Taste, But Verify

When everyone’s a critic, whose voice guides our dining decisions?

There’s no subject matter quite as polarizing as what is on our plates.

The act of cooking and eating is deeply personal, an experience at once fragile and fleeting, intimate and immutable. Everyone eats, every day, in every corner of the world.

And in every corner of the world, staring grimly or beaming happily at the plate in front of them, is the critic.

In this feature, we interview some well-known food writers and restaurateurs in Richmond to find out what they think about food criticism today, particularly after the trauma of the pandemic on the restaurant industry, as well as new kinds of food writing thriving in the social media age.

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There’s a palpable energy emanating from James Ford III.

An architect by day, Ford is also a diehard foodie, with a small but mighty Instagram following keeping tabs on where he’s sipping and noshing around town.

Seated at the newly opened Penny’s wine bar in Jackson Ward, Ford suggests a skin-contact wine by the glass and Chef Manny’s roasted oysters with poblano and apple butter.

“I grew up cooking all my life,” says Ford. “My aunt had a catering business and my grandmother had a family restaurant. Food has always been on my mind.”

Ford is part of a new generation of food critics, a storyteller who straddles the line between paid-for-posts influencer and unbiased, credentialed reviewer.

He started his food-centric Instagram, just_something_i_ate in July 2020, primarily posting home cooking videos and snaps until restaurants started to reopen. That’s when Ford began delving deeper into his content than your average, emoji-dependent influencer.

In October 2022, he waxes about the Quarter Horse pop-up at Grisette:

That same profile followed into the next course with the pork shank, cabbage, and apple drizzle. The tender pork set on a bed of apple-dressed shaved cabbage. A dish that was so reminiscent of my upbringing.

“I never expected my blog to pick up, I never expected anyone to give a damn about what I was saying about food,” he says.

But people do give a damn about what people like Ford have to say. They also put weight into the words of strangers, as evidenced by posts on Richmond’s popular, private Facebook page, “RVA Dine & Drink: The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly.”

The page’s 18,000+ group members share photos and details of dishes ranging from takeout Chinese to multi-course meals at top-dollar establishments. Crowdsourcing like this can be blissfully innocuous—a recent post simply asked where one could find a seafood store that would shuck a bushel of clams. Other times, posts devolve quickly, with the original poster having to defend their good, bad or ugly take against commenters who, lo and behold, strongly disagree.

Prolific, anonymous food criticism—hello, elite Yelpers—has existed since the dawn of social media. While there was a ceasefire during the pandemic, three years later, the armistice between diner and restaurant has seemingly expired.

Richmond restaurants, like most businesses, will never be able to operate as they once did. According to data collected by the National Restaurant Association, since the pandemic, food costs for restaurants are up 17.1%; labor costs are up 15.1%; menu prices are up 6.9%; and pre-tax income is down 75%.

And yet, new concepts debut weekly. The world keeps spinning, and restaurant owners and employees put their heads down and do their best to keep the tables turning.

There are innumerable social profiles dedicated to documenting the best meals in the River City. While those in need of a good recommendation often turn to content like this, some curious diners head to their local news sites.

Dwindling local food critics

There are a fair number of seasoned food writers, thinkers, and contributors active in the Richmond dining scene, tactfully profiling new restaurants, and exploring the many layers of the dining world, from farming to foraging, bartending to baking.

Among this professional talent pool there is one food critic, Justin Lo at the Richmond Times Dispatch, and one full-time food editor and reporter, Eileen Mellon at Richmond Magazine, who arguably are the most regularly published and widely read.

There are other freelancers writing about local food (including yours truly), but this is a far cry from the number of critics writing for professional outlets in Richmond just a decade ago. That’s because, just as the food scene was exploding in Richmond before the pandemic, the journalism scene was shrinking due to its own economic hardship. And covering food critically is not a cheap endeavor. There’s the cost of the story as well as the expense of the food, usually capped at a set amount.

But there was another change happening online that is often viewed as a democratizing force.

“I think social media has changed not only the way we receive and give information, but it has also made everything much more approachable and accessible,” says Mellon. “On Instagram and TikTok, you can make these visually enticing reels that stop people in their scroll—it’s very aesthetic-based.”

For Mellon, a formal food review written by an experienced critic can strip away that patina. “That’s where the reviewer comes in, they are able to offer deeper insight and an opinion that is less curated and is hopefully painting a broader story.”

