It took Jay Rayner around 700 words to lay waste to a Russian empire. In a blistering review of famed Moscow restaurateur Arkady Novikov's eponymous London outpost this past February, the Observer critic pronounced the establishment so "astoundingly grim you want to congratulate the kitchen on its incompetence" and compared its cuisine to cheap Chinese food. He was just getting warmed up.
“And so my advice to you. Don't go to Novikov. Keep not going. Keep not going a lot," Rayner wrote. "In a city with a talent for opening hateful and tasteless restaurants, Novikov marks a special new low. That's its real achievement.”
Harsh words, but for a professional restaurant critic, this was par for the course. As with any creative medium, the culinary arts are subjected to critical judgments. With the good, comes the bad. Or in the case of Novikov, the “very, very bad.”
“You still have a basic job to do; you’ve got to get it right, and that’s what people expect,” says Rayner, whose eBook “My Dining Hell: Twenty Ways To Have a Lousy Night Out” will be released on June 1.
And part of getting it right means occasionally dropping, what the restaurant industry calls, the “goose egg” - a zero-star review that in essence says, "Take your hard-earned money elsewhere."
“With the negative reviews, I once said they were like chest infections and car crashes – they were things that happened to me, not things I went out looking for,” says Rayner.
Hanna Raskin, the restaurant critic for Seattle Weekly, also agrees critics do not go to a restaurant because they know it’s going to be abysmal. “Not only is the writing not fun, but the research isn’t fun either. We’re the ones that have to eat that bad food again and again and again.”
But before pen is put to paper, critics must get to the marrow of the matter and decide if the lousy restaurant is even worth a review. With a new hot spot opening nearly every week in major metropolitan areas, it’d be an unfeasible - and stomach-straining - task to conquer them all.
“I’ll review it if it’s a restaurant that people are serious about because of a prominent location or well-known chef or local restaurateur behind it. Basically, if it’s something that my readers really want to know about,” says John Kessler, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's dining critic.
Raskin and Rayner also cite the prominence of the chef, location and media campaign. If the venue in question is a little mom and pop place, it’s simply not reasonable.
“The times when I haven’t written about a restaurant at all is when I realize the restaurant is not one that deserves the attention of a national newspaper,” says Rayner.
To put it in stateside perspective, he compares it to reviewing a dreadful restaurant in Boise, Idaho. If no one is planning to go or already going there, the review won’t be entertaining - or more importantly, serviceable to the reader.
A large part of that entertainment value is drawn from how the reviewer crafts the language of “the slam.” That means letting people know how things taste and how much things cost; a full sense of the harrowing experience often with a side of relatively good-natured snark.
“We don’t want to sound like the disgruntled Yelper,” says Kessler, who maintains he’s always a half a grade nicer in print than if he were talking to a friend. “You don’t want to sound offended or bent out of shape if the restaurant is bad. You want to be a nice person about it but you also want to go to town.”
Raskin also says that, in her negative reviews, the reader should infer “that it was probably even worse.” Rayner, however, serves it in the raw: what he says in the review is what he thought.
“The ability of people in the restaurant business to screw things up and find unique ways to screw things up never ceases to amaze me,” he says, adding he’s in the business of selling newspapers, not restaurants.
Kessler admires this cultural candor. “The English people are great because they take such glee in their snarky locution. Americans will never do that. We just can’t. It’s not in our culture to be poetic a**holes.”
But, U.K. critics aren’t the only one finding glee in negativity - the audience relishes it as well. Raskin says she actually gets more positive comments from readers when she prints negative reviews.
“Almost every time I wrote something negative, I get the feedback, ‘I’m so glad you’re telling it like it is. I’m so glad you said that.’ And nobody ever says that when I write a good review,” she said.
To this point, Rayner cites a Leo Tolstoy quote: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” What makes that particular restaurant bad also makes it unique - and uniqueness makes a much more compelling story. There's also a touch of schadenfreude, or pleasure derived from others' misfortunes.
“You start your Sunday morning reading a terrible review of somebody’s restaurant and as long as you’re not the chef’s mother, you’re probably going to feel slightly better for the rest of the day,” says Rayner, who at one point spoke with a clinical psychologist about readers’ penchant for social comparing.
“I often say that my column is read for vicarious pleasure or brackish displeasure,” he adds.
Yet, for every disparaging word written and read, these critics realize the pen is mightier than the fork.
In 2003, master French chef Bernard Loiseau took his own life following a bad review of his restaurant, the Cote d'Or, by GaultMillau and reports that he would lose his third Michelin star – the highest rating a restaurant can attain by the Michelin Guide.
While Loiseau already suffered from depression, some felt the reviews may have been his breaking point.
In 2007, after former New York Times critic Frank Bruni awarded zero stars to restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow’s Kobe Club, Chodorow fired back. He ran a full-page ad in the Times attacking Bruni’s assessment, citing the review as a personal attack and questioning Bruni’s qualifications to be in the critic’s post.
When Raskin was the food critic for the Dallas Observer, she said she received death threats. And Rayner has been invited outside for a go.
“I think most critics realize it’s not just the chef or the owner you’re addressing here, but the careers of the cooks in the kitchen, the dishwashers and the servers all ultimately depend on what you say,” said Raskin. “We take this responsibility very seriously.”
As journalists, they know how it feels to be subject to an outsider's opinion. “To be a writer is an act of great arrogance - to think that anybody would give a damn about what you have to say. You, therefore, have to take what anybody wants to say about you - and it’s not fun,” says Rayner.
Ultimately, critics are paid for how they write, not how they eat - and for restaurants on the receiving end, that’s the bitter truth.
Do you have a favorite "bad" review? We'd love if you'd share it in the comments below.