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The new unpaid restaurant critic

These days the verdict of the once all-powerful professional reviewer hardly matters

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The new unpaid restaurant critic

It used to be that when a restaurant opened, a few weeks later a review would appear in the newspaper, written by a single, paid restaurant critic. That review would usually stand unchallenged or unchallengeable. Very likely, it would make or break the reputation of the restaurant. Oh, how times have changed. For the better? Well, why not start up a discussion thread about it? Or maybe you’re at a restaurant on opening night. Go ahead, post your own review.

Once the domain of taste mavens, open-forum websites like Chowhound.com have unleashed an army of Everyman food critics and ushered in the era of the gastro-democracy. A new restaurant opens and before the week is out, there might be several differing reviews by chowhounders-at-large. These rank-and-file contributors spend their own hard-earned cash on a meal, so they chew-and-tell as they see fit, sometimes ad nauseam. The site is divided into various boards, from general food topics to the geographically arranged boards based on restaurant reviews. No place or food is too upscale or downmarket, too obscure or too mainstream. There’s a “chowhound” out there who will answer your most urgent culinary conundrums—usually within minutes. In late January, Chowhound had to split its busy “Western Canada” discussion board into a British Columbia and territories board, and a Prairie provinces board due to the increase of user traffic.

Chowhound’s closest rival, eGullet.com, is less user-friendly, and tends to be more of a food industry insider’s site with an air of elitism that lingers. In the era when everyone’s a critic, Chowhound has become the alpha dog, thanks in part to a civility and an inclusiveness that trickles down from its head moderator, Jacquilynne Schlesier.

“Ontario is in the top 10 boards in terms of busiest on the site,” says Schlesier, a note of pride in her voice. This Toronto-based foodie started out by reading the boards, posting questions and sending emails to the moderators, and since 2006 has been the site’s full-time, paid community manager. As overseer of the site’s teams of volunteer moderators, who keep the discussions “honest, friendly and on-topic,” Schlesier’s job is a global peacekeeping mission if there ever was one. Discussions are usually self-moderating, but when they veer too far off topic, or get downright mean, moderators act swiftly, removing offensive posts and reminding everyone of the posting etiquette.

Giving everyone a soapbox can have its drawbacks, warns John Manzo, a University of Calgary sociology professor and tireless Chowhound poster since 2003. Manzo, who posts under his actual name, loves the sense of community that has resulted. He’s started a Calgary Chowhound Facebook group to meet the other posters and credits the site’s success to the simple fact that “there’s a human need to talk about your food.” But amidst all this talk, Manzo is aware of the power of posting a good or a negative review of a restaurant. “We have to realize that we have an impact on these businesses.” He cites a few negative reviews that people have casually posted on Chowhound but that will now linger in perpetuity on the Internet. He admits that initially he harboured a dream of being discovered on Chowhound and landing a moonlighting job as a paid restaurant critic, but now enjoys the unfettered immediacy of the site. “Besides, as it is, my professional life depends on being edited,” Manzo laughs.

So what do the bona fide professional restaurant critics think of this new era of gastro-democracy? “I was an early fan of Internet restaurant discussion boards,” says Lesley Chesterman, a columnist and the fine dining critic for the Montreal Gazette since 1999 and blogger on www.lesleychesterman.com. She participated on both eGullet and Chowhound until some of her posts defending herself against the Everyman critics were deleted. “When they started censoring my posts on Chowhound, I was out of there.” (She is now keen on the un-censored Twittersphere.) She also believes that while boards do a good job of representing the casual restaurant sector, fine dining reviews are still the domain of the experienced professional reviewer. “For the past 10 years, I have been to every upscale restaurant in the city, some of them three times, so yes, I’m probably in a better position to judge.” Chesterman still follows boards and blogs, trendspotting mainly. “No critic worth his or her salt,” she says, “can ignore the Internet.”