Let’s see if you’re Saturday morning resembles this… You’re low on milk, so play thumb war to see who goes to the corner shop where the loser also gets the Guardian. Upon returning you play a sort of gin rummy with each of the sections, holding in your ‘hand’ the Travel, Guide and Magazine, and pretending to read all three. You’ve got to be quick with the later though as its in demand. You glance at Hugh’s recipes and skim read Norman’s restaurant review. You ignore the gardening section; see if you’ve actually been to the place in Let’s Move To… before casting the whole lot back onto the table and finishing your coffee. With newspapers and breakfast thus consumed, the day begins.
But let’s stop and look at one of those things for a minute – the restaurant review. In my recent visits to Belle House and Bell’s Diner, as well as Iberico world tapas last year, I got to see first hand the effect and aftermath one of Norman’s reviews can have and it started me thinking about the whole ‘critic review’ genre.
Let me make it clear I have not eaten a normal meal in any of those establishments, simply interviewed and filmed the chef or owners. But I want to look at the content of the restaurant review as well as its structure. Finally I’m not deliberately singling Norman out in this, I use him merely as an example of the genre with my thoughts applying to all, however I do believe there are some issues which are Guardian, rather than Norman specific.
1. One man’s meat… To begin then, what is the purpose of a restaurant critic? Jay Rayner gives a good account of the profession in this recent article “Our job is not to sell restaurants, it is to sell newspapers. By which I mean, we are not employed because, necessarily, we know the most about food or restaurants – though we do know a lot – but because we can write about it in an entertaining manner which will keep people reading.”
This post by Jeremy Iggers goes into some depth about why the profession might be on the skids. Of particular note is point two “nowadays the public is much more knowledgeable about food, and much more skeptical about what they read in newspapers.” How very true, and so if we’re all clued up on cuisine, at least those of us that care enough to read a review anyway, what else is left but the opportunity for the writer to wax lyrical on everything else but the food?
2. One of everything please. Can any review ever claim to be extensive? Menus change, ingredients change, and unless the critic goes in with a large group of friends it’s not possible to cover every dish on the menu surely. What if the one they didn’t order was totally brilliant? The critic’s answer to this is ‘well I’m just an ordinary person and this is the experience that they would have’ only I don’t think that holds water. A critic is going in heavily tooled up with knowledge and comparisons. A punter is going in for an entirely other reason, be that a date, anniversary or meeting.
3. A picture paints a thousand words… unless it’s a restaurant review. The accompanying image is always, always, a deserted shot of the establishment, with maybe a blurry waiter crossing the floor. It’s tell you bugger all about the food, and not much more about the venue. As some one who knows a thing or two about photography I can tell you this style of image is a bland unstimulating space filler, it is pictorial polenta without even the butter or parmesan cheese. Often the lens isn’t wide enough to get more than a table in, and let’s face it, most tables are the same; flat, wooden, with cutlery and empty wine glasses on top. Yawn. Here’s some lovely examples of what I mean from a selection of papers.
Very occasionally there’s a shot of the chef, or the kitchen, or the exterior, but that’s only if the review has been kind (as in this round up). Compare this to someone like Chris from Cheese and biscuits who photographs what’s put in front of him. Sure they’re dark and a bit blurry because, mindful of his dining companions he probably doesn’t want the flash going off – very considerate. Even a dark poorly lit image like this communicates so much more than the burred waiter generic.
4. The prose. Restaurant magazine used to have a wonderful statto analysis of each of the big reviewers broken down into the following sections. ‘themselves’, ‘the food’ and ‘random waffle’. I think AA Gill always carried the least about the food and the most waffle. Then there’s the tone, the tenuous analogies, the bad jokes, the Ronnie Corbett-in-that-chair-style waffle that takes up three paragraphs. And when it’s not that it’s gushing praise, after all just how long can you keep saying nice things without it becoming dull, when it’s far easier to vent spleen.
5. The right of reply. The Guardian, unlike the Times and the Standard doesn’t enabled comments on the online versions of Norman’s reviews, this is utter madness, especially when nearly every post on Word of Mouth ends on a question practically begging readers to add a comment. What’s more the restaurant owners have little in the way of comeback publically, they are unable to take up specific points address in the piece by Norman. Often the local papers pick up on it and spin it as and ‘anti fancy London opinions’ piece. In the case of Belle House they received calls of support from the local community.
6. Here comes the technology! I’ve already mentioned Chris, but there’s many other food bloggers like him (including me). When I spoke to David Waddington, one half of the partnership behind Flash at the Royal Academy. I came away with a sense that restaurant owners feel that bloggers are like foodie insurgents – they’re dangourous and they blend in with the civilians. In times past there were the ‘rules of engagement’. Front of house staff knew who to look out for, their names, photos and even mobile numbers were kept to hand and woe betide a waiter who didn’t clock them and tip off the kitchen sharpish.
Now we’re all at it there’s no fawning over critics, a situation Marina O’Loughlin witnessed when behind her cloak of secrecy. So does that then, make for a better review? Add to this the aggregator services like Top Table and London Eating and it seems there’s plenty of other opinions and voices out there to listen to. What’s more although food blogger talk about restaurants, they also cover other subjects, painting a much richer picture.
7. It’s all about Location, location, location… as long as it’s in London. I’ve done some tabulating of my own and mapped all Mathew Norman’s reviews onto a Google map along with the score. As you can see out of 46 reviews from February 08 to February 09 he went outside the North/South circular a mere 14 times with the lion’s share of those in the Home Counties. This will come as no surprise to most regional chefs.
Those 14 reviews had an average score of 5.58. The 32 London places scored an average of 7.39. All the critics in the Caterer article site Travel costs as a reason for staying in the home counties. Come on chaps, Virgin do London to Manchester for £9. National Express do London to York or Leeds for £12.50, all you have to do is book a few days in advance. I know per head/square mile most eateries are in London, but come on, not all your readers live in Highbury (like me!)
I say all of the above as someone who produces words, images and video about food for a living, and my gripe is not with that. It’s just that I’m a bit bored with the traditional restaurant review, unlike the food scene it reports on it’s barely changed since Maschler first took up her pen over 30 odd years ago. The images are dull, the text riddled with waffle, invectives or gushing praise and the descriptions of the food don’t really entice me. I’m jaded with reading about what one person and their date ate for dinner and the bi-polar obsession with everything being either good or bad.
What about reviews of chip shops, tea shops, road side cafes, the cafes in our cultural institutions, football stadium food, what about exploring a different cuisine and culture each week, or eating only from the special’s board? I think there’s so much more to food discourse in the UK than the central London dining experience, this subject is narrow minded, elitist and heavily London centric and above I don’t think I’ve ever read a review that’s made me go ‘wow, I must go there’ (having thought on that some more I think Matthew Fort’s description of the Anchor and Hope came close). Restaurant provide a service, and it’s right and proper that people comment on the quality of that service, I just want it in a more interesting involving and less ego and bilious format, but then, that’s just me.
But for now I’ll end this post in a Guardian WoM stylee and ask you your thoughts on the role of the critic and can you/we/the media come up with something better?