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Does Local Restaurant Criticism Even Matter Anymore?

Updated: Feb 15, 2021

Ensuring that it does means understanding why it doesn't.

In restaurant journalism no one can hear you welp.

You can’t hear keystrokes, either--even though the sound of, tops, four writers punching away at them last week filled Eater Chicago with wailings on the exile of the Tribune’s Phil Vettel, ABC’s Steve Dolinsky, and (maybe) Chicago restaurant criticism writ large. The city survived--even the Tribune’s food coverage stayed the course the following week, filled with its usual roundups about new pizzerias and takes on Flamin’ Hot Cheetos mac n’ cheese dishes.

Put another way: who cares? I do; perhaps you do, too—you’re reading this. (Hate reading counts.) But truth-telling time: diners don’t need critics anymore. Between easy access to menus on restaurant websites, photos on restaurant social media, customer reviews on Yelp, word of mouth, et al. restaurant goers have multiple means of making decisions about where and what to eat; the fact that restaurants and food upstarts are now taking their restaurants to Instagram--if not as (an) Instagram--only heightens the general irrelevance of professional food media. We can argue all we want about the intellectual heft of such sources of restaurant intel, but they certainly provide more immediate, snappier, and visceral hot takes than a weekly or monthly review. They’re necessary, if lousy, aggregators--and potentially better ones than what we relied on previously.

That should sound familiar to proponents of the old way, because restaurant criticism as we know it sprung out of the same need: haute cuisine in the mid-Twentieth Century was practiced primarily at hotel restaurants and/or at country inns and villas, and there was real value in someone vetting a place before one booked travel to or through there. People ate out less then, and there were considerably less restaurants; each dining choice mattered. Most information about restaurants then was limited to guidebooks, which were published once or twice a year; the Food section in a publication or periodical, which could produce more and more timely content at a weekly or monthly rate, stepped in to fill the gap. As time and dollars spent in restaurants and the amount of restaurants opening continued to increase later in the century, coverage increased to match. This is precisely how Chicago Magazine came to be a restaurant-focused publication.

You see where I’m going here: the rise of social media is the inevitable evolution and conclusion of what the guidebooks and the Calvin Trillians of the world previously innovated. What digital technologies have done is transfer the agency and authority of assessment to the customer, democratizing and differentiating the means of participation; traditional restaurant reviewing literally can’t keep up anymore. It shouldn’t.

But perhaps it can complement. Several reviewers in the city--The Trib's Nick Kindelsperger, The Reader's Mike Sula, Titus Ruscitti--serve as essential aggregators and foragers, highlighting emerging trends, rounding up options for a particular cuisine or dish, and putting a spotlight on underrepresented contributors to the local food scene; others, such as Fooditor’s Mike Gebert or New City’s David Hammond, do the same by featuring and profiling the people behind these operations. For whatever supposed aesthetic limitations these formats have, they serve a very practical function: when there is too much choice and not enough time, someone has to take the first bite. Journalists--the ones remaining--simply adjusted the means of doing so. Me, I’m for anything that identifies and highlights excellence, in whatever form it takes (blog included!); no one said it has to be a full-time critic who visits two-star equivalents weekly.

Good riddance to that, really. Setting aside the cultural and technological forces that led to their demise, we still need to put some obvious onus on them: they just weren’t good enough. A “physician, heal thyself” critique in this age of media consolidation and private equity buyouts feels patently unfair, I know, but the fact is Chicago has continuously lacked a nationally-recognized food writer, with no Jonathan Gold or Pete Wells to speak of. It also hasn’t had a real distinct voice, either. One of things that stands out about New York school of restaurant reviewing, of which Wells is a part, is a real commitment to the cultural criticism component of restaurant reviewing: these writers weren’t just trying to explain what was on their plates; they were trying to explain New York through its restaurants. By contrast, Phil Vettel simply provided a west suburban take on city dining: he was proficient in his knowledge about food, and sufficient about describing it; he contributed, however, almost nothing to defining and refining the scene as a whole. He fit the ethos of this city well—which has always been more like a small Wisconsin town of 2.7 million than a world-class city—but wasn’t up to the task of capturing both our brief time in the national spotlight--say, 2006 to 2010--and our concerning decline thereafter between 2014-2020.

That, conveniently enough, brings us to this site. Last Meal Chicago is distinct in its attempt at criticism, in multiple senses of the term. Within the context of food writing, I’m trying to do something that is inclusive of discussion of the quality of food but also to situate that assessment in the broader culture—both the city specifically and restaurants generally—in order to codify its meaning or significance. You’ll see that in my first set of reviews, where I’ll be looking at different pandemic-era restaurant models and how they function as harbingers about directions the restaurant scene may go in the coming years.

But I also mean criticism as it is used in academic milieus, too. There, the “critical” refers to the kind of thought and action that enables change and enhances consciousness; it does something to undo past barriers and inequities. I’d like to think I’m above cheap boosterism, but I have a personal interest in seeing the local dining scene convey and sustain the full potential of the talent and capital we have here. If you dined in LA or DC during, say, 2016-2019, you likely felt the excitement and energy of an emerging set of voices, ideas, and vision; we are only just starting to experience that verve again. Let’s cultivate it anew.

-Brad Cawn

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