Speaking of Endangered Species, Restaurant Critics Sound Off on Yelp, Food Blogs, Free Speech, Groucho Marx and Taiwanese Teenagers

Yesterday, Andrew Knowlton, restaurant editor at Bon Appetit magazine and writer of the BA Foodist blog had a few words to say to a frustrated restaurateur dealing with reviews from knuckleheads on Yelp. His advice? Don't get into fights with anonymous online posters, remember that food is a subjective thing and that everyone is entitled to an opinion, blah blah blah.

But then, Knowlton went a step further and actually polled the critics themselves--those out-of-date, frantically scrambling dinosaurs of the print age, as endangered as the poor Louisiana pancake batfish--about how they feel fighting against the sudden glut of food blogs and online "cit-crit" sites like Yelp. I know this because I was one of said dinosaurs polled (along with such luminaries as Jonathan Gold, Sam Sifton, Lee Klein, Brett Anderson and Craig LaBan). And because I don't think there's anything in the world short of Free Pie and Blowjob Day at Padma Lakshmi's house that could get such a crowd of critics all ganging up together and talking about the same thing, here are a few of the better outtakes:

Jonathan Gold, on Yelp's ability to unite the world:

"For the first time in history, it is possible to discover what Taiwanese teenagers in Hacienda Heights think of a restaurant in Hacienda Heights aimed at Taiwanese teenagers. How could that not be useful to the dialogue?"

Mike Sutter, on Cold War morals:

"If you employ the Russian-judge technique from the Cold War of throwing out the highest ratings (the owner) and lowest ratings (somebody the owner fired), it's possible to shake out kernels of truth from Yelp, along with flashes of poetic insight."

Tucker Shaw, on Snicker-tinis and accountability:

"I'm naturally skeptical of any commentary that isn't backed up by convincing, literate reasoning and a certain amount of accountability. Anonymous postings about a crappy milkshakes or off-the-cuff tweets about 'amazing' Snicker-tinis are just noise, and irritating noise at that. Only a very few self-starting critics are able to spend the time, money, and effort it takes to really explore restaurants more deeply and craft thoughtful assessments. Those that do are gold."

John Curtas, on democracy and the perils of free speech:

"Yelp, Chowhound and their ilk, suffer all the flaws attendant to any free speech democracy: Everyone has a voice, but this is not necessarily a good thing."

Lee Klein, quoting Groucho Marx:

"I think it was Groucho Marx who said that if 10 out of 10 people tell you you're dead, you had better lie down. If 10 out of 10 Yelpers/bloggers agree that a restaurant is good or bad, you can pretty much take it to the bank."

Craig LaBan, on phone books and pimps:

"I've begun to think of Yelp and its ilk much in the same way I used to regard Zagat--as a glorified phone book of 'survey says' sound bites - but with a more cautionary twist. Yes, there are some good opinions to be found online - but don't let all those happy face emoticons fool you. There's enough posing, pimping and dubious grousing going on in these anonymous blurbs to make anyone crave a credible source with a name. At least I hope so. Either way, their growing influence has only continued to push us old-school print critics to work harder to remain relevant."

Sam Sifton, from the high ground:

"I have no beef with the residents of Yelpistan. I thank them for their photography, and take their opinions with Maldon sea salt."

From these (admittedly cut down to make a point) quotes above, I think it's obvious that there are two schools of thought when it comes to online citizen food journalism. There are those who feel the twisted need to stay on the good side of the bloggers and Yelpers and those who resent the categorical dumbing-down of modern food writing because they're terrified (and rightly so) that someday that's all there's going to be. And then there are those suicide cases who just don't give a fuck and will happily be like those musicians playing waltzes on the deck of the Titanic as it went down--clinging desperately to some sense of order and dignity and old-world values even as the cold waters begin to lap at their tasseled loafers.

Can you guess which side I'm playing for?

Damn right.

To check out all the wisdom in full (including my minor and foul-mouthed contribution to the dialog), you can find Knowlton's whole column here.

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