Sunday, March 09, 2014

Everyone's a Critic

The first food critic I ever observed up close and personal was a woman named Lois Dwan who plied her trade at the Los Angeles Times.

It was from her I learned that food critics were like undercover cops. They travel under assumed names and embrace anonymity.   They do this to insure that they experience the same food and service as everyone else.

Lois held down the job by herself, remarkable in a city the size of Los Angeles, and managed to write dining guides and other food-related books in her spare time.

She was never reluctant to criticize a bad dish but wrote with enough style and grace to avoid taking a linguistic chainsaw to an establishment if the soufflĂ© fell. 

She was also the mother of five.  You might say she had a lot on her plate.   But it must have agreed with her.  She lived to be 91.

Elmer Dills was a high visibility foodie on local television and radio for a number of years in Los Angeles.   I first ran into him at in a buffet line at a Pasadena restaurant.   I asked him what was good and he said everything since he didn’t have to pay for it.  I think he was kidding.   I hope so.

He learned his craft as an officer in the CIA, a job that took him on extensive travels though Europe and the Middle East.  He must have been the guy who put the “secret” in “secret recipes.”

As a radio host, Dills read commercials for restaurants on his show, which some critics considered a conflict of interest. He disagreed, saying in an interview, "I will not accept a commercial until I personally have evaluated the restaurant, and I actually reject about 70% to 80% of the restaurant commercials that come to the station."

He passed in 2008 but there’s still a pizza place in Pasadena that proudly flies a banner out front displaying Dills’ favorable opinion of their cuisine.

Jonathan Gold, the current food critic for the Los Angeles Times, brought an egalitarian touch to the art of food criticism, often choosing small ethnic restaurants to review.    His approach brought him a Pulitzer Prize, the only food critic to ever win one.

Other name critics --- Ruth Reichl, Irene Virbila to name two --- have successfully plied their trade here. But there’s a critic in town that could be a game changer.

That critic is You.

Is your chowder cold and your chicken medium rare?   Does the waiter call you “dude” and pour your wine into a water glass?   Does the bus boy spill leftovers into your Kate Spade bag?

Thanks to the Internet, you can now praise or savage just about any commercial establishment under the sun, be it a restaurant or a car dealership or an entire city.

Your tool for this endeavor is a website called Yelp.   The word itself is defined as “a sharp quick shrill cry” and you’ll find plenty of that wherever you look. 

When it comes to dining, there seems to be little in-between when Yelpers offer their opinions.
You’ll find either five star reviews (the highest) that appear to be written by the mother of the owner;  or a one star review usually written by someone who’s mad because he and 10 friends showed up without reservations at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night and had to wait to be seated.  

It’s easy to trash talk when writing reviews.   To underscore that point, some Yelp contributors take a meat cleaver approach to their posts:

“I would rather pay $5 to chew on an old lady’s chin mole than eat this ever again.”

“If you're up for waiting around over 90 minutes for an order that looks like a failed 4th grade chemistry experiment, go for it.”

 “The place is dirty. I shudder to imagine what the kitchen looks like. Save your money. Go lick a bus seat to get the same gastrointestinal experience for free." 

All very funny but at the end of the day, is Yelp just a source for a belly laugh or does it really influence the restaurant business.?

 First, a word about credibility.   Over the years,   Yelp has been accused of   manipulating the website's user reviews based on participation in its advertising programs.   These charges have been denied and several class action lawsuits against the website have gone nowhere..  Questions linger but given the nature of the beast, they probably always will.

Second, Yelp ratings do move the market.  Two economists from UC Berkeley surveyed 300 restaurants in San Francisco and correlated their evening reservations rates with their rating on the company's website. They concluded that an upgrade from 3.5 to 4 stars caused an increase of 19 percentage points in the sellout rate.

But of even greater interest, Yelp has taken the haute out of cuisine.  In a story that appeared in these pages recently, Yelp listed the top 100 places to eat in American.

Number One was a tiny seafood joint wedged into a condo complex in Hawaii called De Poke Shack, which features salads that combine Japanese-inflected spices and greens like seaweed or kimchi with generous chunks of fresh, raw Ahi tuna.  The cost?  About $8.

The top Los Angeles choices were Porto’s Bakery which has locations in Glendale and Burbank featuring Cuban fare.  Next was Joe’s Falafel, a Mediterranean place in Studio City.  And next was Ricky’s Fish Tacos which operates out of a food truck.

Not a linen tablecloth among them.

Fine (read expensive) dining will always be with us.  Indeed, Yelpers share their opinions of upscale bistros and steak houses along with the mom and pop diners..

But Yelp and websites like it open up a menu as vast and fascinating as the city we live in.  And that's a recipe for success   

No comments: