Should vegetarian restaurants only be reviewed by vegetarians?

The Guardian, one of Britain’s finest newspapers, recently installed several blogs to which their staff writers contribute, including a food blog. Last week one of their restaurant reviewers, Jay Rayner, wrote a negative review of a well known London vegetarian restaurant - which upset quite a lot of vegetarian readers. He defended his review, and several commenters bit back. One opinion expressed was that, since the critic is not a vegetarian himself, that he did not have the palate to judge vegetarian food, and that only committed vegetarian or vegans should be reviewing vegetarian restaurants.

That’s an interesting point of view. While I doubt that main stream media outlets instituting such food-specific critics and such, in the wide world of blogs it is theoretically possible - so someone might choose to only trust restaurant reviews from a vegetarian blogger. Is it plausible though? Is an omnivore disqualified from judging what’s good vegetarian food because his or her tastebuds are tainted by a fondness for meat? Should vegetarian food only appeal to non-meat eaters?

As someone who has gradually increased the percentage of vegetable based food in my diet in the last few years, but is not a vegetarian, I’m really curious about this. I do like the taste of meat. but I love the taste of fresh vegetables too. If I gave up meat products totally though, would my palate change that much, so that I enter a magical realm which is reserved only for vegetarians? Will meat become totally inedible? I’m a bit skeptical about this, since so many vegetarians seem to at least occasionally crave a ‘meaty’ taste.

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...really?

I was a vegetarian for seven years (though I’m not any longer), and I think that this is ridiculous. It’s like saying that only French people should be allowed to review French restaurants, only Japanese people are allowed to review sushi. Good food still tastes like good food, to my way of thinking, and unless the reviewer in question actually hates vegetables or has some sort of bias against vegetarians, I see no reason they wouldn’t be able to provide the same caliber of review that a vegetarian would.

Meghan | 31 May, 2007 - 20:49

No and no...

No, being a vegetarian won’t change your palate much, and not “irreparably” if you decide to go back to eating meat. After thirteen years as a vegetarian, I’ve been eating meat again for the past three and a half years. The transition was seamless in both directions (though cooking it personally took a little time). For what it’s worth, I don’t eat mass quantities of meat, and I strongly prefer fish. If anything, I’d say your palate is more affected by your food’s quality and seasonings, rather than whether or not it’s vegetarian.

I certainly don’t think only vegetarians are qualified to review vegetarian restaurants. Admittedly, a non-vegetarian may have a different take on, say, the authenticity of fake meats. But it should be no more of a restriction than with reviewing any particular cuisine, such as how much the reviewer eats Japanese food.

Mark | 31 May, 2007 - 21:43

I judge omnivorous restaurants regularly

I’m vegetarian, but I regularly judge omnivorous restaurants, and a number of my friends rely on my opinions. Similarly, I don’t think it’s unreasonable that an omnivore could fairly judge vegetarian cuisine; certainly people judge my own cooking, and many of my meat eating friends are equally enthusiastic about the few vegetarian spots in Seattle that I recommend.

Granted, I have very little love for 1970s Berkeley-style vegetarian fare (and very little love for 1970s-style American cooking in general), and I’m not fond of highly processed meat analogs popular today, so I might even have a similar opinion to Raynor.

If anything, my palate as a vegetarian is probably more demanding than the average omnivore’s… I think I’d know pretty quickly whether to trust someone’s critique based on how they think about food. I can’t say that I’d weigh their vegetarianism (or non-vegetarianism) heavily unless they were actively hostile to meatless cuisine.

On the other hand, invoking Bourdain and complaining about dreary meat substitutes, as his review did, might rub some people the wrong way…

Jason Truesdell | 1 June, 2007 - 01:55

bias

I’ve read some of the critic’s other reviews and I do think that his critics may have a valid point in that he seems to be rather anti-vegetarian. Besides bringing up Bourdain, the very unappetising picture of tofu, that makes it look like a very worn out dish sponge, doesn’t help much (though I’m not sure he was the one who chose that particular photo). That doesn’t mean I don’t think he should be banned from reviewing vegetarian eateries however.

maki | 1 June, 2007 - 14:54

Good point!

