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Are Restaurant Critics in Danger?

Former Seattle Times critic Providence Cicero says they are “a dwindling bunch”

View of a table at a restaurant, with a blank notepad and a glass of wine.
Restaurant criticism across the country seems to be receding.
Shutterstock

July marked the end of an era in Seattle’s food world. After 11 years as the lead restaurant critic at the Seattle Times, Providence Cicero — a highly-respected writer who managed to truly conceal her physical appearance in the era of social media — left her post earlier last month.

Throughout her tenure, Cicero documented dynamic shifts in the city’s restaurant scene, from the continued expansion of Renee Erickson, Tom Douglas, and Ethan Stowell’s empires, to the rise of young, rock star chefs such as Edouardo Jordan, Mutsuko Soma, and many others. Over the past decade, her articles — filled with evocative phrases, such as describing a confit leg of duck as a “classic convergence of crackling skin and soft flesh with roasted celeriac” — were essential reading to learn about the resilience of a diverse, thriving restaurant landscape in the era of Amazon and an exponential real estate boom.

But Cicero — a Pittsburgh native, who moved to Seattle with her husband in the 1990s — knows that times are changing. “I do think restaurant critics are a dwindling bunch,” she says. “And that’s too bad because the art and craft of cooking and chefs have been coming into their own for sometime now.”

A bird’s eye view of the catfish and grits at JuneBaby, one of Seattle’s most vibrant restaurants.
Junebaby’s catfish and grits. | Credit: Bill Addison
Bill Addison

Newspaper budgets have become increasingly tight with each passing year, and reviewing restaurants is an expensive endeavor — it also tends to be seen as more expendable than other departments. Cicero laments this trend, especially since professionals can lend a strong perspective to an industry that is so subjective. “If you put 10 critics around a table, and give them the same meal, you’ll probably get 10 different opinions,” she says.

While Cicero sees a use for user-generated amateur reviews on sites such as Yelp, she wonders if the flippant negativity that often characterizes them has done more harm than good. “I’ve always thought that people are more apt to complain on sites like [Yelp] than they are to praise,” she says. “If they’ve had a bad experience, they almost always want to broadcast that and it skews things.”

It’s unclear whether the Seattle Times will continue giving starred reviews for restaurants in Cicero’s absence. When reached for comment on the new direction for the section, editor Stefanie Loh would only say, “Based in part on reader feedback, we’re reimagining our restaurant coverage and are currently putting the finishing touches on a plan that will be unveiled later this summer.”

For her part, Cicero will try to stay incognito. As she ponders her next moves, she values keeping a low profile when going out to eat and experiencing restaurants as an average diner would. Eater Seattle agreed not to reveal identifying details for this article (but, yes, that’s her real name, even though some think it’s a pseudonym).

Here are some of the other biggest takeaways from Eater Seattle’s recent convo with Cicero.

The outskirts are where it’s at

Cicero sees the most exciting things in Seattle happening out in neighborhoods such as Beacon Hill and Sunset Hill, rather than downtown. ”Chefs can afford to open places and put their individual stamp on them,” she says, citing Beacon Hill (with mediterranean hot spot Homer and the upcoming Filipino restaurant Musang) and Sunset Hill (Samara) as two particular places of interest. “There are lots of restaurants opening up downtown, but they tend to be larger and feel less personal to me.”

A new generation is taking over

Cicero praises Seattle restaurant mainstays, such as Canlis and Cafe Juanita, for staying relevant, but also admires the rise of younger chefs in their 20s and early 30s making an impact. Among those: Shota Nakajima (Adana chef and Eater Young Gun 2018 winner), the aforementioned Soma (owner of the acclaimed Kamonegi), Melissa Miranda (Musang), and Mitch Mayers (chef of the playful new American bistro Sawyer in Ballard). “With Sawyer, you look at the menu and the first reaction might be ‘it’s gimmicky,’” she says. “But there is so much flavor, so much technique — Sawyer is one of my favorite restaurants.”

Noisy restaurants are a numbers game

On the negative side, Cicero has had it with loud, noisy restaurants. “I really deplore it, frankly, because I think it’s gotten out of hand,” she says. So why are they so prevalent? Cicero says that it’s “an absolutely calculated” way for many places to turn tables and make sure customers don’t linger too long, while literally generating buzz. “Look, I like energy in a space. But when you can’t talk across a table without having to read lips and repeat things, that’s not relaxing to me — and I like to relax over dinner.”

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