The Fairfax Press, and especially The Age, is seen to write the gospel according to food. The opinions of its reviewers are believed, and the annual Age Good Food Guide is perceived to be Melbourne’s bible of eating out. On things gastronomic, the Fairfax Press has form. One PR consultant told me about a bar client that preferred publicity in the Age over the Herald Sun because the former brought in a better class of person. Reviewers are supposed to be reporters, and by its very nature what is written on editorial pages is believed by readers to be unbiased, independent and unaffected by anything other than serious-minded fact-finding and analysis.

A journalist’s word is worth much more than an advertiser’s. It’s trusted. I once read marketing research concluding that the value of editorial over advertising copy was something like three to one. And while this kind of gross and unquantified generalisation is perhaps dubious, there is no doubt that restaurant critics are highly influential.

But take Fairfax’s recent review of current culinary darling and Masterchef star George Calombaris’ Hellenic Republic, based in Brunswick, Melbourne.

Chef–restaurateur George Calombaris had either “his own personal Delphic oracle” or a “canny understanding” of the world economy, Larissa Dubecki wrote in the Age early in 2009. His new restaurant Hellenic Republic was “cheap(ish)”, “cheeky” and “cheerful” and it served “gutsy, uncomplicated, home-style Greek cooking”. This encomium — if I may be Greek about it — for Calombaris and his latest venture effulged ever more brilliantly, sounding to me more like a hyperventilated media release than a restaurant review. (Ms Dubecki, it should be added, was at the time the paper’s fairly new restaurant critic.)

The restaurant’s exposed central grill added to the “whole Greek theatre feel”, she wrote. A spit-roast of “yielding, gelatinous flesh is revelatory”, and although a moussaka was too rich and a touch too salty for one or two people it “works splendidly as a … side dish for four”. Hellenic’s customers were more diverse than most, which implied that you or I could go there and not feel out of place. And wine is served from “aluminium tankards”, which Dubecki considered to be a “nice touch”.

The following month on the Fairfax Digital Executive Style website, John Lethlean, who preceded Ms Dubecki as Age restaurant critic, began his piece: ‘Subtle, Aegean blues. The high gloss sparkle of white tiled walls. Lobster pots for light shades and a distinct smell of burning charcoal in the air. Those kooky little red anodised aluminium pitchers used for cheap table wine nowhere else in the world.” (In the March edition of Gourmet Traveller magazine, Lethlean found Hellenic, “absolutely infectious”.)

Nothing in either of these two nugatory assessments could be considered seriously critical, in my view. Aided and abetted by copious plugs written by others in glossy food magazines, similar boosts in daily newspapers’ weekly magazines, an editorial in the local Moreland Leader and a plethora of cyber postings by excited food bloggers, the Hellenic Republic would have needed to become Stalin’s Russia to fail. Calombaris would have trouble buying such publicity.

In April in the Herald Sun I failed Hellenic Republic, giving it 24 out of 50. I said I wouldn’t spend my own money there because Melbourne offered better Greek food in more comfortable and more hospitable surroundings elsewhere. Calombaris’s new restaurant subverted hospitality, I argued, by telling diners that they had to leave at a specified hour and by threatening to fine them if they cancelled bookings too soon before they were due to sit down.

The Hellenic Republic’s arrogance winds you. An informant made a booking for his birthday—a party of sixteen. Because his group was larger than ten, they would be served a ‘banquet dinner’, the restaurant insisted, meaning everyone would choose from a menu that the restaurant mandated. Moreover, there would be a ‘minimum spend’ of $2000 ($125 a head), and they would have only two hours in which to enjoy themselves: their table would be needed at 9 p.m. He cancelled the booking.

In my review, I wrote that the restaurant served ‘OK and sometimes better’ simple Greek dishes in a canteen ambience. Calamari had delicate flavour but had been grilled too long, in my view. Slow-cooked pork in celery was a watery but passable stew, and the offerings overall amounted to home cooking you did when you didn’t want to cook. The wine list was very limited and expensive, I wrote, citing examples, and I pointed out that wine should never be poured into and served from metal containers. Acids—they’re in wine—and metals can react to make bad-tasting babies.

Even if the metal had been treated to render it inert, Lethlean and Dubecki should have questioned the little ‘tankards’ and ‘pitchers’ that so beguiled them. Hellenic Republic was noisy and uncomfortable. You sat on rush-woven seats with two-rung backs. Plates were not changed, so red meat went on seafood slicks. When we booked, we were told we had to sit at a communal table. We were put on one for eighteen, even though several tables for two, which we’d requested, were available throughout our entire meal.

Now, who’s got it right? After more than three decades of reviewing restaurants am I taking the job too seriously? Or, on the other hand, is it possible that the job itself has changed? Is analysis out? And, if that’s the case, why? Have the relationships between some journalists and restaurateurs, their chefs and their professional marketers brought that about? It alarms me, for instance, that in conversations I’ve had lately with ordinary eaters-out they consider me to be ‘part’ of the hospitality industry, the sector that promotes eating places.

The work of restaurant critics impinges on what restaurants do and how they trade, yes. And, over time, on standards, of course. (I believe that until fairly recently good criticism played an important role in improving standards.) But critics work—or should work—for their readers, determining the best eating at the best price. They should give detailed explanations of how they have reached a conclusion, given a rating or a score. That’s the theory, at least.

Unfortunately, though, in recent years tens of thousands of words written by food ‘journalists’ simply promote fashionable restaurants and their owners and chefs. (The reviews I have quoted are typical and their style is ubiquitous.) The same names recur vomitously. You know them. The chefs and restaurateurs who cook at and own these places, it would be fair to say, see their venues as chic gourmand utopias, the places in which to be seen dining out. They will saddle up and ride the gift horse of promotion whatever its breed.

Read the full essay here.

This is an edited extract of an essay that first appeared in the latest edition of Meanjin Quarterly. Volume 68 Number 4, 2009 is out now

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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