So here I am, trying gamely (you may say desperately and shamelessly) to drum up a little publicity for the most recent Nicholson title The London Complaint, a short book about the perceived and real horrors of London. It’s not a food book by any means though there is a chapter titled “A Bellyful of London” about the perceived and real horrors of London food. The extract down below deals with what we might as well call food critics.
I’m also partlywriting this because I just read a piece on eater.com titled “The Best of 2016’s Bad Restaurant Reviews” – and honestly I thought some of these bad reviews were amazingly gentle. Ryan Sutton criticizes a New York restaurant called Vandal for serving beef tartar over a hot pretzel, “resulting in hot mush’ he says. But that doesn’t seem like a bad review, just a straightforward description of a terrible, terrible idea. It looks like this apparently:
Besha Rodel calls Otium in LA a ”souped-up version of every trendy restaurant in town” – which I think is positively benign. When that place opened I assumed most of the world would refer to it as “Odium.” Nice enough looking room, although those chairs look about as comfortable as tractor seats.
Actually the most startling line in the whole piece eater.com piece reveals that a bottle of Evian mineral water at Cut by Wolfgang Puck, in New York, costs $33 dollars. No wonder Wolfgang looks happy, if frankly a little nervous.
Even the blessedly demonic Jay Rayner seems to easing off a little, certainly in his description of a dish he ate a London restaurant called Tapas 27 “It was, I suppose, a deconstruction of a boeuf bourguignon. It was also the systematic dismantling of all my culinary hopes and dreams.” That sounds more in sorrow than in anger, to me.
Anyway, here’s some of what I wrote in The London Complaint:
“There was surely never a time when people didn’t share information about what was and wasn’t a good place to buy or eat food in London, celebrating the good and especially complaining about the bad. Restaurant criticism is generally said to have begun in France with L’Almanach des gourmands, an annual publication that appeared from 1803 to 1812, written by Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de la Reynière, but England, and especially London, duly joined in.
Various guides to eating out in London appeared in the mid nineteenth century, an example being London at Dinner: Where to Dine, published in 1858, written anonymously. It’s still a good read, full of general and specific advice about eating out in the capital, and generally positive and upbeat in tone, though naturally there are some complaints – about illumination, for instance. ‘It is of the utmost importance that the dining-room should be well-lighted; this is a point often neglected at the tables of people who ought to know better, but are too indolent to give directions.’
The author is also concerned with the nature of menus:
In ordering a dinner at a London tavern, at a suburban one, or a country inn, the bill of fare is the most misleading guide in the world. It usually contains seven or eight soups; fish plain and dressed in twenty ways; with every dish that the ingenuity of a man or woman can make out of beef, mutton, veal, and lamb – and in twenty-nine cases out of thirty it happens that what you particularly fancy out of the list is not to be had.
That sounds like a perfectly reasonable gripe. Our man is also worried that London cuisine is being infiltrated and subverted by foreign influences: ‘Leicester Square is the haunt of foreigners, and as they continue to frequent its restaurants, we must presume they are content with the fare provided for them. To English tastes they might not seem so satisfactory.’ And later he writes:
Strangers in London, with money at command to dine when, where, and how it may suit their fancy, can, with perseverance and tact, always gratify their propensities in reason, but we cannot undertake to direct the voluptuary where to pamper his palate and sow the seeds of wretchedness for himself. It is not in him to be satisfied anywhere. We address ourselves to the saner portion of society.
By the end of the nineteenth century Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Newnham-Davis had emerged as a great democratiser and demystifier of the London gastronomic scene. He wrote about food for the Pall Mall Gazette, and in 1899 published a restaurant guide titled Dinners and Diners: Where and How to Dine in London, which he updated two years later. In 1914 he published the Gourmet’s Guide to London. He claimed his audience was ‘the Respectable Classes’, and, as a former military man, he referred to himself as a ‘soldier of the fork’.
Newnham-Davis isn’t happy about the growing number of French restaurants in London, but he says that in general complaining isn’t style. ‘I prefer to consign to oblivion the stories I could tell of bad eggs and rank butter and cold potatoes, stringy meat and skeleton fowls. It is so much better for one’s digestion to think of pleasant things than to brood over horrors.’ This is a little frustrating, it leaves you wishing he’d complain a bit more, and let us savour the details of the failings of those terrible London restaurants he’s been to, but perhaps I’m looking at this through contemporary eyes. Complaining about bad food has today become a rich source of entertainment.
And these days all the amateurs are in on the act too, thanks to Yelp and Tripadvisor. Here you will find essentially anonymous reviews from people you don’t know, whose tastes you don’t share and whose opinions you don’t respect, but just occasionally the complaints soar into the realms of absurdist poetry.
‘The grouse is just horrible and smells like poo.’ That’s a review by somebody called ‘Pier 1’. This next one is from will D., Manhattan, NY:
The food disgusted me. I got Bullets in my meat. I founds them on my mouse . . . It unacceptable. I told the restaurant manager but he won’t say any sorry. He said, ‘YOU CAN EAT THEM, NO PROBLEM.’ He is a crazy . . . Really really discussing. NEVER AGAIN. Beside that, all the dishes I ordered, I could not eat it. It’s kind of food for camping . . . very wild . . . way of cooking, looks like and taste . . . Also the restaurant has full of toilet smell, I am wondering why people not recognised this . . . Why this restaurant is so good? I don’t get it. Anyway Never again. It’s my nightmare.
Both these reviews are of Fergus Henderson’s restaurant St John, which happens, in many opinions, including mine, to be one of the great restaurants in London; and it has somehow managed to survive these complaints.