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Frank Bruni, Failed Food Blogger

Frank Bruni’s New York Times blog, Diner’s Journal, has been with us a bit less than three years. It is a failure.

In February 2006, his inaugural post promised:

I spend an insane, glorious amount of time in restaurants. And of course I see and taste more than I get to recount within the confines of weekly Dining section reviews, each based on multiple visits to a given restaurant, each boiled down to about 1,000 words from hours and hours of observation and tens of thousands of calories.

This new blog is an attempt to capture and share more of my notes from the field. To provide, in something closer to real time, a sense of what’s being served in the city’s newest, oldest, most delightful and most frustrating restaurants and of how those restaurants are serving it. To flag trends and, less often and more selectively, flog underachievers. To report moments of real significance and incidents that just happened to be interesting. To keep a journal, and to keep the tone of that journal light, casual, accessible.

Just as the “Diner’s Journal” in the Friday newspaper did, this “Diner’s Journal” on the web will offer quick, early peeks at restaurants that have just opened but aren’t yet ready to be reviewed. In the spirit of that weekly feature, it will also present critical perspectives on restaurants that probably won’t be reviewed, given the limitations of space in the newspaper and the limits of those restaurants’ charms.

But it will be more frequent and more flexible. I’ll post new entries several times a week.

What is the reality? Bruni seldom uses the blog to write about food. In the last six months, there have been just nine posts about food. I’m being generous by including his Nov. 24 post about Waterfront Ale House, which is mainly about his craving for chicken wings. If Frank was auditioning for the “$25 & Under” job, let me be the first to congratulate him: he passed.

The promises to “share more notes from the field” in “something close to real time,” to “flag trends,” “report moments of real significance,” “flog underachievers,” and offer “early peeks,” have largely not been kept.

Bruni does post a couple of times a week, on average, but usually not about food. He writes about Top Chef, getting reservations at inaccessible spots, allegations of poor service, Chef Q&A’s, industry news, and so forth. But he seldom writes about the thing he presumably spends most of his time on: restaurant meals.

Bruni has vitiated the whole point of having a blog—the ability to report in real time, rather than saving up his thoughts for one big weekly review. What’s more, the restaurants he reviews are just a small fraction of his meals out. The typical review requires three visits to the restaurant, but he probably dines out 10 times a week. That means about 70% of his meals aren’t explicitly reported on.

Now, if the Times is willing to pay Bruni to report on just 30% of his meals, that’s their business, not mine. But if the reason for starting the blog was to provide “more frequent and more flexible” coverage of restaurants, then he ought to do it.

More importantly, isn’t the Times overdue for a re-think of the long-form review? With only one review per week, many very good restaurants go years without any comment from the Paper of Record. Bruni’s crazily premature re-review of Momofuku Ssäm Bar last week—even though the restaurant’s many charms are basically the same as they were two years ago—deprived plenty of more worthy places that haven’t been reviewed in years, or perhaps not at all, a chance at exposure. Yet, in the review, Bruni said:

In the last year and a half, I’ve found myself returning to Ssam again and again…because eating at Ssam feels so unencumbered, honest and joyful, and because I can’t stop reflecting on the daring and importance of Mr. Chang’s work there.

If Bruni had used his blog to report on even a fraction of those visits—and as far as I can recall, he never did—then perhaps the newspaper review last week could have been used to direct attention to someone other than the ridiculously over-exposed Mr. Chang.

The Times should overhaul its reviewing system, so that ratings and recommendations can evolve gradually as the critic makes his rounds over the course of his tenure. There are plenty of restaurants that Bruni has visited but never reviewed, because he hasn’t paid the minimum of three visits that the paper requires. But a running journal of those visits could, over time, provide valuable perspective—perhaps even more so than the Wednesday reviews, which offer, at best, point-in-time snapshots.

As print reviews continue their slide into irrelevance, Bruni or his successor ought to consider how his online journal could become the primary medium for reporting on restaurants, instead of the very distant afterthought it is today.

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