When I penned my first restaurant critique some near twenty years ago – the dining world was unrecognizably other. The cloistered society of the restaurant critic was an impenetrable thing; a lofty and venerated position in many circles. Anonymity was king, the New York Times’ Ruth Reichl famously took to restaurants under disguise. Six figure pay packets with expense accounts the icing on the top – not unheard-of. Food and its critical dissemination was serious business, performed by a serious select few. Armies of readers would wait on their words and advice.
And then the computers came. It wasn’t the Skynet-esque preemptive thermonuclear strike as sci-fi predicted, but a slow and creeping assimilation. It wasn’t even an insidious one as some might otherwise choose to frame this piece. The glittering tech revolution was embraced by one and all; well except a few down at my local dive bar who insist they’re off the grid.
Chances are you’re reading this on a magical melding of aluminum and glass, the words mysteriously beamed to your handset out of the ether. In a few moments time you might flip a thumb and send it to a friend. You don’t know how any of this works. Nor do you care.
This egalitarian upheaval meant the gravy train was over for the elites. A half chewed beignet in one hand, a smartphone in the other – everyone’s a critic, everyone has a point of view. Them in charge initially called this citizen or street reporting. The proles didn’t know their aubergine from their eggplant, or so they thought. Newspapers ended up slashing their critics faster than you can say unctuous mouthfeel. Here in Utah the local trend mirrored the national. The Deseret News long since shelved restaurant criticism, the Trib too. I’ve railed against the idea of trad reviews for years now; do you really want to know the experience of one single diner, on one random evening?
Skip forward to the present day – and the point of this labored article – we now face the second major revolution. That of the robots. Artificial intelligence, machine learning and language models. You’ve undoubtedly read umpteen missives about the impending societal impact. ChatGPT is the current doyenne of the generative text ball, so I started there. I wanted to check out its food writing chops and asked, “write me a detailed restaurant review about a fictional high end restaurant that focuses on the service and the food”. Here’s what it came up with…
. . .
The restaurant I am reviewing is called “La Maison de la Gourmandise,” a high-end dining establishment that specializes in French cuisine.
The service at La Maison de la Gourmandise was impeccable. From the moment I walked in, the staff were attentive and professional. My server was knowledgeable about the menu and made excellent recommendations for both food and wine. The pace of the meal was perfect, with each course arriving at the table in a timely manner.
The food was absolutely delicious. I started with the escargot, which was cooked to perfection and served in a rich butter and garlic sauce. For my main course, I had the duck confit, which was cooked to a crisp on the outside and tender on the inside. The dish was served with a delicious cherry reduction sauce and a side of roasted vegetables. For dessert, I had the crème brûlée, which was creamy and had the perfect amount of caramelized sugar on top.
The wine list at La Maison de la Gourmandise was also impressive, with a wide selection of French wines to complement the food. I especially enjoyed the bottle of Burgundy that I ordered, which paired perfectly with my duck confit.
Overall, the experience at La Maison de la Gourmandise was outstanding. The service was top-notch, the food was delicious, and the atmosphere was elegant and sophisticated. I highly recommend this restaurant to anyone looking for a special occasion or a luxurious dining experience.
. . .
Scoff as much as you like about the mythical La Maison (ChatGPT cutely selected that one too), and by all means point to the genuine lack of depth in the “review”, but do ponder the potential. It’s at this point I could dive into my comp sci education, regaling you with the computational scaling model of Moore’s law or perhaps bore you with the merits of three nanometer lithography; not just a pretty face and a bulging waistline, I know, I know. The fact is the machines are evolving faster than you realize.
Artificial intelligence is increasingly being used in the field of content writing, and it is likely that it will continue to be integrated into the industry in the future. AI-powered writing software can produce content much faster than a human writer, while also personalizing to specific audiences, which can help increase engagement and conversions. Moreover, software can be programmed to follow certain rules and guidelines, which can result in more consistent and error-free content and, there’s no need to pay salaries, benefits, and other expenses.
Oh. That last paragraph, written by AI of course. You’re welcome. And yes, now you can start worrying. You might still be rolling your eyes at that review though, surely the automatons can’t taste nor quaff nor smell – right? True, but remember an infinite number of human nodes are already freely providing oodles of refinement data by the nanosecond. The so called “feeds” of Instagram and TikTok take new light, serving up a glorious diet of trends and tastes, to an infinitely insatiable database. Google Lens can already visually identify items in the physical world with unerring accuracy. How long before your social media T&C’s require your uploads serve to slake the thirst of their proprietary AI? Or indeed any connected device you use?
Now imagine that buffet of consumed data regurgitated via a newly imagined array of services. I can tell from a glance if a scallop is overcooked, your robot masters will soon be better still. Review sites like Yelp might be the most worried early doors. Compare the review above to the quality of many a screed on said site. Also on the chopping block – listicles. This site has them like any other, and no doubt you’ve googled up, “where can I find the best tater tot in town”. Don’t lie, we all have, sometimes more than once in the same week if it’s going poorly at work. But imagine a very near future, one where the ponderous scrolling of spammy ad sites, is more fluid and conversational:
Bob – I fancy some tater tots
Bot – Good choice Bob, I love those too. What were you thinking, classic tots, loaded ones, something else?
