People have been reviewing restaurants for as long as there have been restaurants. But what is the purpose - to inform or to entertain? Reviewing restaurants is not easy, but it is fun and important. At Gault&Millau, we support the restaurant industry by highlighting the good and the great. Good food brings people together and our role is to guide guests to the good food!
By Jeremy Ryland
“Why is there never a Palestinian suicide bomber when you need one?” This is the opening line of a review of Harry’s Social Club, London (now closed), by A.A. Gill in 2002.
People have been reviewing restaurants for as long as there have been restaurants. Alexandre Balthasar Laurent Grimod de la Reyniere (1758-1837) is credited with being the first professional critic. He was also known to be savage in his criticism. Today, particularly in Australia, our libel laws tend to tone down the negative reviews and we focus on the positive aspects of dining out.
Restaurants – like other arts such as cinema and theatre – get reviewed regularly. But is the purpose of a review to provide an independent critical analysis of what a diner might expect or is it simply entertainment?
Restaurant reviews and the critics who write them fall into several categories:
These are the reviews by people like the late AA Gill and other journalists in newspapers and magazines that are designed to entertain. Pieces of social satire that play on words and ideas, to provide an engaging story based around something we all like to do – eat out. They often describe the restaurant experience accurately but focus on the provocative. They are also sometimes "sponsored" by the venue, with free meals, etc., so can be a piece of promotional content and perhaps a little less impartial than other reviews. And most of the journalists are untrained in the culinary arts so cannot distinguish between a bad meal and a bad mistake.
These are the reviews by more serious groups like Michelin and Gault&Millau. The reviewers are food professionals who are trained, dine anonymously and pay for the meals in full. The restaurant should not know that the reviewer has visited so that the experience is the same as any diner. The reviews are short and factual and use the same strict standards to ensure continuity and true comparisons between venues. The reviewers are trained to detect poor technique and identify kitchen talent. To understand how well a dish is made one must know how to make it, just as a music critic knows how to sing or play an instrument. It is necessary to understand the culinary arts and be able to distinguish an error from lack of skill or carelessness. The professionals focus in on a simple unbiased, objective analysis of what to expect.
These are reviews provided by guests on online sites such as TripAdvisor, Quandoo, Zomato and The Fork. The reviews on these sites are true guest experience; however, are subjective and can be biased by the writer’s mood, preferences and dislikes. The guests may have no culinary skills whatsoever and be naïve to some ingredients. Moreover, restaurants have been known to pay people to write good reviews and there is at least one famous case of non-existent venues being reviewed: The Shed at Dulwich Hill, UK.
It is a fact that the best form of marketing for a restaurant is “word-of-mouth” – that is, people telling other people about good experiences, or otherwise, that they have had. The experience is the connection. So in theory, user-generated reviews should be the most effective. But in practice, we all have different perceptions, likes and dislikes, so unless you know the person giving you the advice, user-generated reviews may not align with your own views and tastes, and can be inaccurate.
Similarly, if you know and trust the journalist’s views in a newspaper, the reviews can be reliable. But sometimes the personal preferences, prose and entertainment take over.
Professional reviews are reliable as they are consistent. If you have been to restaurants with a score of three hats before, then you can rely on a similar score for a new untested place.
A restaurant is a complex operation with a mix of product, entertainment, emotion, manners and self-esteem. Every meal is a live performance. The staff are the actors. Every table is a separate audience. And everyone is an expert – we’ve all eaten before and many of us can cook. So we all have our own views.
A restaurant critic must be impartial, attempting to review the food and the experience without bias or favour. Everyone is different – some people cannot taste bitter, others do not like sweet and some hate salt. Some people will not eat offal or spicy food. Some like milk and dairy whilst others find it rich and sickly. One man’s meat is another’s poison. A professional reviewer most put aside his or her prejudices and his or her mood swings. Food tastes different if you’ve just spent 55 minutes looking for a parking spot or you are out to dinner with your boss rather than a lover.
And to be a true critic one must be anonymous. Many reviewers relish in their “importance” and make it know that they are there. Other guides publish the names of the contributors in the back pages – which restaurants can then enter their databases. Like a chameleon, the true critic blends into the environment to simply observe and report.
I love being a restaurant reviewer. I have worked in hospitality all my life. I love the energy. I love the people. I love good food and good restaurants. And I want to share my experiences and help build a strong dining culture. Many times I have highlighted that eating is a social experience, and humans are social animals. Good food brings people together.
Partly because of Australian libel laws and partly because of “if you can’t say something nice…”, I don’t write bad reviews. I simply don’t review bad restaurants. I want to tell you all about the good ones. The ones that try their best and excel. They may not all be cutting edge and inventive, but they have to serve good, well crafted, honest and good value food – and with good humour. It might simply be a great sandwich or a perfectly cooked steak. Some dishes might be imaginative, creative and spectacularly presented, but I also don’t like fussy, flavour-less dishes that are all show and no substance. Don’t forget that we go out to eat a meal and want to leave sated. There is little point in having to get takeaway or a sandwich at home afterwards!
Most people don’t know what I look like and I always book under a different name. I always pay in full and don’t draw attention to myself. I’ve been in restaurants were other “higher profile” diners beside me have had special treatment whilst I got ignored. I’ve been sat in corners behind pillars. I’ve had overcooked and undercooked meals. I’ve waited and waited… and waited… to be served. I’ve been served my main before the entrée. And I’ve been presented with bills that don’t resemble what I ate. But if that’s what happens to other normal diners then that’s what I’ll report on. And of course, I’ve been in restaurants were everyone gets special treatment, where the food is excellent, and where the staff are happy to see you – and that’s what we all like.
Eating out is about self-esteem. We like to feel good, for ourselves, and especially if we are taking others, to know that we have chosen well. We all want to have good food. We all want to be treated well. Poor food is a disappointment – not only a waste of a meal but a waste of time and money. But a good meal can be a delight. It can make us feel good and make us want to go again. And take or tell our friends. That’s what good hospitality is all about!