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head! There are subtle and not-so-subtle clues that make me believe Rayner might not have been the best reviewer for the job- but, yes; on principle I think it’s ridiculous to suggest that a meat-eating reviewer is under qualified to review an establishment catering to veggie heads! The suggestion is damaging to the movement itself.

I’m a vegetarian, and I’d be only too thrilled if a dedicated carnivore took an interest in a vegetarian restaurant, even to try a special dish once in a while for variety. To suggest that a meat-eating reviewer doesn’t have “the right taste level” for a veggie-only establishment sends the possible message that meat eaters are unwelcome in general, and that’s a real shame. Vegetarians do tend to lose their “taste” for meat after a while, but it’s no great phenomenon in my opinion. I think they probably find the texture and smell foreign after a while, just like with most foods you don’t eat regularly!

At the same time, however, Mr. Rayner seems to be quite open about the fact that he finds the vegetarian philosophy tiresome -at least! In light of that, I feel people should take said review within the context of this man’s natural inclinations. Is he obligated to spell this out? I don’t think so, but it would be nice. Maybe. ;)

Having said all this, I have to tell you that your willingness to even entertain this question and your diplomacy in conceding any valid points is really admirable. A true class act!

Laurie | 1 June, 2007 - 17:29

No.

For a start, a lot of non vegitarians (myself included) eat at vegetarian restaurants. If the veg/non veg palate is so different, at least we omnivores will know what to expect. Yet most people eat vegetarian dishes at home and at regular restaurants too - I don’t see how they would be unqualified to judge whether it tastes good or not.

The only way this makes sense is in regard to meat substitutes, where meat may have tasted better but has been replaced because of the ideology. A meat eater who reviews the food may be comparing the dish to meat versions they’ve tried before, where the vegetarian will rate it comparative to other vegetarian versions of the dish, which would be more useful to vegetarian readers. There’s no reason why a meat eating reviewer couldn’t do that too, they’d just have to have a bit of experience with vegetarian food.

Cass | 1 June, 2007 - 04:59

no

like Meghan said, “Good food still tastes like good food”. and a good food critic should already have a refine pallet to give good review to any dishes without any bias or favoritism.

As for meat substitute, i personally think that the dish SHOULD be compared to the real one, it is what they’re trying to imitate.

raymond | 1 June, 2007 - 08:08

Unlike other vegetarians who

Unlike other vegetarians who commented, I have found that my palate has changed very much since becoming a vegetarian. I have zero interest in eating meat, even in small quantities. I evaluate ‘fake meat’ products based on whether I like them, not on how much they resemble actual meat. I wouldn’t be qualified to make that comparison, anyway, since I haven’t eaten real meat in over 17 years.

So, what does this mean for our omnivore reviewer? For me personally, it doesn’t sound like I’d get much out of a review that harps on the ‘authenticity’ of imitation meat products. If you want authentic-tasting meat, why are you eating in a vegetarian restaurant in the first place? But perhaps someone who has similar tastes to the reviewer would indeed find his review helpful. That’s basically how all restaurant reviews work - if they don’t come from someone who shares your tastes, they are of limited use, anyway.

Jul | 1 June, 2007 - 10:30

I would certainly hope my palate has changed...

I know my tastes have changed since becoming vegetarian, but more importantly, they’ve changed because I’m no longer the 19 year old I was when I became vegetarian… My first vegetarian foods were often heavily over-seasoned reactions to the big, bland, one-dimensional American food of my childhood. I’d probably complain if I were served those dishes today…

It took having the good fortune to afford to eating out and travel more, as well as learning to recognize the right season for the right vegetable, and years of experimentation at home, to develop my quirky sensibilities. I increasingly favor simplicity, though it’s a very different kind of simplicity than the “easy” food I grew up with.

