21 August 2014

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RestauRANT: why do so many restaurant critics write about themselves rather than their meal?


restauRANT_critics - celeb_restaurant.jpgSick of reading cliché-ridden twaddle about the writer and his actress dining companion as they enjoy the first service in a newly opened gastropub? Joe Warwick launches his campaign for better restaurant writing.

I’ve been kicking this one around for a while now and, to be honest, the response from fellow scribblers who like to bang on about restaurants in print has been disappointingly lukewarm. But despite such apparent apathy from my peers it’s clear to me that the time for decisive action has come. I’ve decided to launch a campaign for Accessible, Relevant, Sustainable and Entertaining Restaurant Writing.

Why must we keep reading the same tired, unsustainable tosh? Much restaurant writing exploits stocks of clichés and tired jargon whose levels will soon become as dangerously low as those of bluefin tuna, Patagonian toothfish and North Atlantic cod. What I suggest is a voluntary code of practice to which those who write about restaurants can sign up. But it’s up to everyone who likes to read about restaurants to put pressure on the relevant parties – editors, publishers, etc – to stop this lazy flogging of pretentious twaddle, self-importance, hackneyed clichés and meaningless terminology.

Below are some examples of unsustainable restaurant writing practices that need to be dealt with immediately.

1. Any mention of molecular gastronomy.

The term was originally intended to refer to the scientific investigation of cooking, but has since been used to describe the food and cooking of a number of famous chefs. Those popularly assumed to be its two leading exponents, Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià, get very het up every time someone uses it, and while it’s always fun to wind up chefs, they have a point. The sort of food served at The Fat Duck and El Bulli has no more to do with playing with molecules than boiling an egg does. Admittedly, the alternative put forward in recent years, ‘techno-emotional cuisine’, is painfully pretentious. Why don’t we just call it cooking?

2. Describing anywhere as a gastropub.

Leaving aside the fact that it sounds like some sort of unpleasant stomach complaint, this term, coined in the early 1990s to describe a new type of pub that put freshly prepared, quality food first, has lost all meaning in the past decade. On one side lie the bandwagon-jumping charlatans at the big pub groups who rebrand their brewery-tied outlets as ‘gastropubs’ when, in reality, they’re still serving rubbish grub prepared off-premises and passing it off as freshly made on-site. On the other side are the restaurants housed in former public houses with crisp linen and fussy service that have somehow forgotten the pub bit and have an inexplicable fear of anyone just wandering in for a drink. Can’t we just call them pubs, then maybe elaborate on the quality of the food?

3. Assuming that anyone is more interested in reading about you, your social life and who you are eating with than what you are eating and whether it is any good.

Pretty self-explanatory and obvious, this point – and yet it seems to be lost on a worrying number of professional restaurant critics.

4. Reviewing new restaurants before the paint has dried.

The newspaper critics used to race to be first to eat at the latest new opening, but these days it’s the bloggers who are most likely guilty. The old restaurant critic’s argument, that if a restaurant is charging full price it deserves to be reviewed accordingly, is now trotted out in defence by a new generation of online reviewers. The problem is that the motivation for being first into a new restaurant is plainly about getting a scoop (which print journalists at least always admitted) and not, as it’s often dressed up, about informing your readers. How about giving new restaurants a week to bed in before tarring and feathering them?

5. Taking pictures of the food with your camera phone and publishing them online.

There’s a reason why professional food photography takes time and costs money. Anything taken with your phone is going to look like it was taken with your phone. It’s understandable that you may want a photographic record of what you ate so that you can refer to it later when you sit down to write about it. But the written word is worth so much more than any number of grubby, poorly lit snaps of your dinner.

6. Creeping use of Americanisms.

The employment of terms such as ‘midtown’ and ‘upscale’ needs to stop. If you really want to write like that, move to Manhattan.

This article was featured in the summer 2010 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.

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