THE GUY NEXT TO ME WAS TAKING PICTURES of his food. I was in the bar at the Book Bindery sipping the excellent housemade cabernet franc and nibbling on truffled fries—following the premise that it was far more satisfying to put the food in my mouth than in the digital album on my iPhone. The restaurant had been open only a couple of months, so it didn’t take much insight to figure out that the shutterbug was some species of food writer. As indeed he was. He was in town on paid assignment from Chowhound, a web forum devoted to the appreciation of good food (unlike Yelp, which invites all comers to review all restaurants, good or otherwise).
The proliferation of food bloggers, customer reviews, and restaurant websites like Yelp or Zagat means that every single person who goes out to eat anywhere can weigh in. But, does it really help anyone decide where to eat when the raves and the rants cancel each other out and way too many restaurants get three out of five stars?
Frankly, I thought Mr. Chowhound was rather…overt. When it comes to restaurant criticism, I’m old school, believing that critics should be both knowledgeable and unrecognizable when they go out to eat. (More on a professional diner’s anonymity). And that there’s value in the opinion of a professional who waits a respectful amount of time after a restaurant opens to give the establishment a chance to work out the kinks before passing judgment. That’s how our veteran critic, Kathryn Robinson, approached the list of Seattle’s top 25 best restaurants. Well, mostly how. One restaurant open just three weeks made her cut—on the strength of its operators’ record and the startling quality of her first meal there.
Which only proves there are many ways to review a restaurant. The health inspector who Jessica Voelker follows around for a day offers his own inimitable way. Even chefs review one another, as seen in our first-ever “Chefs Bite Back” poll. We invited restaurateurs to give their “reviews”—of dining trends, coupon promotions, critics, competitors, Yelpers, and their customers. We allowed them complete anonymity; even Kathryn was prevented from seeing who said what. We got an earful. Er, mouthful.
As for me, I was at Staple and Fancy recently to celebrate my stepdaughter’s birthday. We ordered the family-style multicourse meal, a feast that included so many beautiful and unusual appetizers, I just had to take a picture.