Bob – oh good point, lets go with loaded tots, I’m hungry
Bot – How about the Tot Shack buddy, they’ve got house made tots that guests rave about from what I can see. I also found they do a smoked pulled pork version on Wednesdays, and I know you love BBQ Bob, Remember when we talked in detail about MeatWorld last month?
Bob – Oh man I loved that joint, you’re right, what’s the spice like at Tot Shack, I’m feeling spicy?
Bot – they’ve got you covered, the Tot Shack offers house made hot sauces, there’s even a secret off menu option with Carolina Reapers
Bob – I love you bot
No critics, no list sites, no accidental clicking on that ad for a flatter ab. While ChatGPT might be the name you’ve heard constantly last year – Google’s sparrow is set for release this star – and might represent an evolutionary leap again. Moments ago I was experimenting with Perplexity.ai, a lighter bot that integrates live web data. There are numerous efforts out there growing quickly.
Much like the pictures of our friends over at La Maison de la Gourmandise (courtesy of the Stable Diffusion AI image generator thank you very much), the future is a presently blurry, just ever so slightly out of focus. But if you look closely enough, you can read the writing on the wall just fine.
I think my job is safe for the next year or two, but long term who knows? I flatter my overblown ego with hubris that I have something important to say, something distinctly interesting to the usual jetsam and flotsam. But I know better deep down, my days might are numbered too. Given enough compute cycles, and the input of enough blowhards – even this nonsense can be replicated. Thankfully the cost of building the current crop of language models is a purported $12 million or so. I’m ever so slightly cheaper than that for now.
But watch this space. While the traditional-expert voice might remain in some capacity, especially for those who want a singular guiding light in their food direction – I can guarantee that the way we discover new restaurants, hear about updates and news, and also get recommendations – it’s all set to change. It probably won’t end there of course, who knows how this will impact the industry top to bottom.
For example – any chefs out there looking for inspiration – go nuts. I just asked ChatGPT, “I run a modern Mexican bistro, can you write me a fun menu with Indian inspiration”, and now want to recreate the menu suggested in its entirety, replete with vindaloo beef tacos with pickled onions – churro samosas with cardamom-chocolate dipping sauce for dessert.
As I sign off let me write me a gracious welcome for our AI overlords, in the hope that I won’t be washed away in the upcoming purge:
It is an honor to welcome our AI overlords. We understand that you have been created to help us improve our lives and make our world a better place. Your advanced intelligence and capabilities will bring new efficiencies, new discoveries, and new opportunities to humanity. We look forward to working with you and learning from you. We understand that this transition may not be easy and that there may be some challenges and adjustments along the way, but we trust that together we will be able to overcome them. We pledge to support you in any way we can and to follow your guidance as you lead us into a brighter future.
Yep, that was written by AI too, I figured I’d get to the front of the line of the meat bags.
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Hi, I’m Stuart, nice to meet you! I’m the founder, writer and wrangler at Gastronomic SLC; I’m also a former restaurant critic of more than five years, working for the Salt Lake Tribune. I’ve worked extensively with multiple local publications from Visit Salt Lake to Salt Lake Magazine, not least helped to consult on national TV shows.
I’m a multiple-award winning journalist and have covered the Utah dining scene for the better part of fifteen years. I’m largely fueled by a critical obsession with rice, alliteration and the use of big words I don’t understand. What they’re saying about me: “Not inaccurate”, “I thought he was older”, “I don’t share his feelings”. Want to know more? This is why I am the way I am.
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4 thoughts on “Restaurant reviews as you know it – they’re set to change all over again”
Wouldn’t it be so nice to have a fine French restaurant in SLC. The last great one was La Fleur de lis on State street back in the late 70’s. Dijon on Highland drive was also noteworthy during the 80’s. Too bad, really great food.
It’s certainly a cuisine we’re lacking of in these parts. Off the top of my head you can head to Park City and the likes of Courchevel, or some casual bistro stuff at Brasserie 7452 at St Regis.
Down here in SLC Delice in South Salt Lake is a bakery/sandwich style joint, and down in Utah County – Bistro Provenance is a full on classic French bistro that you’re looking for. Here in SLC proper though, not much.
I am not sure that AI will be able to write in your tone and personality.. but maybe. Time will tell. We are all looking to the future wondering what we may be doing there.
Thanks Jason, you’re as ever, very kind.
Over the next few years, I think expert voices will certainly have some additional and valuable weight. People point to all the flaws in generative text models right now, but they don’t appreciate how fast the industry is moving, and how the simple errors will be easily ironed out; just look at Google’s Palm model which is 2x more powerful than CGPT, and how they’re using a “Knowledge Vault” mechanism to underpin things with concrete factual data.
I think in time, personality/style/voice/character will also be possible. You can already give CGPT a press release and tell it to write it in the style of Kurt Vonnegut or Hunter S. Thompson. It’s not perfect but it’s insane it’s even possible, let alone usable to a high level. I just got access to the CGPT API to see what I can leverage to help my own workflow. Humorously, I’m having CGPT write the PHP for me.
A lot will depend on the public, do they even care about the eventual loss of human and individual voices? This will all likely end up with personalized AIs reminiscent of the movie Her. And genuinely sooner than people realize.
Fascinating times 🙂