The sudden, but not unexpected, and not unhoped-for news hit New York City last week that Sam Sifton, the unpredictable critic for the New York Times, was giving up his post to accept an enormous promotion within the paper. Within minutes, the city's food media began speculating on who his replacement might be. This mindless buzzing may be fun, but it glosses over the very real questions that have made restaurant critics an endangered species. The last time I looked, most people doubted there's still a need for professional critics. Bloggers and crowd-sourced review sites like Yelp and Zagat have made critics superfluous; sharp-eyed diners and chefs with iPhone cameras have destroyed their pretense of anonymity; and, most important, few publications have the budget or the desire to pay people to eat big meals every night or, for that matter, to pay them a handsome salary for doing so. The institution of Times critic, though once unassailable, has been battered by changing times. It didn't help matters that Sifton often took the jocose tone of an alt-weekly blogger or that his review choices sometimes baffled even his admirers. And if the Times is confused, what will all the lesser papers do when they rethink their own restaurant reviews?
I have some thoughts on the subject. As a former restaurant critic, I know how easy it is to do the job in a less than rational way. For the sake of the Times and all its readers, to say nothing of all the papers that look to the Gray Lady for guidance, here are a few fairly radical recommendations.
1. Review by committee
Who says the Times critic has to be one person? The truth is that eating out every night, every week, is bound to burn out any writer, and if any critics do hold on, they'll probably be so grossed out and jaded by food that their opinion will be hopelessly jaundiced. And whoever they are, they will have been photographed at some point in their life, so the pretense of anonymity is little better than a joke. Why not create a pen name like Casper Gutman and have a dozen trusted writers, maybe some in-house and some freelancers, file under it, rotating in new ones all the time? This is, after all, what a lot of smaller papers do, ones that can't afford a full-time critic. At the very least, readers will have a fighting chance of seeing how a civilian is treated in a restaurant. They will also be well served by not having to figure in a critic's peeves, like Sifton's noted antipathy to fine dining or Bryan Miller's oft noted Francophilia. Perhaps the meals can be split up between two or more writers to correct for their biases.
2. Either define the star ratings more clearly or get rid of them
My biggest complaint with the Times over the years has been its longstanding refusal to define what those stars mean (other than "good," "very good" and "excellent," terms so vague that critics don't even pretend to observe them). Restaurants in New York City live and die by the stars, which are frequently all people ever see of the review. And every critic since Bryan Miller in the '80s has awarded the stars with about as much objectivity and precision as the medals African dictators bestow upon themselves. The stars, remember, aren't just vague signifiers, like the "dope track" asterisk a music blog might put on a playlist. They represent an absolute value judgment, made with all the paper's vast authority behind it, about restaurants' relative merits. Three stars are better than two, and two better than one. In a city where you can't afford to eat everywhere, the stars can determine which venture succeeds and which fails. So before a single star is awarded by the next critic, it's on the Times to say just what the stars mean. Do they represent the critic's enthusiasm? The diner's experience? Value for the money? What? Better still, how about doing away with them altogether because we all know that no one at the Times, or anywhere else, has any idea what the tiers are in today's fragmented food scene. The days when there was a consensus on what a "three star" restaurant should be are long gone, and the Times did as much as anyone to end that understanding. So: define your terms or drop the stars. Thank you.
3. End all pretense of anonymity
If and when the Times chooses to ignore my suggestions above, and the paper does hire a single person to write under his or her own name, the new critic should come to grips with the reality that all major critics are always recognized, every time. You'll have to trust me on this one. Anything a restaurant critic eats is the best the kitchen is capable of producing, and no critic gets less than soigné service in a restaurant unless the place is grossly understaffed or mismanaged. That's just a reality of the restaurant business. So the critic should judge the food, knowing that the execution is as good as it's going to get, and ignore the service unless there are big failures. This leads to my next point.
4. No cheap shots, no stand-up comedy
Food writing can be tough, but it's a breeze next to restaurant reviewing. How many ways are there to say something is delicious? And how many ways can you say a steak is tender or tough? Critics don't want to strive over such tedious tasks; they'd rather speak to the spirit of the age, make funny asides about the crowd, and position themselves as social observers with a keen and far-seeing eye. That's why over the past few years many have used their columns to pen wry, H.L. Menckenesque drolleries that serve nobody but their own egos. Let's make no mistake here: the restaurant review is a service feature. Its purpose is to tell people whether they should or should not go to a place to eat there. A broad aside about the room is fine, but food is the main product a restaurant sells; that's what the critic should be focusing on. (Service matters too, but critics rarely get to really experience it the way civilians do.) In my opinion, having fought the urge so often myself, a restaurant critic should take no cheap shots, keep his opinion of hipsters and snobs strictly to himself and stick to talking about the food. He or she needs to order a lot of things and write about all of them. Period.
If the next Times critic would follow any or, better still, all of these points, he or she would be more than worth the accompanying salary and prestige. As I've said before, there's a place even in today's Yelpified food scene for an authoritative critic. But it's a place that has to be earned.
Ozersky is a James Beard Awardwinning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders. Taste of America, Ozersky's food column for TIME.com, appears every Wednesday.