Experienced journalists are rarely taken by surprise by the impact of their work. We know exactly what we are doing and why. As I trudged down the marble steps of the George V Hotel in Paris, one chilly spring evening in 2017, I knew what I was going to do and I knew what the impact would be. If I claimed otherwise, attempted to feign innocence, I would be lying.
OK, I didn’t quite anticipate the international newspaper headlines and the talking points and the outbreaks of glee. But if, in the days leading up to the publication of my review of Le Cinq on 9 April 2017, anyone had asked me what I thought the response was going to be, I would have been straight with them. I would have told them it was probably going to be the most read article of my career. So it proved.
The review was the most read thing across the entire Guardian site for the whole of that Sunday. And for the day after that. And for much of the day after that. An average restaurant review of mine is viewed 75,000 times and shared 1,000 times via social media platforms. A popular review will break through 100,000 page views. My review of Le Cinq was viewed about 2.2 million times and shared more than 114,000 times. Soon newspapers from New York to Mumbai were writing stories. The high point for me came when the American restaurant blog site Eater ran a post headed: The Worst Lines of Jay Rayner’s Le Cinq Review, With Cats. It was just that: photos of cats, with speech bubbles filled with quotes from the review.
Which is what happens when you write an unremittingly negative, “wipe-the-blood-off-the-walls”, “take-no-prisoners”, “inform-the-next-of-kin” review of a Michelin three-star gastro palace in Paris; one where dinner costs €300 a head. People love it because people are horrible.
The assumption is that I wrote such a brutal piece – I described the décor as being a mixture of “taupe, biscuit and fuck you” and said most of the food was “the stuff of therapy” – simply to gain that sort of notoriety. Indeed, many of those who criticised me alleged as much, and obviously I do myself no favours by gloating over the statistics. I can’t apologise for that. My job is not to sell restaurants but to sell newspapers (or the digital equivalent thereof). I was just doing my job. Because yes, that review did bring the Observer an awful lot of readers and attention. But it had nothing to do with that.
I wrote that review because I was angry: eye-gougingly, bone-crunchingly, teeth-grindingly angry. How bloody dare they? How dare they charge €75 for a starter and €140 for a main course and serve up such a travesty of modern gastronomy? How dare they make cooking of ambition, something I care about (for good or ill), look like a parody of itself? How dare they do this to me and my companion and everybody else in the room?
As I say in the piece itself, I didn’t go there to have a bad time. I never do. I thought it might be a little absurd, in the way of the grandiose and the haute and the gilded. I knew it would be painfully expensive. (So expensive, indeed, that the Observer didn’t cover all the costs. My companion paid her own bill and I paid half of my own, leaving a “mere” €150 for the paper to pick up.) But I did at least expect to have a laugh.
In the end the only laughs were the ones my readers had at the restaurant’s expense. Because, of course, people love negative reviews. Narratives of positive experiences are cloying and twee and eventually just a little dull and samey. All nice evenings out tend to be nice in similar ways. But terrible experiences tend to be uniquely terrible. The reader projects themselves into the awfulness, gives thanks that they weren’t the one who had to put up with it, and then, like villagers gossiping over the five-bar gate, they gorge on all the details. They luxuriate in vicarious displeasure.
Perhaps, unsurprisingly, I’ve been accused in the past of revelling in the negative. As a result, I’ve had cause to count exactly how many of mine really are stinkers. Every year it’s roughly the same: a fifth or slightly fewer. Which is to say, 10. The majority, 25, are positive. About 15 are middling, neither great nor terrible (and therefore the hardest to write). I never go looking for bad restaurants. There are certain big-ticket openings which, like major West End musicals, have to be reviewed. I go to the rest because I think they’ll be great; often that’s because someone else told me so. Alternatively, I’ll have studied their website, read the menu and even consulted the writings of others, be they blogs or local newspaper reviews. I do my research, specifically to find good places.
But it’s the 10 negative reviews that you remember, isn’t it? Of course it is. Because, as I say, you’re horrible.
For the first 48 hours after the review was published, Le Cinq and its chef Christian Le Squer stayed silent. It made sense. What were they supposed to say? That I was wrong? I would have disagreed with them, but I took it as read that this was what they thought. Eventually the French newspaper Libération obtained a quote from that famous spokesperson – “a source close to” the chef. The review was dismissed as mere “rich bashing”.
