Fay Maschler ponders the apparent evolution of restaurant PR and finds many a missing link
My late, much-missed pal Alan Crompton-Batt was often credited with having invented the profession of restaurant PR. It was in the early 1980s, after he got fed up representing the pop group Psychedelic Furs and then stopped working as a guide inspector for Egon Ronay, that he set up his own company. Before that no-one can remember how anyone found out that a new restaurant had opened. I suppose the assumption was you might just happen to wander past.
Alan employed a coterie of striking blondes – he was, for a while, a striking blonde himself – and however diligent they were at the start, they soon began to adopt for themselves his mad insouciance. I remember asking a particularly foxy Battette (as they were sometimes known) for the telephone number of a restaurant – her client – that she had been eulogising at length. She shrieked, as she tottered off on killer heels in search of another cocktail, "It's something like 7489 8756." I loved that: the idea that anyone might sit dialling endless permutations of a telephone number before actually, if ever, getting through to this establishment which had paid ACB Associates some not inconsiderable sum to be represented.
Daft as it was, it was better than the torrent of emails and press releases that nowadays come the way of a restaurant reviewer. These are written in a kind of deathless prose more devoid of actual content than a leaflet accompanying a jar of miracle face cream. "Diners are transported to a world where tastes are exquisite, palatable and unparalleled to guarantee total perfection during the dining experience," was one recent promise in the announcement of the opening of a new branch of an existing Indian restaurant.
"The venue has multiple elements of visual opulence and the overall impression is one of a timeless style," is the completely meaningless summary of a new gastropub in west London by a certain buoyant PR girl, who goes on to ask if I would please let her know if I use the release in my publication as "I have no press cuttings service on this account". Don't these public relations officers, to give them full title, read the sort of reviews written by the people they are soliciting? This is a rhetorical question since, with a few honourable exceptions, I know they don't. If they did it might occur to them that reviewers have eyes (and palates) over which not much wool can be pulled.
Unlike press agents, reviewers – for the most part – write with honesty, wit and a grip on reality. When they go out to a restaurant it comes as no great surprise to them that there are tables, chairs, cushions, curtains, pictures, glassware and plates in the room. Restaurant PRs frequently feel the need to mention in detail this (to them)
evidently revolutionary state of affairs at the "eatery" they represent, where the food is "mouth-watering" and the chef cooks "only the finest ingredients" invariably "with a twist" and the wine list is "international".
A legacy from ACBPR is the fact sheet. A page of who, what, where, when and why – the golden rules of journalism – is usually all that is needed or wanted about a new restaurant. Sometimes a bit of history of the premises or the chef's CV is relevant.
Reviews from the people who have clout can't be bought with the offer of a meal with someone from the public relations company. From the restaurateur's point of view, the reason to hire a PR should be to get on side someone who brings a wealth of eating out experience to the party, a great address book and a knowledge of marketing both national and international. Not just bad grammar, a fantasy life in which "sinful" food has no calories and a disinclination to bother with spell-check.