My Critical Condition


In the introduction to John Lahr’s 1996 book “Light Fantastic: Adventures in Theatre” he writes, “Criticism, of course, is a kind of performance, but with this difference: the artist puts his life on the line, the critic only his words. This is not to minimize the significance of the activity, but to place criticism in its proper context. Criticism is a life without risk; and, therefore, it behooves the critic to honor the craft.”

This quote, which I recently discovered, comes at the perfect moment for me. I’d been trying to think and re-think my position about reviewing restaurants on my blog, and Lahr’s quote fully articulates my conflict. There’s no question that restaurant reviews are a big part of what makes my blog popular: you can see a huge archive of them in the menu bar above you. But now that I’ve written a book, I’m suddenly in the position of having my own work out there in the public eye. And, as Lahr says, my whole life feels like it’s on the line: if a critic were to trash my book in a big public forum, calling me a first class idiot, I’d be ruined. On the other hand, if Michiko Kukutani calls me a genius in the Sunday Book section, my career will be made. It’s all so unnerving.

As a food blogging critic, the key issue right now for me is responsibility. It was one thing, when my blog started, to write restaurant reviews for the 50 or 60 people who read me on a regular basis. Now those numbers have changed significantly. Not only that, I’m constantly surprised by how far my words go when I hit “post.” For example, remember that entry I wrote a few weeks ago praising Mark Bittman’s TV show? A few days later I got an e-mail from Bittman himself saying, “Well, thanks.” Today I put a link to The New York Times Judith Jones article in my Daily Specials and a few hours later her publicist wrote me and offered to set up an interview. This blog has become a pretty powerful platform; and to quote Uncle Ben to Peter Parker in Spiderman: “With great power, comes great responsibility.”

It is the responsibility of a critic to review a restaurant fairly. To me, the fairness factor is directly correlated to the size of one’s audience. So, for example, when you go to the new bistro that opened up down the street, vomit from the onion soup, and e-mail your best friends telling them never to go there, you don’t have the responsibility to call the chef to find out what might have gone wrong. You don’t even have the responsibility to disclose the fact that you drank castor oil and ate raw eggs beforehand like that kid from “Stand By Me.” It’s unethical, true, but the ethical breach is minimal at best: you lost the restaurant three or four customers tops.

Whereas, if Frank Bruni goes to a new Mario Batali restaurant, orders a bowl of pasta, tries one noodle and then writes a scathing review, he has more to answer for. He’s going to make a serious dent in the lives and livelihoods of all the people working there; he is, in fact, going to affect the fortunes of hundreds of people–from the valet out front to the florist who supplies the flowers–and he must, if he is ethical, eat more than one noodle to render a review. He must eat across the menu; he must go multiple times; he must study the wine list, he must try to remain anonymous (so as not to invite special treatment), he must do all he can to evaluate the restaurant in the most thorough way possible. That is the responsibility of a well-read critic and that, my friends, is where I’m conflicted.

I am now, most certainly, well read. Only I don’t have the capacity to go to a restaurant multiple times, I don’t have the capacity to eat my way across a menu, and, because of all my pictures and videos, I am incapable of remaining anonymous. That latter issue hasn’t really been an issue yet: I’m rarely, if ever, recognized by anyone at any restaurant in New York. But, then again, just yesterday at a Park Slope eatery the waiter asked me how my book was doing. My capacity to be a fair critic is diminishing.

The other day Craig and I wanted burgers and so we went to a new place down the street that has an ambitious menu and ordered two burgers medium rare. They came out super well done and the meat was gamy and gristly. It was a bad scene and the old me would’ve written it up instantly. But I didn’t–I won’t even tell you where it was–because, to be fair, I should go back on a different day and try them again, along with other items from the menu. I should find out as much as I can how the place operates, where it gets its meat, how it preps the meat, and why our burgers on this particular day were so off. In other words, I should do everything I can do render fair judgment and, unfortunately, unless a newspaper’s going to pay me to do it that’s just something I can’t do.