It was a charge against which I could easily defend myself. In 2008 I published a book called The Man Who Ate the World. It was a journey through seven mega cities – the likes of Moscow, Dubai and New York – in search of the perfect meal. In Paris I decided to do the high-end supersize me. In the movie Supersize Me, released in 2004, documentary-maker Morgan Spurlock ate only McDonald’s for 30 days in a row to see what the impact would be upon his body. The high-end version involved eating in a Parisian Michelin three-star every day for a week: the flagship restaurants of chefs such as Guy Savoy and Pierre Gagnaire, renowned dining rooms like Le Grand Véfour and so on.
A couple were terrible, delivered platter after platter of over-processed and over-tortured ingredients. A few were great. They gave you the opportunity to wallow in luxury. One – chef Pascal Barbot’s glorious restaurant L’Astrance – was outstanding. I still recall the two fat langoustine in a crystal-clear langoustine broth, decorated with single leaves of herbs and purple flowers, like a Monet watercolour; the roasted pigeon with its liver spread on toast, and at the end, a plate of wild strawberries to which nothing had been done. Because who could improve upon nature?
I didn’t begrudge a penny of the three-figure bill, which I paid personally. Spending large amounts of money on dinner is absolutely fine as long as it’s worth it. Some people build their memories from going to watch their team lose at rugby or from going to the opera. I build mine from meals.
And yet Le Cinq did have a point about me wanting to smash the rich. I am now publishing my second collection of stinkers. This one differs from the first in that, aside from Le Cinq and a couple of others, the vast majority are in London. They are also from a particular kind of London. A series of taxation policy decisions, which began with the Labour governments of both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and continued under the Conservative prime minister David Cameron, made the British capital especially attractive to a certain type of “non-domiciled” high net worth individual. They might have been born in Beijing or Moscow or Mumbai, and their money might be in the Cayman Islands, but to all intents and purposes home is Knightsbridge. They needed somewhere to eat. Indeed, they needed a whole luxury economy to serve them.
In the years the reviews in the new collection covers, that thick, gilded slice of the market came to maturity, encouraging the growth of a particular type of stupidly spendy restaurant where all sense of value went out of the window. Consider the revamped Dorchester Grill or the Rib Room of the Jumeirah Carlton Tower, Quattro Passi or City Social, or an import like Smith & Wollensky. In these places casual dinners at £100 a head or even more became the norm for a particular type of Londoner who, the next morning, would probably not recall what they had eaten. So yes, I did start rich-bashing, and with serious enthusiasm. Because money like that should buy you the sublime not the stupid. Spending money on the good stuff is fine. Throwing it away on the substandard is a particular kind of obscenity.
Are they easy targets? Perhaps, but that doesn’t make shooting at them wrong. Restaurateurs and chefs who choose to make their money like this need to know it’s not OK. Plus, frankly, I am well placed to have a go at lousy places in my own city. Other Londoners don’t mind when I lay into the stupidities of the capital. Those of us who live in London know full well there are things wrong with it. For the most part, we each live in our own particular version of the city. We are quite happy for the failings of the other parts to be pointed out to us and others.
As I’ve found to my peril, other cities don’t respond in the same way. Write a negative review of a restaurant in Liverpool, Manchester or Birmingham and the proud locals will give you a kicking as a matter of principle, regardless of what they actually think of the place that’s been criticised. You’ll be dismissed as a metropolitan snob before lunchtime on the day the review was published. Sometimes, frankly, writing a negative review of a place like that is not worth the hassle.
There’s another good reason for not writing a negative review. At the risk of sounding pious, anyone doing this job has to be aware of the impact they can have. From time to time I will eat in a small family-run restaurant that is failing: the food isn’t anywhere near as good as they think it is, or the service is amateurish, or the tables are empty, or all three. The last thing they need is to be taken down by the weight of a national newspaper. In those circumstances I pay the bill myself, chalk it up to experience and move on. See, I do have a heart.
Wasted Calories and Ruined Nights: a Journey Deeper into Dining Hell is published by Guardian Faber on 4 October. To order a copy for £4.30 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
Jay Rayner will discuss his worst (and best) dining experiences at a Guardian Live event in London on Monday 10 December. Go to gu.com/live-events
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