Does Austin need more restaurant reviews?
It may have gone unnoticed in the clamor of food news and Yelp reviews, but Austin restaurant reviews have slowed down to a trickle. Even here at the Chronicle, where we take much pride in mapping the shifting city, the pace has eased to allow for great longer-form pieces, like Eric Puga's cover story (see "Mug Life," Nov. 13) on Austin's beer culture. Elsewhere new reviews seemingly have ground to a halt.
Mike Sutter has devoted Fed Man Walking to the 500 Tacos project, picking up some newer restaurants along the way, but ignoring key new players like VOX Table and Italic. The Statesman's Matthew Odam picked up those majors, but there was a long gap between his September 3 review of Alcomar and his October 29 review of Juliet. Jolène Bouchon at Austin Monthly is a welcome addition to the club, but the magazine's publication schedule prohibits the number of restaurants she can review.
The blogs, of which there are many, fill in some of those gaps with varying degrees of quality. But a few judge through the rosy filter of a comped meal. Among those who don't, only a handful can afford the time and money it takes to give a restaurant a fair shake. Overwhelmingly, the reviews coming out of the blogosphere are positive. Most simply choose not to write about those restaurants they deem inferior. And while such cheerleading is important for a thriving city's dining infrastructure, so are the shrugs of those saying Austin can do better.
Restaurant criticism is not only a way to publicly assess a restaurant's mettle, but also a way to assess the city's larger culinary scene. In turn, that scene can be used to assess the values of the culture in which it exists – its thirst for money and celebrity, its commitment to a sense of place, its pretense and humility. A critic can't really tell you whether or not you will like a place – she may like bitterness or salt; you may prefer sugar. But she can articulate whether an eatery is running up to its own standards and the standards set by its community.
And that matters more than ever. It seems unlikely that the entire food scene will collapse under the weight of quick-grab development and corporate expansions, but being regarded as boring is just as damning. Austin diners move in schools from buzz opening to buzz opening. That's going to eventually crowd out worthy restaurants that can't invest in the machine and give rise to a whole lot more mediocrity.
Of course restaurant reviews cost money, both in the mechanics and eventual column space at a time when most media is hurting, but I suspect the drought of new reviews is not solely because of that. To be blunt, the summer and early fall openings mostly flatlined. It's not easy to write an engaging review of a really boring place. But we lose a part of the conversation when we act like those places simply don't exist. We'll keep plugging away at the Chronicle, but the Sutters and Odams and Bouchons keep us on our toes.
And besides, guys, misery loves company.