However, I don’t think my tastes are so incredibly divergent from omnivorous adventurous urban diners that I can’t learn something from their opinions, except that I’m far more likely to be seriously disappointed by most Japanese and Chinese restaurants I’ve encountered in the US than many fellow food-lovers who are perhaps not as traveled in those regions as I. Except for a distaste for meat, my tastes probably share more in common with typical Seattle food geeks than with my 18 year old self.

That being said, I’ve certainly seen people actively hostile to vegetarian foods, even when a roomful of non-vegetarians happily devour the same dishes that someone else is complaining about. For some people, nothing beats their hamburger and french fries… I wouldn’t rely on their opinions.

On the other hand, I’ve seen some true atrocities committed in the name of vegetarian cuisine… For me, extremely firm, past-its-prime, slightly sour tofu is the most common of them… most of the packaged meat analogs I’ve seen, not because they taste unlike their meat counterparts, but because they just taste processed and unpleasant… And I never fell in love with lentil loaves… I wouldn’t rely entirely on an opinion from someone who is quite the opposite of me on such thinking… and I’d certainly trust a carnivore who knows the difference between good and bad tofu.

Reviews are always about the context. I often see restaurant reviews in the Seattle Weekly or The Stranger that start with a really misinformed foundation on the cuisine they are reviewing, and I simply dismiss those reviews entirely, when I know better. When I read a reviewer who notices the sorts of things that I notice in a restaurant, I pay more attention.

So, while I’d say a reviewer is absolutely free to review any type of restaurant, I’m also equally free to dismiss their review as ignorant, misinformed, biased, wrong, or simply contrary to my actual experience… We can always rate our reviewers…

Jason Truesdell | 2 June, 2007 - 09:21

I have been a vegetarian for

I have been a vegetarian for 17 years. I prefer not to eat meat substitutes and even when I do, as someone already stated, I judge them based on how they taste, not how much they taste like meat. Even though I am very committed to being a vegetarian, I think if you want chicken, you should eat chicken. Also, my palate has changed since becoming a vegetarian and I don’t seem to need as much seasoning on my food as I used to and I have a better appreciation for subtle tastes.

Out of my family, 3 of us are vegetarians and 5 of us are not. Therefore, a non-vegetarian review of a restaurant would be useful to us if we were looking for somewhere that we could all enjoy. In a perfect world, reviews by both meat eaters and vegetarians would be most helpful.

Dana | 1 June, 2007 - 14:15

maybe...

its not the pallet that changed, but changing to vegetarian made you learn and appreciate new taste. like before i studied culinary arts, there’s a lot of spices and flavor that i didn’t know, after my study I could recognize these taste coz I’ve been exposed to them (and forced to memorize them or I’ll fail, lol.) and know wether it’s to much, or not enough. but that didn’t changed my taste on the food i had before, everything tastes the same its just discovering new taste change what I liked and not.

rayond | 3 June, 2007 - 19:34

Well, I think this is a very

Well, I think this is a very touchy subject.

First, I think that everyone should be able to critique whatever food they consume even if it strays from the general opinion. Having said that, I also think that knowing what type of food a reviewer normally eats can impact the perspective on what readers might see as an authentic review versus one that’s just anti-vegetarian.
There is a reason in this. Someone whose diet normally consists of vegetarian food probably has had more exposure to a variety of vegetarian dishes, so this person in turn will have more experience to base their review on.

Personally, I don’t think it matters whether the reviewer is vegetarian or not. What matters is the type of vegetarian food the person has tried (variety/amount) in order to really say whether their opinion is genuine or biased/unreasonable.

