Who criticizes the critic? No one really, at least not in print. But a recently published University of Maryland study has done some second guessing of restaurant critics and their modus operandi .
Distilled from surveys of consumers, restaurants owners and food critics, the report suggests owners and consumers would be happier with "evaluations based on the structured findings of a large panel of consumers who dine out often."
The single critic system, practiced by most publications that review restaurants, was faulted because the critic often isn't anonymous, may be guilty of unethical conduct, may lack professional qualifications and objectivity.
". . . A single newspaper column written by one well-known food critic may have the power to inform or misinform the reader and to ameliorate or destroy the reputation of the eating establishment," wrote Marvin A. Jolson and F. Anthony Bushman, authors of the report. "Indeed, the food critic has been described by many as the influential "one-man arbiter of consumer values."
"Third Party Consumer Information Systems: The Case of the Food Critic" was undertaken because these critics are "uniquely powerful" in an industry (food service) that has "undergone explosive growth."
Actually, surveys showed that the critic is stronger in his or her own heart than in the minds of consumers, despite what restauranteurs think. The largest category of diners, 42.1 per cent, said a critic's review would be a "moderate" influence in choosing to make a first visit to a restaurnat. Only 12.5 per cent credited the review as a "major" influence, though 68.2 per cent of the owners who responded suspect a review is a "major" or "substantial influence." Of the critics themselves, nearly 90 per cent felt their impact was "major" or "substantial."
To further blunt the point of the critic's quill, only 1.3 per cent of the diners, who had "unfavorable experiences" in a restaurant said they would respond to a favorable review by "dining there again with renewed enthusiasm" and a mere 3 per cent would "avoid . . . for a while" a restaurant they liked that was planned. While 54.1 per cent voted the restaurant critic's column "somewhat valuable" (and 8.1 per cent said "very valuable"), 36.6 per cent "would be unconcerned" if the column were dropped.
More than half the 628 consumer respondents said they dined in "gourmet-type" restaurants once a month or more. They came from only two cities, however, while the 100 restaurnat owners polled were in 13 cities and 80 critics whose views were tabulated were scattered across the nation.
The public appears to approve of "symbolic restaurant rating systems" (stars, smiles, $$$ and the like). Opinions of "fair," "good" or "excellent" were expressed by just over 90 per cent. Those traditional antagonists, the restaurateur and the critic, were together on the other side of the fence. Nearly 50 per cent of the critics and 40 per cent of the owners found symbols a "poor" rating method due to lack of detail and latent inconsistencies.
On two other issues, the restauranteur and the critic squared off. While 57.7 per cent of the critics felt they were "never recognized," 64 per cent of the owners said they "almost always" or "sometimes" knew when a critic was in the house. Asked if favors or rewards had been "solicited or expected" by the "opposite party," 30 per cnt of the restauranteurs answered "yes" as did 523 per cent of the critics. (To further cloud a cloudy issue, 29 per cent of the critics and 14 per cent of the owners answered "not sure.")
In addition to questioning the critic's ethnics and ability to stay anonymous, there were doubts about his or her knowledge ('more than two-thirds . . . are not self-reported food experts"), time in service (nearly 80 per cent "have served their present employer for five years or less") and objectivity. "Restaurant owners and consumers argue that foods is a matter of individual taste and the conclusions of a solo reviewer are flavored by personal likes and dislikes . . .," the authors wrote.
Therefore the diners and restauranteurs both indicated a preference for "a small panel of professional restaurant critics" and an even greater preference for "a large panel of consumers who dine out often." (The critics voted for the present system. Percentages were not given in any category.)
Jolson and Bushman gathered 50 consumers and had them rate two Baltimore restaurants under a complex numerical system broken into seven weighted categories. One, the Pimlico Hotel restaurant, was awared 7.8 on a scale of 10, but the study contains no report of the second experiment and no panel of professionals, nor even a single critic, was sent on a similar mission.
They suggest a newspaper writeup include "a layman's form of the matrix and a detailed summary of the comments that were written by the panelists." The authors fail to explain how to insure credibility, cooperative and ethical behavior. Their estimate put the cost of 12 such evaluations a year at $3,000.
"Despite some resentment of the present critique system," they conclude, "this survey indicates that marketers and consumers have been reasonably satisfied with the method. But that was before alternative systems were suggested."