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Elissa Altman Headshot

A Dangerous Dinner: Why Restaurant Reviewers are Scared

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Round about the time that Eliot Spitzer was doing up his fly after being publicly flogged for committing the same sort of sordid atrocity that he beat his breasts about over the years, I was busy, as usual, thinking about my life as a professional eater.

I'm not entirely sure who coined the phrase "Everybody's a critic," but, in my line of work as a food writer and erstwhile restaurant reviewer, everyone sort of actually is. To be clear, we all pretty much are, what with the advent of YouTube, which gives every shmo from here to Yerkutsk the opportunity to pontificate like Pauline Kael; likewise Amazon.com, with its star rating system that can turn the average mother of four from points unknown into Michiko Kakutani glowering down on poor Norman Mailer.

But the business of writing about food--and saying exactly what you think about it, the circumstances in which you ate it, what it tasted and looked like, how good your server was, and who was sitting near you while you ate -- can be a potentially dangerous bit of work. Certainly, one man's meat is easily another's man's dreck, or (to bend a phrase from the Times UK's brilliant Giles Coren) his strips of mole poached in Ovaltine. But I digress.

Recently, the Northern Ireland Lord Chief Justice, Sir Brian Kerr, overturned a ruling awarding to Goodfellas Pizza Restaurant of West Belfast 25,000 pounds sterling in its libel case against The Irish News; it seems, according to the restaurant (and to the jury in the original case), that the paper published a review that was "damaging, defamatory, and hurtful." What exactly, had the reviewer, Caroline Workman, said about the place that so rancored pizzeria owner Ciarnan Convery that it drove him to file suit against the paper for damages? She "criticised the quality of the food, the staff, and the joyless, smoky atmosphere of the premises." I think she may have called the Coke watery and flat, and a certain sauce revoltingly sweet. Well, that certainly is cause for legal action, in my book.

Nevertheless, and even though the ruling was overturned this week, the repercussions of the original award could be felt rippling through the international reviewing community like pebbles in a coi pond; as a former restaurant critic (albeit a freelance one), I myself have been indirectly on the receiving end of all manner of threat, legal and otherwise, pointing to things I didn't say about restaurants I've reviewed, things I did say, things that people wished I hadn't said (positive and negative), things that they thought I said when I didn't, things that they insisted I said when I didn't, things that I wrote about that they insisted didn't happen, and on and on. Some restaurateurs believe that reviews should be solely about the food, and that any deviation from the subject at hand (or plate) is also cause for getting one's legal hackles up. Still, some blessed reviewers--in service to their readers and with support from their papers--throw caution to the wind, and insist upon talking about the restaurants they cover in the fullest, roundest sense of the experience; often, they'll visit just once, because frankly, if you're a regular patron and a first visit to a new restaurant is dreadful, will you go back? (Of course you won't. Truly hideous experiences generally don't get, or deserve, a second chance.)

That said, I'm personally appalled at the flat, clearly frightened, namby-pamby blather that passes for a lot of restaurant reviewing these days; instead of serving the consumer--which reviewers should do--they're often afraid of telling it like it is, the way, say, Giles Coren does. Or the way I've wanted to over the years. What would American restaurateurs do if Giles came to town and hit them with the following comments:

The artichoke gloop was so sloppy it mingled seamlessly with the poached egg that was also in the bowl, so that it was impossible to tell where pasta ended and egg began, except that some of it was pale green. Bland and wan, without texture or zip, it was served at the limp temperature of human blood. In a blind tasting I'd have guessed at a miscarried artichoke.

Or

And it didn't look all that good on the next table anyway: a massive plate with a deep ramekin dip in the middle only a third filled with food, thus looking a little miserly. I'll grant that the saggy-titted banker in the red polo neck who ordered it rolled his eyes over his first mouthful, but then he probably rolls his eyes all the time.

Or

I had a rabbit pie that sounded awesome and looked lovely: the shape and size of a half tennis ball, lovely golden pastry, nicely glazed, but inside just turkey stuffing, sawdust, steamed weeds and a single rabbit liver. A dry and almost proteinless puck, as if when they went to the hutch to get the rabbit for the pie he was already gone (run, rabbit, run, rabbit, run, run, run), so instead they made it with his shredded bed, what was left of his breakfast, and the spare liver he'd been saving for a transplant.

Would they cry fowl and throw the book at this man?

As for me, having recently resigned my position as a restaurant critic at an American newspaper, I'll keep my critiquing to myself. But before I do, I'd like to add a few qualitative points about some of the many places I've reviewed over the years, that I neglected to say in writing for fear of retribution: The sushi had all the tenderness of a bathmat suction-cupped to the inside of a filthy tub; the chocolate mousse reminded me of the contents of an infant's diaper after he's gotten into leftovers of takeout rogan josh; I thought of using the stale baguette as an encounter bat against my server, but it was too good for her; the smoked herring was redolent of toenail fungus drizzled with lemonade; thank goodness the eyes were removed from the tete de veau lest the poor beast be turned into a pillar of salt by the sheer hideousness of the dining room.

It's true what they say: everybody's a critic. Me? I'm heading back to the kitchen.

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