The Horror of Being a Restaurant Critic

From: Pitching the World

To: Teagan Maddocks, DV8 Magazine

Date: Thursday 2 June, 13:31

Subject: The Horror of Being a Restaurant Critic

Dear Teagan,

This time last year I was the North London section editor for Square Meal’s 2011 Restaurant & Bar Guide. Wow, you’re probably thinking, and you’d be forgiven for doing so. Around that time whenever I told someone what I did for a living, the response would be the same. “Wow,” they would say, and then say it again, “Wow, that’s my dream job – being a restaurant critic. That’s so cool.”

Well, it wasn’t so cool. In fact, towards the end it was pretty bloody terrible. I had to review around 130 places and at first it was quite enjoyable. I’d caper around and get comped seven course meals and £100 bottles of wine and smoke cigarettes with the chefs and get shown around their kitchens where I perfected an expression and a nod that suggested I understood exactly what they were talking about. Occasionally I’d write reviews – one or two a day at most. Some shone.

As my deadline approached, however, I had a creeping feeling that I had a lot of work to do in not a very lot of time. As usual when I have these creeping feelings, I was proved right. I had about 100 reviews to write in a month which meant no more long lunches and knowing facial expressions and lots more traipsing around Archway and Tottenham and Wood Green trying to ‘interpret’ menus and get an accurate impression of a place during a 15 minute visit. I started to panic, and the more I panicked the less I looked like a restaurant reviewer and the more I looked like a man descending into madness. It was sort of like Black Swan, but bleaker. And with less dancing. “You’re no restaurant reviewer,” an owner’s eyes would say when I told them I was from Square Meal and helping to put together their 2011 guide. “At best you’re a madman. At worst, you’re going to chain me to the radiator and rob the place.”

You’ll be pleased to hear that I didn’t rob anyone. I did write some pretty terrible reviews though. When I began I used to really take my time over reviews – I remember describing 69 Colebrooke Row as a “pipsqueak of a speakeasy” and feeling so chuffed with myself that I took the rest of the day off. Towards the end though I was writing three or four reviews an hour and the stuff was pretty laboured. It was especially tough as North London is crammed with gastropubs that are all pretty much the same. “Oh, brilliant, this place has got wooden furniture reclaimed from a church. The barman’s got a checkered shirt on. And a crap moustache thing. Ah, I see, there’s a blackboard with stuff written on it that I don’t understand. What the hell is a seviche? Or a jus? Or a pork chop? Jesus, I’m losing my mind.” That’s how my reviews would be towards the end. I’m paraphrasing, a little.

There’s a point to all this. The point is that after filing, I split up from my neuroscientist wife, and moved (via Finsbury Park, Clapton, Dubai and East Horsley) to Boscombe where I live in my Nan’s dining room and often think that it’s about time that I got back into reviewing restaurants. Do you think you might be able to make that happen? I ate at the Cellar Bar in Boscombe recently and thought that might be a good place to start. I’ve included a few reviews I’ve written below. Very hard to pick the ‘best’ ones out of over a hundred, so I’ve just chosen a few at random.

Many sincere thanks for reading, assuming you’ve got this far.

All the best,

Pitching the World

Gallipoli

North Londoners have been sprinting to Gallipoli since it opened in 1996, lured in by its heady Turkish flavours, down-home prices & rollicking, slightly barmy atmosphere. The kitchen does the business by turning out waves of moreish kebabs, koftes & crisp falafels – all vividly spiced & fresh as a daisy. The waiters also play their part, singing happy birthday & banging pots & pans while someone dances on a table – you get the general idea. Although weekends are brilliantly rowdy, weekday evenings are more sedate: share a splendid platter of hot & cold mezze, nibble excellent baklava & sip apple tea while dreaming of faraway lands. There are two further outposts just a few doors down – Gallipoli Bazaar, 107 Upper Street (020 7226 5333) & Gallipoli Again, 120 Upper Street (020 7359 1578).

Dotori

Although the dog-eared surroundings can seem bleak & the interior uninspiring, Dotori’s food is anything but. In fact, its marriage of Korean & Japanese cuisine is turning lots of heads & booking is fast becoming essential at busier times. Sushi zings out of the kitchen spankingly fresh & firm, while nods of approval go to the excellent-quality kimchi, sizzling bowls of gutsy bibimbap, crispy tempura & dae-gh-tang (fish soup). Set meals are a steal at around £20 for two people. A couple of years after opening there are still one or two teething problems to iron out, especially when it comes to the ‘charmingly awkward’ & irritatingly slow service. Either exert a little Zen-like patience, or plump for a boozier way to enlightenment with cheap bottles of Asahi beer.

Island Queen

Apparently the only pub in the UK bearing the name, this Island Queen is certainly distinctive. Off the well-beaten Upper Street path, it’s a grand Victorian neighbourhood boozer with magnificently high ceilings, chandeliers, large windows, delightful floral mirrors & seafaring curios. There’s a quirky, offbeat charm about the place that attracts designers, architects & Noel Fielding wannabes from neighbouring Stoke Newington, Dalston & Highbury – although they mingle merrily with the hardcore locals. Despite an emphasis on drink (a top-notch selection of draught beer & lager including Paulaner, Sierra Nevada, Leffe & Meantime) & heaps of frivolity (weekends can be ‘colourful’), you can still bag better-than-average pub grub at keen prices: witness the £5 daily specials such as chicken burgers, handmade salmon fishcakes, corned beef hash & so forth. Lazy Sunday lunches are also much in demand. Service can be fetchingly slapdash.

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16 responses to “The Horror of Being a Restaurant Critic

  1. And look – I sent it at lunch time. How wonderfully appropriate. Hopefully the pleasure I am taking from this will outweigh the disappointment from not receiving a reply.

