On Friday I had the pleasure of taking lunch with several friends, contemporaries and lecturers from the Oxford School of Hospitality Management, at The Manor in Clapham. This restaurant is run by ex-Brookes student Dan Joines, a man himself who has a highly impressive track record already, in the 5 years since leaving university. Lunch was hosted by Tracey Macleod, restaurant critic of The Independent, and well-known TV personality from the likes of Masterchef and other shows.

Aside from the lunch itself- (which by the way was absolutely outstanding and couldn’t come more highly recommended ), the insights into the industry from a renowned restaurant critic such as Tracey was fascinating, and really got me thinking. Working currently in a restaurant where we seem to have reviewers/bloggers/journalists in every day/week, we have had a number of very positive reviews, with the likes of Giles Coren, Jay Rayner and Tom Parker-Bowles all writing hugely positive stuff, which of course is gratifying to see.

The world of restaurant criticism is one that is fascinating- how influential are these people? What do readers think and does it affect their dining out choices? One guest of mine this week seemed to base their entire meal with us on one recent national review, and decided to only order what this reviewer had had! I understand if a writer mentions one particular signature or typical dish and to have that, but doesn’t it detract from the personal experience of dining out when all your choices are dictated by somebody else? I personally believe that food and dining out is an entirely personal experience and that although reviewers and critics rightly have influence, dining choices should be down to the individual.

The other side of the argument is of course from the view of the restaurants themselves. There’s no doubt that a positive review can be hugely benefical to a restaurant, new or old, as people want to experience something special, but how about negative reviews? Can they truly distract people from visiting somewhere? From my point of view one or two negative reviews in a national paper or online isn’t going to put me off going to dine somewhere, if it is a restaurant that I had always intended on visiting. An interesting line that Tracey Macleod said on Friday – “Our job is to sell newspapers, not restaurants”. A very fair point. It is after all a restaurant’s job to sell themselves!

I went to a fairly new opening at the start of the year, which had had two of the major critics not exactly rating it, but I visited and found my meal utterly enjoyable and tasty. What does this prove? Whether the critics liked it or not, and whether I liked it or not is surely irrelevant- food and drink, as with everything, is completely objective. Not every restaurant is for everybody, and not every restaurant wants to be- that is maybe why, according to TripAdvisor, there are 18,222 restaurants in London alone. What is one person’s ideal of culinary paradise, might be another’s food hell!

So what does all this mean? Well restaurant critics are influential, people read their articles, watch them on TV, listen to their podcasts etc, and find their insights useful. Which is ultimately what they are there for. One feature will not make a restaurant, nor will it really break one. So I would suggest that as consumers we continue to read and follow reviews, as businesses we continue to encourage them, but it is down to the restaurants to provide great food, drink and great service, and to the customers to continue to embrace the personal and subjective nature of dining-out.

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Tracey Macleod of the Independent, in conversation with Donald Sloan, Head of the Oxford School of Hospitality Management.
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