The end of food reviewing

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.

11 Comments The end of food reviewing

  1. Lauren aka Ms Baklover

    I blog and also regularly write paid reviews for newspapers, magazines and guides. I think there is still a place for “printed reviews” versus blogging or other social media.

    Reviews that I write for publication are more pleasant to read as I take more time crafting them than what I write on my blog – no resorting to “yummy” or all those other tired adjectives. I know I read a lot of the Green Guide even though I don’t watch much TV because the writing is well crafted and often quite funny.

    For paid reviews I also call the restaurant, get the background story, all the details of a dish, what went into it, whose mum’s recipe it was, etc etc versus when I blog, I don’t call up the restaurant and get all that juicy info. So on the blog I might just “wonder” about this or that detail and surmise various things, whereas a review for which I’m being paid for my time will have more research and authority, in a sense, behind it. (Not to mention confirming the all-important opening hours.)

    Paid reviews also have more editorial checks and balances. You say that bloggers are largely “compliant”, but the problem with blogs is that often you’ll get someone opining about something they really have no idea about, complaining that, I don’t know, that a char kway teow didn’t have beef strips in it. That’s not going to happen with paid reviews because generally you would only get a gig if you had at least a half-baked understanding of food.

    Even as a blogger, a problem I have with blogs is that they are a photographic record of one specific visit. Guides may send multiple reviewers before “pronouncing judgment” and there are ongoing, consultative processes between writer/s and editor about whether something makes the grade or not, despite what may have occurred on one specific visit, ie, whether that is representative of the business week in, week out.

    Despite social media, printed reviews still have an impact. Correct me if I’m wrong, but apart from one or two Urbanspoon three-liners, the piece on Footscray Milking Station that appeared in Epicure’s Bites section was the first appearance in the online AND print media for this cafe, appearing about 10 days after it opened. Agenda, Three Thousand, Broadsheet etc all followed in the next few days after the Epicure piece.

    I know you and many of us bloggers are very tuned in to Twitter or whatever else, but many people are not and rely on Epicure for not just the latest info but a critical – by which I mean informed – opinion. Friends talk about the regular Tuesday tussle in the office over Epicure. And I’m not sure, but hasn’t it grown a page recently?

    Maybe I’m a Luddite but I still like my food and “what’s on” magazines that I can drag around from bath to bed over the course of a month, becoming increasingly more creased and well loved. So print media still has a place for me. Besides, the kids are always hogging the iPad.

    Reply
    1. Phil Lees

      I almost put a link in to your blog as an example of someone who is building a blog that links to your own world.

      Printed food reviews will still be with us for a while – and obviously have an impact – I get the feeling that the impact is declining.

      Reply
  2. Cara Waters @ Gourmet-Chick

    Interesting article. I think that reading just the reviews of Chin Chin was perhaps not the best way to judge the future of food reviewing as Chin Chin is a bloody good restaurant and so the reviews are bound to be positive. I wrote a glowing review of Chin Chin on my blog Gourmet Chick but wrote an equally negative review last week of a restaurant on Chapel street.

    As a journalist as well as a blogger I have to believe in a future for print media, although that media needs to be high quality for people to fork out cash for it.

    Reply
  3. Nic Crilly

    I Completely hear what you are saying. It is interesting to watch what happens vs what we saw in London. One reviewer I suggest you keep an eye on is Chris Pople – @chrispople.

    He is a great blogger with an individual slant on all reviews and says it like it is – and has torn down places even when the PR has sent him there with a comp’d meal. Just like his most recent review:

    Latest post – £112 for rubbish Japanese food in Wimbledon at Sticks’n’Sushi bit.ly/N1up8X

    This is how it should be done.

    Reply
  4. Ed

    The fact is that 90% of online food reviews are positive and there are huge anomolies between what is old fashioned critic opinion and new fangled popular opinion. Dandelion is an instance of this – critically aclaimed but poorly rated on Urbanspoon.

    Critics are nowadays largely irrelevent for books, music and films thanks to the smart recomendation engines of Amazon, Netflix and Spotify. It’s going the same way for food and drink.

    There will still be a niche role for some critics but in five years time I bet there will be a lot fewer dedicated to food.

    If you want hard numbers behind the influence of what really drives customers to visit restaurant websites – which influences restaurant visits – Urbansppon sends 40 times more traffic than The Age, Gourmet Traveller, Broadheet, Timeout, The thousands or any other publication.

    I think the big opportunity in the food and drink area is something that combines the critical and user ratings in the way Rotten Tomatoes does with a recomendation engine based on personal visits and likes and those of ones friends.

    Reply
    1. Phil Lees

      I’m in the process of building such a recommendation engine, but I’m almost at the point where I’ll probably have to spend money on someone better than me at coding and I’m not sure that it is entirely worth it when I see what is coming down the line with Google Now which, given Google’s advances with semantic search, will utterly destroy anything that I can do.

      Urbanspoon has the “Napoleon Dynamite problem”: anything that sufficiently polarizes an audience makes it really hard to predict what individuals will like. This happens on Urbanspoon mostly with Asian food. There’s a lot of haters.

      Reply
  5. Theofficeeater

    My gut feeling is that most food bloggers would rather be positive than a troll. I don’t see a problem with finding something nice to say about a poorly crafted dish or meal – but I’d agree that some balance is in order.

    Reply
    1. Phil Lees

      “Critical” doesn’t necessarily mean “negative” – the overwhelming sense that I get reading Australian food review blogs is that there is a real consensus of opinion on everything; and that bloggers are overly inclined to agree with eachother.

      Reply
  6. Ed

    Phil, I know what you mean. I think it’s not about being able to build the technology but but either having the klout. Or having a strategy to populate it with reviews.

    Best leave it to Google although one day there will be a backlash.

    Reply
  7. Fitzroyalty

    Phil while Google Now looks impressive my understanding is that you have to tell it lots of intrusive personal information to receive that much personalisation, and have location awareness on at all times.

    I don’t know how much of this will be based on genuine semantic search. There can be some great long detailed blog reviews of restaurants online but if the restaurant does not list itself in Places, and then is not displayed in Maps, Google seems to have no way to find that content for you.

    The link between where you are and the content about that location relies on it being well indexed in Google, and that in turn at least partially relies on Places and Maps, not just search results.

    Pull up any popular Melbourne restaurant strip, eg Brunswick St, in Google Maps and you’re lucky to see half the restaurants that actually exist there listed.

    It’s a marketing failure for those businesses not to get themselves listed of course (it’s free), but it is also a failure of Google not to list businesses when the address data seems readily available (and appears in other platforms).

    Your proposed software may be more useful than you think!

    Reply
    1. Phil Lees

      It’s a bit hard to do personalisation without pulling in some data from the user – although this data can be almost anonymous if you use something like the Hunch API (e.g. it will ask you for a location and your favourite ice cream and which hat you like then use these vague preferences to correlate your data with someone else’s). You do get better results from Hunch if you pour in your existing FB data.

      Google will improve for listings when they do a bit more work on Zagat – but there will always be holes – e.g. Google is bad at pulling forward more recent reviews from less linked-to bloggers, even if that person has the most relevant review for you personally.

      Reply

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