Great Britain

What US food critics could learn from us in the UK (and vice versa, I guess …)

In October last year, a Japanese-Peruvian restaurant called Yapa opened in the Little Tokyo district of Los Angeles. Three months later, having visited three times, Patricia Escárcega, the restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times, published a thoughtful, positive review. While short on laughs, it contained some delightfully lyrical descriptions of the food; of the “creamy slips of uni” and the “fragrant lake of oil spiked with the voluptuous heat of rocoto chilies”. There was no picture byline.

That same week, after just one visit to a restaurant that had been open at full price for only a matter of days, the Observer published my extremely negative review of The Yard by Robin Gill in London. In it, I compared the gnocchi to dental swabs, and described one dish as tasting of “laziness and gross profit margin”. My picture byline was slapped all over it, so you could be stared down by me as you read.

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Escárcega and I do the same job. We are both employed by newspapers to eat in a restaurant and then tell you whether it’s worth your time, money and appetite. But we do that job very differently. “US critics write as if they are the inheritors of the mantle of Tom Wolfe or Hemingway,” says Giles Coren, who reviews for the Times in the UK. “They go five times. There’s a pomposity to the way they write.”

Sam Sifton, the food editor of the New York Times, who was also the paper’s critic for two years between 2009 and 2011, returns the compliment. British restaurant critics can be “barbaric”, he says, although he admits to finding it all highly entertaining. “For the reader, there’s something delicious about you lot going off on some horrible place. As a reader I take delight in that. We, however, have to take a more sombre approach.”

Indeed they do. Travelling across the US, undertaking research for my latest book on my last meal on earth, which draws on my 20 years as a restaurant critic, I was constantly struck by the difference in tone. It’s all respectful and solicitous. My recent description of one restaurant’s poor service as akin to an “unlubricated colonoscopy”, while hardly Oscar Wilde, got a lot of love from readers. In the US, I am certain it would never be published.

Of course, American critics can go in hard. There’s Pete Wells’s recent takedown of the famed Peter Luger steakhouse in Brooklyn – he described a steak as “barely past raw” – and his destruction of TV personality Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen and Bar, framed as a list of rhetorical questions. In the other direction, Fay Maschler, who has reviewed for the London Evening Standard since 1972, can bring a sober analytical approach to a restaurant if she deems it worthy.

But for the most part, the half a dozen or so national critics in the UK are the writerly equivalent of bareknuckle fighters. Where US critics generally give restaurants three months to bed in, we may go the moment the soft launch has finished. If they’re charging full price, they’re surely fair game? US critics go three to five times. Generally, we go once. As I often say, how many times do you need a lousy meal to know a restaurant is lousy?

And while Marina O’Loughlin, now reviewing for the Sunday Times, has protected her identity throughout her 20 years, the rest of us swan around on television and are to anonymity what Kim Kardashian is to shyness. In 2013, New York magazine decided that, in the internet age, with everyone’s picture just a click away, their venerable restaurant critic, Adam Platt, should abandon his anonymity. As he explains in his recently published and extremely entertaining memoir The Book of Eating, it was such big news the magazine put him on the cover.

Why the difference? Mostly, it’s down to economics. Historically, US cities have been one-broadsheet newspaper towns: it’s about the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times. In the pre-internet era, that delivered an economy of scale, which meant they could afford to have a critic who went multiple times, and who was paid well enough not to be attracted by the possibility of a filthy sideline in TV.

But it also brought something else: a sense of civic duty. The British critics review across the country. The majority of our readers may never reach the restaurants being described. They are reading for vicarious pleasure or displeasure. As Coren says, a little grudgingly, “US critics’ reviews have authority. They could be bound into a restaurant guide. Whereas we are telling stories and having fun in restaurants.” Escárcega of the LA Times agrees. “We’re steeped in the tradition of service journalism. We are very earnest over here, perhaps to our detriment.”

That seriousness has spilled over into a debate on the role and diversity of restaurant critics which, outside of the occasional post on a restaurant blog like London Eater, has barely been given house room in the UK. On 31 December, the Los Angeles Review of Books published an essay by Theodore Gioia called The Midlife Crisis of the American Restaurant Review. It argued that the restaurant review, established in 1957 with the appointment by the New York Times of Craig Clayborne, has become an outdated standard-bearer for bourgeois values. Some papers, it said, had responded poorly to recent stories of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry. Michael Bauer of the Chronicle had specifically said he was “not evaluating what happens behind the kitchen door”.

But, as Gioia noted, things have been changing. The old white guys were being replaced, often by women of colour. The New York Times had appointed Tejal Rao as the first California restaurant critic for the paper. Upon his retirement, Bauer had been replaced on the Chronicle by Soleil Ho. And the much revered Jonathan Gold, who died in 2018, has been replaced at the LA Times by Escárcega, who grew up in a Spanish-speaking household with a family of Mexican descent. In January, Escárcega announced that the food pages were abandoning the age-old practice of italicizing non-English words. “Seeing the foods many of us grew up eating italicised can feel jarring and alienating,” she wrote. As she said to me: “There has been a changing of the guard and with different voices come different approaches.”

In Britain? Not so much. It’s not simply that restaurant reviewing is dominated by middle-aged white people. It’s dominated by the same middle-aged white people. Between myself, Coren, O’Loughlin and Grace Dent of the Guardian, we have racked up 74 years of restaurant reviewing.

In 2018, Jimi Famurewa, the son of Nigerian immigrants to Britain, took over the slot in the Standard’s colour magazine ES. “I wasn’t especially struck that I was entering a white-dominated world,” he says, “but only because the whole of the London-based media is like that and I’m used to it. I deal with white editors all the time and they know we have to cover diverse stories. But it’s not coming from their own experience.”

The British critics tend to roll their eyes at the American approach. On Twitter I dismissed the Los Angeles Review essay as “staggeringly parochial”. O’Loughlin called it “possibly the most American thing I’ve read” and Kathryn Flett, my predecessor at the Observer who now reviews for the Daily Telegraph, tweeted: “Boring as fuck.”

In the UK, we recoil from the earnestness. But it’s clear there is a debate around diversity that needs to be had. Then again, perhaps the US critics could also learn from us. Perhaps they could learn to relax a little. After all, we’re not war reporters. We’re only writing about lunch.