Ford admits he struggles with his role as influencer/reviewer; his posts are overwhelmingly positive, often downright glowing. Yes, he wants to use his power for good, to support some of his favorite restaurants in town. But he also thinks there’s a meeting place between the perfection presented on social media and the insight posited by a professional critic.

“When I started this, I really wanted to establish relationships with chefs and restaurant owners,” says Ford. “I learned they want to hear thoughtful feedback, not someone just pushing stuff.”

“It’s difficult to determine the level of activism for food writers and critics, and I think part of that is because we are trying to figure that out ourselves.” — Eileen Mellon, food editor for Richmond Magazine

Before the onslaught of bloggers, vloggers, ‘grammers, tweeters and TikTokers—even before the likes of Bill Addison, Pete Wells and Jonathan Gold—there were female reporters at The New York Times, unceremoniously stashed on the ninth floor, tasked with the catch-all section: “Food, Fashions, Family, Furnishings.”

In 1957, (male) editor Craig Claiborne took over the The Times’ “Food Page,” launching weekly columns and creating a four-star rating system. In the nearly seven decades since its inception, the modern food review has evolved from the overlooked “Women’s Pages” to a heralded and hotly anticipated piece of opinion writing.

There is a foodie fandom associated with critics who write regularly for traditional outlets—a review from LA Times’ Bill Addison can drive hordes of devotees to a previously unknown hole-in-the-wall.

But obsessing over the virality of one’s words, while it may be the sole focus of the influencer, is not the job of the critic.

A food critic’s job, at its core, is to honestly and thoughtfully review the food and drink served to them at any given establishment. The best of these critics has a background in food, be it working in a kitchen, attending culinary school, or just researching the hell out of every morsel they’ve ever come across.

Professional critics are also following a very different operating procedure then members of a private Facebook page.

Got professional standards?

The Association of Food Journalists has a robust rubric, first published in 2001. While the association is no longer active, its golden rules are still in place in the minds of many critics. These rules include visiting a restaurant at different times of the day, visiting a restaurant at least twice, waiting at least a month after the restaurant opens to write a review, trying a varied menu and so on.

Beyond possessing knowledge and adhering to ethical standards, these writers effortlessly insert themselves into their reviews; but this is not just their unfiltered opinion. A good food review is, above all, a story you can’t put down.

In his latest for the RTD, Lo writes of new-ish restaurant JewFro: “If perspective is, indeed, currency in the food business, the visionary Jewish-African fusion restaurant, which started as a pop-up and then evolved into a brick-and-mortar spot in 2021, has a surplus of riches.”

Lo contextualizes his analysis of JewFro’s dishes with a history of its location, Shockoe Bottom. He includes the owners’ reasoning for the “provocative” name. He even quotes African American and Jewish culinary writer, historian, and author Michael Twitty.

And then, Lo notes some things JewFro needs to work on.

“Elsewhere the food comes across as a three-wheeled sports car—fun to admire, cool to think about, just not fully developed enough to get off the ground.”

This is not the dining scene’s influencer-hype guy.

“I do think it bolsters the credibility of restaurants when you have a source that is known for being honest, no matter how hard that truth might be,” says Lo. “That is not the job of influencers. They’re the ones posting content that restaurants want to repost. I praise restaurants, but I also point out flaws—that’s not content that’s going to be reposted.”

Without a doubt, social media has leveled the playing field of food reviewing. Lo has a platform the same way Ford has a platform the same way Dave F. from Mechanicsville has a platform. The double-edged sword of a level playing field is that not everyone is playing the same game, or following the same rules. And the self-appointed refs are ruthless.

“People don’t like you,” laughs Lo. “Food critics are the black sheep of the food writing world. For every one person who likes what you write, there are two or three people who hate it.”

One of Lo’s first reviews when he moved to Richmond from New York City was of The Tobacco Company. His takeaway? Stay for the cocktails and the space, skip the food. Fans of the Richmond institution were none too pleased.

“Two letters to the editor came in calling me a terrible person,” recalls Lo. “Someone showed me a Reddit thread where some people said, ‘Oh man, I’m glad there is an honest restaurant review for once,’ and some people were like, ‘I agree with him, but he seems like an asshole.’”

If ever the role of food critic were glamorous, it was in the days before online comments and rabbit hole Reddit threads, in the sweet spot between Claiborne’s weekly columns and before Pete Wells started getting recognized on the street.

“When I tell people my job they say ‘Oh, you just get to eat at restaurants and review them, awesome!’” says Mellon.

