What is the role of a critic? I’m never entirely sure. The easy and glib answer is to say that critics review art/entertainment/literature etc. and judge the merits of services on behalf of the reader/viewer/ordinary person. But of course, it never is that simple. People who review art, for example, judge the work by a higher standard than mass popularity.
The point of an art review is not "should the reader go and see this exhibition". So it is with book reviews. The books that get the best reviews are not necessarily the most popular. The vast majority of books on the Indian fiction bestseller lists, for instance, have received hostile or sneering reviews.
In the case of popular culture (as against pure art or literature), the situation is complicated because the critic’s opinion is worthless in commercial terms. Many Hindi movies that get terrible reviews go on to become superhits. And yet the critics keep doing what they do because they believe that there are certain standards any movie must be judged by. It is not the critic’s job to predict box-office success.
All of this is by way of lengthy introduction to the dilemma faced by the restaurant critic. The average magazine may have 1,00,000 readers. Successful magazines (such as this one) number their readership in the millions. Given that most restaurants seat (at best) 200 patrons a day, only 6,000 people will get to eat in that restaurant in a whole month, assuming it goes full at every meal.
In other words, over 90 per cent or more of the people who read a restaurant review will never ever visit the restaurant they are reading about. In the case of Brunch, much less than one per cent of our readers will go. It’s not like movie reviews where millions go to see each movie.
So does it make sense to treat a review as a recommendation? Or should we just try to make the review funny and enjoyable so that it appeals even to those who have no interest in going to the restaurant in question?
It is a question that restaurant critics are constantly forced to grapple with.
Partly, it is because these days, everybody is a critic. Anyone who eats in a restaurant wants to post a review on a web site. Who is to say that his or her review is not better than a restaurant critic’s?
Peter Preston, a former editor of The Guardian, who now writes about media for the paper, wrote recently about what he saw as the failure of the UK’s restaurant critics. Preston took the line that if there are objective standards to reviewing restaurants, then most critics should agree about most places. But there was such a diversity of opinions that readers were left baffled. The point of a critic, he suggested, is that he or she must write with authority. Otherwise, you might as well peruse the varied user opinions on TripAdvisor or wherever.
Keepers of quality: The critics whose words matter: (from left to right above) Grace Dent writes for The Evening Standard; 2) Giles Coren, who writes for The Times, has criticised Chutney Mary and Taberna Do Mercado, that his peers liked (Photos: Getty Images)
(From left to right above) AA Gill of The Sunday Times is the most widely read food critic; Clive James wrote TV reviews for The Observer and set the tone for entertaining review-writing; Fay Maschler, the queen of Britain’s food critics, believes that bad reviews affect people’s livelihoods.
Preston’s piece was prompted by divergent reviews of what must be the hottest Indian restaurant in London: the new Chutney Mary in St. James’s. I wrote about it a few weeks ago and said I loved it. Many respected British critics liked it too: Nick Lander of The Financial Times, Grace Dent of The Evening Standard and the most widely read critic of them all, AA Gill of The Sunday Times. The queen of Britain’s critics, Fay Maschler, was on holiday when it opened but has since tweeted to say she liked it too.
That should have been that. But Chutney Mary was savaged by Giles Coren in The Times, a sister publication of The Sunday Times, the paper in which AA Gill had called it the "best pan-Indian in London". Who, asked Preston, were readers supposed to believe? Should they believe Coren who said the butter chicken "showed no evidence of butter at all, no richness, no comfort, no breadth or depth"? Or should they believe Gill who saluted the, "subtle and assured spicing in the butter chicken"?
Preston listed other examples, among them, Duck and Rice (which I wrote about some months ago), which has divided critics. And others have been surprised by the divergence of opinions about Chef Nuno Mendes’s new Taberna Do Mercado, which got raves from Gill and Maschler, but was demolished by Coren who, for good measure, also rubbished the entire cuisine of Portugal. (Mendes is Portuguese).
Preston concluded that the problem was that critics were too busy trying to write entertaining pieces to be any good at their basic job: "restaurant reviewing has also become a series of elegant essays too frail to chomp. It’s a style, a prevalent entertainment; but also not much of an answer to the most basic question of the lot".
I don’t dispute much of what Preston says. But I think I sympathise more with the problem of the restaurant critic. If so few people are ever going to go to a restaurant you have reviewed, then one way of keeping readers entertained is to be funny, and to write well. It’s a style pioneered by Clive James in the Seventies when he reviewed TV for The Observer. By the time his reviews appeared, the programmes had long been telecast and so there was no way in which they served as recommendations. But everyone read the reviews anyway because James is a brilliant writer.
The problem, as Maschler later tweeted, is that bad reviews, written solely to be entertaining, affect people’s livelihoods. A restaurant review may be useful to only 5 per cent of a newspaper’s readership, but it has the potential to damage 100 per cent of the restaurant’s staff, its owners and its investors.
This may seem strange to us in India where restaurant critics are almost as irrelevant as movie reviewers. No Indian film critic can hurt a blockbuster. And none of us restaurant critics have the kind of power that Maschler and Gill have in the UK, to make or break a restaurant.
My old friend, the late Sabina Sehgal Saikia, used to feel differently. At a Chefs’ Conference in Madras, she once gleefully listed all the restaurants she had destroyed with her reviews. The only ones I can remember were Veda (condemned to touristy second-ratedness after Sabina had torn into it) and Maroush, which the Maurya actually shut down in the face of critical (and public) antipathy.
None of us have that kind of power. But even if I did, I suspect I am too soft. I’ll give you the example of a newly opened restaurant in Delhi’s Khan Market where I wandered in for lunch one afternoon. Ours was the only table occupied in the whole restaurant. And while I tried to make sense of the menu, I discovered that there was only one other guest. A large rat darted out of a corner, stopped in the centre of the restaurant, looked around and clearly did not like what he saw because he rushed away within seconds.
You will notice I’ve not named the restaurant because I incline to the view that I was in the wrong place in the wrong time. Khan Market is a mess, especially when it rains. There are rats on the streets and it is a reasonable assumption that they get into the restaurants all the time. So why single out this one place only because I happened to be there when the rat decided to visit?
But there are certain absolute standards. I will never forgive a restaurant that does not respect guests. I wrote about Indigo Deli because it refused to honour reservations made by guests (including me) but quickly changed its mind when it recognised me and offered me a table while refusing space to others who had booked. As you may recall, I left in disgust and first tweeted about it and then wrote the piece.
It is for this reason that I routinely savage restaurants that make guests feel small or deny entry to those they consider socially unacceptable. I have a particular problem with trendy bars and clubs that encourage ordinary punters to beg to be let in while ushering high rollers to their tables with much bowing and scraping.
Equally, I think we critics also exhibit a certain childishness. I know people who go to celebrated restaurants like Bukhara, Farzi Cafe or Le Cirque only so that they can rubbish them as a sort of virility exhibition.
Your word against mine: People visit celebrated restaurants like Le Cirque (above, right) only to rubbish them.
But to return to the question I posed at the beginning. What is the point of a restaurant review? Do we, like art critics, hold restaurants to a higher standard? Are we simply providing a consumer service? Or, given that most of our readers will never go to the restaurants we review, should we just focus on being readable?
I guess the answer is a mixture of all of the above. At some level, all restaurant critics are slightly confused about what we do. Few of us have the certainty of the great Sabina who loved the power she had over the restaurant business and enjoyed exercising it.
I do miss her.
From HT Brunch, September 13
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