After two years and many stars, Sam Sifton is no longer the restaurant critic at the Times. Which brings us back to the oft-asked question: Why is the Times critic so powerful? How is it that, in an age of Yelp and the Googagat Survey, when everyone and their grandmother seems to put their feelings about their meals onto the Facebook, people still are so caught up in the opinions of one man or woman working from a desk across the street from the Port Authority? There are lots of reasons, but a post on Zagat Buzz today that talks about Sifton from the perspective of a restaurateur under review dances around a major part of it. The Times critic still matters because people and restaurateurs seem to want it to (even if they don't like the results). So the question then becomes: What is the Times doing about its power?
There are lots of professional food critics out there—most major publications have one—and yet none of them seems to be able to get the critical mass of attention the Times writer gets. Which is why one can argue, without much difficulty, that fine dining is one of the areas where the Times still actually wields real power. A good review can save a restaurant, no question. Which is why whoever the Grey Lady picks to replace Sifton is going to be scrutinized within an inch of his or her life (just as Sifton was when he replaced Frank Bruni). It is, after all, a hard job that somebody has to do.
Still, to remain relevant in this age of occupations, things very well may need to change even more than they already have. In his short tenure, Sifton helped refocus the paper of record's restaurant coverage beyond Manhattan and has even taken on a few of the cheaper restaurants normally relegated to the paper's $25 and Under section, while still leaving room to re-review some of the most expensive places on the planet. Now we just need more of that.
If Sifton's successor wants to keep the post as relevant as it is, they should take Sifton's lead and run with it. And if they want our advice (which, obviously they do, right?) the new critic will be more like Bloomberg's Ryan Sutton (whose tumblr's The Bad Deal and The Price Hike are excellent resources in the current economy) and the Voice's Rob Sietsema (who only seems happy reviewing obscure places in Queens) and really shake up the criticism at Times.