—Nice topic maki…
@@

inersion | 4 June, 2007 - 05:37

hello maki, i commented on

hello maki,

i commented on the guardian blog. i am sure non-vegetarians can appreciate vegetarian food, but a non vegetarian who loathes vegetarian food cannot critic it for a newspaper. it is dishonest.

also, i do think that full time vegetarians and part time vegetarians have a different way of digesting food than those who love only meat. Two issues..one, fibre…meat based diets have very little of it and a vegetarian diet..esp one with a lot of beans/pulses/vegetables will make an unfamiliar tummy rather uncomfortable. secondly, there is a difference between plant based protein and meat based protein. with the former, one needs a diff set of enzymes to break it down and generally, they take longer to cook too(why we have to soak beans..cook pulses for a longer time etc). so until one’s digestive flora ‘develops’, so to speak, the plant based proteins will remain undigested resulting in enough gas that would have one airborne. so a certain familiarity with vegetarian food is necessary to appreciate vegetarian food. ditto re palate..meat has a flavour profile umami….and a lack of this and/or an addiction to this flavour can totally inhibit non vegetarians from fully enjoying their vegetarian meal.

anyways, my point was that one has to be AT LEAST less hostile to vegetarian fare to review it. it is absolutely not acceptable when food critics of reputable publications like guardian(that i respect and enjoy a lot) use their space to act mean and spitefully against others who have a different set of eating preferences. mean cannot be the new black.

faustianbargain | 4 June, 2007 - 21:17

great comments

Thank you for all of your great comments! It’s turned out to be one of the most thought-provoking threads here.

faustian, I have to disagree with you a bit on the way vegetarian vs. non-vegetarian tummies function. There are a wide variety of non-vegetarians, from the meat and potatoes type to the fast-and junk-food type to the ones who include a little meat or fish in their diets but primarily eat a lot of vegetabies, pulses and grains. I am in that camp, partly by conscious choice but it’s also the food culture in which I was raised. I think that holds true for many Asian people. (using Asian in both the way its meant in the UK, meaning Indian/Pakistani people, and the way it’s used in other places, i.e. people from Japan, China, Korea, SE Asia, etc) Also not to forget people from the Mediterranean - not many Italians I know are totally vegetarian but they certainly enjoy their vegetable dishes. So I guess it’s mainly the northern Europeans, and their descendants who emigrated elsewhere, who plan most of their meals around a hunk o’ meat.

maki | 5 June, 2007 - 06:05

maki, you are absolutely

maki, you are absolutely right. there are ‘balanced diets’ where meat has it’s place and its a small one on the plate.

faustianbargain | 5 June, 2007 - 19:58

Know Your Reviewer

I believe that the issue which everyone has been unconsciously circling here is that of the credibility of a particular reviewer. In the review in question, I’d be willing to venture that the reviewer’s primary audience (those who share his views and tastes in cuisine) accepted his review, had no problem with it, and would probably have the same experience in that particular restaurant.

That’s part of why we read food reviews, and why we tend to stick with a certain reviewer, once we are assured that they share our tastes and opinions: we read reviews so that we do not have to spend the money on poor cuisine, or so that we can get some idea of what a restaurant is “about” before we go there ourselves.

P.S. I daresay that the restaurant in question has enjoyed quite a significant uplift in sales, thanks to the negative review and all of the furor surrounding it.

David | 7 June, 2007 - 22:51

VegHead Reviews

I was vegetarian for five years after developing a reaction of physical disgust to meat. I’ve been able to eat meat in the last four years, but I still cannot eat more than 2-3 ounces of meat at a time. I have the highest tolerance for fish. I would make a terrible reviewer for a steakhouse. Likewise, someone who is very meat-focused, is unlikely to have a strong appreciation for vegetarian fare.

My palate has certainly developed as I’ve gotten older. I’ve lost my taste for Kraft Dinner and gained an appreciation for more authentic flavors. I think there is a tendency to attribute changes in tastes from the palate reaching maturity with being related to just the diet, given that a lot of people decide to go vegetarian in their teens and early 20s.

Denise | 15 June, 2007 - 06:18

Interesting

I think non-vegetarians should be able to review vegetarian restaurants. But like any review, they should approach it with an open mind. I wouldn’t expect a person reviewing a Japanese restaurant to constantly compare it to Italian food, or complain if there was no pasta substitute. Likewise, thinking about vegetarian food as an absence of meat misses the point.

My main beef with the review is that it sounds like he had a bad food experience, but uses it as a basis on which to make sweeping generalisations about vegetarianism and vegetarian cooking. I have had some ordinary Italian meals. I blame the restaurant, not Italian food, or Italians for that. I also think ithe review was unnecessarily cruel. These are community cooks not Michelin star chefs!