And so, where does that leave us? I’m not sure–as I said, I’m conflicted. There are many people who tell me that restaurant reviews are their favorite part of my blog. If I give up reviewing restaurants, will I lose half my audience?

Well, in all actuality, I have basically given up reviewing restaurants and haven’t lost half my audience. In case you haven’t noticed, the blog is almost entirely, now, a series of essays, videos, stories, and recipes that behoove not a food critic, but a food enthusiast. And that’s the title I’d like to have for myself: “food enthusiast.” So, if I go out to eat and have a spectacular meal, of course I’ll tell you about it. I don’t see the harm in that. And if I go somewhere and hate the food and hate the experience in such a severe way that I must tell you, I probably will also. But for the most part, I’ll stick to what I do best: sharing my love for food. It’s time I left the criticism to the professionals.

38 thoughts on “My Critical Condition”

  1. It’s so interesting to see how you’ve evolved since I started reading your blog almost two years ago. I have noticed that your blog doesn’t contain nearly as many restaurant reviews as it once did, but that doesn’t deter me from coming back. I come back for your unique take on food and the way that you write.

    Don’t worry about losing readership because you’re changing. While easier said than done, in the end, you have to be happy with your site.

  2. I just found your blog recently. I read all your restaurant “reviews” in practically one sitting, not for their usefulness as reviews but rather for the comedy in them. Your accounts of eating with your family in particular are warm and funny. You’ve been clear in all of them that you aren’t necessarily picking restaurants by the standards of a professional restaurant critic. I would be sorry if you stopped writing about your experiences of eating out. It’s clear, and I don’t mean this as a criticism, that you *are* in fact an amateur–a lover–of food and that the breadth of your experience and knowledge is not deep but is growing, and you are giving yourself an education. That is enjoyable to read about and follow over time.

    Blogs like yours are not the same as professional newspaper criticism, not yet anyway. They are more like diaries in nature, and I think what you’ve done in writing your personal impressions about restaurants is quite fine. I’d rather read what you have to say about restaurants over Frank Bruni any day. I might use either of you as a source for a recommendation, but probably for different reasons.

  3. I don’t see any harm in sharing your experience. If you have that much of an impact (negative), the restaurant can send you a gift card to give them another chance.

    I went to a beloved restaurant. Management had changed and it was nothing like it used to be. I was so dissappointed on so many levels that I did something rare. I wrote the restaurant owner a letter. They sent me a gift certificate (which wasn’t my intention) but more importantly, they corrected what was going wrong. I donated the gift certificate to my Company’s Christmas giveaway but I gave the restaurant another chance. The problems were corrected. I go there often.

    Your review, if fairly done, can give a restaurant a heads up on something that is terribly wrong. Before they lose ALL their customers.

  4. Adam, don’t be such a wuss! Frank Bruni is WELL recognized at every restaurant he visits. He himself is well aware of the fact as he documented in Diner’s Journal last year (I believe he mentioned that he is a rather large gentleman (height-wise) and there is no point in trying to disguise a giraffe.) Ruth Reichl had a 12 page dossier pinned up to the wall of every decent kitchen in town with her picture and pertinent likes/dislikes scrawled upon it. Amanda Hesser’s reviews were alleged to be suspect in that chefs she reviewed ended up dropping blurbs on the covers of her books. Also, quite frankly, you do not have the power to close down a kitchen no matter that you think you may. So whom do I trust for an unbiased, anonymous answer to the question – do I take my parents to Blue Stone or Del Posto?


    One of the most charming aspects of your blog is your ability to find joy in being “Joe Average the Innocent Abroad.” When I read Robin (Serious Eats/Roboppy) I am not looking for an in-depth analysis of gelato or sandwich innards. I want to know (like asking a brother, colleague or friend) “Hey, have you ever been to restaurant “x”? How was it?” I may listen to you or I may not. I only want a slice in time answer… On date “x” I visited restaurant “y.” The food was good but the cockroach crawling up the back wall was rather off-putting. On date “Y” the food was good but the waiter’s fingers were rather grimy. On date “Z” we had a lovely meal but the investment banker who fell to his death outside our window from Blah-Blah Bank somewhat tainted the experience.

