This has become a matter for debate since the incumbent New York Times restaurant reviewer, Frank Bruni, has stepped down from the post and been replaced by another Times writer, Sam Sifter.
Bruni, and most of his predecessors for the past 35 years, have disguised themselves when on the reviewing prowl; Sifter's picture was readily available and featured in almost every published discussion of his new job, and the idea is that he will not now be able to review incognito, and that this will significantly diminish his power to make or break a new restaurant.
In our opinion, Sifton will not have the power of a Claiborne, Grimes, Reichl, Sheraton or Bruni, but it's not because restaurant people will recognize him and send out their best plate of something-or-other, and he'll be dumb enough to grade the restaurant on just that one dish. (He has eyes, doesn't he? And a nose? Unless they put Sifton in a private room, he'll be able to see what's going on around him).
Mr. Sifton will find his power muted because there are simply so dang many critical voices clanging around him.
If the everyday intertubes reader wants to figure out a place to take his light o' love and her out-of-town parents for a dinner to celebrate her Mom's recent recovery from diverticulitis, he has a lot of different opinions to read. And these are:
--grassroots bloggers such as ourself,
--larger and company sponsored blogs such as Grub Street, The Feedbag, Eater, Serious Eats (which incorporates many blogs):
--newspaper and magazine-based blogs and reviews,
--reader-written but professionally-edited sites like Yelp and Zagat,
--well-known, independent blogs with a distinctly personal point of view, like those of Tony Bourdain, Regina Schrambling, Robyn Lee, Adam Roberts, Michael Ruhlman and, we don't know, name your five favorites here.
--Not to mention Ruth Reichl's tweets, excellently written and almost always mouth-watering.
Is this bad for the foodies--who we define as "people who still have enough money to choose what they eat, and where"?
No. We are looking for value (entertainment, nutritional, or social) in everything from the In-and-Out Burger to El Bulli's perfumed haunch of venison with sous-vide hominy grits, and, since we cannot eat (or read) everything our own selves, we need a lot of informative voices.
You will, however, have to rely on your own common sense to figure out where to eat. And that will be difficult, if you are anything like our parents, who would have eaten pickled ambergris by the moonlight in Red Hook, Brooklyn if Mimi Sheraton had told them to. And boasted about it afterward, which was kind of the point.
Be guided by reviews that say more than "THIS PLACE SUX." Be aware that restaurateurs have been known to send in ten or eighteen favorable reviews to Yelp (under different names, of course) and learn to recognize a "shill" when you see one. Respect a knowledgeable review, but rely on ones you can actually understand. Don't take anyone's word about a certain place being all hot and popular, because the hot and popular people have already seen that review this afternoon and they won't be coming back.
And finally, here are some of the opinions which makes us feel as if we have Times-like power.
--Some food writers are friends or enemies with the chefs and restaurateurs and even magazine editors around town. Such a one is Josh Ozersky of The Feedbag, who is something like a modern-day Walter Winchell. He's in it for the power and the meat and the hot chicks and the freshest gossip. He won't tout you on to a bad restaurant, but he might not tell you about all the good ones. And good golly, does that fellow have a capacity! Rabelais and the gang had nothing on him.
--We have a hard time trusting anyone who never gives Tom Collichio or Danny Meyer a bad review. These guys cover the New York food scene like some kind of impermeable glaze. They do not do everything right, and an honest reviewer notes this.
--Tony Bourdain uses his intelligence and talent and awesome food knowledge at least partially to fuel his snarking-hipster persona. Don't take his rants seriously. He'd be more reasonable, but that only pays minimum wage. (Dino to Frank: "I tried being sober, Dag, and all I could get was construction work.")
--Anyone who was ever young and broke and in love with food should read Robyn Lee's blog.
--Anyone who loves his mother more than anything else in the world should read Adam Robert's.
--Anyone who believes that discipline produces genius should read Michael Ruhlman's blog.
--And anyone who needs to learn how to love life should read Ruth Reichl's tweets.