Mon, Nov 10, 2003 - Page 16 News List

London food critics dig in with a vengeance

A batch of restaurant reviewers have turned their practice into a vicious blood sport that has chefs shaking in their boots

By Warren St. John  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , LONDON

For one of the most feared men in London these days, the writer A. A. Gill looks incongruously relaxed. Perched at the dining table of his Fulham apartment -- easily found thanks to a Mountain Dew-colored Bentley parked out front -- Gill, who looks a decade younger than his 50 years, is answering the charge that he is, hands down, London's most vicious restaurant critic.

"I take issue with `poison pen,'" said Gill, known as Adrian to friends and enemies alike, a devious smile flickering across his face. "I care an enormous amount about restaurants and food, and I get very angry when they're bad. But I don't close down restaurants. Bad food closes down restaurants. Rude service closes down restaurants. All I do is notice it."

Gill, whose weekly column, Table Talk, runs in The Sunday Times here, is the unofficial ringleader of a pack of sometimes hilarious, astonishingly brutal restaurant critics who in the last few years have turned English food writing into a blood sport. As the British foodie revolution has taken hold and the local menu has been transformed from gray clumps of meat and potatoes into wildly inventive, sometimes harrowingly expensive internationalist cuisine, Britain's schadenfreude-seeking newspapers have unleashed these reviewers to hack down any tall poppies -- chefs, restaurants, architects, waiters -- who might emerge from the crop. Their M.O. is to review restaurant openings not as culinary events, but as social ones, where chefs and owners put their aspirations on display at least as much as their vichyssoise.

"If the food is the star of your meal," Gill is fond of saying, "then you're eating with the wrong people."

No incognito reviews

In their rush to be the first on the case, British restaurant critics forgo niceties common in France and the US. They don't give chefs a few months to hit their stride, but instead show up on opening night, as on Broadway. They don't go incognito, but rather appear under their own names, often with a pack of friends, sometimes expecting star treatment. And if things don't go well, they relate the experience -- or at least a very rough approximation of it -- in prose that can only be described as a chef's worst nightmare: "`Would you like any dessert?'" Matthew Norman of The Sunday Telegraph wrote in a 2001 review, quoting the waitress at a London restaurant. "Ah, you're very kind," was his reported reply. "I'll have the Listermint and a large spittoon."

"When they walk in, it's terrifying," said Will Ricker, who owns four restaurants in London, including the trendy E&O in Notting Hill. "If they have a bad meal or they don't like you or they're not properly recognized, they will absolutely rip you to shreds. They can be so vitriolic. And if they really have a go at you, you think to yourself `What have I done?'"

"Like a movie director," he added, "you've got to take the rough with the smooth."

With a chorus of critics slamming and praising restaurants, no London reviewer can close a restaurant overnight. But Fay Maschler, who has been reviewing for The Evening Standard for more than 30 years and is considered to be the doyenne of London restaurant reviewers, said Gill is the only restaurant critic in London who can make a restaurant with a positive review, besides, of course, herself. Ricker, whose restaurant E&O got a rare rave recently from Gill, said the review resulted in an additional 2,000 calls a week in the period after the review ran.

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