What Good Is a Restaurant Critic Anyway?

A few months back, the New Yorker ran a cartoon with one overstuffed type pointing out another overstuffed type to a fellow guest at a party. “One of our greatest minds in restaurant criticism,” read the caption, the humor being the absurdity that restaurant criticism would take deep thought. I've been mulling over that cartoon since then, alternately agreeing with the joke and resenting the way it dismisses everything I've been doing for the past 10 years.

Today on the Atlantic's food blog, Clay Risen attends a tasting of a $40,000, 50-year-old bottle of Glenfiddich. Though he's transported by the flavors in the few $100-sips he's poured, he walks out wondering what the point of writing about food and drink is:

The role of the art critic―dance, literature, painting, film and so on―is hardly a straight-forward one, but for now let's say that there are generally two parts. On the one hand, the critic provides a catalyst for thinking about a work of art, and art in general; on the other, the critic tells his audience if it's worth their time and money. The worst critics merely do the latter, the best do both.

You might say the same about the food and drink critic, but let's face it: readers aren't looking for an intellectual discussion of a restaurant's spaghetti alle vongole―they just want to know if it's worth the extra clams.

Of course, I have the same reaction as I did to the cartoon: Half of me agrees, and half of me thinks ― and defensively, I'm willing to admit ― Risen's a pompous ass.

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