On writing restaurant reviews (Mistake #110)

Some fun, some hard work – but never again!

Last time, in Mistake No. 109, I wrote about travel writing, and how it shouldn’t be treated as holiday writing.

This time, I want to write about restaurant reviewing, and how it shouldn’t be treated as eating-out writing.

For that’s the first key mistake I see when I read restaurant reviews by my students: a faithful account of the entire outing. Not merely of the lunch or dinner consumed, course by course, but also of the experience of getting there and arriving there. No more descriptions of pub car parks, please and thank you! Unless particularly remarkable, readers don’t want to know how you were greeted, how you were escorted to your table, and that you were given a menu by the charming waiter.There are some parallels here with the advice I dish out (groan …) for travel writing. Don’t start at the airport – and don’t start in your bedroom, getting changed for dinner. Don’t describe the flight – and don’t describe the drive to the diner. Consider beginning – as I often say – in the thick of the action. By describing a particularly joyous morsel of food from your main course, for example.

You don’t have to mention everything. Avoid the temptation to cram it all in. You don’t have to be chronological, either. Once you’ve waxed lyrical on that morsel, you can rewind briefly to your starter if you really must.

The focus has to be on the food and drink. It must not be on you and your dining companion. The aim is to describe the food and drink that the reader – should he visit the establishment – might enjoy. You are aiming to give an idea of the kind of evening there is to be had.

Like in so much non-fiction writing, the reader doesn’t care about you, the writer. He doesn’t care that it was your anniversary, that your beloved was treating you to a special meal, that you had a voucher for a free bottle of wine that was due to expire, that you had nothing in the fridge that night and so went out to eat on a whim. The reader is selfish. He wants his appetite stimulated; he wants to know what he should do on Friday night.

You are doing a job. You owe nothing to the outlet, whether or not they gave you a free meal. Your duty is to the reader. Don’t feel obliged to be complimentary. Be critical, if needs be; but be fair. Constructive criticism shows you care – both about your work, and about good food. It is not permissible to write “I skipped dessert as I’m on a diet”. You must sample dessert, because your reader expects you to sample dessert, and you must describe it, and the other options. That is what reviewing is about. It’s about good, careful descriptions of the food – how it is prepared, how innovative it is, how it is flavoured, and so on. You can talk about it all, incidentally, without stating into whose mouth it went.

Of course the ambience, the clientele, the history of the establishment … these are worth a mention too. You can talk about the chef too, in the context of the food and cooking. If you know your wine, discussing the wine list is a good thing.

Don’t even think of reviewing McDonald’s or a chain. Don’t review an everyday cafe. It has to be an independent, an imaginative choice, perhaps little known, or off the beaten track.A sidebar at the foot – analogous to the sidebar you might compile for a travel article – is ideal. There you can put car parking information – plus the restaurant’s website, phone number, opening hours, price ranges, and directions to the venue, for example.

Submitting speculative restaurant reviews is not a method I’ve ever known to work. Given how many people want to do this job, it’s obviously competitive. If you’re interested, my advice would be to submit some sample reviews or published clippings as a calling card to the editor of a publication – preferably a local one – which does not have a restaurant column or columnist. You may get lucky. Another good tactic: start a blog or review restaurants online (see Further Reading below). These can serve as clippings … or some editor, somewhere, may stumble across you. A local restaurant blog is a great idea. Start one!

A final word. Don’t covet restaurant reviewing. It’s not necessarily the dream job you imagine. I did it a bit when I started out. I didn’t always have fun. Publicists would offer free meals in exchange for a review, which was nice, of course (the magazine I worked for had no budget for anonymous dining and reviewing), but you never feel totally at ease, leaving a restaurant without paying would often make me feel uncomfortable, and having to take notes during the meal always infringed on the pure enjoyment of simply eating and savouring the food. It’s hard work, and not always easy to spin a readable and original piece of writing out of something as relatively mundane as eating a meal – especially when the food is average (as it often is). Check out the work of some of the masters – Giles Coren, Fay Maschler, Jay Rayner – and you’ll learn a lot from them.

Further reading:
Yelp Help: How to Write Great Online Restaurant Reviews by Hanna Raskin.
Will Write for Food by Dianne Jacob.
How to Write About Food by S J Sebellin-Ross.

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