Russell Norman Bites: Everyone's a critic | 451life

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Russell Norman Bites: Everyone's a critic

The reason that the restaurant business is so misunderstood is, ironically, because everyone thinks they understand it.

In some respects, restaurants are a very straightforward proposition: you sit at a table, you order, you consume, and then you pay. In other words, “you give me food, I give you money.” Would-be restaurateurs and chefs, particularly those who hold Master Chef in such high esteem (disclaimer: other reality TV cooking contests are available) go even further. They believe that the ability to throw a decent dinner party is all that is required to open a restaurant. A restaurant is, after all, just a dinner party with a till, isn’t it?

Well, unsurprisingly, no it isn’t. A restaurant is a complex operational and mathematical entity that requires an engine, a skilled crew, a carefully plotted navigational course and a strong and clear identity. Putting a few tables and chairs in a room with a kitchen at the back doesn’t quite cut the mustard.

And yet, because we all dine out and we all have a deep sense of familiarity with restaurants, we think we know how best to run them. And that, I’m afraid, turns us all into critics.

A cursory glance at the heinous TripAdvisor – and for a brilliant diatribe on the self-styled “people’s portal”, please read Marina O’Loughlin’s recent assassination here – reveals any number of amateur restaurant sleuths practically falling over themselves to slag off restaurants, often for imagined slights and negligible niggles. The venom with which some of them attack suggests either psychosis or affiliation with a rival business. Here is a selection of genuine comments from online restaurant reviews written by members of the public. (All typos, spelling mistakes, syntax, bad grammar and borderline illiteracy are the correspondents’ own, not mine.)

“The food was okay but no English food. They say they have but it’s all Greek the waiters were all foreign.”
A Greek restaurant on the Greek island of Crete.
“Staff was really friendly but we ordered drinks and they arrived too quickly.”
Friendly staff, efficient bartenders and fast service: how appalling!

“I didn’t eat anything because I was just having a cocktail but I looked at the menu and it was full of meat. I’m a vegetarian. Disgusting.”
This reviewer awarded the restaurant one star out of five without actually dining...

“my tomato salad was just tomatoes for £4.50 that i could buy in Tescos for £1”
A reviewer who clearly doesn’t get out much.

“We had high expectations because of all the great reviews but although the food was good, it didn’t blow me away. We expected more from such a famous restaurant.”
A two star review for a legendary London restaurant.

Now, it is the sentiment in this last review that really gets my dander up. How can an imagined experience or an assumed level of awesomeness be used to measure your critical response to a restaurant? This dichotomy is often exacerbated when the reservation is hard to come by because of a restaurant’s popularity. And add to that the tantalising wait of a few months between booking the table and arriving for dinner, expectations can be so high that no amount of superb cooking, attentive service and scintillating atmosphere will meet them. It is my personal belief that the people with whom you dine are as important to a restaurant experience as anything else, and sitting at the table, arms folded, defiantly staring into the room and waiting to be entertained will always end in disappointment. If that festers as the evening wears on, it can often end with a late night rant on TripAdvisor (or the like) where keyboard warriors vent spleen because there was no linen on the tables and the sommelier didn’t levitate.

Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, of course. I just wish they wouldn’t post their gripes in the form of an online “review”. If we have issues with our meal, we should take it up with the restaurant there and then. In my experience, the manager will always, always try to put things right. If we leave the restaurant without giving them an opportunity to fix a problem, we lose the right to complain later wearing our internet invisibility cloak.

Finally, if you must read postings on review websites and forums, follow this essential tip: ignore all the five star reviews (they were written by the owner) and ignore all the zero/one star reviews (they were written by the owner’s competitors and insane people.) What’s left is, usually, a lot more reliable.

Russell Norman

Russell will be appearing at this year’s Port Eliot Festival.