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“Yelp, I Need Somebody”

Yelp I Need Somebody

“Please don’t write a bad restaurant review of us on Yelp,” my server at Toronto’s La Banane restaurant joked on a busy Thursday night as I snapped several pictures of the trout en croute that had recently arrived at the table.

“I am the food writer at the National Post, I write about restaurants for Vogue!” I wanted to shout, my snobby knee-jerk reaction being to bemoan Yelp and its amateur affiliates. Instead, I laughed, kept my head down and enjoyed the trout. It was delicious.

I had forgotten how obnoxious photography can be in the context of a restaurant filled with regular people, not food media. I was dining on my own volition that night, and paying for the experience myself—an activity that has become increasingly rare for me. Unless you’re one of us already, you probably don’t know how to scam your way into regularly eating for free. Let me explain: the fastest way to do it is to contact restaurant PR people directly and guarantee coverage for a media outlet in exchange for a free meal. There is also the option of becoming an established media type and getting invited to restaurant launch dinners and menu previews regularly, although this option isn’t recommended for the impatient as it can take decades.

Those looking to capitalize on either tactic should know that the scene inside most complimentary lunch and dinner events is far removed from the perfect Instagram shots of mouth-watering gourmet meals they are wont
to produce. Rather, one is likely to find a frenzy of piranha-like food bloggers furiously snapping pictures of a plate of sliders with room-temperature patties sandwiched between buns, the whole thing on the express lane to becoming stale.

More so than an invitation to dine, eating for free is an invitation to create content that generates buzz. This is why I have, on more than one occasion, witnessed PR women dragging ladders and stepstools around a meticulously set dinner table for various bloggers to climb atop to get the perfect overhead shot. Today, at any given food media event, bloggers outnumber critics and professional writers, and stepstools outnumber meals consumed while they are still hot.

What hasn’t increased is traditional food criticism. Newspapers budgets keep getting cut and the luxurious sums of money previously dedicated to restaurant criticism have been among the first to go.

Following Chris Nuttall-Smith’s departure from The Globe and Mail as the its resident critic, the paper joined the ranks of the National Post, which has not had a critic for years. Both papers, however, continue to employ food writers like myself. As the Post’s current food writer, I am free to write about culinary trends, recipes and the occasional free meal. This is much cheaper than paying for me to eat out at the same restaurant multiple times a week in order to write a fair review.

It is difficult to say how objective a writer can be when the subject in question has been presented as a gift. Yet complimentary dining experiences have become to food writing what expecting a bill at the end of a meal is to the average restaurant patron.

Those who are outraged by this should consider that traditional reviews hold noticeably less weight than they used to. Type the name of any food-serving locale into Google and the first hit is never an article, but countless unsolicited opinions from Yelpers who, for some reason unbeknownst to the rest of us, feel inclined to give you their advice. Yelp has changed the landscape of food criticism, allowing anyone to cast a critic’s eye to the restaurant experience and have his or her voice heard.

As the opinions of Yelpers, bloggers and free meal food writers collide, there has never been more culinary musing competing for space. Navigating this kaleidoscope of opinions is dizzying and near-impossible, forcing even more diners to take on critic responsibilities to make sense of it for themselves.

Despite a lack of authority, criticism isn’t dying. It is becoming more popular than ever.