When the waitress asked: “Would you like a torch with your menu?” I thought she was joking!
Agreed, it was dark. Pitch dark. The restaurant’s windows were shuttered, the lighting so low I could clearly see the whites of my dinner companion’s eyes.
This was a well-known Costa del Sol yachting marina on an early summer’s evening. The time and place for sipping a sundowner on the waterfront, not writing a review in a place with no view!
“We keep it very discreet,” confided our waitress. “We get a lot of Arab royalty later, you see, who like to bring their … er … young ladies from the establishment next door,” she added in a conspiratorial whisper.
You couldn’t make it up.
I didn’t quote her, of course (though I did mention the torches). Here’s why.
One of the joys of going freelance has been giving up what most people think is a perk of the restaurant reviewer’s job: the free lunch. Because, as we all know, there’s no such thing.
It’s only the celebrity critics of this world who can write what they like because their publications are picking up the tab (and paying teams of lawyers to vet the copy).
That’s how A.A. Gill was able to diss cult Paris restaurant L’Ami Louis so decisively in his Vanity Fair review, writing of walls painted ‘dung brown’ and pâté like ‘pressed liposuction’. ‘Why do they [Americans and Brits] continue to come here? They can’t all have brain tumours,’ he ranted.
That’s how GQ magazine’s Alan Richman was able to say of hot New York restaurant M. Wells: ‘The motto is All’s Well at M. Wells. I assure you it is not. The barbecued short ribs consisted of caramelized meat on prehistoric-size bones … splendid bones for your dog, if you own a very big dog.’
It’s very different here, where restaurant reviews are often quid pro quo. Most English-language newspapers and magazines are free in Spain (whether because ex-pats are too mean or too hard-up) and depend on advertising for survival.
The Catch 22 is that you daren’t write that the meat was rank and the service stank when the restaurant is footing the bill.
I’ve never had a really bad meal. But there have been ‘moments’ I’d like to have shared in print, including the following titbits. (Names have been withheld to protect the guilty.) There was:
We’ll gloss over the hairs in the humus, the slugs in the salad, murky cutlery, luke warm dishes served on cold plates … even in the really posh places … and other hazards of the reviewer’s job. Not to mention some hilarious menu translations.
Well, ok, let’s mention some.
‘Cock’ comes up frequently, often served in its own ‘jew’ (perhaps it was circumcised). My chuletas de cordero were once presented with a tooth-breaking salsa de moneda (Google Translate for mint sauce, as in the ‘mint’ that makes money). And I know Spain’s Ávila beef is highly regarded but does it deserve a knighthood? As in Sir Loin?
Which reminds me about what tickles me most: the ubiquitous use of ‘loin of cod/dorada/sole’ etc. It sounds stupid in English and it’s wrong! Even in today’s chichi culinary world fish do not have, and have never had, loins. Lomo may be loin in Spanish but if it refers to a fish, it’s a fillet. What will we see next? Breast of bream? Wing of whitebait? (Fins were, after all, the prototype for wings.)
But now I have a confession to make. I don’t eat fish. Or seafood. Or seaweed, for that matter. Anything that comes out of the ocean tastes of ammonia to my dysfunctional taste buds.
This makes me somewhat ill-qualified to be a food critic.
But I’ll just quote Britain’s late-lamented foodie, Michael Winner, who once told a journalist: “I know nothing about food. Mind you, none of the others do either.”
SIZZLE TIPS FOR RESTAURANT REVIEWERS
Be economical with the truth. No food could be that lousy so try to put the positives and rave about the really good stuff, like the curtains.
Be honest with the owners. Tell them privately what was wrong and expect them to make changes in future. After all, you have your reputation as a respected foodie to protect.
Vacate the premises. If it’s really that bad, suggest you return on a more auspicious occasion – such as after they’ve sacked the chef!
Rant about it on Trip Advisor.
Bring tin foil. (My cat always appreciated the food, even if I didn’t.)