In Manila, dining is more obsession than pastime. At every hour of every day, the city’s denizens can be found engaged in every possible form of eating—slurping fresh ramen noodles in tiny cubicles, enduring kilometric lines for milk tea or samgyupsal, standing barefoot at the kitchen counter while hastily unwrapping the latest food delivery. And when we’re not eating, the next best thing to do is plan the next meal.
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What new dish should we sample next? What fantastical new restaurant have we not yet tried out? The feeding frenzy fuels a demand for more and ever more food content—everything from magazine features and listicles, to blogs and vlogs, to social media posts and Yelp reviews. We are all of us consumers and producers of food content, and we’re so immersed in the process that we routinely post our stories even before we eat.
There is, however, one form of food literature that this city does not produce. Or at least has very little of it: the restaurant review.
Strictly speaking, a restaurant review adheres to particular guidelines, as stated by the International Association of Food Journalists. The critic must visit the restaurant at least three times and sample the full range of the menu, from appetizers to dessert. He must pay for all meals in full and—this one is particularly important—must remain anonymous.
Nothing alters the dining experience so much as being discovered. Once the chef knows he’s got a critic on his premises, you can be sure the dining experience will change drastically. The reviewer will never know for sure if this is how ordinary diners will be treated (most probably not).
Some critics go to enormous lengths to not be recognized. You can get a good idea of how this works out in Ruth Reichl’s book Garlic and Sapphire, where she wrote about the many disguises she had to wear as an undercover food critic for The New York Times.
Some professional critics added some personal rules. Pete Wells of The New York Times waits at least two months after a restaurant opens before giving a review, and Doreen Gamboa Fernandez never wrote a bad review. Whenever she was less than impressed, she would simply refuse to write about a restaurant. Omission was her personal way of curating through the restaurants of Manila.
That’s not all. A food critic must possess a refined palate for different types of food, an understanding of ingredients and cooking techniques, and a broad knowledge of cuisines, foreign and local. Jonathan Gold, the only food critic to ever win a Pulitzer, was so immersed in the dining scene of his beloved city that you knew, when he wrote about a taco, for example, that he was comparing it to every other taco in L.A. This gave his writing depth and nuance that an amateur could not hope to achieve. And this brings us to the last, and not the least important quality a food critic must have: he or she had better be a darned good storyteller.
It’s a lot to ask of one person, and yet it’s quite fair. With the power to make or break a restaurant, and the ability to influence people’s attitudes toward food, it is only right that critics be held to a high standard. Remember, a single bad review can poison the minds and destroy livelihoods. It’s a lot of responsibility.
That’s the ideal, and here’s where we fall short: in Manila, the standard practice is for a writer to be invited (or perhaps his editor will send him) to a restaurant. He is dined and wined like royalty, and everything asked for is made available, whether it’s an exclusive interview with the chef (who’s usually a celebrity), or samples of all the items on the menu. As a guest, he is not expected to pay for his meal, and it is unlikely that he will return to make up the three required visits. The writer will then produce an article that may correctly be called a feature, but it won’t be a review.
The biggest hurdle is money. Quite frankly, only a few writers and media companies can afford to foot the bill for multiple visits to a single restaurant just to produce one article. It’s simply not cost-effective. But the system as it currently exists leaves the writer—and the readers—at a disadvantage.
Too often, even with the writer’s best intentions, the reader will get hype instead of honest criticism. Free meals and VIP service can stunt anyone’s good judgment. Besides, we Filipinos are almost culturally inhibited by our sense of hiya to criticize after we’ve been treated like an honored guest. A second problem is that this arrangement makes PR professionals the middlemen for good media coverage. Restaurants with the budget for public relations have a distinct advantage over small eateries who must struggle for attention—unless they have a known chef or personality on board.
Why does this matter at all? Because a body of well-written restaurant reviews by respected professional food critics is one of the best signs that Manila has finally come into its own as a dining destination.
Also, it’s a service. This is a city where restaurants open and close at a dizzying rate. (F&B Report estimates an average of 2,500 dining establishments opening each year since 2014.) Food critics can cut through the noise, amplifying those restaurants that deserve attention. They bring nuance to the experience of dining out, and ultimately serve as the food conscience of a community.
The restaurant review is not just a consumer report that tells you where to spend your money. When written well, it should give you, the reader, the tools with which to evaluate your dining experience in a richer way. It provides information and context—where the food comes from, where the chef comes from, where the restaurant fits into the city’s milieu, its cultural impact.
The dining scene is in constant flux, and we constantly challenge chefs and restaurateurs to cook better and to serve better. We should ask no less of our food writers. Honest, constructive criticism can only encourage restaurants to step up to the challenge and will ultimately be good for diners, chefs and writers—all of us who care about food.
This is the opinion and analysis of the former managing editor of FOOD Magazine, who for 10 years wrote and edited many restaurant features. She’s also privy to the other side of the coin, having done public relations for one of Manila’s top hotels.