    I know you mean well. Perhaps you were influenced by Mario Batali’s nagative view of bloggers. But really, do you think I am going to stop reading Chowhound because I trust a potentially compromised New York Times or Post critic? NO. You are honest, and forthright and generally spot on in regard to the travails of “Joe and Jane Average” dining. (No expense account, just a paycheck, no reason for anyone to take notice of you – in general, you are just like me.) I understand that you are nervous about bad reviews and the effect they may have on someone’s dream. However, you don’t have the sphere of influence you think you may. Keep writing, or I will, and I may not be so kind.

  5. ooooff. that’s hard. i personally love your restaurant reviews; they’re my favourite part of your blog. to be honest i have been a bit bored by the essays and the videos – they’re nice but i like best to read about food and how you enjoyed it and the service/decor and what your father ordered or mother did… it’s like living the restaurant experience through you.

    perhaps i could suggest that you continue writing reviews, but only write up:

    a) amazingly great experiences where you can completely rave about the restaurant

    b) pleasant experiences/mediocre experiences, highlighting parts of the meal you loved. Statistically speaking, the rave reviews should be rare, so when you have a review that isn’t rave, we’ll know it was not so much that the restaurant was bad, but that it wasnt great.

    Bad experiences could just be left out – or you could still take photos and comment on food and service, just not mentioning the name of the restaurant.

    still, i love your blog and keep up the good work!!

    p.s. i also love your songs!! do write/compose more!!

  6. I think you should keep doing what you’re doing.

    You’re not pretending to be Frank Bruni, with his magical credit cards and, we can only hope, magical collection of Marx-brother glasses. You blog your meals with full disclosure, and restaurants and their publicists now know how to get in touch with you. You don’t go out of your way to slam an entire restaurant based on your one experience. You just explain your singular experience fairly and sometimes with fancy cartoon dialouge balloons. Who doesn’t love that?

    But, most importantly, you’re honest, in both your experience and your limitations in providing a full review. You relate to the non-Frank Bruni’s in the world (like me) your one dining experience. And, to be fair, that’s all most of us get. If we try a new place and our hamburger is overcooked, it’s overcooked. We’re not going to go back and order it again (unless we make much richer friends).

    At the same time, I don’t think you’re giving an end-all, be-all review. You’re describing one meal, or one table’s worth of meals. If I want a historical look at a restaurant, a gauge of how they are doing this year as compared to five years ago, I’ll go to the Times. If I want to explore New York through eyes closer to my age and disposable income, I’ll turn to blogs like yours. I think food blog readers are smart enough to know the difference. The restaurants, and their publicists, will eventually catch on.

    Good luck and hope you figure it out. Keep up the hard work!


  7. Adam, I totally understand. My blog is tiny compared to yours, but it does appear in the website that goes with the major local paper in my area. The market out here is tiny, and even the paper itself doesn’t criticize much. Almost every weekly review it publishes is glowing. Granted, this is a fairly small city and the paper probably doesn’t want to lose any advertising business.

    So, I often feel the same way you do about reviewing restaurants. Who am I to say? I wanted to rail against a newer restaurant with an incredibly boring menu. When we asked the waitress what the house specialty was, she said baked scrod. Baked scrod? Really? That’s the best they can do? Boring. But you know what? There is a huge population out here that for some reason loves baked scrod. The restaurant is delivering what the people want. Maybe not what I want, but what another large group does.

    So, I have also chosen to take it easy. If I do a review, I focus on the good.

    It’s your blog – do what makes you comfortable. I know I’ll keep reading!

  8. And I though this post was going to be about something serious like Stadler mistaking Waldorf for a salad and eating him….

  9. Imagine if S&W read this blog.

    “You know, I’m sad to see him stop reviewing.”

    “Because you liked his reviews?”

    “No, because I still SEE him!”


  10. Apparently you have an ego as big as your appetite…do you really think restuarants will close down because of a negative review from you? I promise you’re not as famous nor as powerful as Spiderman.

