Philadelphia Inquirer counts cost of restaurant review

As restaurant reviews go, it was very short. Just three sentences long. But it labelled the food served at a Pennsylvania restaurant as " expensive and disappointing".

Now the restaurant has filed a libel suit — 16 pages long – against The Philadelphia Inquirer and its restaurant critic, Craig Latham. It claims the review not only libelled the restaurant but also hurt its reputation and business.

It's a new trend — restaurants hitting back at critics. A few weeks ago, the owner of a restaurant in New York called The Kobe Club, which specialised in Japanese-style steak, was so incensed by a review in the New York Times that he took a whole page ad in the paper — at a cost of $40,000 — to accuse the Times's critic of "nit-picking".

"He picked on the smallest things" claimed the restaurant owner Jeffrey Chodorow, for example describing the potatoes that came with his steak as "gluey". He insisted the Times run his ad on a page opposite the critic's usual space.

Libel suits by restaurants against newspapers are increasing. A suit is pending in New Jersey against a critic who described the wine he was served in a local restaurant as "dreadful plonk".

But suits like this rarely succeed, no matter how unkind. At least in the US.

True, in Belfast last month, a jury awarded damages of £25,000 to an Irish restaurant whose chicken masala was described in The Irish News as "so sweet as to be inedible".

Most juries in America believe that restaurant reviews — even the most unkind — are nothing more than "opinion pieces" and are reluctant to exact damages. What would happen, some lawyers ask, if publishers started suing book reviewers, or if film-makers took legal action against movie critics?

Although the critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer won't comment on the case against him because it is still in litigation, his paper has said it will defend the case "vigorously".

A look at some of the cases that have been dismissed is enlightening. For example, a critic in Florida was once threatened with a lawsuit because he said a fish dish he ordered tasted like old boots, and another was also taken to court for describing the Peking duck pancakes he was served were the size of saucers and as thick as a finger.

Elsewhere, except perhaps in Belfast, restaurant critics can get away with almost anything they say.

Lawyers here still quote the Sunday Telegraph Magazine's review a couple of years ago of the noted London restaurant Shepherds in which the reviewer, Matthew Norman, described it as "among the very worst restaurants in Christendom". Norman added that if the crab and brandy soup served at Shepherds was found in a canister buried in the Iraqi desert it would, in his words, "save Tony Blair's skin."

But critics had better watch out. One New York chef David Chang warned that if his food or one of his several restaurants ever got a bad review he might be tempted to do a "Tonya Harding" and break the offending critic's kneecaps

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