The pool of restaurant reviews available - at online review sites, in magazines and newspapers, and on blogs - is deep and murky. User-generated review sites like Urbanspoon and Yelp, offer crowd-sourced restaurant reviews. A few bad reviews from diners miffed about wait times, ketchup brands or loud music, can skew the rating downward. Conversely, a restaurant's popularity or a little Internet-savvy on the part of the owner may skew a rating in the opposite direction.
Restaurant reviews in newspapers, magazines, weekly papers and guidebooks offer an expert opinion by a seasoned restaurant critic, like the Weekly's own Jason Sheehan. These critics strive for anonymity, so an establishment can't dazzle them with an extraordinary meal that wouldn't be experienced by a "regular" patron. Some critics have been known to go to great lengths to protect their anonymity in an effort to write unbiased reviews. When Ruth Reichl was the restaurant critic for The New York Times, she donned elaborate disguises to avoid being recognized (she later chronicled the experience in her great memoir, Garlic & Sapphires).
Blogs fall somewhere in between user-generated review sites and bona-fide, anonymous restaurant critics. A food blogger may review lots of restaurants, but if their photo is splashed all over their site and on their Twitter avatar, they are anything but anonymous. Many bloggers are also friends with restaurant owners or chefs, and regularly attend events hosted by bars and restaurants. Are their reviews biased or are they singing for their supper? Does it matter? If someone dines out 200-300 times a year, their opinion of a restaurant may still be very useful to someone that only dines out 4-5 times a year.
In some ways, the Fearless Critic Seattle Restaurant Guide ($12.95) intersects blogs, papers and online review sites. This guidebook was contributed to by a number of well-known, well-recognizable local food bloggers and writers like Lorna Yee, Michael Natkin, and the Weekly's own Scott Heimendinger and Jay Friedman among them. Those four alone have logged hundred of reviews on Urbanspoon and established themselves as arbiters of good taste in the Seattle dining scene.
The book reviews 250 restaurants around the greater Seattle area. Restaurants are listed in alphabetical order, but the helpful index sorts them by neighborhood and genre. The index also sorts restaurants by a number of special features, such as vegetarian-friendly and kid-friendly, which is helpful if you want to avoid either.
The reviews are each one page, which means Dick's Drive-in gets the same ink as Canlis. The reviews feel a little formulaic and show much less personality than the blogs of many of the contributors. That being said, the listings are concise and opinionated, with notes about dishes to try (or avoid) in addition to descriptions about the decor and ambience .
The Fearless Critic Seattle Restaurant Guide will be a useful resource for new Seattle residents or diners that only dine out a couple dozen times a year. Savvy diners however, will find the reviews informative, the advice valuable and the index handy for quickly find a restaurant to fit their needs.
Robin Goldstein - Editor-in-Chief of the Fearless Critic series - will be at Elliott Bay Books on Saturday December 11 at 5pm with "friends," to discuss the book.
Come back tomorrow for Part II of this week's Cooking the Books, with more about The Fearless Critic Seattle Restaurant Guide and a Q&A with co-editor Jay Friedman.