By Sir Clement Freud
About 15 years ago I was asked by an American publisher to be the
author of The Best 30 Restaurants in Britain. Similar volumes for
France and Italy had done well, both in bookshops and by way of sales
in the selected restaurants, usually with their chefs’ signature on the
We agreed a fee, they appointed an editor and a photographer,
undertook to pay my expenses and I made a list of the 30 most nominated
establishments in the land.
Thornbury Castle was the first I
reviewed: service was slow, soup luke-warm, food uninspired and the
first two wines I ordered were off – waiting for delivery next
week. They didn’t “do” mint tea.
editor said my piece was unpublishable – there was criticism when she
sought praise. “Either make it sound brilliant or pay the bill
food writing. That is why you read restaurant reviews lambasting a
place, giving it one point out of 10 when the critic might have used
the column inches to commend somewhere we want to patronise.
with reviewers of art, music, theatre and film, you have to know
something about the writer: did he come into it as a provider (chef,
caterer) or a consumer (guest)? Is he paid to write or fed by the
restaurant in exchange for his review?
Here is some general advice which will be useful when interpreting reviews to come:
● It should be the ambition of every anonymous diner to be served a
better meal than the place intended. Americans announce: “I am a very
important guy” and scatter high denomination notes; that is not our way.
● You could tip in advance: “Thank you for allocating us this fine table, here is a token of my gratitude.”
Leaving messages for yourself prior to arrival is a bit old hat, but
sometimes works. “When Mr Smith who has booked a table for four at 8.30
arrives, please ask him to ring the Palace using the private line.”
Sitting down, pulling out a pad and a pen, then looking around and
making notes puts restaurants on their mettle – as do eccentric acts.
Deep-down, waiters are afraid that customers may be no better than they
are – may even be waiters on their day off; ostentatious wastefulness
impresses. Ordering a dry martini, eating the olive and pouring the
cocktail into the flower vase is a sure sign that you are a man of
● Don’t ask waiters what they recommend (ask them, if
you want to ingratiate yourself, what part of Poland they are from).
Remember that his 10 per cent on smoked salmon makes him a wealthier
man than 10 per cent on spinach soup. If he proposes you order the
turbot, it is likely to be that chef told him: “If it’s not sold you
get it for staff supper.”
● If they list more main dishes than they have tables, it points to a mammoth freezer.
● Oysters should only be ordered in restaurants specialising in seafood.
● Wearing a Michael Winner mask is as likely to get one evicted as cosseted.
Beware of prissy menus that provide cooking methodology of dishes
rather than descriptions; no serious caterer uses words like
“delicious” about his own fare. Spelling mistakes are alright, no
connection between orthography and high-quality food. On the Norfolk
coast I recently had some wonderful “skait beurnoir and caipers”.
● In a nutshell, the “best” restaurant is the one where they know you best.
do be aware of old quotes and restaurant books. The likelihood is that
even before publication date, the place was sold to a multiple and the
chef took his pastry-cook to open shop in Dubai.
But you can read me, on these pages, next week and thereafter.