  11. Adam, you wrote in regards to a restaurant that you didn’t like “[…] I should go back on a different day and try them again […].” It’s true that you should visit the restaurant again if you decide to write a review of the restaurant. However, there is an easier option: don’t go back to the restaurant and don’t write a review of them at all.

    If you check out the distribution of the New York Times reviews, I think you will find that restaurants who receive no stars are the exception rather than the rule. There are only 52 reviews per year in the New York Times, and as we all know, there are a lot of good restaurants in New York City. It isn’t worth the space to print reviews of bad restaurants, and in general, the bad reviews are generally limited to restaurants that may have too much hype. In general, I enjoy reading about places that are good to eat at rather than about places I should avoid.

    In other words, you can use your blog as a place to reward good restaurants rather than punish restaurants where you have a bad experience. Just as a bad review of a restaurant in a popular blog can crush a restaurant financial, a good review of a restaurant can reward them and put their staff on the map.

    While the New York Times may be very ethical about publishing food reviews, don’t assume that all food reviewers are. For example, purchasing an advertisements in many small newspapers will sometimes include an editorial “article” as well. That being said, I don’t think you should do that or that you should even accept free meals if you are going to review restaurants. It’s debatable if you should accept free food for review. (See for a long drawn out debate.)

  12. I don’t read your blog for the restaurant reviews since I don’t live in New York. I read your blog because I like the writing style and the opinions. Even though I think you are wrong most of the time [grin].

    Saying that you are not Bruni and you have no one to answer for except yourself and I am amused this is even a conflict at all.

  13. I think you’re making the right decision because it’s coming from your own sense of conflict, if that makes any sense. Food reviews are interesting to read but now that I think about it, there’s something richer perhaps in using a dining out experience, as a starting point instead for deeper discussions into ingredients or restaurant culture or whatever, sort of opening up the window instead of zoning in on this-is-what-i-ate-and-how-it-was, all in that entertaining way you do :)

  14. Adam, I can understand your perplexing about the whole restaurant criticism, but I think most of your readers understand that you’re not a professional restaurant review, but just a “food enthusiastic” sharing a description of a meal.

    That said, what’s wrong with you spending money to check out a restaurant for a second time? I do some review on my blog and if I go to a restaurant and don’t get the full view, I’ll just pay to go again.

  15. I don’t see your write-ups on restaurants as “reviews” but as personal tales relating to dining out. Be they good or bad, you write about each experience as it happens to YOU, so they should be viewed, as cjk suggested above, as more a food diary than a serious critique.

    And even though Bruni and his ilk get to go to a restaurant multiple times before writing a review, here in Baltimore, our local critics get to try a restaurant ONCE before offering their critique. And I think that’s true of critics all over the country. So when I write about a restaurant on my blog, I think I’m just as qualified to praise or pan a place. The only thing that separates me and certain local critics who shall remain nameless is that I have to pay for my food out of pocket.

  16. I think it’s great that you’re pondering this. Maybe there is a way to separate your dining out ‘experiences’ from actual ‘reviews’? For an ‘experience’ (your old-style reviews) why not just head the whole thing up with a “look– I just ate here once ok?!” Disclaimer?? For an actual review… if someone else were to foot the bill for multiple-visits say… then you could acknowledge that you were paid to go– by a 3rd party. I’ve always loved your reviews and would hate to see them banished. But I also agree that you do have more responsibility/power these days. Yay you!

  17. Your blog is what you make of it and what you feel comfortable writing. If that no longer includes reviews then so be it. You know you won’t lose your audience because while “restaurant reviews” might be a tangible item to name, you know everyone is here for your writing.

    At the same time, I deeply respect your position to refrain from sharing your criticism. It takes a lot of impressive traits to realize your responsibility so I want to say props for that. I wrote a restaurant review on my blog today ironically, and while I’m afraid of not being able to depict the whole story too, my blog isn’t nearly at the point where I should worry yet. :)

  18. I hear you loud and clear, AG. I am similarly conflicted, though with a slightly different scenario (not to mention far less exposure).

