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Should I trust restaurant reviews from food influencers?

As our social media feeds light up with foodies having exquisite meals, the public is left wondering what is truly fantastic and what is funded fiction.
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Legendary New York magazine food critic Gael Greene was so protective of her public identity that her face remained a hatted, guarded secret for decades. Reviewing Big Apple food haunts for that publication from 1968 to 2008, she hailed from the golden age of dining sleuths who worked for outlets that prized editorial integrity above all else. For this critical and highly feared elite, even the whiff of a freebie meal could ruin a reputation or be grounds for dismissal. “It’s basic — a critic must always pay the bill,” Greene once said.

Contrasted with the sometimes harsh reviews found in publications such as New York or the Washington Post, restaurant coverage in monthly lifestyle magazines tends to be kinder, gentler. During my time at Town & Country magazine, where I helmed the “On the Town” column for nearly a decade, not once can I recall our giving an eatery a negative review. Readers would occasionally ask me: “Don’t your writers ever have a bad meal?”

I cherished the question.

“With so many great restaurants to choose from, why dedicate coverage to places we didn’t like?” would be my honest reply.

Indeed, any establishment we reviewed — even if the story was but a paragraph — had to have cast a spell over the writer. Otherwise, it didn’t make the cut.

Our recommendations were rock-solid; our favor was not for sale.

For their part, the restaurants basked in the earned glow, reproducing our stories and displaying them on their walls or in their front windows with the banner headline “As Featured In…”

(Mealtime with Mister Manners is a column that delves into a smorgasbord of modern-day dining dilemmas.)

Seismic shift

Nearly unrecognizable from that mid-aughts perch, so many magazines are now on life support and the unrivaled power of print publishing to make or break restaurants has greatly diminished next to the sway of social media influencers.

Dangling the carrot of gushing praise on Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Facebook and in weekly newsletters and blogs, these facile foodies know how to reach their fans and are unafraid to ask for freebies in exchange. Some influencers even charge a fee for their coverage.

In her recent New York Times essay “The 21st-Century Shakedown of Restaurants,” writer Karen Stabiner laments, “Restaurateurs worry about retaliation if food influencers don’t get what they want: criticism of food that they might have said tasted better if it had been free, complaints about nonexistent bad service or a bottle of wine that the group drained dry before judging it to be off.”

And while a faux or unethical influencer can be a restaurant’s worst nightmare, a genuine influencer can be the answer to a restaurant’s prayers. Fawning footage of a bôite’s interior; boomerang sequences of frothy cocktails; and close-ups of spellbinding entrées and too-pretty-to-eat desserts can deliver a meaningful social-media boost. For the influencer’s legion of followers, these snatches of food porn are highly sharable and predictably covetable.

Such thing as a free lunch?

Shari Bayer, a New York-based publicist, radio-show host and author of the new book “Chefwise,” is a believer in the power of influencers to move the needle — providing they have a vetted reputation. She recommends her clients welcome “established social-media influencers,” those whom she describes as ones “with a proven track record of delivering great content — those who show integrity in their work.”

To be sure everyone is on the same page, she suggests restaurants manage the experience in advance, addressing questions such as:

  • Will the influencer have carte blanche when ordering?
  • Will the restaurant limit free drinks?
  • Who will be covering the tip?

A win-win situation — maybe

With such parameters in place, restaurant publicists concur the exchange can be a layup for influencers and restaurants alike.

The influencers get content, a free meal and possibly even compensation.

The restaurants gain exposure and advertising at a cost that is typically minimal compared to producing, distributing and promoting their own content. For smaller restaurants in particular — those with little chance of hitting the radar of a national newspaper or magazine — the exposure can provide a valuable lifeline.

Do followers reap a benefit also? I believe so — providing the influencer’s praise is legit and not simply a quid pro quo for subpar — but nonetheless free — food and drink.

If I’m seeking a quick glimpse of a new hot spot in town, nothing beats a beautifully presented influencer video.

On the other hand, if I’m looking for a perspective that’s in-depth and certifiably free from sway, still nothing tops a legacy media food critic — long may they dine anonymously.