Since her start at the magazine five years ago, Mellon has overseen a few food critics, but her role is strictly on-the-grounds-reporter. “When I started my editor made clear to me, ‘We don’t want you to be that person [critic],’ we don’t want you to be feared by people around town.”

Blurred lines post-pandemic

Depending on the publication, budgets and the individual, the line between food reporter and professional critic is not always so defined. In certain spaces—especially during the pandemic—the responsibilities of those documenting the cuisine world has become impossibly inchoate, the lines permanently blurred.

During the pandemic, food critics like Lo switched up their coverage, writing features on where to snag the best to-go cocktails and documenting how restaurants were surviving the day-to-day.

Some critics, like San Francisco Chronicle’s Soleil Ho, were questioning their roles long after restaurants had resumed operations.

“You can’t guarantee consistency right now because there’s so many things that restaurants can’t control, like staffing issues and supply chain issues,” Ho told The Counter’s Patricia I. Escarcega in July 2021. “That puts me in a weird place: Should I even write reviews? I can’t guarantee anything.” This February, Ho stepped away as food critic after only four years in that position, a short time compared to Ho’s predecessor Michael Bauer’s 32-year span.

Ho recently chatted with Grubstreet about this decision, saying, “As a critic, there’s a disconnect between your loyalties to the reader and to the worker. Criticism can be compassionate and kind to all stakeholders, but the disconnects felt starker as the pandemic continued.”

Even before the pandemic brought harsh inequities—racism, sexism, attrition of mental health—in the food system to light, critics were being asked to judge more than what was on their plate.

In 2018, Bauer, while still at the Chronicle, wrote, “As a human, I condemn harassment [but] when I wear my critic’s hat, I’m not evaluating what happens behind the kitchen door.”

Five years later, and the idea of taking a critic’s hat on and off at will seems increasingly untenable. Perhaps even ludicrous.

“People don’t like you. Food critics are the black sheep of the food writing world. For every one person who likes what you write, there are two or three people who hate it.”– Justin Lo, food critic for The Richmond Times-Dispatch

Writers, influencers, and content creators intimately acquainted with their city’s food scene are privy to information that the average diner likely doesn’t know. They may have seen mistreatment of employees firsthand or know for a fact that the farm Chef is sourcing from uses illegal or unethical practices.

At what point do critics become more than critics?

“That’s a tough question,” says Mellon. “It’s difficult to determine the level of activism for food writers and critics, and I think part of that is because we are trying to figure that out ourselves. I think when the pandemic happened it stopped food journalists and critics in their tracks. They were asking, ‘What do we do now? Are we milder in our reviews? Do we not write about the bad places?’”

It’s a question Lo says he’s still grappling with daily. “It’s tricky, I’ve struggled with this recently,” says Lo. “For instance, do I give a place press that may deserve it for the food, but the chef is truly despicable? As a critic I feel it is up to me to say things that affect the industry that aren’t just about the food. What is my real role? I’m still trying to figure this out.”

Lo and Mellon are quick to assert that there is always room for adaption within the framework of the traditional review.

“We are seeing a shift in the entire industry, and I think the reviews are kind of falling in line with that,” says Mellon. For her part, she says one focus is on the language the magazine uses, asking: What do “Best Of” lists really mean?

“It’s like using the word ‘perfect,’” says Mellon. “We are trying to be more aware of our language and reframe it a bit.” In end-of-year issues past, the magazine would curate the top “25 Best Restaurants in the City.” In December 2021, the title of the piece shifted to, “50 Restaurants We Love.”

Lo points to Ho as a shining example of the way food criticism could look. “Ho brought a whole new way of not just criticizing food but also criticizing ideas behind the food and looking more into the politics of food,” says Lo.

Ho’s brief tenure at the Chronicle could mark a much-needed change for the industry—maybe we don’t need to wait for a lauded critic to die or retire before a new voice steps in.

“We can change the way we do restaurant reviewing, it doesn’t mean it has to die,” says Lo.

When the first waves of the pandemic came crashing down, Lo says he had a “fairly critical” review of a local restaurant about to go to press. But he, like all discerning writers at the time, read the room. “I told my editor, ‘We must pull this. It comes off as tone deaf, restaurants are suffering right now.’”

As the sole food critic writing for the paper of record in Richmond, Lo had to get creative during the pandemic ceasefire.

