Tips of the Trade: Restaurant criticism

Press Gazette asked the experts to explain what it takes to send dispatches from the dining room and to give their advice to those eager to taste life as a restaurant critic

Donald Reid, editor, List Eating & Drinking Guide

You need a talent for expressing yourself originally while retaining an ability to explain the obvious. So many restaurant reviews are trite, off-topic and smothered in clichés.

You need knowledge not just of food and cooking but also the restaurant trade itself – work in a kitchen for a spell to understand what’s going on in there.

It’s Eating & Drinking Guide policy that we only let the restaurant know we’re doing a review at the end of the meal. You can review by letting them know beforehand, but no matter how discerning you think you are being, your readers just won’t trust the review as much. I almost never take notes during a meal. After the meal (though still at the table) it’s OK.

Mike Chapple, co-author with Paddy Shennan of the Liverpool Echo Pub Guide

You need a sense of fair play, a keen eye for what’s going on elsewhere other than around your own table, and an entertaining style that doesn’t always have to relate to the product at hand. It is, after all, not a frontline dispatch from the Gaza Strip. It is a food and drink review, not a matter of life and death. Unless, that is, what was on offer happened to be especially potent and you’ve woken up in the Toxicology department of the local hospital. Notes are taken as discreetly as possible. Ultimately how intelligible they are depends on how good a night it was.

Guy Dimond, food and drink editor, Time Out Magazine

What I look for in critics are good, conscientious journalists who understand the importance of anonymity (to avoid preferential treatment); and writers who have deep knowledge of their subject, but wear that knowledge lightly. If you’re only doing it because you like eating out, then it makes more sense to find a better paid job and eat out for pleasure – not for work.

My advice to someone who wants to become a critic is: think again. There is a misguided assumption that being a critic means you swan about being pampered in the best restaurants; only a tiny minority of celebrity writers do this. In reality, it can be very badly paid, and can take many years to gain a foothold or earn a living wage. In recent years there has been a lamentable trend towards using picture bylined celebrit” critics ; the purpose of these columns is more to entertain than inform. I like to think Time Out reviewers both entertain AND inform, and tell readers what it’s like for ordinary mortals to eat there.

I’m in the fortunate position of having a big network of food-loving friends and acquaintances who tip me off if something interesting has opened in their area. It’s important not to just rely on the disinformation that PRs bombard you with. Sometimes I take notes during the meal, if I can do it discreetly. But more usually I scribble notes on the tube home afterwards.

Poppy Polley, Eastern Daily Press, Saturday Magazine

You should absolutely adore food and not be afraid to ask if you can’t decide what something on your plate is supposed to be. Have a friend to join you who likes the foods you don’t like. Don’t eat before you go. Don’t drink too much. Don’t wear a white shirt and eat spaghetti in sauce. Tell your dining partner that no-one is to know you’re reviewing the restaurant.

You should have the ability to write readable notes surreptitiously. Sometimes, for me, it’s meant smuggling a menu into the ladies to write down exact descriptions and prices and perfecting a casual walk as I emerge to return the menu to the table. I find taking a small child is useful as I can write while she’s drawing and no-one takes any notice.

Tracey MacLeod, The Independent Magazine

You need a healthy appetite, an editor who cares, and friends who make plenty of jokes.

A restaurant must give me some kind of angle: a new launch, a relaunch, a great chef, an interesting location, an unusual cuisine (preferably not featuring zebra). Sometimes I’ll ask for a menu as I leave and if they ask why, I tell them. And I do take notes during the meal. Advice when you’re starting out? Never order the zebra.

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