Ask the Critic: On Restaurant Critics and Expense Accounts

Ask the Critic

You have restaurant questions? We have answers. Where to take a dinner date? Restaurants good for parents or picky eaters? Food etiquette? Food and restaurant writer Carey Jones answers your questions. Email to submit.


[Illustration: Robyn Lee]

Editor's note: Here to answer your questions is senior managing editor, former SENY editor, and frequent author of our NYC restaurant reviews Carey Jones. We'll take a few of your questions each week and give you the New York restaurant advice you're looking for. Email with the subject line Ask the Critic to submit your question!

Restaurant Critics and Expense Accounts

Hi Carey, I feel like there has been a lot of chatter about restaurant critics and money recently, most notably a Slate article on how restaurant critics shouldn't get expense accounts at all, but should pay for reviews out of pocket. I found the idea pretty interesting because they're basically arguing that if critics had to spend money the way "normal people" did, they might have an opinion closer to the rest of ours. What do you think?

Oy vey.

If you haven't read "Restaurant Critics Shouldn't Get Expense Accounts," here's the basic gist: "Buying something on your boss's dime is a very different psychological experience from paying for something out of your own pocket." Thus critics should have their salaries and expenses combined: "So let's assume for the sake of argument that Pete Wells currently makes $100,000 in salary and has an $80,000 reviewing budget. What if the New York Times started paying Wells $180,000 instead—and expected him to pay for meals out of his salary?"

Two things here:

1. We humans have the capacity for imagination. We have the ability to evaluate counterfactual scenarios! Here's how that might work.

Server: Here's your bill, ma'am. (Sets down $200 bill for a table of four.)
Critic: Thanks. (Hands over company credit card.)
Critic (thinking): Hmm. That wasn't my own money. How would I feel if I'd just paid $50 out of pocket for that meal? Paid $100 for my meal and my date's? Paid $200 for the table?
(end scene)

Not too difficult.

2. Critics do not eat the way normal eaters do. Most normal eaters don't visit the same restaurant two or three times during a two-week period. Most normal eaters don't order everything on a menu. Most normal eaters order according to hunger, or personal preferences, or what they're craving that night. Not so with critics.

Anderson's premise is that if critics order like "normal eaters," they'll have a more representative experience of a restaurant. But is that, in fact, what we want critics to do? Normal eaters in a restaurant are out to maximize their personal satisfaction. When I'm spending my own money, I tend to sit at the bar and order two drinks and an appetizer, not sit down for a four-course meal. And even if you doubled my salary tomorrow, I'm still not inclined to pay for multiple extravagant dinners per week.

I'm not a dessert person, for instance. When I'm on my own dime and the entrees are cleared, I will always, always opt for a last $12 glass of wine or bourbon over a $10 dessert. So a world where Carey Jones is spending her money is one where, in Serious Eats reviews, desserts just don't get written about. A world where I'm expensing the dinner is one where they do. (And I probably still get that extra bourbon. On my own dime.)

With my own money, I'd never order a $80 chicken dish like the one at NoMad. It's a remarkable plate of food, perhaps the best chicken I've ever had—but I just don't love chicken enough to spend an amount that could, in itself, buy dinner for two elsewhere.

But maybe you do! Maybe you love chicken more than anything. Maybe you have an income such that $80 as a main for two isn't an extravagance. Maybe you're saving up for a meal and the NoMad will be it. For all those reasons, you might want to know whether the chicken's worth ordering. That's what critics are for.

If expenses are simply folded into salary, the assumption is that critics might better consider value. But then you've got the critic conflating their review budget with the rest of their lives. Do you really want me thinking, "I should probably review Charlie Bird or Estela, since they've been getting a lot of talk and the food looks really interesting; and since neither is a cheap place, it'd be a service to readers to let them know whether either restaurant is worth a visit. But I'm going to Costa Rica next week and it'd really be nice to have an extra $150 in my pocket for a hotel upgrade. Okay, Chinatown again."

Nothing wrong with reviewing the occasional Chinatown spot—we do that a lot here—but what about a world that only reviews cheap restaurants?

Or, in a way more pernicious: "I had a good meal at Estela. I should go back, because I didn't try everything, and it's always good to base a review on multiple experiences, and hey, it's a good restaurant and I'd have a good time. But I'm going to Costa Rica next week and it'd really be nice to have an extra $150 in my pocket for a hotel upgrade."

Not fair to the restaurant, not fair to the reader.

In my mind, here's where the premise falls apart: "The psychological phenomenon of spending your employer's money is taken for granted for everyone who's not a restaurant critic. Think of the archetype of the high-flying salesman putting exorbitant amounts on his company card in the service of wooing clients."

Except that it's this person's job to spend money to woo clients. Perhaps his job requires him to keep within a certain budget, which he should of course consider. But his job is not to then communicate to a public audience the value of the services he put on said credit card. A restaurant critic who hands over the company AmEx without glancing at the check is, very simply, a restaurant critic who is not doing his job.

Anderson goes on. "When I buy groceries I know I'll get reimbursed for later, I'm not as picky about checking price stickers as I'd be if I were shopping for myself, and I'm not as disappointed if a recipe doesn't turn out well, because I can just buy more groceries and test it again."

But as a reader, I don't care if in your own kitchen at home, you're disappointed in a recipe. I want you to buy more groceries and test it again! Until you've refined the recipe! Because that is your job! Because the entire service you provide is that you've tested the recipe, because as a non-professional cook I don't have time to bake cornbread six ways; I want you to do it for me.

That's what we have critics for: to evaluate establishments such that we're not guessing blind as to whether a restaurant is worth our hard-earned funds. To attempt a level of objectivity. There are numerous reasons that individual critics are more or less successful at doing so. But Anderson's solution is no solution at all.

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About the author: Carey Jones is the former managing editor of Serious Eats. Follow her on Twitter (@careyjones).

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