Everyone’s a Critic: In the information age, how necessary are restaurant critiques?

It seems as though everywhere I go these days, I’m introduced to people as the restaurant critic for the Mountain Xpress. On the rare occasion that I break down and correct people, telling them that I am, in fact, not a restaurant critic, I’m met with quizzical looks. And perhaps this: “If you’re a food writer, and you don’t critique restaurants, what do you do?”

Why does this bother me? I know it shouldn’t.

Perhaps it raises my hackles a bit because the early model of Xpress food writing might quite possibly have scarred me for life. Well, that may be a bit dramatic, but long-time readers of Xpress might recall a less-than-complimentary review, written in early 2005, about a certain German restaurant that nearly caused a mini-riot in portions of the restaurant community.

Something about the reporting of mounted animal heads on the walls and service staff in lederhosen ruffled the feathers of some readers. Perhaps it was the comparison of a hunk of braised meat to a piece of shoe-leather that irritated some longtime champions of the restaurant (I would be willing to bet that it was the latter). Rumor has it that there was a fairly well-attended sacrifice of a Mountain Xpress distribution box that involved a dumpster. Perhaps there were torches and pitchforks, as well.

Whatever the case, there were quite a few letters to the editor about that story. My fresh-faced 26-year-old self was entirely taken aback by letters like this:

“I am writing to express my ultimate disgust at the article written by Mackensy Lunsford … I have dined at this restaurant for many years and have had many memorable meals. I think your food “critic” should have looked into the history of this establishment and the story behind the varied menu … I think the atmosphere, excellent service, delightful and varied menu all add to the experience … I think your food writer should extend this successful business an apology for being so short-sighted and [for] writing youthful opinions that have no validity. Shame on you, Mackensy, for your self-important review. I thank the staff and kitchen … for their diligence each day and [for] making the rest of the public very happy …

Or this one:

“I dine at (the restaurant) all the time, and your review (if you can call it that) sucks. I’m just not sure how you could write this horrible article, and why Mountain Xpress would print it. After dining in this restaurant for more than 10 years, I’ve never had a bad experience. You start out bitching about how the people are dressed, make the bar seem like a hoedown, assume that clients bitch about slow service, and have no idea about the history of the place or the type of food they prepare … it’s a shame that your paper would pick a good restaurant and write an awful review. It’s time you found another writer for your food reviews — maybe the “Picky Companion” should give it a try. At least this person loved everything, ‘inhaling his dish.’

In closing, Mackensy [Lunsford] should write an apology.”

Now, naturally, some of this made me afraid that a certain chef was going to ask for my head on a plate at some point. I didn’t back down, however, and the letters continued to pour in as I continued to review. It was not the point in my life where I felt the most popular, that’s for sure.

However, it did raise some interesting discussions. Namely, what is criticism? It is still interesting to me how the writers of those letters above grew angry at a food critic for being, well … critical. Was Asheville really ready for critical reviews? Would reviews, published in a paper for all to see, keep restaurateurs honest, or would it hurt their business? Is any publicity indeed good publicity? Was someone going to burn my house down in the middle of the night for doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing?

Flash forward five years; the model for the food section here at the Xpress has entirely changed.

I left the Xpress in 2007 for entrepreneurial reasons, which ended up not exactly working out, for a variety of reasons that have little to do with business decisions. More accurately, I needed a change of lifestyle —  and, first and foremost, to get out of the restaurant business for good. Eventually I made my way back to a desk at the Xpress offices, where I settled in to do some remodeling.
Perhaps my stepping out of the kitchen and into the world of full-time writing has widened my scope of perspective. Whatever the case, we quickly decided that the food section needed to feature less opinion writing and more content that focused on what happens beyond the restaurant.

You haven’t noticed? You might not be the only one.

As I said, everywhere I go, I am referred to as the Xpress food critic. Not the food writer, not the food and features coordinator (which is my rather unwieldy title).

