The Broadsheet Restaurant Critic – Here to Stay?

Posted on: July 19th, 2008 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Should we believe that oft said bastion of information known as wikipedia, then the critic stems from the Ancient Greek word krites, meaning “a person who offers reasoned judgement or analysis…interpretation and observation.”

Whether the current crop of broadsheet restaurant critics fulfill this definition is a matter for a separate debate, for now we simply wish to ask: How do we choose one to follow?

It can be many things – writing style, knowledge, experience, weight or strength of opinion, or just plain entertainment value.

Most typically we choose to follow the critic whose taste, style and opinion is most closely matched by our own.

Why? When we go to a restaurant we want to know in advance, with great anticipation, that we’re likely to enjoy ourselves.

There may, however, be the more thorough – or cautious – who read them all and give greater weight to some over others.

After all fine dining is an expensive business and proportionate investment in having a good time is often required.

So is the broadsheet the natural home for these folks? They all have them; from Jay Rayner to AA Gill or Terry Durack to Michael Winner.

To understand the future we need to at least analyse the past and present.

With broadsheets that is as easy as ABC; no not a sound knowledge of the alphabet (although essential in journalism), nor is it the American Broadcasting Company.

No. For these purposes we refer to a more appropriate version of the acronym, namely the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

The “Bureau” is tasked with measuring and monitoring circulation figures of our beloved newspapers across both print and digital media.

Very useful for positioning and justifying advertising space or indeed, depending on who is up or down this week, just plain bragging rights.

Today, The Guardian Newspaper, for example, enjoys around 140 million internet page views a month from approximately 30 million unique visitors.

Wow! My first and only utterance – Wow!

Indeed every single broadsheet enjoys at least 100 million page views a month and the figures across the board are rising rapidly.

Rewind to the winter of 1995. There was no internet, not at least as we understand it today. Yes there were Compuserve and America Online but these were relatively fledgling private communities.

All content was textual and connection speeds across modems were at best 28kbps; you might wait three to five minutes for a page to load. A far cry from access to the full functioning, graphical, any place, any time, multi mega bit instantaneous connections we take for granted today.

One day in that same year, I was travelling with a colleague to meet a corporate insurance client. This colleague was a special one, one who had been flown to Europe from the United States to evangelize about the future of the “internet.”

He said something I will always remember about newspapers – “the internet,” he said, “will never replace the daily newspaper, people like to sit down with a physical newspaper. No, no matter how much content, or how fast or how slick, they’ll always be a newspaper, it’s a cultural thing.”

Was he right? One might argue that the decline of the physical newspaper is inevitable with the saturation of now satellite TV news broadcasting combined with internet fingertip news.

And after all, the physical newspaper is always a day out of date! To a point the ABC trend figures disagree. Yes, there has been a decline in circulations but only a marginal one.

In fact the opposite appears to be true: Newspapers have seized the opportunity offered by the internet – their digital sister products – by grasping access to a wider audience both demographically and geographically.

In 2004, when fine-dining-guide began, I clicked the ‘contact the author button’ on the digital LA Times and emailed David Shaw.

Mr Shaw had produced a fascinating article on molecular gastronomy; within five minutes he had responded, positively, from his first generation Blackberry.

The key points here are several – reading the LA times from 30 miles west of London, contacting the author and getting a speedy response. The latter two have become internet watchwords: Interactiveness and responsiveness.

Terry Durack’s column in the Independent, for example, has been reproduced on the internet as an interactive diary or blog. More Interactive and more responsive than we have ever experienced before from broadsheet journalism.

So are there any downsides for the broadsheets and their critics? Well yes, as with any business where there is open access to the market then competition will thrive.

In the digital age we all have access to a wider audience! Be it websites, blogs, forums, social networking or podcasts; every single enthusiastic amateur has the opportunity to present a new form of curriculum vitae to potential employers.

Take just two examples – Andy Lynes and Andy Hayler – today both are full time food writers.

For many years Andy Lynes worked for BT and his foodie claim to fame was appearing in one of the TV semi finals of the amateur master chef (in the good old days when it was hosted by Lloyd Grossman).

Thanks to his passion and enthusiasm and not least the opportunity of the internet, Andy Lynes is now doing, as David Everitt-Matthias put it, “something he loves.”

Andy has made it all the way to the broadsheets! His method was through extraordinary effort and commitment to the UK Fine Dining Forum eGullet.

Andy Hayler on the other hand made his name and fortune in the computer software and technology consultancy business.

In recent years, he made the global press for being one of the top innovators in Britain; at the same time he was making news for eating at all forty-nine Michelin 3 Star restaurants in Europe.

His exclusively top end restaurant focused website was an original pioneer and includes reviews and detailed ratings and rankings of all his many restaurant visits; including a compulsive reading weekly blog.

Andy Hayler has made significant contributions to the Good Food Guide and sat on the panel of Judges for Restaurant Magazine’s World’s Top 50 Restaurants.

So what of the future? People have wider choices in their selection of critics; physical or digital broadsheets aside, the digital world is abundant with critics, and while there will always be more opinions than experts (FD Roosevelt) there are plenty of good ones out there.

These can only be good things – the broadsheets pressured by the market to offer more value, more quality content, more quickly, more interactively and more responsively. It may also imply, as market mechanics do, that the price goes down as competition goes up. More journalists earning less money! Never!

Well maybe…perhaps the market for krites has taken a leaf out of the Ancient Greeks book; there’s plenty of room for quantity without compromising quality – one that some might argue certain restaurants could do well to recognise.