Critics know the way but can't drive the car
Thursday 16th May 2002 15:46
Zadie Smith wrote her first novel, White Teeth, while still at college. Author Salman Rushdie said it was wonderful and, as a result, Penguin snapped up the paperback rights and over a million copies of the book were sold in its first year of publication. Oh, the power of a good review. The famous critic offers praise, and success follows as surely as coffee follows dessert.
It's the same with restaurants. Early success after opening often depends on first reviews being favourable. No matter that the restaurant serves good food (just as White Teeth was a good novel). If the right reviewers don't speak highly of the offering, the chance of being noticed by the public is lessened. Courting the critics has become as much a part of the restaurant game as signature dishes, designer interiors and marketing messages.
It is a reflection of the growing public interest in food that every national, regional and local newspaper carries a restaurant column. As Stuart Walton points out in his feature, the authors of these columns seldom write from an insider's perspective - they rarely have a professional knowledge of the trade; they are universally consumers writing for consumers. Never before has theatre reviewer Kenneth Tynan's description of the critic as a man who knows the way but can't drive the car been more appropriate.
The modern review can be witty and amusing, but also cruel in its indifference to the restaurant. It is particularly galling for the restaurant professional on the receiving end of a trendy writer's barb that the article will wax lyrical about personal life and friends before getting down to the business of reviewing with a few paragraphs at the end of the article.
It would be easy to get depressed about this style but, as The Times critic Jonathan Meades once said, the modern reviewer is not writing for the restaurant trade but for his or her chosen audience. "I'm not writing for a few London chefs," he said, "I'm writing for 500,000 readers of my newspaper." These days, criticism is entertainment, not information.
Even if that premise is accepted, however, it doesn't make the reviews any less influential. In fact, they are probably more influential because they are about lifestyle, not just eating out. But they are not the be-all and end-all of success and they shouldn't be allowed to dominate the market. They may be trendy; they may be more widely read and they may influence a section of the fashionable public whose passion is eating out and being seen eating out. Chances are, though, a good establishment serving good food with good service will survive regardless of what a few notable celebrities say. A positive review may kick-start success, but a bad review alone will seldom kill a good restaurant.
If a bad review happens, just ignore it and move on. Remember the words of turn-of-the-century author Max Roger, who responded to a savage review by writing to the critic: "I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me."
Caterer & Hotelkeeper