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We’ve read each and every one of the reviews posted on squaremeal.co.uk this year, awarded some of our critics with £250 meals for two and bottles of Cognac and Champagne, and are now ready to crown our Amateur Restaurant Critic of the Year – and award the coveted prize: an all-expenses-paid, two-night trip to Martell’s Château de Chanteloup for the winner and three friends.
To choose the single best reviewer from so many high-quality contributors was a difficult task, so we enlisted a little help in the form of an independent panel of judges.
In stepped two industry experts: Metro’s resident restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin, and The Good Food Guide’s consulting editor, Elizabeth Carter. Along with three Square Meal critics, including editor Ben McCormack, they sifted through the short-listed reviews, chose their favourites and gave us their feedback.
So, what were the judges looking for in the winner’s reviews? O’Loughlin, the only newspaper reviewer who has managed to retain complete anonymity, describes a gold-standard review as one that entertains with its originality.
‘The best restaurant reviews appeal to those who might never dream of visiting the restaurant,’ she says. ‘They avoid cliché and spoddery and tread a fine line between talking to the obsessives, the dilettantes and those who are just grazing. They should be a good read and should never, ever use the expression ‘plumped for’.’
For Carter, a stand-out review needs to keep the focus on its subject: ‘Concentrate on the facts,’ she advises. ‘Set the scene by describing the look and feel of the place. Mention the service, the style of cooking, the choices on the menu, then give a brief summary of what you ate. Sum up by giving an idea of whether the whole experience was value for money.
‘Keep the review short,’ she adds. ‘It’s not about you, it’s about the restaurant, but if it is relevant, do mention other restaurants you’ve been to so readers have a point of reference.’
With so many strong contenders, how did we make our final decision? Square Meal’s editor, Ben McCormack, explains the factors that clinched the deal: ‘This year’s Amateur Critic of the Year wrote consistently entertaining and informative reviews, combining wry wit, enthusiasm and experience. He knows his stuff, having been a contributor to the site since 2009, dines out four or five times a week, and has reviewed more than 80 restaurants so far.’
Without further ado, our congratulations go to Richard E, aka Richard Eaton, the first Amateur Restaurant Critic of the Year – as well as to all of our shortlisted amateur critics (read about our five runners-up below).
Our thanks go to Martell for sponsoring the competition and providing lots of prizes.
Join the debate! Square Meal regularly awards prizes such as bottles of Cognac and Champagne for the best reviews written by our readers. Start writing today, by registering your details at squaremeal.co.uk
And the winner of the Amateur Restaurant Critic of the Year
Richard Eaton has been a contributor to squaremeal.co.uk since 2009; since then he has submitted more than 80 reviews of London restaurants to the site. He lists The French Laundry, Fino and St John among his favourite dining destinations, and would make Gwyneth Paltrow his dream dining companion. The judges admired Eaton’s broad knowledge of his subject matter, his adventurous streak – he’s dined everywhere from Roganic to Archipelago – and, of course, his writing style. Judge Marina O’Loughlin said: ‘Well travelled and pithy, Richard’s one-for-the boys wit gets it right most of the time.’ Our warmest congratulations go to Eaton, who joked: ‘That somebody finds my musings vaguely amusing simply feeds my innate conviction that my opinions are always right.’
A taster of Richard E’s year in food:
Tapas Brindisa (August 2011 – full review)
‘Tapas bars in Spain are that: bars. In the UK, we tend to think of them as destination restaurants (such as the very excellent Fino). Maybe this is why there have been so many people let down by Tapas Brindisa, which is, after all, pretty authentically Spanish.
‘It has a bar complete with stools. It has bustle. The cutlery comes in old pepper tins. You cannot book, but you can sit outside on the pavement. The food is basic tapas, like jamón (we had the selection of Serrano, Iberica and Bellota – all very pleasant), which came with the obligatory tomato bread. There was also piping-hot ham croquettes and some spicy chorizo on toast. Nothing special, nothing outstanding. Just good, honest tapas in a nice, friendly bar. Sort of what tapas should be, yet in this country rarely is.
‘Were there to be a complaint, it would be the price. It is not that the food is any more expensive than, say, Fino. It is just that Fino is a real destination restaurant and Tapas Brindisa is a real tapas bar.
'That cannot be right: £30 a head for what was a light snack is just plain wrong. Far better to save your pennies and go to Seville: start in the old town behind the Alcázar and just wander. Stand at the bar. Sup a Cruzcampo here, taste a tapa there; each bar has a speciality that brings people in, so just follow the locals. A bit like a Spaniard coming to London and doing a pub crawl.’
Champagne Bar at St Pancras (January 2011)
‘The Champagne list is, like the bar itself, long but – and this is where the analogy falls over – it is dull… it plays it way too safe. Where are the small producers, the cutting-edge Grand Crus, the Egly-Ouriet, the Larmandier-Bernier or the Jacquesson? Kettners, that’s where.’
