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