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Advice for the NYTimes's New Restaurant Critic


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But he also had a steep learning curve

I wouldn't use the past tense there. The permanently steep learning curve is exactly what appeals to me about writing. If the learning curve ever flattens out, I'll be moving on to my next profession. So my advice to the new critic is to embrace learning as part of the project. I don't mind a critic who has a lot to learn, so long as he knows that's the case. Journalists often learn about entire areas of human endeavor for the sake of writing one article. They ask a lot of questions, they do research, they have other people read their drafts, etc. -- in the case of a restaurant reviewer, that could mean finding a Chinese-food expert to accompany you to a Chinese restaurant in order to bring you up to speed, doing some background reading for context, or asking an experienced editor or fellow writer for some advice on a draft. What worries me is a critic who doesn't know what he doesn't know.

he arguably can carry as much weight as The Times

No pun intended . . .

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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As Busboy and Tony have pointed out, there are plenty of examples of people who made themselves into food critics. Perhaps that's the value of a Bruni: Aren't most restaurant patrons really just talented (or not) amateurs when they walk in the door and pick up a menu? Isn't there a value in being represented by a critic who doesn't bring an eye tainted by too many innings of inside baseball?

On the Johnny Apple comment: He's a damn good writer. Proof, once again, that a great writer can write anything, from politics to food.

You know, I just don’t buy that.

Yes, a great writer can write about anything. I enjoy reading about Apple’s adventures eating hot dogs with his wife in Chicago, and I’m sure many writers could do a fine job writing about the ins and outs of wieners and buns. We all have food in common. But a critic -- and in this case, a restaurant critic -- is an entirely different species. In a review, the writer must pass judgment and allot stars. No one is saying “who is Johnny Apple to write about hot dogs?” But I’ll bet there are a number of chefs in Manhattan right now thinking, “who is this Bruni guy to judge ME!”

Also, shouldn’t the NEW YORK TIMES choose a critic who knows the game, who has a proven record of respect on the restaurant scene as did Ruth Reichl when she was hired? Bruni will now have to write-up restaurants like Per Se, Masa, and AD/NY under Delouvrier, and I can’t help but ask, who is this guy to offer an opinion sure to GREATLY affect such multi-million dollar investments? Ducasse, Delouvrier, Kunz, and Keller are chefs who have devoted their lives to their work. And Bruni is going to judge them without any deep knowledge of haute cuisine? Come on.

Start him off in the $25-and-under column to get his feet wet, or send him to Chicago to write about hot dogs. But handing him the BIG JOB – a massive responsibility -- on a silver platter just proves that The Times holds little regard for, or little understands, the profession.

I’m not saying you have to have worked as a chef, dined in all Michelin three-star restaurants, or read every cookbook on the planet to be a good critic (though God knows, it would help). But when I want to know if a chef is brilliant or if restaurant is worth the money, I don’t just waltz over to my neighbor who is a neurosurgeon who happens to love to eat out. I turn to a specialist, someone whose opinion holds weight.

Yes, there are the Steven Shaws out there, people who have switched careers to become excellent food writers and reviewers. But he’s been at it for a while and as he stated above, he’s still learning. And it seems to me he’s already miles and miles ahead of Bruni.

I guess being someone who religiously reads The Times Food Section from friggin’ CANADA, I expected something more. Not just a great writer, but an expert. Bruni, soon to hold one of the most powerful jobs in food writing and the most powerful job in restaurant reviewing was, until recently, writing about George Bush and Silvio Berlusconi.

If I were Ducasse or Keller I would read his review, have a giggle, and use it to line a crate of oysters.

(Now, all that is, of course, speculation. If he comes out writing spanking reviews, I will gladly take it all back!)

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As Busboy and Tony have pointed out, there are plenty of examples of people who made themselves into food critics. Perhaps that's the value of a Bruni: Aren't most restaurant patrons really just talented (or not) amateurs when they walk in the door and pick up a menu? Isn't there a value in being represented by a critic who doesn't bring an eye tainted by too many innings of inside baseball?