  2. Pitchy

    I’d guess it’s about ten times longer than the average pitch but it’s also probably about ten times more interesting/amusing than the average too. So you should be a shoe in.

    Funny name though Teagan. Sounds like it comes from an L Ron Hubbard novel. You sure you want to work for a Scientologist?

    Best of British,

    Lee

  3. You totally deserve a reply. Those reviews are hilarious.

    The worst restaurant reviews to write are when they ply you with so much booze to compensate for the food taking its time that you can’t remember what you ordered, never mind what was in it. And your photos all end up being out of focus. And you get the name of the band that played wrong, because you couldn’t remember that either, and their stupid website was out of date…

    Tried that once. Never again.

  4. A shoe in, eh? Thanks very much Lee, let’s hope so. And I notice from your blog that “In the last two weeks I’ve had invites to press trips to New Mexico, Greece and Montenegro. I know why I get these things: I’ve done some travel writing.” I’ve done some travel writing too Lee. In fact I’ve done loads. What gives? Why aren’t I being invited on these lovely sounding press trips?

    Sarah Jayne Fell: Food and booze AND a band? Sounds idyllic. And being drunk – that sounds idyllic too. I haven’t had a drink since Sunday. It’s actually completely bearable but who knew so much time existed? Not me. Thanks for your ace words.

  5. Great reviews there Pitchboy, even though I’ve no idea what you’re describing with all that foreign talk and me being a sardines on toast and a mug o’ tea bloke.
    By “great reviews” I mean witty, attention grabbing writing. I would go along to all of those establishments based on your descriptions . . . . .as long as they do Becks.
    When I was a young’un, living in a south coast town you know well, I had a buddy, Adrian, who earned his shilling in the role of Short Order Cook at a burger bar (greasy forerunner of the slick venues of today). Adrian was possibly the most foul mouthed, bad tempered and more or less incompetent Short Order Cook the south had ever seen. But in 1965 burger joints were trendy, fab and cool, man, and no one but the Americans knew how they were supposed to operate, so Adrian’s slapdash ways were tolerated as though his demeanor was all part of the service.
    I, and the rest of the group of layabouts I associated with, thought he was a hoot, but your so well written review of the Island Queen has made me grasp the fact that my old mate Adrian possibly invented the concept of Fetchingly Slapdash Sevice.
    Should’ve patented it way back then.
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .PS Adrian also imitated Mick Jagger, mouthing the words to a Stones number into a hairbrush in front of the wardrobe mirror . . . . but I don’t claim that he invented that.
    God bless you Adrian, wherever you are.

  6. Vivid stuff Oldbloke, thank you. Adrian sounds ace. I wish I was Adrian. I also wish that it was the 60s and I was hanging about with you and your group of layabouts who sound pretty cool. Did any of them live in their Nan’s dining rooms? Lie if you have to. Perhaps they ALL did.
    The best way to do a Mick Jagger impression is to pretend you’re reading words off your top lip. Try it. See? I’m right.

  7. When I have my little Scottish tea room – serving (in my apron and heels) lovingly cooked food to American tourists, please can you do a restaurant review on it for me? A review from you would cause a stampede!

  8. Had a go at reading from my top lip Pitch but fear I looked more like an ageing goldfish who’s been smacked in the chops than an ageing rock star who’s . . . . ermm . . . . . been smacked in the chops.
    Yep Adrian was a cool cat, if a little short of temper. We shared a bedsit for a while which is how I knew of his mirror performances. . . . . and, of course you’re dead right, all my crew were cool (see how I’ve adopted modern street talk, blood? calling them my crew, though we had no association with sailing)
    There were times when we’d sleep anywhere let alone the luxury of a Nan’s Dining Room.
    Wishing it was The 60’s is not really a good thing (if you’re planning on inventing a time machine) Rosy pictures of that decade frequentlty fall short of the truth. Picture, if you will:

    Harold Wilson
    Monochrome TV
    Herman’s Hermits

    Mind you, Man in a Suitcase and The Untouchables, my ‘stay in and plead with mother’ favourites wouldn’t be the same if not black and white.

    There’s an endless supply of ‘The 60’s were Fab, Groovy and Popsquilious’ reading material but I think it’ll be for Oldbloke to write the truth. the real story. the uncovering of the cover up . . . . Most of The 60’s Was a Load of Crap (until Hendrix released Hey Joe)

  9. Old bloke, I will have ‘Hey Joe’ playing in my little Scottish tea room. Tartan tweeness with a twist. I can see it now… a toothless highlander, tapping his foot on the floor, gurning away over his bannocks. May even call it ‘Wee Jimi’s’ – awesome. Anyone who walks in and quotes PTW gets a free bowl of Cullen skink. Can’t WAIT for the Pitchy review on this one!

  10. Marge, I’m sure he’ll big it up, just for you, Hen.

    I can’t imagine what Cullen Skink might do to a bloke. I had the dubious pleasure of working with some of 4th Royal Tank Regiment (almost exclusively from Clydeside – as dangerous down the pub as they were in their tanks) and I wonder if it was demon dishes from a scottish tearoom that made them so fearsome?

  11. Cullen skink is one of the greatest dishes ever invented. No duff.

  12. Oh dear, my cooking is enough to make any man fearsome.

  13. Marge, Oldbloke – You should have your own show. Or blog. No, show. Set in a Scottish tearoom. Seriously. Fandango, you should get involved too.
    Also: what the hell is cullen skink?

  14. Fish soup.

  15. It seems everyone here is totally mad. I rather like that. Thanks

  16. They are aren’t they? I rather like that too Mike. Thanks.

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