Colorado History

John Kessler on the Changing Role of Restaurant Reviewers

John Kessler delivers his ED Talk on September 12.
John Kessler delivers his ED Talk on September 12. Eat Denver
John Kessler, a former Westword restaurant critic, delivered the following at Eat Denver’s fourth annual ED Talks gathering on September 12.

In 1988, I moved to Denver not long after finishing culinary school on the East Coast. It was a very different city then. There was no Pepsi Center nor Coors Field. Elitch’s was still up on West 38th Avenue, and the most recognizable structure downtown was the I.M. Pei-designed hyperbolic paraboloid, which stood on the southwest side of the 16th Street Mall like a giant, folded sheet of origami. The mall ended at Market Street, and beyond it lay railroad tracks and the no-man’s-land of the Central Platte Valley. When I see Union Station today with all the building behind it, I can’t believe my eyes. I’m like one of the Westworld robots looking at a photograph — the sight simply makes no sense to me.

When I moved to Denver, I looked for jobs in the kind of restaurant that I’d want to put on my résumé. On the very high end, there were some genteel mausoleums: the Quorum and the Normandy come to mind, and the still-grand Palace Arms was beginning to teeter toward obsolescence. There were some exciting, buzzy restaurants — notably Zenith, which was Kevin Taylor’s inaugural effort, and Strings, from chef Noel Cunningham, famous for its signature pasta with asparagus, cream and caviar. None of these seemed quite right for a pretentious little cooking-school grad armed with a notebook of recipes written in French.

I had set my sights on the three restaurants generally considered the best in the city, the kinds of places where people with an interest in contemporary, chef-driven food would choose to spend a lot of money. Cliff Young’s on East 17th Avenue wasn’t hiring. The Rattlesnake Club, set in a soaring two-story space in the Tivoli, was. I got a job there making pheasant confit pizzas and salads of mesclun greens, which were air-freighted daily from California. Alas, the post-Dynasty fallout from the oil-and-gas boom as well as the savings-and-loan crisis had decimated Denver’s economy, as well as this restaurant’s business. After a few months, I could no longer afford to work there, so I took a job at the other best restaurant, Cafe Giovanni on Market Street, which was less cutting-edge but far easier for patrons to love.
click to enlarge A very changed Denver today. - WESTWORD
A very changed Denver today.
I was working at Cafe Giovanni when Patricia Calhoun, the editor of Westword, called me to say she had fished my application out of a pile and invited me to become the paper’s new restaurant critic. I took to print media like a dog to the back of a pickup truck — excited by everything I saw in a kind of slobbery way. I loved being a restaurant critic, first at Westword, then at the Denver Post and eventually at the paper where I spent most of my career, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

I bring up all this old history not solely for the purpose of clearing lint from my navel, but to make a point: Back when I was coming up through the ranks, critics were different because the dialogue around dining was so different. In big cities like Denver, there was a generally recognized hierarchy of restaurants that mattered. Critics used this hierarchy as an organizing principle, and we focused hard on the amenities of dining, giving separate star ratings for food, service and something we used to call “ambience.”

Of course, we went to taquerias and Vietnamese pho restaurants, even the occasional food truck. But we generally covered them in personal columns or annual best-of issues. The most insightful restaurant critics recognized that great food in a casual setting merited the attention of a full review. I still remember when Bill St. John, then at the Rocky Mountain News, gave a rare A rating to a quick-service burrito stand a young cook with fine-dining experience had opened near the University of Denver. Its name? Chipotle.

Yet we kept the conversation pretty tightly focused on dining destinations with table service. If a Chinese restaurant had cloth napkins and waiters in black uniforms, it was worthy of a review. If it was a guy hacking up duck and pork by a carryout window, it was not. During my time, there were four print restaurant critics in Denver, and we approached our work like consumer advocates; the conversations we led were less about discovering exceptional experiences and a bit more about how well chefs and restaurateurs hit their marks.

Now let’s fast-forward to the early 2000s. I’m sitting at my desk in Atlanta, where I am now the critic for the city’s only daily newspaper. Terry, one of the mole people who ran the paper’s fledgling website, had emerged from his windowless office for our weekly babysitting session. He sat by my side and helped me navigate through to something on our site called “Atlanta Restaurant Forum.” It made my head hurt — one long, endless thread filled with indented sub-sub-sub threads. Terry sat there and made sure I interacted with the regular group of folks who showed up with a variety of topics in mind.
click to enlarge John Kessler with Dang Nguyen at DeVine Cafe, 1993. - COURTESY OF JOHN KESSLER
John Kessler with Dang Nguyen at DeVine Cafe, 1993.
Courtesy of John Kessler
Eventually these people migrated to a private forum called Atlanta Cuisine, which had a better interface. They talked about my reviews often enough that I felt compelled to drop in from time to time. A few of them went on to start blogs, and I remember writing a really stupid article that basically said, “Gol-lee, Sarge, there are these nutty things now called food blogs, and people are taking pictures of everything they eat, which is totally bonkers!”

Well, that brought Terry out of his hidey-hole. I had to start a food blog, too. One weekly review wasn’t enough to keep a blog going, so I was supplementing it with posts about banh mi sandwiches, fried okra and English candy bars. I uploaded more than a few blurry pictures of cheeseburgers.

I can’t remember when Yelp became the main hub for restaurant information, or when people started referring to the meandering comments on that site as “reviews,” or when my published opinion of a restaurant became one among many rather than one among a select few.

As easy as it was — and still is — to sneer at Yelp and its army of “reviewers” prattling on about various items melting in their mouths, it did a beautiful thing. It took the church of criticism away from its high priests and made it ecumenical. It opened up the notion of what was “reviewable” to include, say, a guy who sold barbecue from the back of his pickup once a week in a suburb of Atlanta, or a modernist chef pop-up, or a Korean taco food truck, or a visit to a dozen restaurants serving pho to find the best.

The focus of reviewing shifted, subtly but inexorably, from consumer advocacy to documenting experience.
Critics stopped carping so much about unfilled water glasses. Instead, they began fanning obsessions for double-stack burgers, Neapolitan pizza and craft cocktails. If a new branch of a high-end steakhouse opened in a prominent downtown location, we’d feel less obliged to weigh in. But if a steakhouse began serving ridiculously expensive A5 Miyazaki beef from Japan, we’d feel obligated to relate the sensation of eating bovine gold.

We also started traveling further and further afield to look for experience. Today, magazines like GQ, Esquire and Bon Appétit as well as online publications like Eater and Bloomsberg News send critics around the country to look for the restaurants that are breaking through the old order in the most exciting and delicious ways.

I think in some ways this is a good development, since we all travel and look for gustatory thrills on the road. Then again, I worry that this constant focus on destination-worthy food sucks oxygen away from local critics who still offer the best advice among those pretty good options. I’ll spend $160 on a steak if someone else is footing the bill, but I’d like to know where to cough up forty bucks. As chairman of the James Beard Awards Journalism Committee, I’ve noticed an interesting development: In the few years since we introduced a Dining and Travel award, the entries for this category have far outpaced the number for classic restaurant criticism.

How does this affect your good work in Denver? Well, you’ll have a lot more writers dropping in to sample the three hottest new restaurants as well as a couple of classic places for green chile and game. And you’ll see more of those specious stories with headlines shouting, “Finally, Denver.” Or “Denver Is Having a Food Moment.” Or “Great Food in Denver? You’d Better Believe It.”

Don’t believe it: Denver has always had great food. And pretty good food and some pretty awful food, like everywhere else. But it’s the great food that I helped prepare as a line cook and then sampled as a reviewer that I’ll never forget.
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