On the Johnny Apple comment: He's a damn good writer. Proof, once again, that a great writer can write anything, from politics to food.

You know, I just don’t buy that.

Yes, a great writer can write about anything. I enjoy reading about Apple’s adventures eating hot dogs with his wife in Chicago, and I’m sure many writers could do a fine job writing about the ins and outs of wieners and buns. We all have food in common. But a critic -- and in this case, a restaurant critic -- is an entirely different species. In a review, the writer must pass judgment and allot stars. No one is saying “who is Johnny Apple to write about hot dogs?” But I’ll bet there are a number of chefs in Manhattan right now thinking, “who is this Bruni guy to judge ME!”

You know, here's my problem with this line of reasoning. If the chef can't convince an intelligent, open individual that his food tastes good without that individual having to spend years researching, say, the peasant foods of Andalusia, that chef probably isn't any good.

I didn't realize a person had to earn a right to judge a Keller or a Ducasse, I just assumed people do it every day, while they dine (without having even submitted a resume!).

Granted, a writer with a deeper knowledge of the particular cuisine he's reviewing, will provide more depth and understanding in his review, and both he and his readers will find their dining pleasure moderately enhanced. And, if Bruni is good, he will continuously add to the store of knowledge he brings to his work.

But, given a diner/critic with an open mind, a chef that can't succeed on the strength of the plate he puts in front of the diner deserves a poor review, no matter how many years of tradition or how many volumes of theory lie behind his work. Either it tastes good or it doesn't, and everything else is just a question of degree.

A critic with excellent instincts and journalistic fundamentals -- as the Times, evidently, believes Bruni posesses -- can mature into greatness.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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Ducasse, Delouvrier, Kunz, and Keller are chefs who have devoted their lives to their work. And Bruni is going to judge them without any deep knowledge of haute cuisine? Come on.

I might have missed something earlier on, but is there any real evidence that Bruni has no "deep knowledge of haute cuisine"?

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Kind of like appointing a political hack to be a Circuit Court of Appeals judge. You have to kowtow in front of someone who doesn't have the slightest idea what he/she is talking about (in your opinon).

I don't know how common that is, but to me, the analogy you're looking for is more related to ambassadorial appointments.

The US ambassador to a given country (also known as chief of mission) is traditionally a friendship/political appointment, rather that merit, not that the individual won't have at least a modicum of merit.

But I don't know that that analogy applies here.

As I see it, the role of the food critic is to bridge the gap between the passionate foodies (eGulleteers) and the semi-knowledgeable average diner/patron of these reviewed restaurants.

The role of the critic is to both educate the reader about different things in the food world (less so than for other writers in the food section) and to analyze and review

specific applications and situations in the food world that readers will relate to, i.e.

restaurants.

In order to do both, he/she needs just enough passion about food combined with just enough writing skills to even attempt to walk that fine line.

That passion about food doesn't necessarily have to come from having spent time as a chef or from having dined in every Michelin 3-star and every five-star hotel restaurant in Asia. But it helps to have that.

As long as the level of knowledge, aptitude and experience in each reaches a certain threshold, the reviewer is qualified to do an adequate job.

Whether his/her job performance will ever be superb, glorious, worthy of Beard award etc. is another strata on top of that.

Herb aka "herbacidal"

Tom is not my friend.

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Looking at this a different way: Bruni is clearly an interesting and intelligent writer who has something to say. He has also just spent a while as the NY Times bureau chief in Italy, the country which just happens to be the birthplace of opera and still a central country in the operatic world. He presumably goes to the opera every now and again... may even be a subsriber at the opera in Rome.

BUT, I'd be pretty upset and disappointed if the Times brought him to NYC to be the top critic for opera. How is this different?

--

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It's not. Why should it be? Anyone can walk into an opera and tell you if they like it or not and why. And I guess the great writers would use better adjectives.

