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A few weeks ago, when AA Gill and Giles Coren expressed opposing views of the same restaurants in the same newspaper group (they are restaurant critics of The Sunday Times and The Times respectively), many readers and commentators, online and off, were forced to question what food criticism is all about. If two highly regarded and trusted experts can’t agree whether a place is brilliant or appalling, where does it leave the reader?
Hard data for the “effectiveness” of critics are impossible to find. There are some who would have you believe that a big-gun critic can close down a restaurant with a barbed quip, or have it packed to bursting with lyrical praise. Others believe that modern critics are entertaining columnists and that their verdict is nowhere near as important as the way in which they deliver it. It is certainly true that many thousands more people will read and enjoy a Gill or Coren column each week than will act on what they have read to decide where to eat (not least because so many of the reviews are of London venues).
As a sometime critic myself, I’m following the debate on our relevance with some trepidation but, while it’s rolling on, online booking and recommendation systems have burgeoned from geeky little apps and specialist internet communities into an increasingly profit-driven sector. Among the big players, OpenTable runs an online restaurant booking system and offers suggestions for where to eat next, based on consumer rankings. (OpenTable says its users write about 450,000 reviews every month.) It also helps the restaurants to manage their bookings. Google has enriched the results of its searches for businesses to include customer recommendations. TripAdvisor uses customer reviews to create ratings, which attracts consumers to its site where it then advertises to them.
These are the big beasts in the field and between them scurry hundreds of smaller operations, each operating on a slightly different model, with creative ways to “utilise new technologies to improve the customer experience”, but they all have something else in common.
Empowering the consumer to review is accepted as a general good. If we were simply to go online and read what other customers had experienced, we’d all be better informed and making better choices — but we’re not doing that because all the consumer recommendations we might read are being delivered through profit-seeking businesses. The internet has given companies the opportunity to become intermediaries between food businesses and their customers. Consumer reviews — or if you’re cynical, free “consumer-generated content” — are not the point here. Their individual merit is in most cases entirely negligible but together they form a body of authentic “public opinion” that is giving an air of impartiality to the middle men.
Think, if you can bear it, of comparison sites in financial services — particularly insurance. Insurance and financial services are something we all need but the products were marketed in such an opaque manner that even a normally financially literate customer couldn’t compare like for like. An existing layer of middle men — brokers and agents — was complacent, over-remunerated and, arguably, lacked independence. Online comparison engines replaced that bloated layer of intermediaries and, like them, built their business on commission from the seller.
Choices in the hospitality industry, though, are not tough to make. Look at a menu, look at the prices, have a sniff to see if the place smells of old chip fat, then walk in and buy your tea. There’s no complex tariff system, no small print, and you don’t need to be interviewed on your attitude to risk. Nobody ever got rich being a “restaurant broker” and no one is ever going to be “mis-sold” steak and chips. It’s an odd thought, isn’t it? When did we become so risk averse that we’d rather take the recommendation of people we don’t know than chance eating an underwhelming meal? Because every one of us who uses an online booking, paying or recommendation service is complicit in the creation of this unwelcome level of middle men. Unlike the meerkats and opera singers, getting quietly richer off the commissions from already wealthy insurance companies, the weirdly named and cleverly hyped restaurant apps and sites are extracting their percentage from all of us — from customers, already paying enough, or from restaurateurs running on slim margins in a cut-throat market. None of us, whether we offer hospitality or accept it, really benefits from the steady drain of money to a new stratum of intermediary.
Bloggers offering a friendly opinion on a food business are part of the process by which we decide where to eat, as are friends who recommend, or any other punter who shares their opinion. Which brings us back to the old-school newspaper critics. Yes, they make a living from their opinions about food, but what they’re paid for is selling papers. The beauty of this arrangement is that they get paid whether the review is good or bad. They only lose the pay cheque the day they no longer entertain their readers.
In spite of their antipathy, honest food bloggers and restaurant critics are in exactly the same game: having entertaining opinions, hoping people like them and, in truth, not having half as big an impact on purchasing behaviour as they’d like you to believe. But the companies that are using “honest consumer opinion” to validate their entry into our world, to suck scarce money out of it, and don’t even make us smile while doing it . . . Well, they’re a threat that all of us — cooks, critics, punters and bloggers — should fear equally.
Illustration by Shonagh Rae