I’ve just read all 94 reviews of Melbourne restaurant Chin Chin on Urbanspoon. Few are longer than a hundred words and a handful of photos, so you don’t come away feeling any great sense of achievement. If I was to then describe Australian restaurant review bloggers in a single word, it would be “compliant”. In general, restaurateurs have nothing to fear from Australian food bloggers apart from the risk of a damp backside from the prodigious arse licking.
There aren’t many barbed tongues.
When I started blogging, it was very much about having and fostering an alternative voice. For me, an alternative to the lazy, parachute travel journalism deployed in Cambodia and the sincere but ill-informed backpacker blogs that hopped from the Killing Fields to orphanage visit to “happy” pizza. The difference between the blogs that I liked and the ones that I avoided (or mocked) marked the difference between food criticism and food reviewing. Food criticism links what happens on the plate to the rest of the world, or at least, to the rest of the writer’s world. Food reviews just look at the plate in front of them and then move onto the next one; an endless stream of disconnected meals to be consumed in any order.
In the age of ubiquitous social networks and historically high patronage of restaurants, one of your friends has already been to somewhere that you want to go and has probably pressed their Like button. Facebook and Twitter provide a vast architecture of personal recommendations that sate any possible peccadillo.
The presses can’t keep up with the constant online feed. By the time a food review hits the newspapers, I’ve seen it on Twitter, discussed it at work and generally had somebody that I know visit the restaurant in person. There is no longer a need for printed food reviews when the ambient noise about them is faster, more trustworthy and tailored to my tastes.
I imagine with the collapse of metropolitan dailies in Australia, we’re going to lose most, if not all food critics. I don’t imagine that any of the food liftouts from Australia’s newspapers are financially viable and who knows if Gina Rinehart likes her food? If you’d like a summary of how this has happened elsewhere, Eater picks over the bones of newsprint food criticism in the US. Newspapers are not the lone bastion of food criticism in Australia but they are more likely than elsewhere to provide it and pay for it. Criticism is more important than ever because there is so little of it.
It seems to suggest that the era of earning a living wage through either food criticism or reviewing is well and truly over and the only financially viable platform is blogging. At least, financially viable for those rare few that can wrangle community management, SEO and sales whilst finding time to eat and write.