Sounds to me like some people -- hello busboy -- are saying the same goes for a meal at a restaurant. :hmmm: Oh, but silly me, I keep forgetting. Cooking is a craft, not an art. I have to keep reminding myself.

And sure people are judging Keller and Ducasse every day. But they’re having conversations around the office water cooler -- not writing for The New York Times. Do you read the Times just to get another guy's opinion? Or do you read The Times to get the best opinion in the land? I certainly read Reichl's reviews that way.

But I don't know, maybe I'm allotting too much importance to that paper.

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Bruni ... presumably goes to the opera every now and again... may even be a subsriber at the opera in Rome.

BUT, I'd be pretty upset and disappointed if the Times brought him to NYC to be the top critic for opera.  How is this different?

About the only difference I can see is that Bruni has done some food writing, albeit only as a sidelight, but at least (arguably) enough to demonstrate an aptitude for the subject.

Had Bruni written some opera articles and demonstrated aptitude for that subject, his appointment as an opera critic would be acceptable to me. The situation is also very different, because the Times has several classical music critics, and a bad review can't shut an opera production down the way a bad review can kill a restaurant.

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Cookin is a craft, not an art. It has physical purpose that is inseperable from its aesthetic existence, it is transient, and its message is purely phyisical, rather than intellectual.

In addition, Bruni may or may not have gone to the opera regularly. But we can assume that he has eaten regularly, every day, probably with an eye to learning and understanding what he was eating. He begins his new career with a dramatically higher level of understanding than he would if he stumbled into an arts beat.

Finally, not to dis any of the wonderful food writers here, or demean the importance of food to cultures at many levels, but the subtlety and understanding demanded from a restaurant critic in his or her Wednesday morning thousand words is dramatically lower than that demanded of a fine arts critic writing at the level demanded by the Times.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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what is it my mom always says?

oh yeah,

Don't judge a book by it's cover.

This guy might be the greatest food writer of all time. He may know more about restaurants than you ( I know, hard to believe, isn't it?)

Or he might suck.

But I think you might want to wait until he has written a column before you decide that he sucks and he's an idiot.

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Bruni ... presumably goes to the opera every now and again... may even be a subsriber at the opera in Rome.

BUT, I'd be pretty upset and disappointed if the Times brought him to NYC to be the top critic for opera.  How is this different?

About the only difference I can see is that Bruni has done some food writing, albeit only as a sidelight, but at least (arguably) enough to demonstrate an aptitude for the subject.

Had Bruni written some opera articles and demonstrated aptitude for that subject, his appointment as an opera critic would be acceptable to me.

Not to me, it wouldn't. Not unless he had demonstrated significant aptitude for the subject. Have Bruni's writings demonstrated such aptitude with respect to restaurant reviewing?

The situation is also very different, because the Times has several classical music critics, and a bad review can't shut an opera production down the way a bad review can kill a restaurant.

I'm not quite sure what point you're arguing here. This would seem to argue against a populist, learn-on-the-job take on restaurant reviewing. After all, you're saying that the restaurant review has a much larger impact on a restaurant than an opera critic's review has on an opera company. Doesn't that imply that an incoming restaurant critic should have more demonstrable knowledge and reviewing experience in his/her respective field than an incoming opera critic?

That said, while you may be correct with respect to opera companies like the Metropolitan, which schedule seasons and artists years in advance and do limited runs of many different operatic works, it is a fact of the arts business that a bad review can have a significant impact on the survival of music theater productions (most of which are designed to run in perpetuity so long as people pay to see them).

--

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I don't think it confuses the issue to compare one kind of reviewing to another similar kind. Both music and food (along with the graphic arts and other performing arts) are fields in which there are a relatively small number of experts and a large majority of consumers who "know what they like." One thing that such a comparison points out is that some people don't think restaurant reviewing is as "important" as opera (etc.) reviewing. That's neither here nor there, but the comparison does force one to come out on one side or another of that issue.

