What is a restaurant critic's job?

By LAURA Reiley

Times Food Critic

I went to a lecture last week, a conversation between Columbia Restaurant owner Richard Gonzmart, Florida studies professor Gary Mormino and USF librarian Andy Huse, about Huse's exciting new book, The Columbia Restaurant: Celebrating a Century of History, Culture, and Cuisine. After chronicling the long life of this iconic Ybor City restaurant, the group paused to lament the passing of some of the Tampa Bay area's once great and historic restaurants, Valencia Garden, the Seabreeze and others. It was speculated that restaurant critics are due some of the blame, their preoccupation with the latest thing giving old-timers short shrift.

As the crowd shuffled out, I began thinking about my culpability in the life cycle of restaurants. First, what exactly is my job? As I see it, my job is to bring readers' attention to worthwhile restaurants they didn't know about, to steer them clear of restaurants that aren't worthy and to remind them about places that are still doing a good job and should be patronized. But it is not to administer mouth-to-mouth — or its close relative, paying lip service — to the ailing. Valencia Garden, say.

Longtime Tampa Bay area residents may be nostalgic about the layered fabric of a restaurant's life. The place where you had your first date, celebrated the job promotion or held Grandma's 80th birthday party. But my job is to say if it's good right now. If the place is shabby, the food is dated and there's a weird, moldy smell, it's my job to say so.

Similarly, there are idiosyncratic Florida foods that we hold dear. Things like deviled crabs that the rest of the country might just squint at in bewilderment. It's ours all right, but truth is, most deviled crabs are huge, oily gut bombs that should be put out of their misery and ours.

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I worked one summer in Boston for two brothers, both architects and Holocaust survivors. Henneberg and Henneberg did residential design in a very Robert Anshen/Joseph Eichler style. From a historical perspective, theirs were really amazing houses. But in 1989 in Boston, no one was hiring them. Their designs were dark and squatty with teeny closets. In essence, they were dated and the zeitgeist had moved on.

A critic's job is rooted in the discourse of the here and now. New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn goes to shows and spends her time in earnest examination of this particular season on the runway, that particular designer. It's all fleeting, some of these clothes barely warmed by human flesh before they are passe. Yes, she is better at her job if she is steeped in fashion history. She knows all about the strange blip in the 1970s when gaucho pants were popular, but her job is not to campaign to bring gauchos back. If designers start dabbling again in flare-legged Argentine cowboy pants, so be it. She'll report it.

Put another way, St. Petersburg Times film critic Steve Persall knows about film history, has beloved directors and movies he wishes we'd all see. Still, he has to review the vapid vampire swooner New Moon because that's what serves readers. Times book editor Colette Bancroft devotes time and space to new books that may not stand the test of time, but that is not intended to be at the expense of the hundreds of classic books she would highly recommend. Her job is to help readers navigate the unknown, and often the unknown is also the new.

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There is a difference between what Persall and Bancroft do and what I do, though. If Persall slams a Spielberg movie, his negative review will not perceptibly impact the movie's bottom line. With restaurant reviews, a slam can have devastating effects on the small, independent restaurant, at least initially. However, the democratic nature of restaurant patronage is such that a worthy restaurant, fairly or unfairly impugned by me, will still find its fans over time. I don't have the power to kill, merely to maim. Inversely, a glowing review has an instant impact on the money in the till — temporarily. I can bring people in the doors the first time, and then it's up to the restaurant to create return customers.

Because real people's livelihoods can be affected, a food critic must carefully calibrate standards that are consistent and suitable for the area in which she reviews. As I've said, respecting the past is important, but perhaps more essential is keeping track of what is going on in the rest of the country, and understanding how the local restaurant scene fits into that.

Yes, history is important, but a restaurant critic functions more as a barometer. What's going on right now, in this place and at this time, in the ongoing dialogue about what constitutes good food, and how does this particular restaurant measure up? Valencia Garden didn't, and it died. But I didn't pull the trigger.

Laura Reiley can be reached at lreiley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at blogs.tampabay.com/ dining.

What is a restaurant critic's job? 11/14/09 [Last modified: Saturday, November 14, 2009 3:31am]

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