Friday, May 21, 2010

Everybody's a critic

Ok, I admit it: I'm one of those annoying people you see in restaurants who photograph their food. I don't do it ALL the time though, only when it's a special occasion or when I'm dining in a new place. My motivations are reasonable enough: 1) to document what my companions and I had on the special day; 2) to share with my online network what the food at the restaurant looks like; and 3) to have visual aids in case I decide to write a review of the restaurant.

Last Monday night, I was snapping photos of the lovely interiors of Cafe 1771, the reincarnation of Chateau 1771 in El Pueblo, and at one point a smiling waitress politely ducked out of my shot. It hit me then that servers at restaurants must now be all too accustomed to patrons photographing their premises, and at the same time they must be aware that the people taking pictures might be doing so for purposes of posting an online review. I guess it's a pretty effective way to keep them on their toes, and elevates the quality of both the service and food preparation. You never know who's going to find a fly in their soup and bitch about it on Facebook, or compose an irate blog entry about poor F&B management.

On the other hand though, standards and tastes are very subjective and relative, so I also feel sorry for dining establishments that have to deal with the added pressure. There are a lot of unreasonably demanding customers out there, and sometimes all it takes is one loudmouth with Internet access for the negative feedback to reach thousands. Hence, I'm wary of people who fancy themselves food critics just because they eat out a lot and own a camera. There's more to reviewing than ranting and raving-- even some of our most prolific and popular local food bloggers are in dire need of basic grammar lessons (yes, grammar counts for something-- I have an automatic distrust of anyone who thoughtlessly mangles the English language).

When I read an online restaurant review, I take into account the author's culinary knowledge/background; how thorough the review is in describing the food, the plating, the service, the ambiance, the prices, even the location; and the writer's personal preferences that might make him/her biased for or against something. For example, one very well-known blogger almost always brings his children along to places he reviews, so he tends to fussily fixate on how kid-friendly a restaurant is... in bad English.

Sure, if one pays for a meal, he/she has every right to critique and/or complain about it. But the way one does it reveals as much about the reviewer as it does about the restaurant. The best food writers can compose a classy but critical review of even the worst restaurant; mediocre or wannabe food critics can make even the most superb restaurant sound unappealing. The latter not only don't do justice to good eateries, they ruin my appetite altogether.

While I try to avoid the amateurs, I am also leery of reviews by so-called journalists: more often than not, these people's opinions can be "bought" with a free meal and good PR (have you ever read a negative restaurant review in a newspaper or magazine?). There are only a handful of food bloggers out there I trust implicitly, most notably Lori Baltazar of Her reviews are so delightfully detailed and captivatingly colorful that the stunning photographs that accompany them are just icing on the cake (and she writes in impeccable English too, not resorting to getting by with adjectives like "malinamnam"). My friend and fellow DCF fan Yang marvels at how one can almost taste the food Lori writes about, her descriptions are so vivid. As articulate as she is though, Lori never exaggerates, even when she gushes about something really yummy, so I when I go to a restaurant she liked, I'm rarely disappointed.

I don't fancy myself a food critic by a long shot; my food and restaurant reviews have been few and far in between over the 5 years I've been blogging. But as a lover of food and writing, I know a well-written food review when I read one. Sadly, there are more excellent restaurants than there are decent reviewers. I can only hope that the few credible food writers out there have tireless tastebuds and a commitment to the continuing quest for the ultimate dining experience. A toast to the real critics!


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