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FOOD AND DRINK

5 MIN

Why You Should Be Skeptical of Really Negative Restaurant Reviews

Nasty reviews are entertaining to read, but entertainment is all they are. As a former critic writes, reviewers trash the occasional restaurant (or its owners) mostly to maintain their relevance

People send nasty restaurant reviews to me with the breathless subject line “have you seen this yet?!?!”

It doesn’t matter if the restaurant is in London, New York or my home of Toronto. It’s the unprecedented cruelty of the reviewer, zinging the restaurant’s shoddy food with at least one comparison to bodily fluids or used condoms, that is supposed to elevate the excoriation to global importance.

It’s probably because I used to be a restaurant critic that friends figure I’ll be enthralled by an “epic takedown” review. I’m not interested, because I know how the business works.

The latest rounds of invective come from London and Toronto. Jay Rayner of The Guardian, in a censure of Le Cinq’s Parisian fine dining, describes a canapé as looking like a breast implant and tasting like an old condom. Mark Pupo of Toronto Life writes a creamy centre of compliments for Grey Gardens chef Mitch Bates to wrap around a flabby, personal attack on owner Jen Agg, based primarily on a tweet she sent four years ago.

Big-name critics need to write at least one of these savage pieces a year. So they arrive with the regularity of Fast & Furious sequels. And while both genres earn credit for their bombastic flourishes – a clever insult here, a tank chase there – it’s the testosterone-soaked red meat of hostility that attracts the bloodthirsty mob.

Courtesy Pixar

Gold star if you remember that the critic from Ratatouille (2007) was named Anton Ego

British critics are more expected to be sadists. I once had dinner with Times (of London) reviewer Giles Coren and he was absolutely delighted to play the baddie. Canadian critics don’t usually suggest that the restaurant owner seems like someone who would spit in your coffee. But Pupo’s inexplicably misogynist blitz did at least garner attention, even if it wasn’t, as a child of 10 could tell, good attention.

Entertainment is what people read reviews for, if they read them at all. Inasmuch as these pieces are for the reader, they are not a guide of where to eat. People use Yelp for that.

“[Most restaurants] are a bore to write about and a bore to read about.”

Here’s what I learned about readers when I was a critic. What people want to hear about is the hottest, trendiest, best new restaurants, serving a style of cuisine so fantastic they’ve never even heard of it before.

Or they want to see someone thrown to the wolves, preferably a villainous restaurateur. Even better if the owners and customers can be portrayed as wealthy, out-of-touch elites.

If you review 50 restaurants a year (i.e., enough for a weekly column) in a big city, you’ll likely find two, maybe four, that are in that league of truly great or truly terrible. The rest are mediocre. They’re a bore to write about and a bore to read about.

And no matter how much a critic tries to gussy them up with cultural observations, personal anecdotes, culinary history lessons or tangential associations to pop culture or current events, no one but the chef will ever quote them to you.

It’s not that a critic doesn’t come across more bad restaurants. But they are often owned by struggling entrepreneurs; mom and pops with life savings on the line, eliciting our empathy. Any writer with a basic sense of human decency will resist sinking their fangs in too deeply. And because of that, when they’ve got a ripe target, there’s extra venom stored up.

When the perfect heel of a restaurant comes along – Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen & Bar in New York, America at the Trump Hotel in Toronto – the critic has nothing holding them back. This is the touchdown dance for which they’ve been rehearsing. It doesn’t matter that millions of people like Guy Fieri or Donald Trump. The millions that hate these public figures are a built in audience for the evisceration by a critic held too long on the leash.

The occasional nasty review earns the writer a back-patting from colleagues, maybe an oh-you-cheeky-rascal or this-is-why-I-hired-you note from the publisher. They keep readers happy. They keep editors happy. They keep restaurateurs fearful. And they bolster the critic’s eroding status as a powerful voice.

But it’s all for show. The epic takedown restaurant review is as political as it is theatre. The targets are chosen because they’re famous enough that the public will care, and not so universally beloved that the public will resent the writer.

Toronto critic Chris Nuttall-Smith (ex of the Globe and Mail) scored his most visible win for a takedown of a Trump-branded hotel restaurant. It was a good, cutting, funny read. But the mockery of extravagance and incompetence was something a hundred others might have written, in their own way.

On the other hand, his skilful, euthanizing review of Susur Lee was something only Nuttall-Smith could have written: a historical appreciation of the chef’s cooking, combining proper journalistic interviewing with an iconoclastic, emperor-has-no-clothes indictment of a chef phoning it in. But the subject of the review, not TV-famous, wasn’t big enough to make it go viral.

“Readers and restaurateurs overestimate the value of critics.”

Despite eviscerating reviews, Lee is still around. Fieri is still around. Even Trump is managing to eke out a living as a restaurateur, in addition to other business ventures.

Readers and restaurateurs overestimate the value of critics. Traditional media still has tremendous influence, the power to shape conversations. But the days of monopolizing opinions are over. Before the internet led to the democratization of restaurant reviews, it was expected for a critic to write with the voice of authority. But we see through that now, the idea that one person knows everything, that their opinion is fact.

Visit any suburban chain restaurant, where they pack the tables night after night, for evidence that good reviews are not necessary for the success of a restaurant. When hip new restaurants pop up and thrive without a word from traditional media, we have to let go of the illusion of the critic who can open or close a restaurant with one review.

No Canadian critic wields that power – and if there are any such critics left today anywhere else, it's doubtful whether they will still be so powerful in a few years' time. Anyone who thinks otherwise is delusional, or is trying to keep a boss convinced of their power, to justify their budget. As shrinking resources force journalistic institutions to let go of integral city hall and science reporters, it’s harder and harder to justify a critic whose dining budget eats up the salary of an additional employee.

Courtesy Pixar

Is time nearly up for your kind, Anton?

Because of this, the insecure critic is always on the hunt for that perfect sacrificial lamb.

In the days of network television’s dominance, every sitcom had to have a Halloween, Christmas and Valentine’s Day episode, using up three of the year’s 22 story slots. In the Netflix era, when we watch a TV season over a weekend, we don’t need those perfunctory event episodes.

The outrageously negative restaurant review is such a relic, a vestige of another time, when the media landscape was smaller, and within it, the critic was practically an aristocrat. This annual tradition is almost all they have left of that epoch. So as they parade about with their ceremonial exhibition, just remember that they’re playing with toy swords that have no real edge.

Published Thursday, April 20th 2017

Header image credit: Courtesy Pixar

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