    I just started a blog in Providence, RI, with the intent of including reviews of restaurants since I dine out often and am very opinionated (read: discriminating). But I started thinking that it would be unfair to publicly slog restaurants so I am thus far focusing on only what I like, places I know very well and continue to visit. Maybe I will include some horrific experiences, but not unless they are repeat experiences. In other words, I will not throw a place under the bus based on one bad meal.

    I will focus on the good for now.

    It’s a new world, this world with blogs. Word spreads quickly; this can be both useful and damaging.

    You are right – with more power comes more responsibility.

  19. Adam,

    I think this one of your best posts. I’m glad that you recognize that your limitation as a reviewer is not one of experience, insight or education, but one of means. If for whatever reason (time, money, etc…), you can’t give a restaurant what you view as a fair shot, then you won’t review it. I applaud this decision and your well written piece explaining it.

    You mentioned what powers reviewers have over your book sales–did this realization spark your decisions in regard to making your own reviews? It always helps to be able to see an issue from both sides.

  20. Just a dedicated reader here—I will stop by your blog daily no matter what you choose or not choose to write.

  21. You fell for the myth. Nothing wrong with writing a negative review based on one visit. If you write objectively a bad meal is just that: a bad meal. This does assume that you do report the other options on the menu, why you chose the one you ordered and give the reasons for like/dislike. Over time with positive/negative reviews your readers will know your scale and be able to relate it to theirs. Only sin is being boring – you are not boring.

    Since we’re in a critical vein – I bought your book. Think the first blog book was Julie/Julia. The book showed that a good blog can give birth to a bad book. I liked your book. But that is based mainly on the last two chapters. The book read like they came first and the rest were created for length. The style of having multiple threads expressing a theme (in each chapter) was good but some of the chapters needed reworking for clarity. I think you would be great on a weekly TV segment; are great with short articles and multimedia. But you need more focus for a book. Both you and Clotilde Dusoulier have shown that a good blog can lead to a good book. Hope I can change the “good” to “great” someday.

  22. I used to work at a paper that would only write positive reviews. A place that wasn’t up to snuff just never got a review. If a place wasn’t reviewed on their site (it was a small town) you could take it as a sign.

  23. Enthusiast to me implies hobby, and the minute your book was published, you went from Food Enthusiast to Food Professional.

    It’s an interesting conundrum for sure, and probably says a lot about your character that you’re even concerned.

  24. You and your blog used to be much more interesting and fun. I think the pedestal you are putting yourself on is a bit too high.

  25. Adam, don’t worry about it – as several folk have pointed out, no one thinks you (or any other blogger for that matter) is a “professional critic”. We read blogs for a more personal, and intentionally more subjective experience than what a newspaper critic is supposed to be providing (a misguided belief that multiple visits will somehow make their personal experience objective rather than subjective…).

    Now, the day you register the domain name we can take you to task…

  26. Adam,

    First off, I love the Statler and Waldorf picture! I have to agree with many of your other readers– I think that food blogging is a different space than professional food reviewing, and while there IS a responsibility (because of your increasing visibility), I think that most people understand the disclaimer that most food bloggers have when it comes to reviewing restaurants.

    What is unique to blog food reviews is that they represent what it is like to go in to a restaurant, sometimes only once, and have either a good or bad experience. This is what it is like for the rest of the world. If you have a bad experience the first time, most people will not be returning, and if it is good, they will most likely go again. And while not everyone has people reading about their negative experiences, I think it is fair to share them.

    I know it is not a black and white situation, but I think you should reconsider giving it up altogether. That is, unless you just LOVE the other elements of your blog writing more. Your post definitely brought to mind the food critic turned food lover in the wonderful film RATATOUILLE.

  27. I understand your dilemma. However, while I think as your readership increases you do have a responsibility to not abuse your restaurant reviewing power, I do think they are a valuable piece of your site. I do enjoy reading restaurant reviews especially with the touch of personality that you add to them. I think that while you should be responsible you should not feel obligated to go to great lengths to give the restaurant a second chance or try to explain away any shortcomings, as I want to know what to expect on an average day when I would walk in for a meal.