--

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Not unless he had demonstrated significant aptitude for the subject.  Have Bruni's writings demonstrated such aptitude with respect to restaurant reviewing?

A very reasonable question. The internal memo referred to his past food writings. Whether they demonstrate significant aptitude, as opposed to slight apptitude, is something I'm as eager to know as the rest of us.

The situation is also very different, because the Times has several classical music critics, and a bad review can't shut an opera production down the way a bad review can kill a restaurant.

I'm not quite sure what point you're arguing here. This would seem to argue against a populist, learn-on-the-job take on restaurant reviewing. After all, you're saying that the restaurant review has a much larger impact on a restaurant than an opera critic's review has on an opera company.

I'm neither pro- or anti-Bruni yet, since he hasn't written a review yet. I was just observing that the opera critic analogy is not entirely apposite. Having the wrong guy in the restaurant reviewing job has far more serious economic consequences for the industry, than having the wrong guy reviewing opera.

Of course, those consequences only kick in if he starts seriously under-rating restaurants. Rating too low is only one of many ways a critic could go wrong.

That said, while you may be correct with respect to opera companies like the Metropolitan, which schedule seasons and artists years in advance and do limited runs of many different operatic works, it is a fact of the arts business that a bad review can have a significant impact on the survival of music theater productions (most of which are designed to run in perpetuity so long as people pay to see them).

I agree, the Times's principal theater critic is in a similar position of influence to that of the restaurant critic. (Musical theater is reviewed by the theater critic, and opera by a classical music critic---a distinction that is at times arbitrary, but that is how it has evolved.)

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Hey clothier, chill out. I said so much at the bottom of my post above.

Now, all that is, of course, speculation. If he comes out writing spanking reviews, I will gladly take it all back!

And no one here called him an idiot or said he sucked. Those were your words, not mine.

Finally, not to dis any of the wonderful food writers here, or demean the importance of food to cultures at many levels, but the subtlety and understanding demanded from a restaurant critic in his or her Wednesday morning thousand words is dramatically lower than that demanded of a fine arts critic writing at the level demanded by the Times.

Hmm, that's an interesting statement coming at a time when some of the best restaurants are opening in New York and the SPAC is most probably dropping the NYCBallet, a mainstay of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center since it opened in 1966, after this summer in favour of rock concerts.

And if all of us are eating and, like Bruni, with an eye to learning and understanding more about what we're eating, shouldn't a restaurant review hold even more weight than a review of an opera, a gallery or a ballet? Who do you think was a more important at The Times, Anna Kisselgoff or Ruth Reichl? Whose column do you think was more widely read?

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But I think you might want to wait until he has written a column before you decide that he sucks and he's an idiot.

Actually, the thing that's kept me checking back for the last couple of days isn't the issue of whether Bruni sucks or doesn't suck. It's because the debate wandered beyond idle curiosity about the unknown comic and into the far more interesting territory of the role of a critic. I'm not a critic, I'm a food journalist (to my great relief -- I'd suck as a critic. Maybe that's why I'm cheering for Bruni.) But I know and work with a lot of critics -- or reviewers, which I prefer -- and appreciate the debate. Busboy, once again: Good thinking while typing. I've enjoyed your input.

Kathleen Purvis, food editor, The Charlotte (NC) Observer

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A restaurant reviewer writes about aspirations to an objective standard which is viewed subjectively (most of the time).

A food journalist/food writer writes about food. Their stories are about what is, very rarely about what could be.

That's my take on it.

Soba

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You have a credentials fetish. 

The New York Times, which, admittedly, has a mixed record in hiring restauarant critics, has chosen to hire someone whos resume you do not approve of.  You have never met the person (nor have I, admittedly), you have never dined with them, you don't know their tastes, their passions or their ability to compellingly summaraize the abstract thinking that goes into our restaurant review.  Yet you suspect, first, an "affirmative action" hire (as though pulling a gay man off the international beat and putting him on restaurants would be an advace) and then accuse the New York Times of putting a political hack on circuit court...as though being a restaurant critic were as important as holding power over people's lives.

