Ten years ago, in dining destinations like San Francisco, Chicago and New York, restaurant critics at newspapers and magazines reigned supreme as the final arbiters of who served up the richest foie gras, the most interesting wine list and the overall best dining experience.
That was then. Today, foie gras is practically illegal, if not politically incorrect, sommeliers have been replaced with brew masters and computer screens have become the go-to source for what's what on the dining scene.
With nothing more than a keyboard, a camera phone and a lot of opinions, a group of bloggers -- often not professional writers -- are revolutionizing restaurant reviewing one post at a time and the movement has some chefs and restauranteurs angrily realizing that the only credential required to publicly flog even the most well-established hot spot is a high-speed Internet connection.
"What makes a lot of these restaurants feel special is the feeling of exclusivity and privacy and almost like a secret society," Adam Roberts, better known as "the Amateur Gourmet," told ABCNEWS.com. "Because of blogs and camera phones, anyone that comes to your restaurant can take pictures and can write about it. … That stuff is kind of not there anymore."
Roasting One of New York's Famed Restaurants
Roberts, whose book "The Amateur Gourmet: How to Shop, Chop and Table-Hop Like a Pro (Almost)" is coming out in August, should know. In the fall, he posted a review of Le Cirque, for many the standard in New York upscale dining, on his blog.
The post, titled "Only a Jerk Would Eat at Le Cirque," outlined a dinner that he said "confirmed his worst suspicions" about the restaurant. He and his parents, who were visiting from Florida, were seated at the back of the restaurant and served what he said was merely mediocre food.
"I thought they were really rude to us," he said. "I used my Web site to broadcast my disgruntled feelings."
When Le Cirque co-owner Mauro Maccioni read the post, he took offense and responded right along with all the other readers of Roberts' blog -- in the comments section.
"I'm sorry that people may feel this way when they come into our family restaurant. I'm almost in tears listening to people mock us in this piece," Maccioni wrote. "People like me do read blogs, and I am very human."
"I just thought his assessment was overly harsh. It had a sort of nasty tone," Maccioni told ABCNEWS.com. "I thought he might not even think we would care about something like that, and I wanted to let him know that people do pay attention. … And we want to correct things."
Roberts' family was invited back to the restaurant where they were doted upon during a free meal.
"That was the moment that I realized that what I was writing on my Web site had ramifications in the real world," he said. "I'm very careful. … I'm always happy to write love letters to a restaurant."
Blog Awareness Is Good Biz
Even though Le Cirque has a reputation for catering only to its well-heeled regulars, Maccioni said reading food blogs and reaching out to those blogs' readers was just sound business.
"There's been an evolution in media in terms of restaurants and things that you pay attention to," he said. "Nowadays this foodie culture, and thankfully so -- they pay heed to these things and they look at [blogs]."
"Sometimes [people] have this idea that a restaurant like Le Cirque doesn't need the kind of person who looks at blogs. We do need those people," he said. "You pay attention and you try to polish your service."
Recently, writers of the blog NYCNosh commented on a restaurant's menu item -- a braised bok choi accompaniment to a main dish, saying it had too much sauce.
The chef e-mailed a response to NYCNosh's writers.
"He said, 'You're right. I never thought about it. I'll change it tonight,'" said Nosher, who would not reveal his real name. Nosher runs the site with his cohort, Hungry Man.
When the pair returned to the restaurant, the dish had been changed.
"We know they're responding to criticism," Nosher said of chefs.
Nosher thinks blogs can be a resource for chefs and restaurants, rather than a hindrance.
"I can see how a chef can be sensitive about what's being said about his or her food. … I can sympathize about that," he said. "This is really an opportunity to learn what people in their restaurants [think]. They overlook at their peril. … Only a foolish person wouldn't pay attention to it. … We take very great efforts [to] pay attention, especially if we say something negative, and we offer some kind of information that would help the restaurant or the chef to overcome it."
Should Personal Blogs Wield Power?
But not everyone in the restaurant industry feels that way, particularly because personal food blogs, unlike magazines and newspapers, are often unedited and, some say, come from an ill-informed point of view.
Food Network staple and Croc-wearing celebrity chef Mario Batali, who rules over a small empire of Italian restaurants in New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, has been outspoken about his dislike for food blogs.
Like Batali, Chicago-based gourmand-chef-TV-personality Rick Bayless, who runs Topolobampo and Frontera Grill, is no stranger to criticism emanating from the Internet.
In 2003, Bayless was skewered by blogs and the mainstream media for hawking chicken sandwiches in national Burger King commercials. On sites like Yelp and Chowhound, anonymous critics sounded off that Bayless' restaurants no longer had great service.
Not that Bayless would know that people were saying these things.
"I don't read them," Bayless said of blogs. "Once a year I will go onto a number of local sites just to read [through] them really fast. … If I see consistency in comments, then I'll start to take note. … I could list more problems in our restaurants than anything you could see in those blogs."
While Bayless doesn't disagree with the fact that food blogs may be wildly entertaining for the people who write and read them, he said he didn't believe they had a lot of value.
"Clearly there are people who know what they're talking about and people who don't know what they're talking about," he said. "The Internet is totally democratic in that regard, but it doesn't mean that everyone has to read it, and I certainly don't."
Bayless contends that food criticism is very difficult to write and not for everyone, even if they do have a high-speed Internet connection.
But Pim Techamuanvivit, the mastermind behind Chez Pim, a San Francisco-based site that's been around since 2001, practically the Stone Age for food blogs, thinks that's just ego talking.
"We're not always amateurs just because we're not being paid," Techamuanvivit said. "A lot of bloggers are really passionate food lovers, and we can just be as informed as anyone who happens to have an editor."
"You can look at my blog. You can make a judgment about my experience. … People make their own judgments about the validity of my opinion," she said. "I think it's to their disservice to say … 'People say crazy things on the Internet.' I think that's ego speaking, not reason speaking."
Ed Levine, the author of the blog Ed Levine Eats and the founder of Serious Eats, a network of blogs billed as a home for "missionaries of the delicious," straddles that line between amateur food blogger and professional restaurant reviewer, because he is both.
Levine has written regularly for magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times, Bon Appetit and Gourmet, over the years, and while he understands that blogs may not always be positive, he said the exchange of ideas they facilitate between restaurants and chefs was what really made them singular.
"I think the blogosphere is good for passionate eaters and good for chefs -- they need all the feedback they can get," Levine said. "You can't get a master's in restaurant criticism."
"You can be passionate about food and soak up knowledge from people and books … and then you render a judgment."
Not all bloggers may be well informed in the ways of food, but neither are all restaurant reviewers, Levine said.
"I don't think the blog has a monopoly on uninformed food writing."