Day Twenty: Tuesday November 20th, Restaurant Critics

Working in the improvised bar-in-the-kitchen all day while the bar is being tiled, my partner and I came up with some potential winners. Neither he nor I are gate-smashing, boundary-breaking cocktailiers. We don’t pretend to be. We share a mutual admiration for the work of Jenn Agg (The Black Hoof), Nishantha Nepulangoda (Blowfish) and Frankie Solarik (Barchef), and prefer to sit on this side of the bar, without ever thinking we could do better, and just enjoy their infinitely-varied creations. At Yakitori Bar, we want to create eight easy-to-drink soju and sake cocktails that we can call our own- libations that uses real fruits and interesting bitters, but really nothing to write home about . That’s all. It’s a modest goal.

So, after hours of sipping, gulping, spitting and wincing, we called it a night, and I dropped in at a friend’s bar for a tea. Andrew and I got to talking about ”good drinks-bad drinks”, “good food-bad food” until we arrived at our inevitable destination: ”good restaurant critics-bad restaurant critics”. This past summer, I let him read parts of my upcoming book, WOODY ALLEN ATE MY KIMCHI, and he laughed his butt off on the chapter about restaurant critics, called ”In Search of M.F.K Fisher”. But for most restaurateurs, the prospect of being reviewed by a restaurant critic, negatively or positively, is no laughing matter.

It may have been Mimi Sheraton or Ruth Reichl, the two most imposing figures in the New York restaurant review scene in the ’80s and ’90s, who once told an interviewer that  she had saved disproportionately more restaurants through her reviews than sunk them. She may be right, and probably has a trunkful of “thank you” letters from genuinely grateful restaurateurs, but for those whose businesses were shuttered soon after one of  her stinging reviews, there is only her clamorous silence. Ah, well, we all need to find morally-justifiable excuses for doing what we do. In the world of professional restaurant reviews, a not-too-subtle form of social Darwinism has played itself out over the decades: “May the fittest survive, and allow me, dear reader, to accerlerate this process for you.”  With the New York Times writers (and we have had our version of them in our national print media), I had always found it a bit disconcerting that a person can be allowed to don a wig, use a false name to book a table, pretend to be someone they are not when asked, and get paid handsomely for it by a respected news agency, all in the name of writing a “critical” review of a restaurant. (Try pulling a stunt like that at a bank…) In my mind, its a fraudulent form of making a quick buck, and its influence can be felt today in the blogosphere, where easy anonymity has often given ”critics” the license to make untrue statements about other people’s livelihood, or worse, dehumanized them. It’s playground bullying in the guise of journalism.

I don’t care much for professional restaurant reviews or professional restaurant critics. They are going the way of the dinosaur, as they should, with the democratization of viewpoints that the internet has given us. I prefer to follow a handful of non-professional bloggers who cannot do anything other than express in the most unadulterated way their gut feeling about an experience they had at a restaurant. There is none of the disguise, no filter between experience to expression, just an ecstatic desire, common to us all, to say something, often without the tools of literary craft, and often with great love, about something they ate or drank. And they don’t use euphemisms like “palate”, which judges a person’s subjective experience of deliciousness as below or above some arbitrary line of accepted taste.

I think that restaurant critics are probably as interesting, more or less, than some of my dearest friends, and certainly much more interesting than I am. That’s why I usually don’t read their published reviews. Instead, I would rather climb up on a stool beside them at one of my favourite bars, or maybe at my own in the coming months, and talk about stuff that matters: life, love, family, meaning. You know, all those things that restaurant critics are never paid to talk about.

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