If it wasn’t for restaurant reviews, I might never have become a food enthusiast.
I started reading Toronto Life as a university student. Sunday nights I’d load up on magazines before getting on the Greyhound to head back up to school. I devoured the restaurant reviews, salivating over each detailed description, drinking in the atmosphere of each restaurant, savouring each dish of every review as if they’d all been my own. It was a strange thing for a student to do — I’d never been to any of those restaurants and certainly couldn’t afford to on my budget. I just loved the evocative writing. It was only after I started working that I thought “hey, I should try some of these restaurants I’ve been reading about”.
I suppose it’s only natural, then, that I think of restaurant reviews as entertainment and nothing more. And that’s why I’m mystified by all the attention paid to review scores or stars.
Actually, I’m mystified by the practice of assigning a score to a restaurant at all. It’s completely nonsensical! How can you possibly assign an objective rating to a meal, the most subjective experience out there?
Simply put, a review’s only value lies in its subjectivity. Imagine a review filled only with objective, verifiable facts — completely truthful, but boring and totally useless. You could learn about the chef and the décor, maybe get a list of prices. But as for the food, well, a list of ingredients at best. You’d read nothing of taste, texture, balance, creativity, technique, harmony, plating…none of the important elements of a dining experience, because it’s simply impossible to discuss them objectively.
And that’s the first thing you have to accept when you pick up a review. The entire restaurant is being filtered through and coloured by a real human being and all of his or her experiences or biases. This doesn’t make the source less trustworthy — in fact, the least trustworthy source is one that claims to be unbiased; they’ve already admitted they’re lying.
So how to derive usefulness from subjective, biased reviews, then?
First, embrace subjectivity. Look for the most passionate, personal, and unbalanced writing the reviewer’s ever produced. What does he or she really care about? What gets them so excited that they can’t remain level-headed? Get to know your reviewers the way you know your friends — after all, the opinions you understand and trust the most are your friends’, aren’t they?
And follow lots and lots of different reviewers, from all different sources and contexts. You’ll never agree with any one reviewer 100% of the time, so it’s best to get a sense by reading what a broad group is saying.
Forget about impartiality. Don’t demand it, and when reviewers try to appear impartial, just read right past it. It’s not important, but for some reason readers seem to care, so writers make the effort. Know better. And don’t forget that there’s lots of unabashedly biased writing out there. Seek out sources outside the mainstream — sources that don’t need to appear impartial or to appeal to a broad audience.
Decide which writers have stances and opinions most relevant to yours. Wine fan? Follow fellow wine nerds and reviewers who have lots to say about wine lists and sommeliers. Are you into slow and local? Talk to local producers and ask which chefs are buying from them or doing relevant work. Into the latest thing? I’m sure there’s someone following food trends and reporting which chef has moved restaurants.
Also, please, please, PLEASE read work from writers who can actually write. Food ‘blogging has reached the point where just about everyone has their own ‘blog (see: me) and most can’t even spell. The appeal of the Internet is that not everyone has to have attended journalism school, but quality still trumps quantity. Demand better — that’s the only way we’ll ever get better writing.
And if you can’t find like-minded food writing, well, you just found yourself a niche to fill. I mean, look at me — who would read anything I write?