  28. Adam, I know what you mean, I’ve just started a food blog and wrestled with the same problem. However, I like to think that reviews like yours and mine are important because of the fact that most of us are not in a place to return over and over and buy out the whole menu. If we’re going to spend what little money we have left on eating out, then we should have a point of reference from someone in similar shoes.

    I only hope that blog reviews (positive or negative) are taken by any establishment as a testament to the fact that if they can make someone with limited funds return, they have done their job right. And if not, and the review has a negative slant, then they should correct themselves and invite you back for a second look. At the very least, it would encourage improvement on the restaurant’s behalf, and make an excellent follow-up review blog for you :) Good luck!

  29. A Big Fan of the AG

    AG, remember what got you to this point in your life? What was the spark that exploded your career? Yes, it was your interpretation of the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction. You made the ridiculous sublime and you have been entertaining us with your music and words, your videos, your Lolita and Pancetta, even your family get-togethers, ever since. I have always believed that your food blog was not so much about food as it was about feeding us. You are a writer first and foremost, so please keep writing about those issues and ideas that capture your attention. One of my favorite authors, Zora Neale Hurston, is quoted as saying, “Those that don’t got it can’t show it. Those that got it can’t hide it.” You can’t hide it, AG.

  30. I’m new to blogging, so I don’t have a lot of preconceived ideas or expectations. I’ve had a passion for good food, well prepared, and presented my entire adult life, and I have lots of opinions. If I’m going to spend any time reading a blog it is going to be because the blogger has interested me through their take on life, their ability to write, and their willingness to communicate. I do not expect the blogger to provide me with guidance, so much as to share their take. I will make my own decisions about what is said.

    I discovered long ago that I take most persons idea of a good restauarant with a grain of salt. One person may consider it good because they can eat for less than $10.00, another because they have an extensive wine list, another because they’re inventive, another because they have 3 different kinds of Ceviche. So I’ll listen to what you have to say, but I won’t let you determine my decision to eat there, or not. After reading all the comments, it’s pretty clear to me that you are read by an intelligent, good looking, alticulate group, and you don’t have to worry about having an undue influence upon us.

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  32. Adam,

    I would really miss your reviews, which I think of as mini-road trips, fed by your humor and snappy photos and self-proclaimed amateurishness. That’s what makes them charming. You don’t pretend to be a big-time chef or a foodophile or the last word. You just go out and eat and have adventures.

    Keep up the good work.

  33. My frustration with this conversation (here, on Ruhlman, elsewhere) echoes the point made by Juree above ( When I go out to a restaurant, my reaction to my meal is tied almost entirely to what this instance of my meal was like. If a meal or dining experience is a bad one, I’m upset because I didn’t enjoy myself–and that frustration is hardly tempered by previous good experiences.

    If you go to Le Cirque with your family and have a terrible, no good, very bad experience, chance suggests that it could just as easily have been MY family having that disappointment. And because it’s as likely it could have happened to me as to you, I want to hear about your experience and use it to inform my own decisions.

    In my view, and having worked in the industry, restaurants have a responsibility to treat each meal as a new opportunity to be perfect. Because inconsistency leaves just as bad a taste in your mouth as a singularly bad meal, I think it is perfectly valid to examine and review an establishment of any sort from a single interaction.

    Mario Batali writes how frustrated he is with food bloggers, especially anonymous ones (, but as long as your publishing in your own name, and sharing your honest impressions without an underlying agenda, I will excitedly read what you have to say.

  34. I think this is fantastic! Just so you know, I added your blog to my list of of regular reads a long time ago precisely because I loved your *enthusiasm* and your *humor* about food.

    The restaurant reviews didn’t mean as much to me because I live so far away and will likely never get a chance to go to even a handful of the restaurants you review. But your enthusiasm about a foodie experience, from a new restaurant to cooking at home, or trying something new or even a FoodTv show – those are all things I enjoy, especially with your particular wit and humor.

  35. Good for you — I like your decision. While reviewing is important — so we don’t plunk down a wad on a dinner — you have to respect yorself the next morning! :)

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