Are British restaurant critics better than their American counterparts? Or just noisier and more cantankerous? That’s the question posed this week by the New York Sunday Times. To start, American restaurant reviewers in the main seek anonymity. They don’t usually give their real names when they make restaurant bookings. Unlike many British reviewers they don’t use their pictures on their columns. And they certainly don’t – as some British critics have been known to do – pose for pictures with a restaurant owner or chef they may even be criticising.
That according to the author of the NY Times critique, Sarah Lyall, is one of the major difference in restaurant reviewing in Britain and the US. It’s true that most restaurant owners, or chefs, know when there is critic in the restaurant – but the critics usually don’t go out of the way to make their presence known. . And they don’t, its claimed, ask for special attention. In New York, Chicago and San Francisco, the author claims, restaurant reviewing is a decorous and serious business
She cites some extreme examples of what can happen in Britain. Such as the time when Michael Winner of the Sunday Times, upset by the Yorkshire pudding that was served to him in Claridges, (“so dried up it needed a hammer” , he claimed) that he demanded the maitre d’ wrap it up and threatened to send it to the chairman of The Savoy Group
One of the problems in Britain it is suggested is that many restaurant critics see themselves not as consumer advocates but as entertainers who have to keep their readers amused – or at least stand out from their rivals.
The title of most notorious British critic is awarded to A.A.Gill of the Sunday Times.
Most chefs know what he looks like, if only because of his monocle and fearsome appearance, So they know when he is in their restaurant, says the NY Sunday Times, His reviews however .tend to be discursive essays – with just a few paragraphs about the restaurant itself. Tiffanie Dark, editor of the Sunday Times Style section in which Gill’s reviews are published, by way of explanation, said that he had been writing the reviews for more than a decade and if he only wrote about food every week, he would bore his readers rigid.
The question posed in the NY Times nevertheless is whether critics with such outsize public images can really claim to be impartial judges? One British public relations expert in the restaurant field, Maureen Mills, who represents several leading British restaurants, suggested that even off-the-topic reviewers can be important to a restaurant. In other words just make sure you spell the name (and the address) right. Even a bad review by Michael Winner, whom she described, boldly for someone in public relations, as an “opinionated old man”, is she claimed welcomed by many restaurants. Winner himself, the NY Times Magazine reported, had no comment!