The Lowdown: Post-lockdown restaurant criticism

By James McAllister

- Last updated on GMT

The Lowdown:  Post Coronavirus lockdown restaurant criticism Jay Rayner William Sitwell Asma Khan

Related tags: asma khan, Restaurant, Coronavirus

As restaurants prepare to reopen, there’s a growing conversation around the role of critics and whether they should, for the time being at least, sheath their hatchets and focus on the positives.

Guess that means they're all out of a job, then…
Not necessarily. The UK’s national critics may be recognised for their assured ability to string together a diatribe of cutting barbs and acerbic condemnations, but they can just as easily heap insurmountable praise on a restaurant if they think it’s due. The challenge for some, however, is that it seems to be easier to write bad reviews and take comical pot shots, so it will be interesting to see how this new nicey-nicey approach translates to the page.

How did the conversation come about?
Earlier this week, Observer restaurant critic and industry stalwart Jay Rayner sent out a Tweet​ saying: “FOR THE RECORD, for the foreseeable I will not be publishing negative restaurant reviews. If I can't be broadly positive I simply won't be writing anything. Don't think it's a radical decision in the [circumstances] but needs to be said.” 

That’s certainly a generous gesture
Not in Rayner’s eyes. In another Tweet​, he added: “Put aside the caricature. I do this job because I love restaurants. To kick anyone in this business at the moment would be the act of an arsehole.” Don’t forget, Rayner has form for this sort of thing. Earlier this year, in the weeks leading up to the lockdown when restaurant takings in London’s Chinatown began to nosedive, he wrote a glowing review​ of the Four Seasons on Gerrard Street ‘as an act of solidarity’.

Is this compassionate approach likely to be embraced by other critics?
Only time will tell. Appearing on the BBC​’s Newsnight earlier this week, Telegraph ​restaurant critic William Sitwell seemed to suggest a consensus among the country’s other leading food writers to show a similar solidarity for businesses as they prepare to reopen. “It is appropriate that we don’t sharpen our pen and use them as knives and twist them into chefs and restaurateurs, because the hospitality industry is on its knees,” he said. “And if you love British food culture as I and my fellow restaurant critics do, then we need to do whatever we can to get Britain dining.” But, while those words will doubtless be welcome news to many operators, there’s more to this debate than whether a restaurant critic should keep schtum if they don’t like the soufflé.

How so?
Appearing alongside Sitwell on Newsnight was chef and Darjeeling Express founder Asma Khan, who added that going forward a concerted effort should be made to allow for a greater, more diverse range of voices to be heard within the world of restaurant criticism. “I’m concerned because food critics generally tend to look the same in this country,” she said. “And I’m always worried because some of them use language to sneer and mock other people’s cultures, which smacks of racism. Beautifully written prose, I applaud, but when people are just being mean and pushing down a culture, I think that’s unacceptable." 

Does she have a point?
Definitely. For the most part, the UK’s chief restaurant critics are white; a wider prism from which to view the nation’s dining scene would certainly be welcome. But this isn’t just an issue that needs to be addressed by the critics themselves, it also needs to be reflected on by those publications that employ them.

How long before we see the likes of Rayner et al sharpening their hatchets once more?
Who’s to know? If there’s one thing you can be sure about this pandemic is that it’s wholly unpredictable so how long it will take for the industry to get back on its feet is anyone’s guess. If the  predictions that this could be some a significant amount of time are right, this kinder critical approach could even become the norm, which many in the industry would no doubt welcome. Although don’t expect the kindness to last forever from certain corners. Sitwell also said on Newsnight: “You can rest assured that the sharp pen of the critic will return, when the good times return”. Something to look forward to then…

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