The Incredible Lightness of Being a Restaurant Critic

What is a restaurant critic but someone who a) can get a table in a restaurant when no one else can; and b) has someone else pay the bill? It’s a mystery why restaurant critics strut like peacocks and peahens through the food firmament. Cookery writers, food profile writers, folk who write about the ethics and politics of food, all of whom do more worthwhile work, simply do not have the glamour of the Restaurant Critic. It’s the job that everyone else would like to have.

Small wonder, then, that the turnover of restaurant critics in the national dailies is low. Once someone has got their knees under the table and their noses in the trough, they’re extremely loathe to give it up. Not only are they paid to eat, but they can hold forth on the subject at tendentious length afterwards. They become someone of note among their friends and family, a source of patronage. I never knew how many friends I had until the magic words ‘Expense Account’ became associated with my name. Above all, best of all, being a restaurant critic panders to a sense of self-importance, of being someone of consequence, the delusion of being loved and appreciated, and, oh, headiest of all, of being recognized.

Of course critics are recognised. How could it be otherwise? Restaurateurs aren’t fools. Well, not all of them, anyway. The photos, phone numbers, habitual booking names, companions, likes and dislikes of Restaurant Critics are catalogued and distributed among the trade. Would it be possible to disguise the features of Giles Coren, AA Gill or Jay Rayner? Not even the most artful makeup artist or plastic surgeon could do so. Anyway, most critics adore being spotted. The is nothing quite like being fawned over in front of other people to warm the inner ego.

And then there’s the illusion of power, of holding the fate of this eatery or that the palms of their word processors. Do they? Do they, buggery. It may be true in London that the word of a critic can put a few thousand customers through the door of a restaurant when it first opens, but that’s about it. In the final analysis, restaurants stand or fall on their own merits. I’ve lost count of the restaurants that I and other critics have praised to the skies, only for them to go onto receivership shortly afterwards. In one memorable case the restaurant went into receivership before my review appeared. Equally numerous are the places given a right drubbing by the arbiters of restaurant taste, which are still doing a roaring trade years later. In the end, people decide for themselves whether or not they will go to eat in a particular place.

That is even more true now that we’ve entered the age of the blogger and social media frenzy. The conventional restaurant critic, that figure of higher authority settled comfortably into the pages of the national newspapers, is being outflanked and displaced by their nimbler, frequently better informed, on-line rivals. Like the terrestrial newspapers for which they write, these gastro-grandees are a threatened species. Reading their encyclicals from their weekly pulpits is like witnessing hairy mammoths thrashing around in a tar pit shortly before their extinction.

One day we will wax nostalgic at their passing.

NB. This rumination, along with those of proper restaurant critics, appears in the spring issue of that admirable publication, XCITY for journalism alumni of City University London

10 thoughts on “The Incredible Lightness of Being a Restaurant Critic

  1. Far beyond the critic and the blogger would you not say that it’s actually the ratings sites that hold most sway? That the misinformed, angry and out and out trolls of the likes of tripadvisor, yelp and urbanspoon can skew(er) the view of a business. These reviews stick around long after a business has changed its act or indeed ownership; and with SEO budgets are at the top of the search results.

  2. “Not only are they paid to eat,…”
    Jay Rayner has always said that he’s paid only to write. He doesn’t charge for the eating…

  3. Up to a point with the recognition factor, doctor. No-one in the entire world knows what Marina O’Loughlin of the Guardian looks like.

  4. I do like the idea of the critic having bugger all influence and how true it is. But sometimes the presence of the critic can also be a sign of recognition maybe? Otherwise I tend to go along with Max.

  5. I think the problem I have with this blog is the word ‘critic’. I see these people as writers, resturant writers. The key being the writing. The opinion is, more or less, irrelevant. Jay Rayner has pointed out that the job of the resturant ‘critic’ is as much about being a resturant ‘reporter’.

    For myself, having taken weeks, maybe months of careful, thoughtful crafting when I finally get to post my blog I generally feel pretty good about it. Move over JR your days are over etc. But then I read proper writing and get, frankly, a bit depressed. I love reading food bloggers. The ideas, the inspiration and experiences are often facinating. Best of all they are from ‘real people’, as it were. But the good blogs tend to be rare jewels from those who only produce occaisionally. It seems to me the days of the resturant/food writer/critic are far from over. However, if I were in that difficult trade, I might be thinking about how best to link my work into a world where media communcation becomes ever more intertwined with itself.

  6. It’s a shame you don’t have a donate button! I’d definitely donate to this outstanding blog! I suppose for now i’ll settle
    for bookmarking and adding your RSS feed to my Google
    account. I look forward to brand new updates and will talk about this blog with my Facebook group.
    Chat soon!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s