An Australian restaurant that closed six months after a scalding review has won a defamation suit against the newspaper that published it.
A 2003 review in the Sydney Morning Herald called Sydney eatery Coco Noco "simply unpalatable," taking aim at, among other things, its questionably-conceived limoncello oysters. Critic Matthew Evans gave the restaurant a dismal score of 9 out of 20, which signifies "stay home." See a PDF of the review here.
What Evans failed to note, however, was that Coco Roco was actually two restaurants; Evans was only reviewing the more upscale of the two. Regardless, both restaurants closed up shop in the months following the review.
Coco Roco was worth $3 million Australian when it opened. The Supreme Court has yet to decide what the suit will cost John Fairfax Publications, which owns the Morning Herald, but The Australian reports that the restaurateurs are contesting per capita damages of $80,000, a figure that was a judge determined in 2009.
Australia's strict anti-defamation laws are likely to thank for the verdict. Website Crikey spoke with several writers who expressed concern over measures that they believe can muzzle interesting writing:
Cases such as Fairfax v Coco Roco are dulling the food reviewing culture in Australia, notes freelance wine, food and travel writer Winsor Dobbin. “If a reviewer has to rein in their opinions, it’s a disservice to readers,” said Dobbin. ”It limits … how critical you can be in print or for that matter on social media.”
Dobbin says there’s a tendency for smaller publishers to prefer positive stories on food and wine over more critical takedowns. “There’s a shift away from brutal criticism,” said Dobbin.
Late last year, the Herald Times posted a piece that detailed similar cases in the past:
It's not the first time. The Blue Angel lobster case in 1989 set the tone. Leo Schofield, writing in the Herald, described his grilled lobster as having been ''cooked until every drop of juice and joy in the thing had been successfully eliminated, leaving a charred husk of a shell containing meat that might have been albino walrus." ...
The jurors were given 58 questions to consider and 4½ hours later the jury found the central allegations in the review false and rejected the comment defence. The restaurant and its proprietor emerged victorious with damages of $22,000 and $78,000 respectively.
We echo Eater's sentiment on the matter, aptly put: "But if the likes of Evans aren't free to protect Australians from limoncello oysters, who will?"