Why would this be something that I want to correct? Who cares? What’s in a name?

All reflexive cringing at the word “critic” aside, there’s this: Part of my effort with this food section is to engender dialogue that is much more constructive than what restaurant critiques foster. For example, a piece that Jonathan Poston recently wrote for us about local hot sauce made from locally grown peppers caused a conversation in the online comments section about local products — at least one reader rushed out to buy some hot sauce immediately. Another piece by Rachel Brownlee focusing on how to cook rabbit started a similar dialogue — of course, it also dredged up the old vegetarian-versus-omnivore conversation. It was fairly tame — but at least people were talking, including some local farmers who raise rabbit.

All of this isn’t to say that the Xpress is in the business of simply promoting local business. It’s just that there are so many interesting topics out there in the food world that don’t have anything to do with what one person — the supposed “self-important critic,” to borrow a few words from one of the letter writers above — thinks about one particular dish on a plate in front of them.

In Asheville, there are so many more important things to focus on in the food world than one person’s opinion. Who’s growing our vegetables, raising our meats, growing wheat for local bread — these are just a few examples. Are we turning away from restaurants altogether? No. I just don’t see any real reason to focus on critical reviews for now; I’d rather devote my time to food reporting, á la the now-defunct Gourmet Magazine, Saveur and numerous others. Is your restaurant new, making news, or going through a major overhaul? We might cover it. You think your spaghetti is the best in town? Well, that might not quite be news — which isn’t to say we’ll never bring it up.

This raises the point — are we denying our readers a service?

My colleague David Forbes and I just had this discussion this morning.

Forbes feels that, in a place like Asheville, there seems to be much back-patting going on in our local community for Asheville-produced goods — including music, art and yes, food. This is, of course, a good thing. But, he wonders, is all of this warm and fuzzy behavior (my words, not his) causing our creative community to slack off a bit? Would they benefit from a professional’s honest opinion — especially if the product is subpar?

In certain situations, Forbes has a point.

My argument is that, in a town this small, with the resources that are available to us, word gets around fast — the public tends to make up its collective mind quickly around here. We’re all pretty well-connected and social-media savvy — that’s part of the reason why we’re beating much larger cities with many more breweries in competitions like “Beer City USA.” In a world with Twitter, Urbanspoon, Yelp and Chowhound, everyone’s a critic these days. Some would argue that a professional source, rather than online crowds of rabble-rousers, should be responsible for holding our local restaurants accountable.

To me it’s clear — especially when you take into account letters like the ones above — that most people prefer to make their own decisions when it comes to restaurants. Even critics with the most educated and experienced palates are essentially providing subjective opinions. Ruth Reichl, formerly of the New York Times, constantly had to endure cavalcades of negative letters in response to her reviews from people that vehemently insisted that she had no taste. This is the same person that went on to become the editor of Gourmet Magazine.

So, no. I’m not a “food critic.”

Rather than point out what I think about a small plate of food in front of me, I want to direct attention to a much broader scope of our local culinary view. I want to paint the picture of the chef who made that food, introduce the reader to the dairy owner than made that cheese, or the entrepreneur that made the mustard on that sandwich. I want to show readers how far-away catastrophes can affect our local food and businesses.

Does this make me a “food cheerleader,” as another reader insisted, rather shortly after the letters above were printed? Sure. I’ll take it. I’d prefer not to be called any sort of cheerleader, but I’m certainly not a critic. What I’m doing is working to start dialogue about an amazing culinary scene. It’s one that’s often taking place behind-the-scenes — and one I feel deserves a voice.




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7 thoughts on “Everyone’s a Critic: In the information age, how necessary are restaurant critiques?

  1. Imladris Farm

    What a cool concept!

