The dark arts of the restaurant critic

We are all critics now. Thanks to the smartphones we carry around in our pockets and websites such as Yelp, Instagram and food blogs, restaurant reviews have become crowd-sourced. For example, statistics show 2015 Bottega Louie had 10,398 reviews and over 13,000 photos on Yelp. This popular involvement may be considered more democratic. Now we the citizens can decide whether a restaurant is good or not. It is not enough to satisfy the sophisticated palate of the professional food critic, who they may well recognise and who will only visit once. But with the citizen reviewers they will have to be consistently on their toes.

What does this mean for the professional critic? One I heard complaining that they enjoyed influence, but not power. Restaurant critics have been around longer than you may think. In a previous post I looked at the rise of the Michelin Guide, which was first produced in 1900. Food guides go back even further, to the beginning of the 19th century. Then we have newspapers. The second half of that century was a golden age for them. Anjd they started to write about restaurants. It is difficult to know when the first ever restaurant review was. One early example appears to be the anonymous How We Dine column that ran for the first time in The New York Times on 1 January 1859. The critics remit was to “Dine somewhere else today and somewhere else tomorrow. I wish you to dine everywhere. From the Astor House Restaurant to the smallest description of dining salon in the city, in order that you may furnish an account of all these places. The cashier will pay your expenses

One of the places they would visit was the prestigious Delmonico’s, which I first heard about in Caleb Carr’s The Alienist. The critic provides a glowing review of the establishment:

No nobleman of England — no Marquis of the ancienne nobless — was ever better served or waited on in greater style that you will be in a private room at Delmonico’s. The lights will be brilliant, the waiters will be curled and perfumed and gloved, the dishes will be strictly en règle and the wines will come with precision of clock-work that has been duly wound up. If you “pay your money like a gentleman,” you will be fed like a gentleman, and no mistake… The cookery, however, will be superb, and the attendance will be good. If you make the ordinary mistakes of a untraveled man, and call for dishes in unusual progression, the waiter will perhaps sneer almost imperceptibly, but he will go no further, if you don’t try his feelings too harshly, or put your knife into your mouth.”

However, what we all really enjoy is the schadenfreude of a scathing review. A master of this was the late AA Gill. He once described pre-Kitchen Nightmares Gordon Ramsay as “a failed sportsman who acts like an 11-year-old”, which led to his being kicked out of Ramsay’s Aubergine restaurant. Another recipient of his barbs said that the critic owed him £500,000 for closing down his restaurant:

You closed down my restaurant. Your review was malicious, you did it through spite, for the sake of a funny line and because it’s easier to write horrid things.” Gill didn’t hold back in his reply:

“Do you know the reason your restaurant failed is that it was an unbelievably shitty restaurant, the food was disgusting!’

In Tour De Gall his takedown of L’Ami Louis in Paris is work of art itself:

Twenty minutes later, possibly under their own steam, the snails arrive. Vesuvian, they bubble and smoke in a magma of astringent garlic butter and parsley. We grasp them with the spring-loaded specula and gingerly unwind the dark gastropods, curling like dinosaur boogers. They go on and on, expanding onto the plate as if they were alien. We have to cut them in half, which is just wrong. The rule with snails is: Don’t eat one you couldn’t get up your nose.”

He continues:

“What you actually find when you arrive at L’Ami Louis is singularly unprepossessing. It’s a long, dark corridor with luggage racks stretching the length of the room. It gives you the feeling of being in a second-class railway carriage in the Balkans. It’s painted a shiny, distressed dung brown. The cramped tables are set with labially pink cloths, which give it a colonic appeal and the awkward sense that you might be a suppository. In the middle of the room is a stubby stove that also looks vaguely proctological..”   

Here are a few more of my favourite negative reviews:

Gino D’Acampo: My Restaurant at London’s Euston station

The risotto with scallops is where hope goes to die. Jay Rayner

Le Cinq, Paris

If I work hard, with luck, one day I may be able to forget. Jay Rayner

Leon De Bruxelles, London

The meat inside the shells is small and shrivelled and dry; each shell contains what looks like the retracted scrotum of a hairless cat. Jay Rayner

Razes Le Relais, Paris

For the “secret sauce”, a mustard-based crime against humanity (of course they keep it secret—if they published the recipe, Hans Blix would be out of retirement in five minutes), …”  Matthew Norman

Roy‘s, New York

If clowns had a cuisine, this would be it. The food at Roy’s is foolish, a parade of exotic ingredients, confused and overpowering sauces, and ideas piled one on top of the other until the recipes simply collapse under their own weight. Almost every dish is sweet — so sweet that the desserts seem like palate cleansers. William Grimes

Kobe Club, New York

If Akira Kurosawa hired the Marquis de Sade as an interior decorator, he might end up with a gloomy rec room like this. Will the last samurai to leave please turn on the lights? Frank Bruni

Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar, New York

Hey, did you try that blue drink, the one that glows like nuclear waste? The watermelon margarita? Any idea why it tastes like some combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde? Pete Wells

 Why are such reviews so enjoyable? “The vocabulary of the bad is just that much more entertaining. When it comes to restaurant reviews, the saying – if you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all – doesn’t seem to apply to restaurant reviews.

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