from it.

Finally, back on home turf, there was a sighting of a couple of Wizards recently by Ed and Neil.


  1. It's fair to say the tide is coming in and bloggers are riding the waves all the way to the shore.

  2. Neil, bloggers are definitely starting to gain more of a prescence in the food reviewing scene. Hopefully the wave will get larger and larger.

  3. Restaurant reviewers don't actually influence the majority of a city's diners, just some of those who read food media, which according to marketing and circulation figures, is not high in the greater scheme of things.

    In Australia, Blogs are read by a online community that is tiny by global standards. The general public on the whole are yet to become aware of them however, let alone have a clue how to seek them out and read them with any regularity.

    In regards to picking a restaurant, there are also other indications that one can use to judge whether to attend a venue, without reading guides or reviews and is something most Aussies and travelers employ - it is by employing common sense.

    Think of it paralleling a movie trailer. Firstly, stand outside the eatery, read the menu, does it seem plausible or excessively fanciful? Does it appeal? Look inside, is it bustling with people? If it is Asian for example, are there lots of Asians in there? Can you smell the food? Yes - how do you like it? Can you see any meals on tables - what size are they and how is the presentation?

    This is how many venues get their first customers, especially those in the suburbs which get scant attention from reviewers. And in fact they thrive, even if they do get dodgy reviews from print or digital media, because although some may not like them, there is a market for many kinds of eatery in our market.

    The other time honored way to determine a venue is on the recommendation of like minded friends, which in the main is how most of us end up dining at certain spots.

    For those of us who read reviews, we all take them with a pinch of salt no matter which media or online forum they pop up in.

    Printed reviews are an educated opinion backed by research and discussion with the venue after numerous meals, whereas blogs usually provide a gut reaction which is sometimes not substantiated by anything other than their having turned up and eaten a single meal.

    Often an online review is determined by the demographic, prejudices, knowlege and perhaps limited experience of the person writing, which may in fact be at odds with your own level of the same. Leaving some people unsatisfied.

    For this reason I think that professional and amateur/hobby reviews fit in different genres and serve different purposes. The competition does not exist to me, when in fact there is room for all on differing levels.

  4. Sticky, I think restaurant reviews don't influence heaps of diners, but that is increasing. People are quite tech savvy and will look up reviews online now. The public don't need to read blogs regularly but can stumble across the site just to read one review and that's it. I know I get lots of hits from Google searches on the restaurant reviews.

    As for looking at restaurants from outside, I do that too. I watch what people order, peruse the menu and smell the food.

    I definitely agree that there is room for both traditional reviews and blog reviews.

  5. duncan | Syrup&Tang12/09/2007 12:37 AM

    Hi Thanh. I think the majority of internet users will turn to review sites (eg, yourrestaurant) rather than trawling through blogs. There, the user will discover a very, very mixed bag of customer reviews -- sometimes informative, but often completely off. A bit like Amazon reviews, where people will give negative reviews of a book because it was delivered too slowly, lay reviews of restaurants often miss the point entirely or focus on the wrong thing. Some blogs are the same, but at least many bloggers set themselves the goal of informing the reader. And finally, I think you overestimate the power of the mainstream reviewers - sure, there is an image generated by tales of Michelin reviewers, and the occasional controversial personality like Frank Bruni, but in the main, reviewers rarely make or break a restaurant.

  6. Hi Duncan, I know what you mean about sites like yourrestaurant and eatibility etc. I turn to them too when I can't find anything on traditional media or my blogs. Those reviews are so mixed, it's really hard to rely on them.

    I think bloggers do try to inform the reader as much as possible. Of course all reviews are subjective, but at least most people critique it as with as much technical information as they know.

    I always thought that reviewers would be oh so powerful. Seems that isn't really the case. Those tales of Michelin reviewers are infamous. Wasn't there a chef who committed suicide a while back. It wasn't certain whether it was due to his restaurant losing a star, but I guess it makes for a good story.

    Also out of interest, Coco Roco is suing Matthew Evans, stating that his review may have helped in the closure of their business. Whether that can ever be proven will be hard.

    I would really like to know how influential reviews are. I wonder if anyone will survey a restaurants clientel for a few months and asks if they had read a review on the place and what effect that had.