If you were coaching a football team, would you draft the player with the best proven skills, or the one with the greatest potential?  I don't know how the Times makes its decisions, but attacking Bruni for not having the resume you want  -- before you've read a review -- is juvenile. Hell, here in DC we've got Tom Seitsema, who has a spectacular resume and is yet as bloodless as Grimes was.

Without having read your paper, I don't know if your critic at the Florida Times Union is a genius on the way up; a hack in the back pocket of every restaurant owner who can comp a meal; or a competent mid-level professional for a decent regional paper. I do know that they haven't proven they can handle an international beat at the nation's most important newspaper. Rome bureau chief is not food writing, but it allows one to demonstrate certain basic skills that every journalist or critic needs if they are to excell. 

And, for those 50 restaurants, better to be reviewed by someone with a passion for food and an ability to communicate, than another bureaucratic ticket puncher from the minor leagues. 

PS, let us note that our own Fat Guy's career in food writing -- inconsistent but trending towards brilliant (so shoot me, FG) -- was a bit of a random turn from his previous career.  But like Jake Barnes, he had affecion, and he's great. Maybe Bruni will be, too. 

Until we have something to read, try not to sound so shrill.

I don't have a credentials fetish at all. I'm just trying to find out what - if any - the credentials are for this job. Apparently - best I can tell from the messages here - there are none. If the credentials for the job were X, Y or Z - I might consider the reviewer in a certain light. If there are no credentials - then I'll just have to consider the reviewer in terms of whether or not he writes well - and judge restaurants for myself if and when I get to them.

I am not really comfortable with football analogies - since I don't know much about football (other than following my local team a little). But I were the coach or the owner - I'd draft a player with the best proven skills at a particular position if I needed immediate performance in that position in the next season. And a player with the most potential if I weren't as interested in next year's record as what might happen with the team 3-5 years down the road (I think our local team has drafted players in the latter category after getting rid of many established players due to salary cap problems - at least that's the way I understand it). But I don't think the NY Giants hired the former Jacksonville coach for his potential. They want him to deliver - immediately - if not sooner.

Can I relate this to restaurant reviews? Maybe. You have a slew of extraordinarily big deal expensive restaurants opening in the AOL TW center now. Do I want to rely on a rookie with a big expense account (even a rookie who has potential) to review these restaurants to decide whether to eat at them? On my part - no. I want the coach with experience to help me decide.

I think what this comes down to is what do you expect from a restaurant review? Do you want a good literary experience - i.e., a person who writes well (that seemed to be the inclination with some of the people mentioned for the position)? Or do you want someone whose taste and experience you're familiar with to tell you whether a particular restaurant is bad, good or excellent? Worth the money or not? IOW - do you want to read what someone is writing about restaurants you go to anyway (or would never consider going to for a variety of reasons - including the fact that you don't live in New York) - or someone who you can use as a guide in terms of advising you which restaurants to go to? This is no small issue when you're talking about spending over $500 for a meal. Would you spend $500+ on an MP3 player on the basis of a review written by me (I'm enthusiastic - I write well - but I really don't know much about MP3 players)?

I *used* to use the NYT reviews as a guide to help me decide which restaurants to go to when I went to New York.

You apparently don't live in New York either. What do you use the NYT reviews for?

Note that I don't use the Jacksonville reviews for anything other than to inform me that a new restaurant has opened. Whether or not they're well written - they're basically "puff pieces" (like many restaurant articles - in Jacksonville and bigger deal cities - I have never seen a lousy restaurant review in - for example - Town & Country).

If I want to read articles/books about food in general (not for purposes of making decisions) - there are a lot more fun things to read than restaurant reviews. Robyn

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Pan - In retrospect - I don't think I was sufficiently blunt.  I thought that most people who held this position had fabulous qualifications - and that Bruni was an "affirmative action" candidate.

Affirmative action? Huh? Whatever.