He started a “First Bite,” column which wasn’t a formal review, but “still covered restaurants that were opening and did it in a meaningful way,” says Lo. “I was able to talk about the dishes and not just report on the opening.”

Within the last year, as Lo saw other publications reviving their food criticism, he and his editor discussed whether the city was ready to move away from this “play nice” version of a review.

They decided, yes. It was time.

Reviving the review

“It feels like someone is telling you your baby is ugly,” laughs longtime Richmond restaurant owner Kendra Feather. Feather and husband/business partner John Murden currently own and operate Laura Lee’s, The Roosevelt and Garnett’s, but Feather has been in the biz since 1998, when she opened Ipanema Café.

“Reviews can hurt your feeling. Even if it’s nice, the first couple of times you read it you’ll swear they’re just tearing you to shreds,” says Feather. “It’s so personal. Then I’ll read it six months later and think ‘Oh that wasn’t so bad, that was constructive.’”

Feather’s restaurants haven’t been formally reviewed since 2019, when Lo critiqued The Roosevelt after chef Lee Gregory and bar manager Thomas Leggett had moved on to other establishments.

Lo concluded that, “The restaurant continues to stand unwaveringly as a symbol of how Richmond’s growing food scene came to be and where it’s going.” He awarded it four out of four stars.

“When someone writes a formal food review who has a background and depth of knowledge, it can be really rewarding,” says Murden. “Whether you’re reading about someone else or your own business.”

Lo tends to agree. “Contrary to what people think, restaurant reviews are not at odds with restaurants. It’s a healthy, symbiotic relationship. Food writers need the food scene, and I think good writing bolsters the credibility of restaurants.”

There’s a whole class of restaurant owners, who came of age during the pandemic, that may never receive that bolstered credibility.

Many still took off, though, like Ashley Patino’s Church Hill pizza joint, Pizza Bones. Patino’s restaurant was never formally reviewed, and when you Google the name, a myriad of search options pops up before you find the actual pizza-slinging, natural wine selling spot.

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This is Patino’s first restaurant, though she boasts quite a resume, with stints at San Francisco bakery Tartine and Richmond’s own Sub Rosa. “When we’re written up about, I don’t usually know it,” admits Patino. This includes a recent nod in Richmond Magazine’s carefully curated “Hot and Fresh: 25 Can’t-Miss Food and Beverage Experiences” list.

“That’s awesome,” says Patino. “I did not know that.”

It’s funny how positive affirmations escape notice, while a diminutive diss will reign supreme in a restaurant owner’s mind.

“I will point out the negative as well as the positive,” says Lo. “But hopefully it’s all positive. Something people misunderstand is that I don’t think a good critic sits down to a meal expecting it to be bad. I come at this from a perspective of an average customer—we sit down to a meal expecting the best.”

The best, of course, is all relative in 2023. If the mutual respect and trust that existed between patron and restaurant was tenuous before the pandemic, it’s now threadbare.

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“I think, and rightfully so, the service industry felt incredibly under-valued. I think they’re probably still feeling that way, and I don’t know how we get back from that,” says Robey Martin, a former Style Weekly food critic and current CBS 6 “Eat it Virginia” podcast host.

On the flip side, she also understands the frustrations of the diner.

“It’s like having a good hairdresser—you find a place you like, you expect the same consistency, and when that doesn’t happen, you get pissed,” says Martin.

In this month’s T Magazine, writer Ligaya Mishan asks: “When Did Hospitality Get so Hostile?”

“Ours is an era of rage. Equal-opportunity rage: Even people with power and capital (social, cultural, financial) perceive themselves as not having enough,” writes Mishan.

If going out to eat can feel like a battle, writing and reading reviews must feel like a world war.

“We always talk about trying to break through the noise,” says Murden. “To cut through the constant churn of restaurant stuff. We must do it our way.”

At the end of the day, or the shift, or the latest news cycle, there’s always a powering down. Writers shut their laptops, restaurants close out their POS systems and scrollers put on their white noise.

The next morning, when hard-working, hungry folks are dreaming of their next meal, Feather thinks that there is a decision-making process that, often, trumps all content streams.

“I can’t say it enough, when I was sitting around asking coworkers, ‘Hey how do you know you want to check out a restaurant?’ They say it’s because someone they know told them about it. It’s still word-of-mouth,” says Feather.

As polarizing as the plate can be, it’s also our “one common denominator,” says Feather. “It’s something we all have in common. Everyone eats.”

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