Dept of Coffee & Social Affairs (April 2011)
‘All the classic combinations for an achingly hip and trendy, so-cool-it-hurts coffee shop are present but, instead of being in Hoxton or Soho, it is in Leather Lane, home to a daily tat market that makes Petticoat Lane market look like Harrods. The coffee is seasonal, freshly roasted, ground in front of you and really rather good.’
Viajante (July 2011)
‘Looking at Viajante’s website, I thought that I was going to hate the restaurant. It is full of that pretentious crap that curators insist on putting next to a picture in a gallery. You know, ‘the artist was trying to show, through the subject’s nudity, the essential frailness of life; her fragility, yet hidden resolve’. Bollocks: he wanted to paint a girl with no clothes on. Whatever the myriad annoyances with the website, the restaurant is terrific: imaginative, inventive, and achingly cool.’
The lowdown: Rich Major is winner of the Amateur Restaurant Critic summer 2011 award for best review. Eats out two or three times ‘for pleasure’ and once or twice ‘for business’. Loves a perfectly cooked steak, particularly from Hawksmoor.
What the judges liked: ‘Knowledgeable and adventurous. Definitely knows what he’s talking about, and determined in what he likes and dislikes. Done with laddish humour and the occasional killer turn of phrase.’ Marina O’Loughlin
Pick of the bunch: Spuntino
‘We don’t really like a winner in this country, not if we’re honest. And particularly not one who manages to make it appear so effortless. We prefer those who huff and puff and manage to succeed almost despite themselves, like Kenny Dalglish.
'So Russell Norman, already the proprietor of two massively popular and critically lauded Italian tapas joints, Polpo and Polpetto, was really pushing his luck. And how does he do with the third? Yawn, damn-near faultless again… how bloody dull.’
The lowdown: Christopher Jeffrey is a Bentley driver and food connoisseur would take Richard Dawkins to dinner as a dream companion and would have his last meal at Le Gavroche.
What the judges liked: ‘Snappy, concise reviews, with a keen eye for value for money and good service. Dry sense of humour, too.’ Ben McCormack
Pick of the bunch: Petrus
‘Petrus #3 doesn’t appear to have a great deal in common with Petrus #2. GRH have not tried to transport the grandeur of The Berkeley to what was previously a pub… The art that adorned the walls of Petrus #1 is also long-gone – together, presumably, with the £44k lunches… Overall good, but more La Fleur-Pétrus than Pétrus itself.’
The lowdown: Sabrina Ghayour is our most prolific amateur critic and the first reviewer to pass the 100-review mark. Self-proclaimed ‘foodie til I die’, she likes cooking and ‘laughing with abandon’.
What the judges liked: ‘Puppyish in her enthusiasm, Sabrina brings valuable insights from her background in food to bear on her breathless reviews.’ Marina O’Loughlin
Pick of the bunch: The Gilbert Scott
‘The hotel is grand in a very old-school way; luxurious and old-money, rather than the boring overly styled sort of establishments that seem to be taking over London. On the particular evening I dined, I was joined by wonderful food-loving friends and we settled in at the bar with its comfortable leather slouchy chairs and attentive service. A truly lovely place for dainty Negronis and other classic cocktails; we could easily have whiled away many an hour in the bar alone.’
The lowdown: Noreen Collins lives and works in the centre of London and loves trying new restaurants. Old favourites include J Sheekey and Locanda Locatelli.
What the judges liked: ‘Noreen C gives an entertaining insight into a wide range of casual, popular eateries – you know where you are with her because her assessment of her own taste is honest and straightforward.’ Elizabeth Carter
Pick of the bunch: Cecconi’s
‘Aah, Cecconi’s… what is the spell you cast on us all? Is it the lively atmosphere no matter what time of day? Is it the beautiful cichetti selection or the perfect pasta dishes? Is it being able to linger over a long leisurely Sunday lunch? Or is it just something as simple as sitting at the bar with a glass of draught Prosecco, sharing a plate of wafer-thin Parma ham and parmesan chunks? Whatever it is, we are drawn back time after time after time. If a restaurant was a drug, Cecconi’s would be it.’
The lowdown: James Jolly is winner of the Amateur Restaurant Critic spring 2011 award for best review. He describes himself as a journalist and broadcaster with a passion for cooking – and eating other people’s food…
What the judges liked: ‘James J walks you into a restaurant, sit you down, give you the menu and tell you just how the kitchen delivers. He really is a reviewer to follow.’ Elizabeth Carter
Pick of the bunch: Hawksmoor Seven Dials
‘I’m not quite sure whether it’s a recommendation to leave a steak restaurant vowing never to touch another lump of red meat again, but that’s how I felt as I staggered out of Hawksmoor Seven Dials having manfully grappled with a 600g sirloin. In a single evening, I’d reached a state of satiety it usually takes a week or so in the US to achieve.’
Even if you don’t fancy yourself as a critic, there are monthly prize draws for all participants.
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