I’m interested in this debate because I’m a vegetarian who reviews all types of restaurants to see if they are vegetarian friendly. I started doing it because mainstream reviews often didn’t talk about whether a restaurant offered many (or any) vegetarian options which can lead to embarrassing / disappointing (or wonderfully joyous) experiences for vegetarians and their families / friends.

I thought this was a pretty simple idea, but when I first started most people assumed that I only reviewed vegetarian restaurants because I was vegetarian. I love eating out at all types of places and wouldn’t want to confine myself (or friends and family) to eating or writing about vego restaurants. Seems only fair that non-veg reviewers should be extended the same courtesy.

Kate | 15 June, 2007 - 13:47

I know where you’re coming

I know where you’re coming from - I’m mostly vegetarian myself and am always looking for vegetarian options at normal restaurants.

Should non-vegetarians review vegetarian restaurants? Absolutely. But as with every food style, you need to know what to expect before going in, or you will be guaranteed to have the wrong experience. That goes for all food cultures, not just vegetarian. A reviewer who does not do this is just a bad reviewer.

Some things to consider:
* If the restaurant doesn’t specialise in meat substitute dishes, there is no reason to look for them - just as much as a sushi bar won’t specialize in noodle dishes. There are a lot of meals that don’t need meat or a substitute to be complete!
* In the same vein, a lot of dishes don’t follow the same pattern as meat dishes - meat, a side of carbohydrates and a side of greens. Instead, expect more pasta dishes, curry pots and mixed sampler dishes.
* Continuing the pattern, this means you should expect a fair share of oriental dishes. If you just want a burger, this may not be the place for you.
* To any regular meat eater, a lot of vegetarian food may seem bland the first time around. I have noticed that people who are eating vegetarian regularly for a certain time develop a more acute sense of taste for vegetables and other “bland” food, and an adverse reaction to the taste of glutamate (“meaty” taste). That may be a thing to consider, although lack of meat does NOT mean that the food should lack in taste, as sadly some vegetarian restaurants I have visited seem to think!

;)

jokergirl | 18 June, 2007 - 09:58

it depends...

Well, it depends. I’m vegan, and I take reviews by omnivores seriously, so long as the omnivore in question is actually judging the quality of the food, rather than using the review as a forum to vent a personal view that it is impossible to have good food without animal products. If their main criticism of the food is that it does not contain meat (or other animal products), then I just ignore them. That would be like saying that fresh cherries aren’t good because they aren’t oranges, or that french food is no good because it doesn’t use indian spices. On the other hand, if the reviewer makes thoughtful and informed comments and shows that they are starting with the idea that vegetarian or vegan food CAN be good, then I don’t much care what they eat the rest of the time. I suppose there is some difference in palate between ominvores and vegans, especially on the dairy vs. non-dairy front. One example might be creamy desserts. Omnis may criticise soy or nut-based ice creams or puddings because they don’t taste or feel like dairy, but actually, if they did, that would be fairly disgusting to me, and I would actually count that as a negative. In addition, it means that you’re working on the assumption that dairy is the ‘right’ taste and soy or nuts are the ‘wrong’ taste, which means that you can’t comment on the food for what it is. In short, I think anyone can review vegan or vegetarian food, so long as they don’t treat the whole experience as a test of how well animal products can be simulated, or how well a vegetarian restaurant was able to meet their craving for a steak. I don’t walk into bbq joints and act all surprised when they fail to have gourmet vegan food. Likewise, an ominvore shouldn’t walk into a vegan restaurant and be all put out that they don’t have cheese.

That being said, one of my peeves with foodies and resto reviews in general is that vegetarian/vegan food is often seen as somehow lacking something, or that it can’t be decadent and satisfying (and damn yummy). Vegan food can be badly prepared, just like any other food. It can also be incredibly well prepared, just like any other food.

anon. | 2 July, 2007 - 15:21

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