The State of Restaurant Criticism in the Age of Half-Stars
A Yeti makes a list
Tangerine, goat cheese, hazelnuts, and chicories come together in Jsix’s rainbow beet terrine.
Oh, wow. You must be the last critic in town,” said the young woman from the online review site. She cast me a sweet look, as though she’d encountered an arthritic Yeti churning butter in a thatched domicile. I liked her. She had the go-getting moxie of the freshly converted—unwaveringly assured her way was the future. Confidence smells nice.
The doors of restaurant criticism flung open years ago, and the once-elitist conversation spilled into the quad. As it should. In all cases except maybe presidential elections, popular vote matters. San Diego Magazine opens the “Best Restaurants” issue ballots every year.
As for us Yetis, it’s been a long time since the New York Times’ Craig Claiborne turned restaurant criticism into a serious, star-giving arena for writers to earn a living. At their best, restaurants are living, breathing stories about culture, community, vice, ritual, history, religion, eco-politics, agriculture, economics, and sensory stimulation. And at their equal best, restaurant critics like Jonathan Gold, Ruth Reichl, and Robert Sietsema are highly informative, entertaining, insightful interpreters of those stories.
Despite Claiborne’s intent to elevate the conversation surrounding restaurant and food culture, too often it devolves into a snooty assignation of worth, full of pretentious windbags using language as a fraternity paddle on the vulnerable backsides of hard-working restaurant owners.
That’s not what thoughtful criticism was ever meant to be. We’re not doctors analyzing X-rays and announcing life expectancy to a crowd of schadenfreuders. We’re storytellers who live in restaurant culture.
So take our annual “Best Restaurants” list as it’s intended—not as an exclusionary exercise or a greater-than decree that delegitimizes restaurants that aren’t here. Some of my favorite places aren’t here, simply due to the musical-chairs nature of list making. Rather, look at it as a documentation of where I’ve found joy over the last year. A recollection, publicly shared.