But what is your advice to Mr. Bruni, as the New York Times's new restaurant critic?

If in fact he is more or less an amateur - even a talented one - when it comes to food - I'd advise him to study a lot - take advantage of all of his contacts in the food business to learn - and to get up to speed - very fast. Robyn

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Robyn,

I agree with you.  I don't think that reviewers need to be vicious or catty.  I believe a restaurant review should be knowledgable and informed about the food, service and atmosphere.  When I read a couple of Ruth Reichl's last columns, her reviews seemed to me to be more about her power and ego than about the restaurant.  As if being editor of Gourmet, author, etc. etc., isn't enough....

I'll go you one step further :smile: . I am not concerned with whether restaurant critics are good or great writers. I don't need a lot of adjectives. I just want a person whose experience I trust to tell me whether the food's good. Robyn

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You'll have to excuse me - but how does this make the position of food critic at the New York Times any different than the position of food critic at the Florida Times Union (our local paper in Jacksonville FL)?  Robyn

How is the position of King of France better than than of King of Andorra. My guess is that it pays better and that you get to eat in better restaurants. But that's just my prejudice. I've never eaten in Jacksonville.

I just meant how is the position different in terms of credentials. Robyn

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OK, I'm going to go through this one more time, and then withdraw from the field.

Robyn

First, because he has risen to a high level for an important and demanding newspaper, we can in fact assume that Bruni does have a number of proven credentials for the job. He can communicate both with force and nuance. He's inquisitive. He's intelligent. He's not afraid to take on powerful people or interests (ie, the Italian Prime Minister). He's loyal to his employer. Regardless of their food knowledge, no critic will reach a level of excellence without these attributes. Writing, by the way, is important because that's how the critic conveys his ideas. A critic who can't write is of no use.

Second, you and I will have to agree to differ on the potential aspect. If I have reason to believe on player/critic will be demonstrably better in a couple of years than an equally available proven professional, I'm playing for the long term. I can handle a steep learning curve if I think the new guy is ultimately going to ride it to a higher level than the other guy. It's a gamble, but it's one I'd take. That's how you stay number one.

Third, I've spent hundreds of dollars at restaurants based on the reviews of highly credentialed reviewers, and come away disappointed. Ask me about my recent Michelin 2-star dinner. Criticism is different from calibration. It's inexact, especially when triangulating off the new guy's observations. A pound of pasta is the pound of past to you and to me, but we may both have very different views on its taste. After a year with me ("God help me," I know you're thinking) you'd be able to interpret my criticism -- as you will Bruni's -- with reasonable precision, but no one can ever convey to you perfectly how you will find a meal -- again, regardless of background.

Finally, I use the Times reviews to see where to go when in New York City, to keep track of food trends and gossip that eventually trickle down to DC, and to keep up with the food fights that break out among the NY eG crew.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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You'll have to excuse me - but how does this make the position of food critic at the New York Times any different than the position of food critic at the Florida Times Union (our local paper in Jacksonville FL)?  Robyn

How is the position of King of France better than than of King of Andorra. My guess is that it pays better and that you get to eat in better restaurants. But that's just my prejudice. I've never eaten in Jacksonville.

I just meant how is the position different in terms of credentials. Robyn

The king of France isn't really interested in being king of Andorra and the king of Andorra really hasn't got a chance of being king of France. The credentials are similar. You've got to convince the right person (people) you're the best person they can get for the job. I suspect the job is to sell newspapers and advertising. It's the same thing. If circulation is up, advertising is usually up. It's likely that the people of Jacksonville may buy newspapers for sllightly different reasons than New Yorkers do, but as for buying newspapers to read the restaurant reviews, everyone has a different reason. Some people want a consumer's guide to getting value from their dining dollar, others just want some entertaining chatter, others look for more insight into food, etc. An engaging and entertaining writer may not need to say much about the food at all to get people coming back for more. Such apparently is the case with restaurant critics at many UK papers.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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