The new unpaid restaurant critic

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

by Jennifer Cockrall-King

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.”




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The new unpaid restaurant critic

  1. Jamie Maw, the dean of Vancouver Restaurant critics was a big early adopter to e-gullet. I think he really fought the elitism of that site (I rememebr one poster attacking James Barber because he wasn't sophisticated enough and Jamie leaping to his defence). I think like in every other field you have to recognise that the internet has changed the way reviewing is done. That being said, there is a place for a professional as well.

  2. Chowhound and the like cannot be ignored by restaurants or consumers today, they are powerful and instant in their opinions in addition to being used increasingly by every demographic. Like instant potatoes these posts may be pretty reasonable substitutes however an experienced and seasoned professional opinion I believe can never be replaced. It is very true that technology has changed the way we view "reviews" and while everyone can be a critic, few are reviewers. Do these posts/blogs carry the same weight? Consumers today can see through the rants and or self ingratiating posts to determine the worthiness of a potential restaurant. There will always be a place for the well written balanced perspective on my ipad.

  3. While dissenting opinions are a great addition to any city's culinary arena, I do think that Chowhound can often have a negative effect on local businesses for the exact reason you point out in the first paragraph of this article; The everyman visiting a restaurant in it's first few weeks of business.

    Everyone wants to know about the hottest new spot, but no one has the respect to let a restaurant have its soft opening. It's easy to criticize a spot for its flaws when it is new. Some Chowhounders keep these aspects in mind, unfortunately not all. All it takes is one bad review from an established, amateur poster for others to dismiss a restaurant, I think that's a shame.

    Additionally, there are some people on Chowhound who I would view as "food bullies". These folks think their opinion matters above all others. I've seen posters completely berate fellow foodies for their opinions. It's lame. Just because you've been an amateur reviewer for 10 years doesn't mean your palate is more refined than others.

    When it comes to dining or any art for that matter, it's not about who gets there first or the who's who of a food blog,it's about taste and experience. I think some people on the site let it go to their head.

    • Oh, foo. A new deli opened in downtown Toronto last year called "Caplansky's". The opening was terrible. Problems with the computer system, late or missing entrees, poor service, inconsistent food (i.e. great one night, horrid the next), etc. And this continued for at least a month.

      Did the restaurant fail? Not a chance. People who'd tried Zane's smoked meat at his little hole in the wall at the Monarch tavern were more than willing to give him some time to get things right, and they regularly posted in his defense. The business is quite successful now.

      On the other hand, a new Chinese spot opened up in Richmond Hill a few months ago. It was run by a group who had two other very good spots in the northern Toronto burbs, so many hounds went to check it out. The reviews, from well known and trusted posters, were uniformly negative. Some dishes were good, but many were not, and cold, greasy dim sum is not going to win you many fans. A couple of months later, and I notice the parking lot is nearly empty on Friday and Saturday nights. I always check CH when I'm going to a new city, and I've rarely been disappointed by their recommendations.

  4. I use Chowhound when I travel – where is there a better database of food in a foreign city? Chowhound tends to do its own self-selecting with reviews. If I read a positive recommendation over and over again…well, then I'm pretty confident that's a good choice for eating establishment. A newspaper reviewer simply cannot compete with the quantity of different perspectives that Chowhound represents. And yes, as with any group, there are the 'bullies' on the boards. I ignore their reviews.

  5. Forget chowhound.
    Go for egullet: serious reliable material.

  6. lesley is the most overrated food columnist.

  7. Chowhound is presumed by many to be an unbiased open forum which
    reflects consumer sentiment. The truth is that Chowhound is heavily
    censored. Look at the comments at the end of this post:

    http://bit.ly/j3DgOv

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