    I certainly agree that the concept of a food critic is limited. At the end of the day, a restaurant review is (generally) based on one experience of one person/a very small group of people with a given set of tastes in a single, discrete meal. This ignores the variations in personal tastes of the community at large, the normal fluctuations in quality and service that are present in even the best restaurants, and many other factors that may vary from day to day or season to season. And I personally find that my (apparently odd) tastes rarely match a given restaurant critic’s (an issue I also face in movie reviews – sorry, Ken!). Much as my poor wine palate favors a $20 bottle over a $60 one, my preference in restaurants leans more towards the “lots of really good, hearty food” rather than the “beautifully presented tid-bits surrounded by lots of empty plate” dishes that many professional critics rave over (my beltline suffers from this preference also!).
    While I think David has a legitimate question, my feeling is that Asheville has always (“always” dates back to the early 80’s when I was growing up here) been extremely competitive for restaurants for it’s size. Due to the seasonal nature of our tourist industry and the large number of restaurants of all types available here, it’s not enough to simply open a good restaurant in this town. “Good” sales during the on season won’t carry you through the off season. And we do have an extremely vibrant (and often opinionated! which I mean in a good way. really) “foodie” community that is not hesitant to talk/brag/rip or otherwise discuss restaurant fare.

    Mackensy, I look forward to looking back through the archives with this new perspective of what you’re doing, as well as reading your new articles on food!

    Walter Harrill

  2. ChrisK

    Thank you for your posting.

    A couple of points:

    While I think the authors might owe YOU an apology, it seems vindictive to publish the names of those who objected to your opinion while hiding the name of the restaurant.

    More importantly I have always been disappointed by the lack of professional, critical voices in Asheville and I am sorry that you don’t want to be one of them.

    Criticism is not as dangerous as people here seem to think. We have a growing culinary richness and a population that enjoys food and dining. A vibrant, healthy culture requires critical expression as guidance. Guidance for the dining public AND the kitchens that could do better.

    The best criticism is simply the opinion of an expert. Someone who knows by experience or training what a meal might be like. You (and I mean you and the paper) have the credentials but lack the skin thick enough to withstand the backlash.

    I have met the authors you quote and can assure you that they pose no threat to you. It seems silly to say that your review “sucks” or that your opinion is not valid (because you’re too young???) At the same time it is silly to give up the real job and spin it to “cheerleader.”

  3. John

    Agree but don ‘t allow the restaurant using local sustainable or organics to slide on quality of food, prep, presentation, creativity, service or any other factor that warrants the expenditure of our entertainment dollars. Even if they are socially aware, let ‘s hold them to the same standard as others who may not be so inclined.

  4. Catherine Cambron

    What a thoughtful, well-written column! Maybe experience in the restaurant business helped with understanding just how difficult it is to bring off a good dining experience for a customer, each of whom has a pretty subjective idea about what is “good.” For those who think that restaurants are not held to a high enough standard in the absence of a lot of published “criticism” — what do you think it does to a restaurant when people who’ve had a bad experience don’t come back? Believe me, the owners of any local/family-owned restaurant are never completely free from anxiety about whether they’ll be able to make it, and they are doing their level best to satisfy their customers all the time. I love the approach the Xpress and Ms. Lunsford are taking and also love the first commenter’s letter here, with which I completely agree!

  5. TokyoTaos

    Am I missing something but I don’t see the published names of the letter writers that ChrisK mentions?

  6. Mackensy Lunsford

    I pulled them. I felt like ChrisK had a good point. I’m appreciating the comments, everyone.

  7. Leigh

    Well said, Mackensy.

    By eschewing typical restaurant-review style writing, you are creating something meaningful – real dialogue.

    The exact reasons you cite are why I rarely write a “review” of a restaurant, even though it seems that’s what readers want. You nailed it – people prefer to make their own decisions. Reading week after week of restaurant reviews, carefully couched so as not to offend, gets stale.

    Personally, I’m happy to give my unqualified opinion to whoever asks, but if I write about a restaurant or other food location, it is more for sense of place than food critique.

    Which reminds me…whoever does the plating at Posana deserves a raise. Nice presentation.

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