Wisdom of the common folks
Saw this item while reading the LA Times during lunch. The Zagat's of Zagat guide fame defend their approach about using ordinary folks to rate restaurants. Excerpts:
Ever since we started asking diners to rate and review restaurants 24 years ago -- in the process creating a series of bestselling guidebooks based on consumer opinion -- one group has remained a tad uneasy about our success: professional food critics.I confess, I sometimes feel this way about movie critics, art critics and political pundits! I suppose in some ways that is why the blogging phenomena is so interesting as the voices are ordinary folks. There is a place for the "expert" commentator but for many things the voice of the common people or the vote of the free market is often closer to the truth.
Aside from the fact that "democracy run amok" sounds like a line written by Gray Davis, we think something else is at work. Whenever a commentator starts to talk about standards, you know whose standards he's trying to protect - his own. Which is exactly why we started canvassing diners nearly a quarter of a century ago, to find a consensus of customer opinion about a given restaurant as a reality check to the Oz-like authority of the professionals.
We love food critics - they are some of the liveliest, wittiest and most outspoken writers working. But do they really possess shaman-like wisdom that the rest of us lack? And are they the only source of reliable dining information?
Nearly 6,100 frequent diners participated in our new Los Angeles survey, eating an average of 3.7 meals out per week and averaging 9.5 visits throughout the year to each restaurant they rated. That means they were sampling an establishment across all seasons, when ingredients and preparations can vary tremendously, to say nothing of the air conditioning or the mood swings and "off" days of the hostess, chef and wait staff.
By contrast, most critics are lucky if they get two or three meals under their belt for any one review, including when they have their own mood swings and off days. Collectively, our diners took in 3,200 restaurant meals a day in L.A. We've yet to meet the reviewer who can make room for that kind of consumption.
And who is really more prone to getting the preferential treatment that could yield a weighted verdict — a large cross section of diners whose identities are unknown to the restaurant, or the prominent food critic whose photo is taped to the kitchen wall or who may socialize with the chef, as many professional food writers do?
When we started surveying diners in 1979, there was little place in food criticism for restaurants outside the so-called top tier. Neighborhood eateries just didn't register on the typical critic's radar. What's happened in the last 24 years is nothing short of a revolution, not only in how and where Americans eat out and what kinds of foods they crave, but also in the way in which ordinary diners have become empowered to make informed choices. They draw from their own peer-to-peer intelligence, rather than depending on the self-imposed standards of the almighty critic.
If that sounds like democracy run amok, tell us where to vote.